THE AMAZON QUEEN
Part VIII: THE AMULET OF PERSEPHONE
by L. M. Townsend
DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Meg, Argo, Virgil, Ephiny, Joxer, Eve, Solan, Cyrenê, Toris, et al (meaning anyone else I didn't list and should have.) and the characterisations of Ares and Aphrodite 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 GRAPHIC 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: Yes, there is a flogging and intended rape - which doesn't happen, but those readers who are sensitive to this sort of thing deserve to be warned. And Xena fights (no surprise there, eh?).
OTHER: I guess at this point in the story, I should tell you, if you haven't already read the first parts, you might be get a little lost in this one. There really isn't much of a timeline I'm following (hey, they don't follow one on the show, either!) I'm not too disciplined that way (or in any other way, for that
matter), but I've decided that it takes place after the end of the series. Just disregard anyone else who gets killed off between now and then as magically resurrected - they do that on the show all the time, too. I've let the story evolve as it will, so blame the Muses, not their tool. Please keep in mind that any inconsistencies you might find are the product of changing my mind to improve my "vision" of the story.
Aemetzainê is about 350 miles (a mere "hop" in the Xenaverse!) east of Amphipolis on the way to the Black Sea Tribes, approximately 60 miles east of the Bosphorus and about 30 - 40 miles
south of the Black Sea. Well, it would be if it existed outside of these stories. I tried to figure out how long to allow for travel time from place to place in these stories - not mention on X:WP - then I decided to heck with it - this is fiction, for crying out loud! Don't analyse it - just enjoy and lose
yourself in the story.
**Spoiler Alert - several references to various episodes throughout the history of the show,
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.
Queen Melysë looked at the small rolled parchment and frowned, then dismissed the runner. The Amazon Priestess turned the parchment and gasped at the insignia.
"What is it, 'Lysë?" asked Xena, the Tribe's Warrior Queen. Together with Gabrielle, the Queen Regent, the three women led the Tribe of Aemetzainê. Priestess, Warrior, and Queen, the Aemetzainê were one of the few Amazon Tribes with a full tripartite rule.
Melysë, High Priestess and Chosen of Hekate, was a daughter of Zeus, but had been ignorant of her divine heritage for most of her life. When she conceived her first child, Ares had come forward, claiming that he was Melysë's father - he believed it himself, in fact, for Zeus had had made everyone believe it to protect Melysë and her mother. It was Ares who had approached Xena and asked her to protect Melysë - and her unborn child, Ares' last hope for a kind of immortality. Xena had agreed and from that had grown an incredible friendship and love between the two Amazon Queens. Melysë had asked Xena to remain as Warrior Queen of the Amazons shortly after Virgil proposed marriage to Gabrielle.
"I've asked - and Xena has agreed to be the Warrior Queen of this Tribe. We've been without one since my mother died. I am no warrior - I can't lead the army in battle - and daily, warlords and kings - and Rome - are encroaching on Amazon territory - and I can do nothing to stop them - alone. The Amazons will not just fade from this world without a fight, giving way to whatever army despises us for who we are. This is not the legacy I would leave my daughters."
"Xena," said Gabrielle. "You decided this without talking to me?"
"Gabrielle, I made a promise, a long time ago to Ephiny, our friend and sister Amazon, that I would not allow the Amazons to die out without a fight," said Xena. "This is a perfect way to keep that promise."
"What if I decide not to marry Virgil?" demanded Gabrielle.
"Well," said Melysë smiling. "There's always room for a third Amazon queen, like in our ancient history. You certainly have the experience. Time has not been kind to my Tribe, leaving us with only one Queen, who is not equipped to go to war to defend her people."
"Actually, I have decided to marry Virgil," said Gabrielle, grinning. "But it's nice to know I have options. But then, you already knew that I was going to marry him, didn't you?"
"Pretty much," said Xena, smiling.
"I was just - I didn't want to leave you alone again, Xena," said Gabrielle, looking up at her soulmate and her friend and fellow queen, gazing at each other. Melysë dropped her eyes, blushing.
Gabrielle grinned. "Guess I don't need to worry anymore, huh?" Xena looked up, startled, then smiled, embracing her malatyr.
"Gabrielle, don't you know?" said Xena, smiling gently and hugging her. "I am never alone - you are the best part of my soul. And you are always with me."
"Always," agreed Gabrielle, smiling.
Gabrielle had married her fellow bard, Virgil and Melysë had a house built for them, just outside the boundary of Aemetzainê Territory. The huge house was called the "Lodge" by the denizens of Aemetzainê and through Gabrielle and Virgil's kind and generous hearts, had been built up and expanded until it had become an inn, of sorts, for all male family members of the Tribe who came to visit.
Even before becoming Queen-Regent, Gabrielle had been an almost permanent "visitor" to the tribe. 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 their boys, and to make sure that they ate and 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, with five children, three of whom were daughters, the eldest named Ephiny after a very dear friend and sister Amazon who had crossed over many years before. And Gabrielle's Ephiny was most definitely an Amazon. She and Melysë's middle daughter, Selenë were as close as true sisters - in fact, Gabrielle had often thought the two were malatyra - soulmates, even as she and Xena were.
When Melysë became pregnant with her youngest child, Neiromei, she had asked Gabrielle to become the Tribe's Regent Queen and take over the duties of administrating the Tribe's domestic affairs so that she, as Priestess Queen, could devote more time to the duties of the Tribe's High Priestess, the Goddess's representative. In truth, the Tribe had been growing, and Melysë was finding herself overwhelmed more often than not. In the years since Xena had accepted the position of Warrior Queen, fewer wars had been fought by the Tribe. Xena's reputation was well known and very few were stupid enough to attack the Tribe which called her "Queen".
With less time required for war and battle, the Amazons were finding themselves more prosperous than ever before. More energy was put into cultivating crops and orchards. Craftswomen cropped up as more village women were drawn to the Amazons' way of life and asked for acceptance and Initiation into the Tribe and the Amazon Nation. There was so much she could do with all the Amazons' potential. They were thriving and Gabrielle was happy administrating them and chronicling their history and legends. The village women who were initiated into the Tribe left behind fathers, brothers and sons. These were the patrons of the Lodge.
"What is it, 'Lysë?" asked Xena, glancing over to see what had caused the reaction. "Isn't that seal from the Temple at Ephesus?"
"Yes," said Melysë, her fair brow furrowed with worry, as she hastily broke the seal and unrolled the parchment.
Xena watched, her concern mounting as tears filled Melysë's dark, green eyes, moving rapidly down the message. "What's wrong?" asked the Warrior Queen, gently.
Melysë wiped the tears away, her voice steady and quiet.
"The old priestess, Mhari," she said. "She's dying. And she's asking me to come to her."
"What are you going to do?" asked Gabrielle, also concerned.
"The wishes of the dying must always be respected," said Melysë, sadly. "I'm going to her, of course."
"We're going," said Xena, gently. "Our work here in Themiscyreia is done. Laesë is High Queen - and after that awesome battle, her place is assured, just as Hekate wanted."
"Girls, what was the message? Nothing wrong at home, I hope," asked Cyrenê, approaching, holding Neiromei.
"Melysë needs to go to Ephesus," said Gabrielle. "And Xena and I are going with her."
"Well, it's a good thing I've decided to come and live in Aemetzainê," said Cyrenê, smiling. "The way you three gad about, these children need their primeia around."
"You may not believe this, Mother," said Xena, smiling gratefully. "But up until a few months ago, we were pretty settled for a long time."
"Xena, you have never been 'settled'," said her mother. "But then, that's what makes you you. I'll take care of the girls, Melysë. You just do what needs done, and don't worry."
"Thank-you, tanti," said Melysë, smiling up at her. "With you there I won't worry about the girls."
With a sense of urgency borne by her beloved mentor's imminent passing, Melysë quickly packed and got her girls ready for the journey. They had decided that Cyrenê would stay in the queen's cottage with the children while the Amazons were building her own new home. Melysë used her powers to speed the journey home. Once in her own cottage, she slumped to a chair, exhausted.
"You alright?" asked Xena, arching her brow. Melysë smiled up at her, weakly.
"Yeah, I'll be fine - using the power like that - just wears me out a little," she said, softly.
Cyrenê bustled about the kitchen. "Melysë, you need supplies," she said. "Why don't I - "
"It's okay, Mother," said Xena. "The Amazons will bring what you need. Just let Priènê know - "
"Xena, I am not accustomed to being waited on," said Cyrenê, fastening her cloak. "I'll go to the storehouse and get the groceries. And I'll take Selenë with me. She's a big girl, now - she can help me, can't you dear?"
Selenë beamed up at her grandmother, her blue eyes shining. "Oh, yes, primeia," she said, happily. "Mother, may I go?"
"Of course," said Melysë, smiling. "Whenever you're with Cyrenê, you needn't ask."
The little girl took Cyrenê's hand and skipped by her side out the door. Xena picked up the baby Neiromei and sat beside Melysë.
"It's good the girls are so fond of Mother," she said, gazing into her sleeping daughter's face, smiling.
"I hadn't expected otherwise," said Melysë, stroking the infant's dark hair. "I am so glad Cyrenê has decided to stay here. It's almost like having my mother back with me."
"You should tell her that," said Xena. "It would make her happy."
"Tell me, how did she react when you told her about Hekate's gift? About Selenë and Iksander being yours, too?"
"How do you think? She went straight to the Temple and lit candles to thank the goddess for the 'good news'," said Xena. "Mother hasn't had that much good news where I'm concerned. In fact, if it weren't for these children, I don't think she would have decided to move here."
"Xena, your mother loves you," said Melysë. "I think she'd want to be close to you, too."
"My past hurt her," said Xena, quietly. "I know she's forgiven me, but there are still things between us that I don't think we'll ever resolve. Like Lyceus."
"Your brother?" said Melysë, moving closer to Xena, wrapping warm arms around the warrior, offering comfort and support.
"Yeah," said Xena. "I was the one who...well, if it hadn't been for me, Lyceus might have followed the rest of the villagers into hiding. He had such faith in me - and he died for it. I don't know if Mother can forgive that. And then after, when I was a warlord, I would send money from my raids. She sent it back. Said that 'blood money' couldn't buy back Lyceus' life - nothing could. After a while, I just...left her alone. It hurt too much to..."
"Xena, it's the past," said Melysë, gently. "Do you believe that your mother ever stopped loving you? Of course it hurt her to lose your brother - I can't imagine...but then, when she thought she had lost you too? I don't believe Cyrenê holds you responsible for your brother's death. I think that when you started doing all those 'warlord' things, you made an easy scapegoat, but I don't believe for a minute that Cyrenê wouldn't have been right there beside you, too, fighting Cortese if she could. She's an Amazon, too."
"Huh, yeah," chuckled Xena, her mood lightening. "Yeah, she could have, too, if Toris hadn't packed her off with the rest of them. If she had, maybe...things would have been different."
"So who do think she really blames for your brother's death?" said Melysë, gently.
"Gods," Xena whispered. "Has she lived with that kind of guilt...? But why? It wasn't her fault."
"And it wasn't yours," said Cyrenê, standing in the doorway with Selenë, holding her hand.
"Mother, I'm so sorry," said Xena, handing Neiromei to Melysë and going to hug her mother.
"No, Xena, Melysë is right," said Cyrenê, returning the hug as Selenë went and sat beside her mother. "It is the past. And what you have given me now, a new life with you and my grand-daughters and the Amazons - more than makes up for...everything. I am so proud of you, Xena. Proud that you're my daughter."
"Thank-you, Mother," said Xena.
Melysë leaned over to her own young daughter. "Did you have anything to do with this?" she whispered.
Selenë smiled. "Not really, meia," said the child, looking at her other mother and her grandmother, holding each other. "I just told primeia we should come back and see what you wanted for dinner."
"Just in time for Cyrenê to hear everything, huh?" said Melysë, smiling at her young daughter. "Well, it worked out this time, Little one, but I'm really going to have to teach you about the ethics of using your power. You can't interfere - "
"Without permission," finished the little girl, looking up at her mother. "I know, meia. But Xena worries about her mom loving her and primeia was worried about Xena. I know I can't just go and fix it with my powers, but I knew they could fix it if they knew what each other thought. Now they can start to heal their guilt over Xena's brother. He wants them to."
"'He' who, Selenë?" asked Melysë looking sharply at her daughter.
"Lyceus," replied the girl, smiling again at Xena and Cyrenê. "He's happy now. He doesn't want them to feel bad about him anymore."
Melysë sighed. "Does Lyceus talk to you, Selenë?"
"Only when I'm asleep," replied the child. "Then all the people can talk to me."
Melysë rose, taking Selenë's hand. "Come on," she said. "I want you meet someone. She's going to be your teacher."
"Where are you going, Melysë?" asked Cyrenê, as Melysë handed the sleeping baby to her.
"I have to take care of this before we leave for Ephesus - I don't dare wait, now," said Melysë.
Xena looked at her, and then at Selenë and raised an eyebrow. "I'll explain it later. We're going to go and see Hypsyple."
"Already?" said Xena, grinning proudly.
"Yep," said Melysë.
"So Mother coming back just now was no coincidence?"
"Nope," said Melysë, smiling back. "But you can explain it. Come on Selenë."
Melysë walked her daughter to the Healer's hut and knocked on the door. Selenë, always a quiet child looked up at her mother, worried. "Did I do something bad, meia?" she asked. Melysë knelt down beside her and hugged her.
"Absolutely not, Love," she said, smiling at her daughter. "In fact, I'm very proud of you. Hypsyple was my first magic teacher. She's going to teach you how to use your powers the same way she taught me."
"But meia," said Selenë, frowning. "I already know how to use them."
"So did I," said Melysë. "But Hypsyple taught me when to use them - and when not to, too. And there is so much more you're going to be able to do."
The door opened and an older Amazon stood there. Her blonde hair was shot with silver, like a crown and she smiled at the mother and daughter before her. Melysë rose and embraced the older woman.
"What's this? Is Selenë sick?" asked the shamenki.
"Not at all, tanti," said Melysë, smiling. "Just the opposite - she's coming into her powers."
"Ah," said the shamenki, smiling. "Already? Well, being the grand-daughter of Zeus - not to mention your daughter, Melysë - naturally, she's precocious. Come in. We'll talk. I've got water on for tea and some honey cakes."
Melysë took her daughter's hand and led her into the healer's hut. Melysë smelled the herbs drying and sweet memory washed over her. She sat Selenë down at the table and Hypsyple sat across from her. The shamenki looked up at Melysë and smiled. "You go on, now, Your Majesty, we'll be fine, won't we, Selenë?"
Selenë looked at the shamenki for a moment and smiled. "It's okay, meia," she said. "I can come home by myself when we're done."
"Alright," said Melysë, kissing the top of her daughter's head and leaving the two alone. She walked into her cottage and found Cyrenê supervising Arynë and Xena in the preparation of their dinner.
"Melysë, thank the gods," said Cyrenê, smiling at her. "These two are hopeless!"
"I could have told you that," muttered Xena, wiping her hands on a towel, while Arynë looked up at her mother like a rabbit in a snare from stirring something. "Where's Selenë?" she asked.
"Selenë is having tea with Hypsyple," said Melysë, taking over her daughter's task. "Seems the shamenki will have an apprentice this year."
"Selenë's going to be Hypsyple's apprentice?" said Arynë, retrieving her sword and sharpening stone from her as yet unpacked bags. She grinned. "Cool!"
"Not so fast, Young Lady," said Cyrenê, eyeing Arynë with a raised eyebrow. "You unpack those bags and get your laundry together."
Arynë looked at Xena's mother, her eyes wide."But Mother always does..." she began. Cyrenê continued to stand, hands on hips, looking at her. Arynë swallowed. "Yes, ma'am," she said, rising and doing as she was told. Cyrenê shook her head, smiling. "You sure that one doesn't have your blood too, Xena?" she said, chuckling.
"Mother!" said the warrior, guiltily, since she had just been about to do the same thing with her sword.
"You're not off the hook, either, Xena," said Cyrenê. "We need wood for the stove." Xena sighed, wondering how long until her mother's cottage would be done, as she went out and began chopping.
Melysë chuckled. "You know, Cyrenê, I could get used to this," she said.
Cyrenê slipped an arm around Melyse's slim waist in a motherly squeeze. "Your girls are sweet and well-behaved," she said. "They really don't need much of that, but I can't see you having to run the Tribe and the Temple and do the cooking and cleaning and laundry. 'Ryn's old enough to help."
"Actually, Gabrielle runs the Tribe," admitted Melysë. "In fact, her daughter Ephiny could use your attention." Melysë chatted away with Cyrenê as they made dinner. Selenë came home before dark, her eyes shining and they all sat together to eat. After, Arynë and Selenë washed the dishes under Cyrene's watchful eye while Xena and Melysë got ready for the trip to Ephesus.
Melysë was silent as she packed. Xena, sensing her unease, stopped and wrapped her arms around the priestess. "What's wrong, 'Lysë? Are you worried about your old teacher?" she asked.
"No, not really," said Melysë, laying her head against the warrior. "I'm just remembering the last time I was there - how different it was. Romans have taken over the city." She shuddered.
"Rome really scares you, doesn't it?" asked Xena, pulling her closer.
"Yeah, it does," said Melysë. "And I don't really know why. I just know that I have to protect my people from some threat and I see Rome as that threat."
"Well, Rome is a powerful entity, but I have known good Romans as well as bad ones," said Xena. "Believe me, I have no fond place in my heart for Rome either. And I've learned to trust your intuition over the years. I'll do everything in my power to protect you, Gabrielle, our daughters - and the Amazons."
"I know," said Melysë, smiling sweetly up at Xena. "That's why I'm not as scared as I could be."
The three queens left the following morning. With Melysë using her powers, the trip was quicker, but Melysë was exhausted upon their arrival and her apprehension about the city increased as they entered the gates. As she had anticipated, everywhere she looked were Romans - soldiers, senators, wealthy citizens - even slaves, roaming the streets of the city.
"Sure is different from Aemetzainê," said Gabrielle.
"Or Themiscyreia," said Xena, on her guard at the sight of all the Romans.
"Yeah, it stinks here," said Melysë, bitterly. "Come on, there's the Temple. I want to go and see Mhari and then get out of here."
"I can see why you cut your ties to this place," said Xena, disgusted.
"It wasn't like this before," said Melysë, wistfully. "When I was here, the Temple was just a small wooden shrine built over a black stone which had fallen here from the skies - like the one near Themiscyreia. The priestesses were all educated and Initiated, most of them were descended from the original Amazons who founded this city - a city truly dedicated to the Great Goddess."
"What happened?" asked Gabrielle, her mind already preparing the account to be committed to parchment.
"Bloody Rome happened," said Melysë, uncharacteristically, almost snarling. "Just like it's happening everywhere. They are not going to happen to the Amazons, though. Not while I live."
"Or me," said Xena.
"Or me," said Gabrielle.
And thus, the three queens walked to the Great Temple of Artemis - or Diana, as it was now being called. Melysë resisted the urge to spit at every Roman she passed, knowing that it was a childish - and dangerous - whim. At last they arrived.
"By the gods," said Gabrielle, awed. "It's magnificent."
"It is splendid," admitted Melysë, then her eyes narrowed. "For a Temple to Rome."
The friends walked through the columned corridors. Several of the priestesses recognised Melysë - or if not her, the air of a true priestess of the Great Goddess about her - and let them pass, unaccosted. Several "priests", however, made the mistake of trying to block the Priestess's path. Xena prepared to step in, but then stood back and watched proudly as Melysë, glaring at them, continued walking right through them, motioning for her companions to follow. The would-be human barriers, stepped aside at her unseen authority. They followed Melysë's purposeful stride through the corridors and columns, until they reached the sanctuary where the altar was.
A sacrifice was in progress. Gabrielle watched, horrified, as the "High Priestess" raised the ceremonial dagger high over the bleating lamb, chanting something in a language she didn't understand. "Stop her," she whispered desperately. Melysë looked at her friend, sympathetically, then strode up to the altar, staying the hand of the woman before she plunged it into the small animal. In a quiet voice, but one which heard by all in the chamber, Melysë spoke and the authority of her Goddess spoke through her.
"If you are intent on slaughtering this creature," she said, calmly, although Xena could see her barely reined in anger in the tenseness of her body. "Then do so in the name of the god you are truly worshipping here - Rome. The Goddess does not require the spilled blood of Her other children, nor does She desire it. Quite the opposite."
The would-be priestess, open mouthed, dropped the dagger as Melysë released her. "Wh-who are you?" she said.
"Melysë!" Xena turned and saw an ancient woman, smiling delightedly, hobbling carefully up to the Amazon. Melysë, smiling brightly at the old woman, leapt from the altar-dais and embraced her.
"Mhari," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I was so afraid - "
"I know, my child," said the old priestess, patting her. "But you did come in time. Come - leave these to their little dramas. We have important things to discuss."
"Mhari, these are my friends, Gabrielle and Xena," said Melysë, placing her strong arm around the older woman, offering support.
"Welcome to Ephesus - such as it is," said the old priestess, wryly. "Come, children, I have tea brewing in my room. There is much to talk about."
The women walked with Mhari to a small, spartan room, furnished only with a narrow bed, a table and two chairs. Melysë looked around angrily. "Thus the 'Great Temple' of Ephesus cares for its priestess. Bloody gods-be-damned Romans," she said, coldly, even as she gently and tenderly helped her old mentor to her chair and wrapped a shawl about her. Mhari chuckled.
"I don't need that much, Youngling," she said. "But now, to the reason I summoned you. The Romans."
"What about them?" said Melysë, her eyes narrowing.
"Daughter, they are the Goddess's children, too," chided her mentor.
"I know, Mhari," said Melysë, looking down, chastised. "I fear them, though."
"And well you should," agreed Mhari, kindly. "Though you should not hate an entire nation - that is what the Amazons' enemies do, after all. But a little healthy fear can be a good thing for your survival. They have been asking about the Amazons - and you, in particular."
"What!?" said Melysë in alarm.
"Yes, Child," said Mhari, sadly. "Senator Civillus came here several weeks ago. It seems he had heard about your battle against the Black Mage. He was told you were no longer affiliated with this Temple, but he has waited here all the same. He is determined to take you back to Rome with him - with or without your consent. In fact, it was the Senator who paid for the sacrifice you just interrupted. It is now only a matter of time before he realises you are here."
"We've got to get you out of here, Melysë," said Xena.
"Xena, there will be no danger to Melysë - for now," said the old priestess. "But there is something you must do to ensure your safety - and the safety of the Amazon Nation - from the Roman Empire."
"What is it?" asked Melysë, hopefully.
"There is certain amulet, created by a Druid of Eire," said Mhari. "Once you have it, Melysë, as Chosen of Hekate, you can use it to keep Rome from conquering the Amazons."
"Where is this amulet?" asked Gabrielle.
"In Eleusis," said Mhari.
"Oh, gods, at this time of year?" said Xena. "Eleusis will be packed for the Mysteries!"
"And what perfect camouflage for a priestess, right Melysë?" said Mhari, smiling.
"Yes," said Melysë. "I've already been Initiated in the Mysteries, so there should be no problem. I can go where I will. Where in Eleusis is this amulet?"
"Persephone has it," said Mhari. "And she'll be in Eleusis for the Mysteries, along with her mother, Demeter."
"And the Goddess of the Dead is just going to hand over this amulet to Melysë?" said Xena, sceptically. "Why would she do that?"
"Because it was created for this purpose," said Mhari. "Persephone only holds it safe for Melysë. And it is from Persephone that you must learn the words of power to activate its magical protection. You must leave by morning, child. The Roman General, Aurelian arrived in Ephesus yesterday and by all reports, he too is seeking you to take you back to Rome with him."
Melysë kissed Mhari's withered cheek. "I'll leave right away," she said.
"We will leave," said Xena, placing a strong hand on Melyse's shoulder. "I'm going with you."
"Are you sure that's such a good idea, Xena?" said Gabrielle. "I mean, aren't you worried that Persephone holds a grudge? About Hades, I mean."
"I'm going with Melysë," said Xena. "I can't leave her to go by herself to Eleusis with the Romans after her."
"Xena's right," said Mhari, smiling at Gabrielle. "Melysë will be a lot safer with Xena there, too. Do you know the story of Persephone?"
"Sure," said Gabrielle, smiling, her eyes lighting up. "I'm a bard - I know lots of stories, but I'll bet you know even more. Would it be alright if I stayed here and wrote some of them down?"
"I would be delighted to share stories with you, Gabrielle," said Mhari, her eyes twinkling. "It's not often I find young people here who are at all interested."
"Oh, I am," said Gabrielle, sitting at the table with her scroll case. "I'm always looking for new stories."
Xena and Melysë left them like that and slipped out of the Temple to the docks. Melysë had pulled the hood of her cloak up to hide her face. Xena was on the alert, her hand never straying far from her chakram. They booked passage on a ship that would take them from Ephesus to the Isle of Lesvos, then to Brauron in Greece. From there they would journey to Eleusis where the grand Procession to Athens would begin. Once off the ship, Melysë used her magic to speed the journey overland and they arrived in Eleusis. Melysë, in her weakened state from using her powers was apprehensive at the sight of Romans lining the streets, watching the Procession. Xena stayed close, also worrying about the number of Roman soldiers about, and worried, too, that rooms would be scarce at this time of year. Melysë led Xena to small inn in one of the tiny side streets. She spoke quietly to the innkeeper, who nodded and left, and then she smiled and beckoned Xena to an empty table.
"He has a room," she said, as they seated themselves. "It's small, but there's a bath and a bed."
"How much?" asked Xena.
"Two dinars," replied Melysë, as a serving woman brought them a carafe of wine and some bread, meat, and cheese.
"Two - by the gods, 'Lysë! How'd you manage that?" said Xena, delighted.
"Well, actually," said Melysë, smiling as she sipped a cup of wine. "He's only charging us for dinner - and only because he can't afford to do otherwise. His mother is an Amazon. He always lets Amazons stay here at no charge. Usually he feeds us, too, but with the Mysteries going on, his supplies cost him more."
"Well, it's worth it," said Xena, chuckling as she ate. "I didn't even think we'd get a room, let alone dinner and a bath."
As Melysë had said, the room was small, but a tub had been brought in and water was heating by the blazing hearth.
"This isn't too bad," said Melysë, soaking as Xena rinsed her long hair for her.
"No, it's pretty nice in fact," said Xena, helping her out of the tub and handing her a towel. Melysë dried off and slipped into a shift. Xena took a brush and began on Melysë's hair, knowing how the priestess loved it when she brushed her hair for her. She finished the brushing, but continued playing with Melysë's hair. She loved the way curled as it dried and the way those long, dark curls shimmered in the firelight. Melysë sighed and leaned back against the warrior, delighted.
"Tomorrow's the festival which begins the Mysteries," said Xena, absently braiding a few strands.
"Hm, a Festival, huh?" said Melysë, smiling up at Xena. "Guess that means we should get some rest?"
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "How much celebrating are you planning on doing, my Priestess?" she said, smiling.
"That all depends," said Melysë, laying her head back on the warrior's chest and sighing contentedly.
"On what?" said Xena, her concentration currently focused on stroking Melysë's dark head and playing with her hair, but now the strokes extended into gentle, softly tickling caresses along the priestess's neck and shoulders.
"On how long you intend to keep doing what you're doing," said Melysë snuggling closer, as Xena grinned and blew out the lamp.
Melysë felt trepidation, but not from the Romans this time. As she and Xena stood watching a long line of initiates outside the sanctuary, the squeals of piglets reached her.
"Xena," she hissed. "I think they're killing the pigs!"
"Sh, don't draw attention," said Xena.
"Xena, I've got to stop them," said Melysë.
"'Lysë, don't do anything dumb," said Xena.
Melysë looked at Xena. Suddenly, Xena found herself in an open field. Pigs were everywhere. Melysë stood, her arms folded, smiling at them. "Their mothers are here," she said.
"Great, now what are they supposed to do with no pigs?" said Xena, annoyed. Melysë looked at her and sighed. Xena found herself holding the effigy of a pig, woven from straw and saw that Melysë held one, too. "I suppose when the priest goes to...well, you know, it'll look, feel, and act like a real pig?"
"Exactly," said Melysë. "They'll see what I want them to see."
"Hm, I also suppose all those piglets out in the field there are also...?"
"Well, Xena, I couldn't just let them be killed," said Melysë. "Besides Demeter won't mind. The sacrifices are only so that the priests will have meat on their table for the feast. They've already killed enough for that."
"How do you know that?" said Xena.
Melysë shrugged. "Demeter is a goddess," she said. "What does she need a bunch of dead pigs for?"
"Hm, good point," said Xena. "Well, I suppose we need to find Persephone and get the amulet."
"Tonight, when the Initiates go into the caves for the next part of the Rites, we'll go with them," said Melysë. "That's where we'll find Persephone."
"We're going dressed as Initiates?" said Xena.
"Yes, the Romans aren't likely to recognise us that way," said Melysë, looking worriedly at a group of soldiers standing outside the Temple. She had not come outside without her hood pulled over her face since they had left Ephesus. Tonight, in the white robes of the mystai, she would be exposed, indeed. Xena wondered how she was going to hide her chakram under the thin material.
It was already dark when he mystai were led to a cave in the hillside. Torches flared and Xena saw that each mystes was handed a torch and sent into the cave. She also noted with some concern that no one seemed to come back out. At last it was Melysë's turn. She took the offered torch and entered the mouth of the cave. The High priestess greeted her, placing a pomegranate seed on her tongue and guiding her to a passage leading down. Suddenly, Melysë found herself alone, her only light the flickering torch. She proceeded on down the passageway. Suddenly the torch went out. Silently, Melysë re-lit it with her magic. God powers do come in handy, she thought to herself. Hope Xena's doing alright. The torch went out again, and Melysë frowned in the absolute darkness, more annoyed than apprehensive. Suddenly something brushed by her. Almost she cried out, then remembered the instructions given to the mystai.
"Say nothing, utter no sound from your mouth, until you are spoken to."
So Melysë remained still and silent.
"What do you seek here?" came the voice.
Melysë thought for a moment. "Enlightenment," she replied. "And protection for my people."
Suddenly her torch flared to life and Melysë faced a middle-aged woman with hair the colour of ripe wheat and eyes as dark as the rich earth.
"What do you here, Niece? You have no need of My mysteries," said the woman.
"Demeter, tanti," said Melysë, smiling. "I've come seeking Persephone. My old teacher, Mhari of Ephesus told me that she had an amulet - "
"Yes, yes, of course," said Demeter, nodding. "Why the disguise? Are the Romans after you already, then?"
"I'm afraid so," said Melysë. "A senator Civillus and a General, Aurelian."
"Hm, well, I'll help you all I can," said Demeter. "Persephone is further down this passage. Keep going until you reach the chamber and follow along with the 'other' Initiates. Oh, and by the way, I felt something amiss when they were slaughtering the pigs," said Demeter, chuckling. "Were you responsible for that?"
"I'm sorry, tanti," said Melysë. "I just couldn't let them..."
"No, it's alright, child - I really don't like that part either," said the goddess, smiling. "Why humans think we like them to kill things is beyond me. Xena is here, too, isn't she?"
"Yes, she wanted to protect me," said Melysë suddenly remembering - and worrying. "Will Persephone harm Xena?"
"No," said Demeter, gently. "Hades was warned. He made his choice. If the Korë blames anyone for his death, it is Hades himself. She herself is a mother, so she understands. Have no fear for your warrior on that."
"Thank-you, tanti," said Melysë, relieved.
"You must be on your way, now, Child." said the goddess, smiling. "The others are gathering in the cavern at the end of this passageway. Xena is there already. I think she may worry if you don't appear soon, and a worried Xena is something neither of us would wish to deal with, I think."
"That's true," chuckled Melysë, as the goddess faded. Melysë followed the passageway and emerged into a brightly lit cavern. She looked around at the murmuring initiates. Hm, guess I'm not the only one who had an "encounter" on the trip down here, she thought. Immediately she spotted Xena. Sure enough the warrior looked tense, glancing about her constantly. When she saw Melysë, she relaxed visibly and smiled. Melysë returned her smile, warmly and made her way to Xena's side.
"What took you so long?" Xena whispered.
"I was talking to my aunt," said Melysë, grinning at the warrior.
"Figures - I get some priestess who looks terrified of me all the while she's asking some ritual questions and you get the real thing," said Xena, with a mock sigh. "I guess nepotism is practised in Eleusis, along with pig sacrifices - what'd she have to say about that, by the way?"
"She was okay with it," said Melysë. "She doesn't like it any more than I did. Why was the priestess scared of you? Did you give her one of your patented Warrior Princess 'don't screw with me' Looks?"
"Well, she startled me in the dark," said Xena, shrugging. "She's lucky I'm not armed. Reflexes like mine are nothing to trifle with. So what's she like? What did she say?"
"Persephone has no hard feelings - you, know about Hades," said Melysë. "We're to follow along with the Initiates and she'll meet with us in here. She'll have the amulet."
"I'm glad. I never had a quarrel with the Korë," said Xena.
The attendant priestesses where circulating among the initiates, offering drinks from gold chalices. One stopped before Melysë and offered the chalice.
"Take and drink of the kykeon," she said. Melysë leaned forward, surreptitiously sniffing. Reaching back, unseen by the priestess, she squeezed Xena's hand in warning, then took a taste of the brew - just a drop, a token of the drink to fulfil the requirement. She fervently hoped Xena had caught her warning as she let go of the warrior's hand and stepped back smiling at the priestess. Xena, too, but tasted from the chalice. All around, Melysë noted the Initiates taking deep draughts after a long day of fasting.
"There's going to be a lot of sick people here," Melysë whispered.
"What was that? It was familiar, but I couldn't quite name it," said the warrior.
"Red-cap mushroom," said Melysë. "The shamenki of our Tribe, Hypsyple, taught me how to use them to open a trance. I don't need it to do that now, but I remember - these people will 'see' mysteries, alright."
"How much does it...?"
"Not much," said Melysë, frowning. "At least it never did for me. Just a sliver, tucked inside the cheek or held under the tongue - at least, that's the way the shamenki taught me. The red-caps have been boiled in that kykeon. I don't know if that will strengthen or weaken the effects. And on empty stomachs...too much will make a person very sick. I doubt it will have any effect on us though - we only took a token taste."
"Yeah, thanks to you," said Xena, smiling and squeezing Melysë's hand.
Suddenly the room was plunged into darkness as all the torches blew out in terrific wind which blew through the cavern. Xena's strong arms wrapped themselves around Melysë's slender waist, as if afraid the priestess would blow away from her in the gale. "Hang on," Xena whispered in Melysë's ear and Melysë nodded, clinging to her warrior.
The wind died down and the Amazons saw a figure illuminated by an unseen light source before the Initiates. She was a young girl, dressed in a white silk gown, wearing a crown which was decorated with skulls. She held a sceptre in one hand and Melysë saw that it was a long bone, knobbed on the ends. In the other hand, she held a yellow flower. Behind her, Melysë saw the statue of Iacchos, surrounded by caskets of holy objects, now open.
"Take these holy things from their chests," said the girl. "Carry them to the other side and lay them in the basket provided. But beware - there are dangers in your path. Cross the barriers to the other side with your charges. You will be instructed further there."
One by one, the dazed mystai approached, kneeling before the girl and taking sacred objects from the chests, carrying them through the dark passageways. Melysë and Xena approached last. A figure stood in the shadows cast by the unseen light source behind the girl. The figure approached and clasped Melysë to her.
"Cousin," said Persephone, smiling, kissing the Amazon on the cheek. "Mother told me what you seek. Here is the amulet. You must speak the chant in your own Amazon Temple, however. Be safe. I'm glad that we've met at last. And Xena, I, as a mother, understand what lengths another mother will go to protect her child. Hades was deluded by his fear, but he still made the choice of his own free will to go against you. He knew you well enough to have known better. You have my blessings still. The rest of the Rites are not for you two - nor for mother or me, in truth. The priesthood only benefits from the 'sacred marriage'. And I suspect many would die by your hand, Xena, should they approach Melysë. Listen to the words of power, now for we haven't much time."
The goddess chanted:
sùl au Aemetzainê amèb
taktorèntei kahr au kohl
napa napvouté aima,
vènstahl mévouté porei
porei napvouté biranë brataha
sai yéta gorlok
sai yéta gor
sai yéta logar
har ilae amamèb, akah napvouté
junei téra leilë
"Go to, now Melyse, Xena," whispered Persephone, embracing Melysë. "We will meet again." Xena bowed her head in acknowledgement.
"Thank-you, Cousin," said Melysë warmly, returning the kiss to the goddess's cheek and taking the amulet around her neck. The Korë faded, smiling, and Xena and Melysë walked up the passage to the surface, hearing the sounds of the ritual orgy behind them. Xena chuckled.
"Well she was right about one thing - I would have killed anyone approaching you for that," she said.
"I didn't drink that much kykeon," said Melysë, wryly. "Thank the Goddess."
"That so? Should I be glad - or disappointed?" said the warrior, wrapping strong arms around the priestess, pulling her close. Melysë looked down, blushing slightly, but her eyes were sparkling and she smiled sweetly at Xena when the Warrior Queen lifted her face to look into those dark green eyes.
"That all of my senses are intact? Oh, glad, definitely," she said, as they walked arm in arm back to their room.
Now, filled with a sense of urgency, Melysë and Xena hurried back to Ephesus. Melysë strode through the Temple with Xena beside her to Mhari's room and knocked on the door. She frowned when there was no answer, and slowly pushed open the door. She gasped and Xena pushed past her into the room. It was a shambles. Xena cursed, grabbing her chakram. "We've got to find them!" said Melysë, turning and running in a panic through the corridors of the Temple.
"'Lysë, wait," Xena yelled, going after her. The warrior caught her and pulled her close. "Sh, it's okay, we'll find them."
"Oh, Xena this is all my fault!" Melysë cried, tears flowing freely from her dark green eyes. "It's me they're after and they got Gabrielle - and Mhari."
"It's okay," said Xena. "Gabrielle is fine - I'd feel it if she weren't - and if Mhari's with her, Gabrielle will take good care of her. We'll find them, okay?"
Melysë breathed, releasing one last sob and relaxed in her warrior's firm embrace, drawing in her strength. "Okay, where do we start?"
"With that priestess who doing the sacrifice for that senator," said Xena, her eyes narrowing. "Come on." They found the priestess in the sanctuary, chanting prayers to Diana. Waiting in the back of the Sanctuary until she had finished and the rest of the congregation had left, Melysë and Xena approached. The priestess saw them and immediately looked apprehensive. "Yes?" she said.
Melysë smiled at her, gently, disarming her defences, while Xena quickly jabbed two fingers into her throat. "Now, you have less than a minute to tell me where Gabrielle and the priestess she was attending are," said Xena, grinning as blood began to trickle from the gasping priestess's nose. The woman's eyes narrowed and she jutted out her chin in defiance, feeling weaker as her time ended.
"Take it off, Xena," said Melysë, coldly. "We'll learn nothing from her death. Besides, there are other ways."
Xena released her and she fell forward, gasping. Melysë gripped her shoulders hard and stared into her grey eyes. "I'll say nothing," the priestess whispered, grinning at Melysë.
"You listen to me, girl," said Melysë, but it was not the Amazon. Instead, Xena heard the authority of Hekate, one of the faces of the Amazons' Great Triple Goddess. "You are no priestess of Mine. You weak-willed thing! You dare to claim your deeds in My service?! All the while allowing My true priestess and a Queen of My Amazons - My daughters - to remain in the hands of My enemies? Perhaps you don't fear death, but remember Who it is that will have charge of you after you are dead - and eternity is a very long time. Answer the question! Where are they?"
"Au - Aurelian took them into custody," stammered the girl. "They were here, in the Temple, but then Aurelian was called away - to...to the North. To fight the Goths. He t-took them with him."
"When?" said Xena.
"D - day before yesterday," said the girl. "Lady, now I know, truly that You are real. I am so sorry. I will spend the rest of my days serving only You. Only tell me what I must do."
Melysë's expression softened. "Yes, Child, your heart is truly repentant, I can see that," she said, the Goddess still speaking through her. "If you would truly serve Me, serve My other children. Feed those who are hungry, shelter those who are lost, comfort those who mourn, rejoice with those who are glad of heart. Most of all, make of yourself all that I intended you to be. You acted out of ignorance, but your heart is not evil, Child and I forgive you. Leave this place, even as I will when my last priestess here returns to Me at last. Until then, stay out of the sight of the Romans."
"Mother, where shall I go?" asked the girl. Melysë looked at Xena.
"Go to the Amazons," she said. "Tell them Queen Melysë has bade them take you in and teach you."
"Queen Melysë? Oh, Goddess, Zeus' own daughter, the Chosen One of Hekate!" gasped the girl. "Oh, Lady, thank-you for allowing me this chance. I promise, I'll not disappoint you."
"I know you won't," said Melysë, smiling kindly at the girl, noticing for the first time how really young she was. "Go on, now. We have to find our friends."
The girl ran off. "You sure she's Amazon material?" Xena asked doubtfully.
"She was willing to die to avoid betraying a confidence - even if her loyalty was misplaced," said Melysë. "She has some sense of honour and obviously some commitment to the Goddess or she wouldn't be here in the first place - nor would she be so quick to ask how to make herself right with the Goddess again. She asked where to go when the Goddess told her to leave Ephesus, not why. She acted out of ignorance, and was probably intimidated by the Romans. I think she'll do well with the Amazons, actually. Once they teach her of her own worth, she won't make those mistakes again."
"Hm, maybe you're right," said Xena. "Now, to find Gabrielle and Mhari..."
"Xena, there's no time to lose," said Melysë, with a sigh. "The land of the Goths - where is that exactly?"
"North - quite a distance, in fact," said Xena. "We can intercept them easily..."
"We're doing the 'god-thing', Xena," said Melysë.
"You hate doing the 'god-thing'," said Xena.
"Actually, I'm kind of getting the hang of it - I just don't want to use my powers when conventional, mortal means are just as feasible. It just takes too much out of me," said Melysë. "Come on, there's not much time to lose."
Xena felt a displacement of the air around her which always warned her of god-powers being used, then a wave of disorientation and dizziness struck her and she felt like she'd just drunk three - no, make that four mugs of her mother's ale. Then she felt solid ground under her feet and Melysë leaning weakly against her.
"Thought you were getting the hang of it," she chuckled.
"It still takes a lot out of me," said Melysë, smiling up at her. Suddenly, Melysë found herself being thrust behind her warrior as Xena unsheathed her sword.
"Well, well - didn't take that little slag Briseis long to cave in and blab - or you two to catch up, it seems."
Melysë looked over Xena's shoulder. There stood Civillus, mincing around a Roman general, whom Melysë assumed to be Aurelian - and what looked to her like a whole Roman Legion. She saw Gabrielle, holding up a very weak, ill Mhari. Both looked as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
"What do you want?" said Xena.
"I want the priestess," said Civillus. "I'm getting quite a collection of them, wouldn't you say?"
"Let the others go and I'll come with you," said Melysë, stepping out.
"Melysë, no!" cried Mhari. A soldier moved to slap her into silence, but was stopped by a glare from Gabrielle.
"What's to stop me from taking you - and Xena - anyway?" giggled Civillus. "You are outnumbered, after all."
Drawing up the very last of her reserve of power, Melysë threw a lightning bolt into a rock, where it could do no harm, but the spectacle had the desired effect. "That - and Xena," she said coldly. "Let them go, and I will come with you peacefully. Otherwise, you will lose a good many of your soldiers. I don't like killing people, as a rule, but I won't hesitate to do what I must to save my friends. And I think you know Xena won't think twice about carving up a whole regiment to serve to Tartarus."
"No!" said Civillus. "We can take you - and keep these two."
"Let them go," said Aurelian.
"What are you doing?" whined the senator. "We outnumber them, you stupid warrior."
"I won't lose good men unnecessarily," said the General, appraising the Warrior Queen. "And I have heard of Xena, even if you haven't. I know what she can do. Let them go. I trust you possess the Amazons' legendary honour, your majesty?" Melysë nodded once.
"I hope you know what you're doing," whispered Xena, as the soldiers released Gabrielle and Mhari.
"So do I," said Melysë, stepping forward and standing before the general. "I give myself up to you, General, for I sense that you, sir are not without honour yourself. And that my friends will be permitted to return our home land unaccosted."
"Let them go," shouted the general, even as Civillus chained Melysë, the cold iron at her wrists making her feel even weaker. It would be hours - perhaps a whole day before her powers regenerated and she could find a way to escape. In the meantime, she would conduct herself with what dignity she was allowed, despite the chains. As she was led back to the Roman camp, Melysë dared glance back once, the image of her friends standing vigil as she was taken away bringing tears to her eyes. She stumbled as the soldier pulling on her chains growled at her to move along. Melysë looked up at him, glaring angrily and the soldier, remembering the lightning, remained silently respectful the rest of the way.
Melysë was placed into a tent of her own, but was not unchained. A woman was sent to her with food and Melysë looked at her, saddened. She had seen camp followers in the armies of her enemies and allies alike and she felt sorry for them, even though some did choose the life.
"Thank-you," she said graciously, and the woman, startled at the rare courtesy, curtsied quickly and ran out of the tent. Melysë wasn't hungry, but she knew food would replenish her powers that much quicker. Awkward because of the chains, she picked at the fare. She realised it must be from the General's own mess. This was no common soldier fare. It was plain, but it was well prepared and Melysë ate all of the meat and cheese and bread, but skipped the wine. She wanted to keep her head clear. When she'd finished, she sat on the pallet, her head in her hands. Having used up all of her reserves to get Xena and herself here, Melysë decided to enter a trance and try to figure a way out of this mess.
Her concentration was interrupted by a bath being brought in and several of the camp women bustling about. "What's all this?" asked the Amazon, although a bath did sound good.
"We're to get you ready and take you Civillus," said one of the women.
"What for?" said Melysë, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"Well, let's just say that the likes of us will be spared the likes of him while you're here, your majesty," said the woman, nervously.
"Oh, indeed?" said Melysë, smiling wickedly. "I have news for Civillus - if he thinks he can take me by force, then I guarantee 'the likes of him' will never have the 'likes of anyone' ever again."
"That's what most of 'em, say, Lady," whispered another of the women. "But he flogs 'em till they're out, then has his way with 'em - if they fight 'im, that is."
"Oh, don't you worry," said Melysë, chuckling. "The Goddess will protect Her own." Melysë complied with the women, most of whom acted like nervous rabbits around her - after all, it wasn't their fault, Melysë knew. Finally, they brought her to Civillus. Melysë stood, staring coldly at the senator. "Why was I brought here and where is General Aurelian?" she said, regally.
"He went to fight the Goths," said the senator, approaching her. "Nasty business, war. That's why women have no place fighting in them - in fact I intend to prove to you just what a women's place is."
"You'll regret trying," said Melysë, still icy, but smiling wickedly now. "But I really hope you do try. I'll enjoy making you regret it."
The senator sighed. "Now we're not going to have any messy little incidents, are we?" he said, placing a plump, pink hand on Melysë's chest. Melysë growled, feeling her totem spirit, the snow leopard pushing at the boundaries, trying to come out, but Melysë just didn't yet have the energy. It was enough, though, to make the senator pull his hand back swiftly.
"I surrendered to General Aurelian - not to you, Cockroach," she hissed - oh, the leopard really wanted out!
"I outrank the General - but of course, the barbaric Amazons would have no concept of rank, would you dear?" giggled the disgusting man.
"As a matter of fact, we do," said Melysë, smiling that smile again - the one that made the senator feel all shivery and cold inside. "I am a queen and a priestess among my people - which means, according to the tenets of Rome, I outrank you."
"Rome doesn't recognise the Amazons as a Nation," simpered the senator. "So you are nothing to Rome - nothing but a conquest, which I will now enjoy." The senator leaped upon her, pushing her to the floor of the tent. Melysë fought him, finally wrapping the chains which bound her around his fat throat and began throttling him. His guards, rushed into the tent at the sounds of a struggle - more of one than usual, anyway. One of the guards backhanded the queen, loosening her grip and the senator squirmed away, gasping.
"Tie her to the post!" he wheezed. "We'll do it the hard way, then, little queen, but you will be conquered!"
Melysë smirked. That's what you think, she thought, as they tied her hands over her head to the post, stripping her from the waist up. Melysë stood, looking defiantly at the soldiers, who stood a respectful distance away, most averting their eyes. Melysë saw disgust for the senator in most of them as he came sauntering out with a whip.
"Now, scream for me, little queenie," he said, rearing back and swinging. Melysë gasped once and her eyes widened at the impact of the leather whip on her flesh. Ooh, this isn't good, she thought, suddenly afraid. She closed her eyes, clamping shut her jaw and thought of home. She thought of her daughters. She thought of her Goddess and slipped into half a trance, where the pain became almost bearable. She thought of Xena...
Thus far, she had uttered no sound, save a couple of gasps, though the flesh of her back was shredded and bleeding. Civillus was getting angry. His arm was tired and still the Amazon bitch hadn't screamed. In fact she seemed to be almost smiling... "I'd almost think you were enjoying this," he snarled, slightly out of breath from the unaccustomed exertion.
"Lovin' evr'y minute of it," gasped Melysë, between lashes, though truthfully she didn't know how much longer she could bear it - but she would die before she let the slimy little worm have the satisfaction of hearing her scream. Suddenly she slumped, unconscious, not even the dislocation of her shoulder as her arm was pulled by the ropes which tied her to the post brought her around.
Doesn't matter, thought Civillus, triumphantly casting down the whip. She'll scream enough when she wakes - if she wakes!
"Drag her to my tent - and you don't have to be gentle with the 'little queenie', either," he said, kicking her hard and grinning at the sound of snapping ribs.
The camp women looked on, most of them weeping. They had watched out of curiosity at first, wanting to see just how long it would take the Amazon to scream. Some had even laid bets. But when she remained stoically silent, finally slumping to the ground, her shoulder wrenching with a godsawful sound, the women knew she had earned their respect. Many of the camp followers snuck out of camp that night, and many more would follow. Most would end up seeking out a Tribe of Amazons and asking for Initiation. If the Amazons could withstand that kind of torture, then an Amazon was the thing to be. At the very least, the Amazons had things worth learning.
As the soldiers were cutting the ropes binding Melysë to the post, they heard a chilling sound.
Suddenly, Xena was flipping into their midst, landing with sword drawn as she flung her chakram. The disc split, one part cutting the ropes, the other ricocheting against the post, knocking out the soldiers who stood there, staring. Suddenly, the camp was in chaos. Xena fought off her attackers. Soldiers were running everywhere, frantic. Horses had been let loose and were trampling everything in their escape from the Roman camp. Civillus stood there, screaming at his soldiers to get her, but the soldiers had other ideas. They ran from the Fury with the sword and the "magical" spinning disc which seemed to fly everywhere at once - much like its owner. Xena got to Melysë and slung her over her shoulder, glaring at Civillus.
"I'll be back for you later," she growled, running through the camp and taking to the trees with her precious cargo. She got back to their campsite, noting some additions to their group in the form of some of the Roman women who had fled to them, then dismissed the frightened women as harmless as she gently laid the priestess on her own bedroll, assessing her injuries. She saw Melysë's bruised face where the guard had backhanded her and noted the dislocated shoulder with an angry hiss.
"Xena," said Gabrielle, kneeling beside her with a basin of water and some clean rags. "They said...they said she was whipped - flogged. Pretty badly. She didn't cry out, so that...Civillus kept beating her."
Xena's eyes narrowed as she pulled the remains of Melyse's tunic gently away from her back. She closed her eyes when she saw the results of the flogging, feeling a little sick. Xena had a strong stomach, but Melysë, her gentle priestess who willingly harmed no one had endured ... this.
"She got that when her powers were depleted - it's not going to heal by itself anytime soon," said Xena, quietly. "Damn him, as soon as I've taken care of her, I'm going back to take care of him..."
"She wouldn't want you to," said Gabrielle, gently.
"No," said Xena, her grin wickedly cruel, and here blue eyes like ice. "But I'm not asking her."
Xena gently cleaned and dressed the whip wounds and bound the broken ribs before snapping Melyse's shoulder into place. With a moan, Melyse's eyes flew open, saw Xena, and visibly relaxed.
"Xena," she whispered.
"Sh, don't try to talk, 'Lysë," said the warrior, soothingly.
"Hurts," whispered the queen, tears of pain oozing from her dark green eyes.
"Yeah, I'll bet it does," said Xena. "Here."
She gave Melysë a drink of strong painkiller and a sleeping draught, then slid behind her, leaning the priestess against her and herself against a tree and held her gently while she slept, trying to keep her shoulder still and her raw back off of the ground. She needs to rest so that she can regain her powers and heal herself, but this place isn't safe enough for that. They'll be looking for her - and us, Xena thought, looking down at the priestess's face, so pale now, except for the dark bruise.
Xena felt vulnerable out in the open clearing, so she gently laid Melysë down on her bedroll and told Gabrielle she was to going to and look for another better hidden, campsite. Gabrielle stayed by Melysë with Mhari, while the women from the campsite gathered around the fire. Gabrielle began telling stories, and the women, listening, were touched by her tales.
Xena slipped silently through the trees, approaching the Roman camp. Things had settled considerably and Xena saw the general's standard flying over his tent. So Aurelian is back, huh? she thought. I think I want a word with him. Xena slipped unseen through the shadows of the camp. The sentries were vigilant, but the Warrior Queen was not without skill - she had many, in fact - and so she crawled unnoticed under the tent wall into Aurelian's command tent, hiding behind a chest while the general was briefed. She smirked proudly when she heard of Melysë throttling the fat senator with the very chains binding her, but her eyes narrowed at the account of the flogging. Xena saw the general was none too pleased about that either.
"Damn that officious toad!" said Aurelian, slamming a heavy fist onto the wooden table in front of him. "She was to be treated like the royalty she is - she's a queen of the Amazons, for Jove's sake! And Augustus wants a treaty with the Amazon Nation - fat chance of that now! Where is she? Was she at least taken to the healer's tent?"
"Ah, no General, she's ah...disappeared," said one of the sentries.
"What! How badly was she hurt?" roared the General.
"Pretty damn badly," said Xena, rising from her hiding place. The General raised a hand, stopping the sentries from attacking. "Dismissed," he told them.
"But Sir," said one.
"OUT!" roared the General, as the sentries saluted and left. "Well, Xena - that solves one of the mysteries - you came and got your queen during the chaos which followed...the incident."
Xena walked slowly up to the general, eyeing him carefully. "So Caesar Augustus wants a treaty with the Amazons?" she said.
The General chuckled. "Your reputation doesn't do you justice, Xena," he said. "Yes, he wants a treaty. I was to escort Queen Melysë to him to negotiate it. Civillus, that worm, latched onto my regiment in Ephesus. He's a senator, so I had no choice but to let him travel with us."
"What about Gabrielle and Mhari? They were taken into your custody," said Xena, eyes narrowing.
"Protective custody," corrected Aurelian. "They were safe as long as my men guarded them from Civillus and his guard. I got word that the Goths were invading a few miles north of here and my orders were to investigate. Turned out, that was manufactured by Civillus to get rid of me. I am truly sorry for what has happened to your friend, Xena. Will she be alright?"
Xena saw genuine concern in the Roman's eyes and smiled slightly. "She'll be fine," replied the warrior queen. "I don't hold you responsible for her injuries, and neither will Melysë. The one who is responsible, however...
"He's being escorted back to Rome as we speak," said the General. "Trust me, Xena he will be dealt with. Your priestess made quite the impression on my men in just the short time she was here."
"Melysë is more than she seems," said Xena, smiling again. "She sensed that you were a man of honour - that's important to the Amazons."
"And I failed her," said Aurelian, somewhat sadly. "I hope she will forgive me and allow me to make amends."
"To Melysë, forgiveness is like breathing," said Xena, kindly. "She's even managed to teach me a thing or two about it. And don't worry - I think Augustus will get his treaty. He and I go way back. In fact we were friends, once. I'm pretty sure we still are."
"Don't doubt it, Xena," said Aurelian. "He speaks quite highly of you still. Will you allow our healers to treat the queen's injuries? It's the least we can do."
"I think she'll be fine," said the warrior. "She has amazing regenerative powers. Zeus was her father."
"Zeus? She's half god? Civillus is most fortunate to be alive, then," said Aurelian.
"He is," said Xena, eyes narrowing. "Because if I had gotten to him before..."
"I can imagine his fate," said the general, shuddering.
"No, you can't - you have too much honour to imagine that," said Xena, smiling coldly.
Returning to their camp, Xena found Melysë still unconscious. "She hasn't woke up since you left, Xena," said Gabrielle, worried. "Is she going to...what if she doesn't wake up?"
"She will," said Xena. "Right now, though, she needs this rest. Anyway, she's not in pain while she's out like this. Come on, let's get these women settled. I've spoken with Aurelian. We're safe here for now and we all need to get some sleep."
Xena stretched out beside Melysë, wrapping her arms around the priestess, gently so as not to disturb her or jar her injuries. "Oh, 'Lysë, why didn't I get there sooner? Why didn't you just yell so he'd quit beating you?" she whispered. "I know I would've."
"No, you wouldn't." Xena sat up fast at the voice. "Persephone," she said, alarmed. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't worry, Xena," said the goddess, kneeling beside Melysë. "I'm not here to take her. Do I look like Celesta? I just want to help."
"Sorry," said Xena. "I see the Goddess of the Underworld and I guess I just thought..."
"It's alright - anyway, she's not mine to take," said Persephone, rising to her feet. "When the time comes, she'll go the Amazon's Land of the Dead to await her re-birth. So will you and Gabrielle."
"What..what about Solan?" asked Xena.
"Your son?" said Persephone, smiling gently. "Ah, Xena, he's already been reborn - your promise will be kept, though. You will be together - more I cannot tell you."
"Oh," said Xena. "Thank-you."
"Sure," said Persephone, frowning at Melysë. "Why hasn't she healed by now? She's Zeus's own daughter; surely by now..."
"She's not a full goddess," said Xena. "She used her powers to get us here in time to rescue Mhari and Gabrielle and took this beating in a weakened state."
"I see," said Persephone, frowning. "So these injuries were taken in a mortal state - they'll have to heal in mortal time. I'm sorry, Xena."
"She will heal, though?"
"Oh, yes," said the goddess. "But I'm afraid it won't be overnight. Still, as Zeus's daughter, it'll be a bit faster than other mortals. She's going to have a lot of pain though."
"Aw, come on 'Ceph," said Aphrodite, materialising next to her cousin.
"Aphrodite?" said Xena, frowning at the two goddesses.
"Hey, don't forget me," said Ares, popping in with a grin.
"Gods," muttered Xena, as the assembled deities stood discussing and Melysë stirred painfully, whimpering. "Xena," she whispered, opening her eyes.
"Yeah, I'm here," said the warrior.
"What...what happened? Goddess, I feel like...never mind," said Melysë, closing her eyes. "You don't want to know."
"Hey, Little Sister," said Aphrodite, kneeling beside her.
"'Dite? What are you doing here?" said Melysë.
"We just came to help," said Ares, also kneeling.
"And Ares? I must really be in trouble," said the priestess, struggling to sit up.
"No, stay there," said Xena, placing a gentle hand on her uninjured shoulder to hold her down. "You've got a couple of broken ribs."
"That explains a lot, but not why my back is on fire," groaned Melysë. "Damn, I got flogged, didn't I?"
"Yeah," said Ares. "And after we get you better, I'm going to pay that little bastard, Civillus a visit."
"Don't jeopardise..." began Melysë.
"Don't worry," said Ares, grinning. "I won't kill him."
Xena looked at Ares and grinned back. "There are worse things," she said.
"Oh, yeah," said Ares. "Don't you worry, 'Lysë, 'Big Brother' is gonna take care of that bully. But first, Persephone, come on, all together." Persephone sighed and knelt with her cousins. The gods all put their hands on Melysë and they began to glow, Melysë with them. Mhari had arisen and walked slowly toward them. Persephone saw and smiled, beckoning. Mhari, knelt with them, her face transfiguring. Melysë looked up at her, eyes wide. "Mhari?" she said, as she felt her strength returning.
"Hestia," said her former mentor, smiling. "Remember, the Mother of the Gods Chose you for Her very own even before you were born - and it was my honour to be chosen to be your teacher."
"Then you're not really dying?" said Melysë, smiling, and sitting fully up now.
"No, Child," said Hestia, returning her smile. "But I am leaving Ephesus."
"Olympus has room," said Aphrodite, beaming.
"Thank-you, Aphrodite," said Hestia.
"All better now, Cousin?" said Persephone, smiling.
"Yeah," said Melysë, testing her limbs. "Thank-you - all of you."
"Ah, that's okay," said Ares. "Gotta go - got a senator to...um, 'talk' to." He blinked out of sight.
"We'd better go with him," said Aphrodite, grinning wickedly. "You know, like, to keep him out of trouble?" She, too disappeared.
"Yeah - keep him out of trouble," said Persephone, rolling her eyes as she faded.
Hestia shook her head, smiling sadly. "I cannot, in good conscience, join them," she said. "But I, too, must leave you now. Be well, my children." With that, Hestia also disappeared.
"Xena, are you alright?" asked Melysë, looking at her bemused warrior.
"Yeah, I'm great," she said, chuckling. "You're well again - that's all I needed."
"Xena," said Melysë, troubled.
"What you asked me - right before Persephone showed up?"
"You heard that?"
"Yeah," sighed Melysë. "I didn't scream because I didn't want Civillus to stop."
"What?!" said Xena.
"What he had planned for after," said Melysë, looking down, tears forming in her eyes. "It would have been worse than the beating. I was hoping he'd kill me before that could happen."
"I was coming for you," said Xena, softly. "I promised you, I would protect you, remember?"
"I do now," said Melysë, shuddering. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, gods, 'Lysë, you have nothing to feel sorry for," said Xena, pulling the priestess close to her, holding her tightly.
"I lost faith," said Melysë, laying her head on Xena's shoulder and returning the embrace. "I should have known you wouldn't just leave me there. But how did you know..."
"I watched the camp," said Xena, playing with Melysë's hair, soothing the priestess. "When I saw them take down Aurelian's standard and then him and his men riding off and you weren't with them, I got worried. I went back to get Gabrielle and by the time we got to the camp, you were already... well, anyway, I had told Gabrielle to create a diversion then come back here and wait with Mhari - well, Hestia, I guess. She loosed the horses and set the camp in chaos and that's when I grabbed you and brought you back here."
"General Aurelian was called away to fight the Goths," said Melysë.
"No, that was ruse by Civillus," said Xena, darkly, then looked into Melyse's dark green eyes and smiled softly. "I guess the vision of you was more than he could handle."
"No, it wasn't me - Civillus wanted to conquer an Amazon," sighed Melysë. "Why are so many like that, Xena? Why can't they just let us be?"
"I don't know, Love," said Xena, still stroking Melyse's dark hair. "Augustus wants a treaty with the Amazons. That's why Aurelian was sent to Ephesus - to escort you to Rome to negotiate a treaty."
"The Amazons will never ally with Rome," said Melysë. "We'd be swallowed by the empire just as so many others have been. But I would be willing to discuss a treaty allowing our independence. It's really up to Laesë, though. She's High Queen of the Amazon Nation."
"Yes, but you are it's High Priestess, the Chosen of the Goddess of the Amazons," said Xena.
"Hm, well, even if I had the authority to negotiate a treaty for the entire Amazons Nation - which I don't - Augustus shouldn't just expect the Amazons to come to him. He should meet us halfway, on equal ground," said Melysë, sleepy again.
"'Lysë, he's the Emperor of Rome," Xena chuckled. "You really expect him to go himself and negotiate a treaty?"
"If he wants one badly enough, yes," said Melysë, her heavy eyes closing. "He may be the Emperor of Rome, but he is not - and never will be, if I can prevent it - the Emperor of the Amazons. No man is - or ever will be. And now that we have the Amulet of Persephone, the Amazon Nation will be safe from Rome and our other enemies."
"That's true," Xena chuckled. "Still, Octavius has always been a good man. He may be willing to meet us halfway."
"Octav - oh, yeah," said Melysë. "You knew him before he was emperor, didn't you, Xena?"
"Yeah, he's one of those 'good' Romans I was telling you about," said Xena.
"Well, if he has your respect and good opinion, then I'll tell Laesë to set up a meeting to negotiate a treaty," said Melysë, yawning.
"Hey, get some sleep," said Xena, gently laying the exhausted Amazon Queen down on the bedroll, and tenderly covering her with a sleeping fur before curling up, protectively beside her to fall into her accustomed light doze, from which she could instantly awaken if the need arose.
Melysë dreamed. She was walking through the streets of Rome, chained as Civillus had chained her, only the chains in her dream were gold. She was not wearing sensible Amazon trousers and tunic, but a filmy gauze-like Greek chiton which bared most of her. She saw the citizens of Rome, lining the streets, cheering at her capture, and her head bent, while tears flowed form her eyes. She found herself brought before Augustus Caesar.
"But Xena said you were good!" she cried to the man, who shook his head, sadly.
"Then you should have made a treaty with me, Amazon," he said. "Rome could have protected you."
"Amazons need no man's protection!" Melysë cried. "I have the Amulet of Persephone."
"Then perhaps you'd better use it," said Augustus, who metamorphosed in Civillus. "We have unfinished business, little Queen."
Melysë would have run, but the gold chains shackled to her ankles tripped her and she fell, screaming.
"Now you scream?" laughed the voice of Civillus, as Melysë felt herself gently shaken.
"'Lysë, wake up," Xena said, watching her writhe in the throes of the nightmare.
With a gasp, Melysë sat up, trembling, and uttered a scream. Xena grabbed her tightly, gently stroking her hair, whispering soothing words to her as Melysë trembled harder, clinging to the warrior, gasping for breath. "Oh Goddess," said Melysë, releasing a long shuddering breath.
"Ssh, I'm here and you're safe now," said Xena, as Melysë leaned against her, still clinging tightly.
"First thing in the morning, I'm taking us all home," said Melysë, weakly. "I don't care what it takes out of me. I need to empower the Amulet. I can't let them get us..."
"No one's going to get you," said Xena, stroking her hair and back soothingly.
"Hey," Gabrielle said, coming over to them. "Everything alright?"
"I'm sorry I woke you," said Melysë.
"No, it's okay," said Gabrielle, smiling sympathetically. "Nightmares - gods, we've all had 'em, huh, Xena?"
"Oh, yeah," said Xena, softly, smiling at her soulmate. "And especially after what you went through today. Gabrielle, can that lot be ready to move at sunrise?"
"Oh, sure - they're used to moving with the army, remember," said the bard. "I take it we'll be home...soon?"
"Yeah," said Melysë. "And if I do anything stupid - like surrendering to Romans - before my powers are regenerated, smack me, okay?"
"Anybody smacks you and - " Xena growled, playfully.
Melysë chuckled. "Thanks, you two," she said. "I may as well get up and get the fire going - I'll not be sleeping again tonight."
"Sunrise isn't that far off anyway," said Gabrielle. "I'll get breakfast and wake up our new sisters."
"They'll be joining the Nation?" said Melysë, smiling delightedly.
"Yeah," said Gabrielle, returning her smile. "You sent them a message - one that a lot of them never expected to hear. Every one of them would follow you to Tartarus and back."
"Follow...me?" said Melysë, surprised. "Why?"
"Because they saw something in you that they want very much to see in themselves," said Xena, playing with the priestess's long, dark tresses. "I'm not proud of it, but in my warlord days, my army had camp followers, too. I never allowed my men to rape the villagers we conquered, but the women who chose to follow my army provided an outlet for their battle-lust. These women didn't dare step in and try to stop Civillus like the Amazons would have - but I believe they wish they could have. That's why they're joining the Nation - to learn how to find that kind of courage and honour in themselves that they saw in you. This is no small thing for these women, 'Lysë. Most of them have spent their lives thinking they had no choices in life but this one. You've shown them otherwise."
"Oh," said Melysë, smiling. "Then it was worth it."
Xena shook her head, smiling, and rose to help Gabrielle scrounge a meagre breakfast out of their travel rations. Melysë got up and began re-starting the fire, but was startled by a scream from the trees. Suddenly, Roman soldiers were everywhere, capturing the women. Melysë ducked a soldier's fist and kicked out, connecting heavily with the offender's solar plexus. The soldier doubled over with a grunt and Melysë shoved him aside, running to the aid of the women from the camp. She saw Xena and Gabrielle fighting with sword and sais and instantly regretted that she herself had no weapon. She saw Xena take a hit and was suddenly enraged. Her totem spirit, denied the day before sprang out and Melysë was seized with the spirit of the Snow Leopard, leaping upon soldiers, fighting with razor sharp claws and fangs, tearing at the Romans. She saw one in particular. The leopard's mind remembered this one as the human who had sought to harm Melysë. With a leap, she was upon Civillus, her hot breath in his face.
"Call them off," she hissed.
The terrified senator wet himself, whimpering, but waved a hand at his platoon leader to call a retreat. The Romans dropped their weapons, surrendering to the women - most of whom had fought bravely and well with whatever they could grab as a weapon. Melysë arose, transforming back to herself, as Ares and Aphrodite appeared behind her. Civillus' eyes widened.
"Hey, thanks, Sis'," said Ares, grinning. "Been lookin' for you, Civillus."
"M-Me?" stuttered the senator, terrified.
"Yeah, we got a few things to, you know, discuss," said Aphrodite, arms folded across her chest. "Like, you know, your preference for whips and chains? Now, while I am totally open to new experiences, even I am, like, really disgusted with you."
"You see, Civ' - may I call you that?" said Ares, grabbing the senator's ear and yanking him to his feet, still grinning. "Anyway, Civ', Melysë is our sister. And you know how it is - big brothers have to take care of their little sisters. Big sisters, too, right, 'Dite?"
"For sure," said Aphrodite.
"D-dite - Aphrodite?" gasped the Senator. "As in Venus, goddess of love? That Amazon is your sister?"
"And Ares', too," said the goddess, smirking.
"Ares - Mars? Oh gods - Jupiter! Save me!" cried Civillus.
"If you mean Zeus, he's not in a position to save anyone anymore," said Ares, darkly. "But even if he were, I can guarantee you wouldn't be on his list - he's 'that Amazon's' father."
"Oh, gods, what have I done?" cried Civillus.
"You've pissed me off, for one thing," growled Ares. "It's not enough to beat my sister with a whip, but you've got to lead me on a chase to find you - and where do I find you? Attacking my sister - again. I don't think I need to tell you how disappointed I am, Civ'."
"Wh-what are you going to do?" whimpered the senator.
Ares chuckled darkly and disappeared with Civillus.
"And as for you guys," said Aphrodite, pointing to the kneeling soldiers. "Get out of here - go on back to your camp and turn yourselves into the General for your punishment - otherwise, I'll zap you all with an 'ugly spell' - even your mothers won't want to look at you." The goddess grinned as the soldiers got hastily to their feet and ran. Melysë hugged her.
"Thank-you," she said.
"Are you kidding?" said Aphrodite. "I haven't had that much fun in a long time. By the way, I have something for you." She gently kissed Melysë on the forehead. "That's from Hekate. You won't be wiped out from using your powers from now on. I'm gonna go watch Ares give Civillus a taste of his own medicine now. Don't worry - he won't remember much of it - but he will have a healthy respect for the Amazons when Are's done with him." The goddess twinkled away, giggling.
Melysë blinked. She didn't feel any different, but knew, instinctively that her power had increased. She called the women over to her and bade them take each other's hands. She clasped Xena's hand on one side and Gabrielle's on the other. The women, standing in a circle, suddenly found themselves in Aemetzainê.
The Amazons came running, greeting their queen ecstatically. Arynë and Selenë leaped into their mother's arms, then Xena's and then Gabrielle's each in turn before returning to cling to their mother. Cyrenê came up, smiling, handing Neiromei to Melysë.
"Everything go alright?" she asked Xena, quietly.
"Yeah, everything's great," said Xena, hugging her mother.
The Amazons greeted their anxious new sisters, taking them to get them settled as Melysë, walking with her girls on either side of her, smiled.
"It's good to be home," she said, hugging them close to her.
"Well, don't get too comfortable," said Cyrenê.
"What do you mean?" said Xena, suspiciously.
"The Amazons have received word from the leader of the centaurs - there's trouble," replied Cyrenê, frowning.
"What else is new?" groaned Gabrielle.
"It concerns your daughter," said Cyrenê, looking at Gabrielle.
"What!" cried Gabrielle. "What do you mean? Which daughter?"
"Ephiny," said Cyrenê, with a sigh. "Seems she's picked a fight with the Centaur Nation."
(To be continued in Part IX: "The Centaurs' Tale")