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"Are you Philana?"
Gabrielle stood in the entrance of the healer’s hut. A small, stocky woman with close-cropped brown curls looked up at the sound of her voice, startled. Upon seeing who addressed her, the woman dropped down in a bow. Gabrielle bit the inside of her cheek in irritation.
Gods help me, the next person who does that I will smack upside the head.
"Please get up." Gabrielle said through a smile that hurt. "I would really prefer you talk to my face and not my feet."
The woman peeked up at her curiously. "Of course, my queen. I didn’t mean to displease you —"
Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. Don’t scream. "Are you Philana, the healer?" she repeated, knowing it sounded terse and ashamed that she didn’t care.
"Philana?" She seemed surprised, and a little amused. "Oh, no, my — Queen Gabrielle. My name is Vikis. I’m Philana’s apprentice. I’ll tell Philana you’d like to see her."
Not, "I’ll get her for you," Gabrielle noticed as Vikis went into the next room. Interesting.
A few moments later Vikis returned, followed by another woman, and Gabrielle understood the sudden change in demeanor. She felt as if she should bow to the regal figure who approached her.
Philana looked more like a queen than any royalty Gabrielle had ever laid eyes on. Her form wasn’t tall, but her air was, giving the impression that this small woman towered over those around her. Her hair was shining white, but Gabrielle couldn’t judge her age. She could have been forty...or sixty. Her pale grey eyes were alight with wisdom and quiet power. Philana wore no armor; instead she’d clothed herself in a doeskin shift, covered by a soft brown and gold robe. Beads of smooth wood and bone adorned the robe, clacking together softly. The slender arms emerging from the wide sleeves of the robe were tattooed in an intricate pattern of blue and green ivy vines that started practically at the beds of her fingernails and traveled up at least past the woman’s elbows. Gabrielle had a glimpse of more ivy across Philana’s collarbone and realized the woman must be tattooed over almost her whole body. She’d braided more beads into her hair, along with the symbolic feathers of several birds: the banded brown of the hawk for strength, the iridescent black of the crow for knowledge, and the pure white of the dove for mercy.
"So you are the child queen." Philana said. It was only when Philana spoke that Gabrielle realized the woman was indeed quite old. Not for any weakness or tremor, but an eloquence that only came with many long years of life.
"Yes ma’am." Gabrielle replied, and it didn’t seem in the least ridiculous that the Amazon queen address this woman in such a way.
"What brings you to my door, wee queen?"
"I wanted to ask you about Yasmina. I wanted to know if she’s any better." Gabrielle found herself wanting to fidget under that unwavering silver gaze.
"No better, no worse. I shouldn’t want to predict when that might change."
"Ephiny told me you think she will live, though?"
"I told Ephiny that Yasmina would not die of her injuries."
Gabrielle blinked. "Well, that’s good then, right?" she pressed.
A frown creased the healer’s brow. "Some will say so."
"I don’t understand."
Philana paused, then stepped back towards the door she’d just entered through, extending a hand to Gabrielle. "You will. Come with me."
Gabrielle followed, unresisting when the healer took her arm and led her through the door. The room they entered was a bed chamber of sorts. The floor was completely hidden beneath numerous animal furs. A skylight in the roof was open to allow the circulation of fresh air, but the windows were all shaded with hides. There were four beds, all low to the ground, equipped with posts and curtains that could be drawn for privacy but were for now tied back. Only one bed was occupied, and that occupant didn’t seem concerned about privacy.
Yasmina lay on her back. She wasn’t asleep, but something in those vacant eyes said she wasn’t awake in the conventional sense, either. If her chest hadn’t been rising and falling as she breathed, Gabrielle would have thought her dead.
Philana knelt by the bed and touched Yasmina’s shoulder. "Yasmina, look at me."
The injured woman didn’t so much as blink.
Philana looked at Gabrielle grimly. "Now do you understand? Her mind is gone."
Gabrielle leaned over and passed her hand back and forth before Yasmina’s eyes. Nothing.
"She hasn’t responded to anything since she was brought in. Not voices, not pain...nothing."
"But Ephiny said she told you what happened to her." Gabrielle protested.
"She was ranting, and we pieced it together. She didn’t answer any questions. I don’t think she even knew we were there."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels, hands clasped tensely in her lap. "So you don’t think she’ll be able to tell us anything more about what happened?"
"I wouldn’t hope for it." Philana reached out and stroked Yasmina’s long hair. "She’s a dead woman, Queen Gabrielle. Only the gods know if she’ll live again."
"Nothing?" Xena asked, distraught.
"There’s no way. We’re not going to learn anything else from her." Gabrielle sighed. "Poor woman. I don’t know what she saw out there to do this to her, but I’m sure not looking forward to finding out."
Xena put her hand against Gabrielle’s back. The younger woman’s head had fallen forward, her gold hair hiding her face.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" Xena asked gently.
Gabrielle pushed her hair back and looked up at her friend. "I’m scared, Xena. I’m scared for all of us."
"We’ll be okay, Gabrielle. You have to believe that. Velaska is strong and ruthless, yes, but she’s one person. We can beat her."
"I hope you’re right.
"Well," Autolycus broke in, "aren’t you two just the picture of jubilance." He flopped down on the bed behind Gabrielle. "More good news, no doubt."
"Yasmina’s not going to be able to tell us anything more." Xena informed him.
The thief’s face fell. "Is she dead?"
"No, she’s catatonic." Gabrielle said, adding dryly, "Next best thing."
"So we’re back to the sitting duck plan?"
"I prefer to look at it as not running blindly to our deaths." Xena shot back.
Autolycus shrugged. "Whatever tickles your fancy."
"Dara’s funeral will begin at sundown." Gabrielle said absently.
"A party one night and a funeral the next." Autolycus mused, shaking his head. "Where am I supposed to be tonight?"
"I was thinking in a tree." Xena told him.
Xena smiled. "I mean I want you on watch tonight, along with myself and several others, chosen personally by Ephiny. The whole village is going to be gathered for the funeral tonight. The only exceptions will be those of us on lookout duty, and the healer women, who have to stay with Yasmina."
"And of course Yasmina herself." Autolycus interrupted. "Though I suppose that...goes without saying since...she’s a...vegetable." Xena and Gabrielle stared at him, and Autolycus cleared his throat and studied his feet intently.
"As I was saying," Xena continued, "excluding those people, no one has any reason not to be at the funeral."
"Unless they’re up to something," Autolycus caught on, snapping his fingers.
"Exactly. I’m going to be on the move through the village, keeping an eye out. I want you watching the square tonight, Autolycus, to see if anyone leaves."
"And if they do?"
"Let them. Follow, but not alone, and not close."
"What if nobody seems suspicious?" Gabrielle ventured.
"Then we’ll have to play this differently. Don’t worry about that right now." Xena urged. "We’re fighting chaos, remember. We take it one step at a time and we stay flexible. That’s the only way to win."
"Delta, it’s time to go to the square."
Delta glanced up at Iris. "I have to finish washing up. I’ll be along shortly."
Iris steeled herself for another battle with the girl, then decided she didn’t have the energy. "You’d better be." she said firmly, and left it at that.
Delta watched as Iris left, bristling. "Bossy cow," she muttered, then bit her lip. She owed Iris a lot, she knew, even if she didn’t like the woman much. Iris was her mother’s cousin; Delta’s only blood relative since her mother had died and her older sister had left the Amazons. Delta would have been cared for by the other women regardless, but Iris had felt a duty to bring the girl into her home.
Delta scowled now, thinking about it. Duty, not any kind of affection. And it had been evident from the start.
She knew she’d been a disappointment to Iris. For a warrior as fine as her cousin to raise someone so incompetent...
But Delta had the chance now to prove herself. To finally make her cousin see that she was an Amazon. Iris had stood by Velaska once, and supported her claim to the mask of the queen. "Terreis was a good soul," Delta remembered Iris saying, "and I’m sure she had the best of intentions. But Gabrielle is a girl, an outsider, and a weak stomach. She should be made welcome in the Amazon Nation, of course, but not set on its throne."
Delta had never understood why Iris seemed so changed after that. She knew Iris had been one of the warriors to accompany Velaska in the arrest of Gabrielle when she turned traitor, but when she came back, she was like a different person. She’d packed Delta up, and they’d left the village for nearly a fortnight. When Delta had asked what had happened to Velaska, Iris had gotten a strange look on her face and said Velaska was dead. Then she told Delta never to speak Velaska’s name in her presence again. Delta had assumed Iris was mourning the loss of her leader, so she respected the woman’s wishes.
They’d returned to the village eventually to find Gabrielle gone and Ephiny ruling as regent. Iris had spoken privately with Ephiny about what had happened, and she appeared shaken to Delta when she came home. She’d told delta what had occurred while they were gone.
"Then Velaska’s alive!" delta had cried.
Iris had turned cold eyes on her young ward. "Velaska is dead, Delta. Do you understand? She is dead. Do not speak of her again."
Confused, Delta had obeyed. But now, she would show Iris how wrong she’d been. She’d give the Amazons a true leader.
Granted, some of Velaska’s methods scared her. But as Velaska herself had said, a handful of powerful examples at the start would spare trouble down the line.
Delta had carried out the tasks Velaska had given her for that morning with distaste, but obedience. She failed to understand what Velaska hoped to accomplish with a prank message and a slaughtered horse, but Velaska had been adamant. Delta rationalized that Velaska sought to drive the man out of their land.
"Will it scare him off, do you think?" she’d asked.
Velaska had just smiled, an odd smile that made Delta uncomfortable. "Oh, I hope not."
As for her other errand...Delta had feared she’d faint dead away as she was stringing Dara’s corpse up, but she did it. An example, after all. She’d been appalled when she learned Velaska had killed six Amazons, but then the woman had explained herself.
"They attacked me! Ephiny and Gabrielle gave them orders to kill me on sight! I had to defend myself, Delta."
She had spared one warrior, to deliver a message to Gabrielle. And Dara would serve her purpose as well, even in death.
"I want them to understand what Gabrielle’s reign will bring them to if it continues." Velaska had cupped Delta’s face between her hands. "I know how horrible this must seem to you now, Delta. This is a heavy burden for one so young. But I know you want what’s best for our nation, just as I do. Have faith. Everything will work out as it should."
Delta had looked up into Velaska’s eyes and seen nothing but sincerity there.
"I want to help you, my queen. I’ll do whatever is needed."
"Philana, why don’t you go to the ceremony?" Vikis suggested.
The healer woman looked up from her work, and Vikis continued.
"Yasmina’s resting. I can handle it by myself here for a while. I know it would make you feel better to go."
Philana pushed a lock of silver hair out of her eyes. "Thank you, Vikis, but I shouldn’t leave."
"We’ll be fine, Philana, really. I know you and Itoe are close. You should go."
Philana mulled it over, then nodded. "She will need her friends about her tonight."
Vikis smiled, knowing the decision had been gnawing at Philana for some time.
Four Amazons carried the shrouded, flower-strewn sling between them, settled it on the waiting pyre, then fell back.
Itoe stood holding a torch, her face hard and blank. As the attendants moved back, she stepped forward, bowing her head briefly.
"Artemis grant you a good journey." Itoe bid softly.
She dipped the torch into the dry wood of the pyre. The flames spread swiftly, engulfing Dara’s covered body.
"Be released, my sister."
Itoe moved away, and a group of Amazons encircled the pyre, beginning the motions of a funeral dance. Itoe’s eyes burned as she faced Ephiny and Gabrielle.
"I want atonement for this." she said hoarsely. "She was butchered like an animal; denied the dignity of a warrior’s death. I want atonement."
"You’ll have it, Itoe." Gabrielle assured her. "But for now, take this time to say goodbye."
Itoe squared her shoulders and turned to watch her sister’s pyre burn.
Alexis watched her mother tearfully from a little way off. She turned when she felt a hand touch her arm.
Delta stood there, her green eyes sorrowful. "I..." she began, swallowing hard. "I’m sorry about your aunt."
Alexis hesitated, caught off-guard. "Thank you." she said finally, before moving off to join Itoe.
Delta watched her go, then slipped back into the crowd of mourners.
Autolycus took a long drink from his waterskin, shifting his weight. He’d been perched in a tree on the edge of the village, watching the funeral proceedings from afar. He was an obvious watch choice for several reasons: he knew how to remain unseen, he had an eye for trouble, and Xena trusted him. Ephiny didn’t, and she’d made no bones about it, but Xena had been unwilling to argue. Also, he was male, and wouldn’t be expected or missed — or, he suspected, welcome — at the ceremony.
So he sat, and he watched, and every shifting shadow and rustling leaf sent his imagination reeling. He wasn’t sure if was sweating more from the oppressive heat or his own edgy nerves. Since he’d taken his post, however, the most eventful thing his watch had revealed was the ceremonial dancers. He made a mental note to leave behind a request for this kind of funeral when he died.
He shifted again, uncomfortably. Not only was the heat the worst it had been since this thrice-damned wild goose chase began, but Autolycus thought he could detect a strange smell in the air. Almost acidic. He would have attributed it to the funeral pyre, except he’d noticed it before the pyre had been lit.
He remembered the dead lake with its sulfurous stench, and swiped a sleeve across his brow.
Too damned hot.
Faint movement shuddered the tree beneath him, and Autolycus glanced down sharply. A hand shot up and gripped the toe of his boot tightly.
"Oh, sorry." The hand relocated from his boot to the branch he stood on, and a moment later Xena’s head popped up.
Autolycus groaned, sagging. "You couldn’t have made a little noise on your way up?"
"We don’t want people to notice us, remember?" Xena reminded him as she climbed up beside him.
"Don’t you think it would have attracted attention if I’d had a heart attack and fallen out of the tree?"
"Only if you smacked into a lot of branches on the way down." Xena grinned. "Afraid the bogeyman was coming to get you?"
"No, I was afraid some lunatic slit the bogeyman’s throat and she was coming to get me."
Xena surveyed the square. "Tell me what you’ve seen."
"Other than the remarkable flexibility of those dancers, nothing worth reporting."
"Nobody leaving? Arriving late?"
"They all sort of wandered in at different paces beforehand. Everyone who showed up was here before Gabrielle came out. No one’s left yet, and no one’s passed by me out here except Solari or one of the other sentries." Autolycus shook his head. "Not a damn thing. What’ve you turned up?"
"The same. Nothing."
Vikis hummed absently to herself as she checked the dressings on Yasmina’s wounds. After satisfying herself that Yasmina’s physical condition was stable, she drew the coverlet back over the woman and turned her attention to the tasks of trimming bandages and grinding herbs. She settled herself at Philana’s worktable, taking the time to light a candle against the deepening gloom.
Behind her, Yasmina’s eyes drifted open, gazing blankly at nothing. They rolled, unseeing, around the room, sweeping the Amazon’s surroundings without purpose, and finally came to rest on the burning candle.
Those eyes blinked, once, twice, then closed as Yasmina drew a harsh breath. They opened again, and the widely dilated pupils constricted, becoming two tiny, focused points of black surrounded by pale blue-white.
Autolycus drummed his fingers on the tree. "Maybe she’s not planning anything for tonight." he suggested. "You said before, when she first became a goddess, that her power came and went in spurts. Maybe she’s gathering her strength."
Xena shook her head. "Yeah, but by the time we imprisoned her the weak spells were passing."
"Still, she’s been locked up for a long time. Maybe it had some lasting effects on her. Set her back a bit."
Xena doubted it, but she couldn’t rule out the possibility. She couldn’t rule out any possibilities. That was the problem.
Vikis sighed wearily, rolling the kinks out of her neck. "There’s that done." she muttered, setting aside the stack of neatly folded bandages and the small blade she’d used to trim them. She set the mortar and pestle in front of her and reached for a bundle of small, dried leaves.
Yasmina’s eyes moved from Vikis’ back to the knife the healer had just put down, and she pushed away her covers.
"Thanks." Xena said, handing the waterskin back to Autolycus.
"Don’t mention it." Autolycus crossed his arms. "This is boring."
"I wouldn’t wish too hard for excitement if I were you."
"I suppose you’re right."
They watched the activity in the square for a little while, then Xena rose from her perch.
"I’m going to make my rounds again." she said. "There’s nothing happening here."
Autolycus opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and shut his mouth, smirking.
"Don’t start." Xena said in warning as she climbed down.
"You have no idea what I was going to say."
"I know exactly what you were going to say."
"If that were true, you’d have hit me already."
Xena glared up at him. "Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open." she advised.
Autolycus watched her disappear into the shadows. "She loves me."
Movement in her peripheral vision brought Vikis leaping to her feet, battle-ready. Her defensive stance faltered when she saw who stood behind her.
"Yasmina?" she gasped, disbelieving.
The battered Amazon said nothing. She just stared. The knife in her hand twitched.
Vikis noticed the blade for the first time. "Yasmina, what are you —"
The words were cut off as Yasmina barreled into Vikis, sending both of them crashing down into the table. Vikis felt the knife slash across her face several times before she ever had the chance to defend herself. She twisted her face away, managing to get an arm up to protect her throat, but she couldn’t break free of Yasmina’s grip. Blood ran into her eyes, blinding her.
"Yasmina, stop!" she cried desperately.
An eerie, low wailing started up from the other woman, and she continued her attack, deaf to Vikis’ cries.
"Stop it!" Vikis screamed, kicking at Yasmina hard enough to send her flying back. Yasmina scrambled up on hands and knees, crawling after her opponent, wailing all the while.
Vikis kicked and punched blindly, screaming. She felt some of the blows make contact, but couldn’t tell how much good they were doing. A wave of heat and smoke assaulted her, and in terror she remembered the candle. She wiped furiously at her eyes, trying to clear them, and saw Yasmina get to her feet. Those strange, pale eyes stared down at her.
Then, abruptly, they flooded with color, and Yasmina seemed to shake herself. The fire climbing up the wall of the hut captured her attention, and Yasmina’s wailing gave way to screaming; the crazed, horrible sounds of a wounded animal.
As Vikis watched, terrified, Yasmina took the knife to her own body, hacking madly at wrist and arm, sending a rain of scarlet droplets across the floor. Two voices clashed for dominance as they screamed, until one faded away into silence, and the other carried on, unbroken, into the night.
To be continued...
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