David was still pacing when the Shamaness materialized from within the cave. He looked at her with eyes full of desperate hope.
The Shamaness, an old haggard woman dressed in animal skins and covered in various Amazon holy symbols, merely gave him an understanding motherly smile and shook her head sympathetically.
"I have given her a simple tonic," she said quietly. "To promote healing sleep. Her body will recover, but that was all I could do. The child was gone before she was brought into this place."
She gave him a gentle nod and departed.
David's eyes filled with fresh tears as he moved past the old woman and ran down the corridor to the queens' chamber. He found her lying unconscious in the bed and brushed a few stray locks of Gabrielle's hair out of her eyes as he studied her face.
The quiet tears overcame him again as he stared down at her. "Did you even know?"
A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up to see Queen Alia staring down at him intently.
"If you are agreed to this," she said, her voice strangely strained. "Then it must be done now. I cannot hold the madness back much longer."
David's eyes flashed bitter anger for a moment and then he saw something in the Queen's face that made him stop.
She was before him, not as a person, but as a ruler, desperate to protect her people – Gabrielle's people.
Wearily, David nodded. He took one long look at Gabrielle and kissed her gently on the forehead. Then he followed the queen from her bedside and vanished into the inner chamber.
David had the Queen sit herself cross-legged, on a large cushion. He then assumed a similar posture directly in front of her.
"Ready?" David asked, holding his hands out to her.
Her eyes flashed with paranoid fear for a moment. David saw as she fought the irrational feeling back down and took a long shuddering breath. She closed her eyes for a moment, then fixed them back on him.
"Let's do it," she said.
To hear his own words, his own inflections from this person made the hair on David's neck stand up.
He shook his head and took the Queen's hands. "Just relax."
Outside the entrance of the cave, Ariadne nervously approached the entrance to the cave, pausing every now and then as her courage wavered.
She had unwittingly become the queens door warden, since four of the five bodyguards were dead and the fifth had fled in terror at Trudis's mad attack.
Now she desperately wanted to know what was happening within the confines of Alia's underground palace.
The old Shamaness, Magda, sat nearby, still organizing her things. She nodded in greetings to the young Amazon woman and smiled in motherly fashion.
"What happened in there?" Ariadne blurted out.
Magda looked back and then smiled. "Go and see for yourself," she said. "But do not disturb them."
Ariadne needed no further urging. She took up a torch and strode confidently into the darkness beyond.
When she reached the Queens inner bedchamber, she stopped at the door and looked within. Gabrielle lay on her side, deep in sleep, wrapped gently in several warm blankets.
The queen and that strange man were no where to be seen.
She took a step into the room, and paused, her eyes looking around as if she were afraid she might be caught. Then she stepped back and began hovering at this entrance, just like she had at the other.
With a sigh, she crossed her arms and leaned back against the edge of the doorway, waiting.
Several hours later, the Queen emerged, followed by an extremely haggard and weary David.
They both saw Ariadne standing at the doorway, had a quiet conversation, and then David went and sat next to Gabrielle, his hand gently touching her cheek. There was an air of infinite sadness emanating from him, and the emotion in his eyes when he glanced at her, made Ariadne's heart hurt.
"Ariadne," Queen Alia said quietly. "Would you come with me?"
The queen gestured with another hand towards a second open doorway. Nervously, the young Amazon followed the queen into her private inner sanctum.
This was the one place that only the Queen would go. No other was ever permitted there, except the Queens chief advisor.
Ariadne stepped into the lavishly appointed cavern and stood fidgeting nervously.
Alia seated herself on a small wooden chair and put her fingers to her temples.
"Come in and sit down," she offered the young woman.
"Highness," Ariadne answered dutifully. "I dare not."
"Get in here and park it," Alia said more sharply, and the effort made her wince.
Quickly, Ariadne stepped in and seated herself across from the queen.
"What can I do to serve you, My Queen?" she asked.
Alia raised a hand, and her voice died.
"Not so loud, if you don't mind," the Queen moaned. "I've got the mother of all hangovers."
Alia looked up at the young woman and saw the frown of confusion on her young face. She smiled. "If you don't know, I hope you never find out."
Ariadne looked at the queen with concern. Her voice, mannerisms, even the words she was using were all different. She studied her sovereign closely.
Alia saw this and nodded. "It's a long story."
"The man?" Ariadne asked, suddenly uncertain about this stranger.
"Yes," Alia said. "And no."
When Ariadne shook her had, not understanding. The queen held her hand up again, begging patience.
"It's going to take a little time for me to get my head together," she said wearily. "In the mean time, I'm going to rely on you for a while."
The young Amazon's eyes went wide in surprise.
"I want you to gather all the Amazons together. Tell them to begin packing their belongings. In the morning, we will be returning to our original village, where we belong. When you've completed that task, return to me at once. I have some things I wish to discuss with you, understood? We have much to do and a very short amount of time to do them in."
Ariadne nodded and rose, still in shock. "You mean that I-?" the question died on her lips.
"For now," Alia nodded. "When you return, we'll talk about the future."
Ariadne bowed and stepped back.
"One more thing," Alia said. "Leave David with his wife. They should not be disturbed for any reason."
"As you wish," Ariadne bowed again, placing her right hand over her heart in salute.
As she passed through the bedchamber, she saw David, his head on the bed next to Gabrielle. He was also asleep. His hand still stretched out to hers, the fingers barely touching. She paused and looked at them. Something warm and soothing settled over her heart, like a blanket, and she smiled. Then she departed quietly.
David felt gentle fingers curl around his hand as he slept. He hadn't even realized that he had fallen asleep. His eyes opened and he raised his shaggy head to look into the drowsy eyes of his wife. She looked at him and smiled.
"Hey," David said gently. "How you feeling?"
Gabrielle managed a weak shrug. When she spoke, her voice was thick from drowsiness.
"Sore, stiff, and tired," she replied.
David smiled in relief and his other hand brushed some of her hair out of her eyes.
"You had me worried for a while there," he stammered, as if he were at a loss for words.
Gabrielle looked at him. "What happened in the circle? What happened to Trudis?"
David's relieved smile faded a bit. "I'm sorry, baby," he confessed. "She's dead."
Queen Alia stepped around the hanging curtain, followed by a young, still mildly shocked Ariadne.
The Queen smiled gently.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked. "I know I didn't win the trial. I couldn't. I was in too much pain to fight well enough?"
She looked back at David.
He opened his mouth to say something in return, but Alia spoke first.
"The trial is over with," Alia said quickly. "And I owe you a huge apology."
Ariadne spoke up.
"We discovered that someone had actually tried poison you. In the course of the trial, Trudis revealed herself, and her plot for revenge against you."
Alia continued. "Once Trudis had confessed to poisoning you, I tried to stop the trial. She went mad and attacked you while the toxin had rendered you unable to defend yourself." She looked first at Ariadne, and then at David.
"My new Chief Advisor, here, managed to sneak David's sword to him, and he was able to protect you."
David looked up in surprise at this version of events. His eyes bounced between Alia and Ariadne.
"When we saw David spare Trudis's life, twice in that exchange," Alia went on. "I realized that he hadn't arbitrarily killed Yania. I ordered Trudis taken away, but she broke her bonds, killed the guards and attacked a third time. Your husband had no choice but to protect your life."
Gabrielle squeezed David's hand in reassurance.
"Gabrielle," Alia said quietly. "May I borrow your husband for a moment? There is something I need to discuss with him."
David kissed her gently on the cheek. "Rest. I'll be right back."
Still completely confused, David followed the Queen out of the chamber and into her private rooms.
"What in the hell are you doing?" he asked, mildly ruffled.
Alia turned and held up her hand. "Just relax, hotshot," She said. The familiar words and inflections sent a chill of uneasiness up David's spine.
David folded his arms and waited as Alia peeked out through the doorway. Ariadne was busy tending to Gabrielle.
"Okay," Alia said. "Here's the deal." She turned and stepped over before him.
"Magda seems to think that Gabrielle didn't even know she was pregnant."
David's expression changed from one of indignant impatience to mild disbelief.
"Didn't know? What do you mean she didn't know? How could she not know?"
Alia raised a hand to quiet his rising voice.
"Will you keep it down, for crying out loud," she hissed at him. She glanced back out through the doorway and then sighed.
"I wouldn't know, but you might," She continued. "Was she acting strangely before the raid on Tripolis?"
David forced his mind to focus on remembering. He ran through just about everything since their wedding and examined all of it carefully. Had she been more tired than usual? Less tired? Hungrier than usual? Less hungry? Moody? Other things? In the end, he had to slowly shake his head.
"Not that I can recall," he finally admitted. "And she never mentioned anything?"
"That's my point." Alia replied. She looked at him sympathetically. "Look, I know that she was. Magda knows it. You know it, and Ariadne knows about it now, as well everyone at the trial who has brain one in their heads. The point is: Gabrielle doesn't know it! She's in pain, now. She's weak and vulnerable. If she were to also learn that she had lost her child – your child? I just don't think we need to tell her about it right now. Later, if you think it's for the best, then fine. That'll be between the two of you. You can do it when you feel the time is right, when you're alone and have the time to deal with it properly. If you don't agree, then fine, you can tell her here and now, in private, and no one here in this village will mess with you. Okay?"
David had to admit it. In a twisted way, the Queen had a point. Better to let her know when she was stronger and better able to cope with it. He finally nodded.
"Okay, fine," he said. He turned back to the doorway and then paused. "On one condition."
Alia's eyebrows rose questioningly.
David sighed. "Try not to sound so much like me when you talk. It's kind of creepy, you know what I mean?"
Alia began to grin in a disconcertingly familiar way. "You think it's creepy? Think about it from my side of the tracks. I've got everything that you plugged into me, including a lot of your attitudes and vocabulary, among other things, all in a woman's body. You have any idea what that feels like?"
David looked back at her and his own smile began to twitch at the corners of his mouth.
"I won't go there," he said.
"Bright boy," Alia countered.
The two of them emerged and David crossed over to Gabrielle's bedside.
Ariadne looked up at Alia, who gave her a quick, subtle shake of the head.
"I'll bring some food for you," she offered. She withdrew after Alia gave her an affirming nod.
David knelt down beside Gabrielle again and took her hand.
"After you two have eaten and you're feeling better," the last part was directed at Gabrielle. "I'm going to need something from you two."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, slowly turning to look at her.
"Later, hot stuff," Alia said, then she caught herself.
Gabrielle frowned up at her, and then she looked at David and back at the Queen.
Alia smiled in embarrassment and backed away a few paces.
"Long story," she said. "I'll let your old man explain things. I'm going to go and sort a few things out." She turned and strode out of the chamber, towards the outside. Before she was completely out of earshot, they both heard her say quietly.
"I really got to watch how I talk to the girls around here. Jesus!"
Gabrielle looked back at David, and in spite of her weariness, she managed to give him the look.
"David," she said. "Just explain one thing to me?"
"Anything," David agreed. He was having trouble coming up with something else to talk about.
"What exactly have you done to Queen Alia?"
"Oh," David replied sounding like a small boy that had been caught in mischief. "That. Um, well, it's kind of complicated."
Gabrielle's expression changed to that beautiful all knowing look. She smiled softly.
"Make it uncomplicated," she said.
David took a deep breath, framing his words.
"Okay," he said slowly. "Throughout history, people have always treated those few with extraordinary abilities as seers, healers, advisors, you follow?"
"For a very select few with even more extraordinary abilities, people sometimes forced their needs upon the individuals and hampered their normal growth. Alia is – was – one such individual."
David sighed, his explanation was becoming complex, and he could see the impatience in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Okay," David began again. "Alia is – was – what we called a psychic dependant. She needed the mental strength and energy to function properly. She ended up latching onto the few Amazons that found her, and began leeching the experiences and psyche's of those people. You follow?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Barely."
David waved his hands back and forth, as if wiping a slate clean.
"Okay, okay," He said, his own frustration beginning to take hold. "Take three: Alia, as a person is the equivalent of someone about nine years old – or she was."
"But she seemed more than capable of ruling the amazons here when we first met?" Gabrielle countered.
"Yes," David agreed. "But that was because she was leeching her strength and knowledge from another person. Trudis."
"Trudis?" Gabrielle asked.
"Somehow, your old friend discovered what she really was. She managed to control Alia and twisted her into something she could manipulate. Possibly, Trudis was somewhat psychic as well, and knew how to give the puppet Queen just enough to get what she wanted. Under Trudis's influence, Alia began a systematic series of raids on the towns surrounding the ancient borders. They took whatever they needed. Food, weapons, supplies, and people."
"People?" Gabrielle asked.
David nodded soberly. "They were able to increase their numbers quickly over the last few years by abducting young women from the villages and training them in the Amazon way – well, as much as Trudis understood it anyway."
"What?" Gabrielle began to stir as her outrage started to build.
"Take it easy, now," David said, gently restraining her. "That part's being handled as we speak."
"How do you know that?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's what I would do," David replied and his smile began to spread across his face. "And thus, it will probably be what Alia does."
"Alia needed to leech the strength and experience to maintain her control over the Amazons," David explained. "But since she was taking it a little at a time, without the individual's knowledge, or permission, the effects were only temporary. It was like getting a fix of a drug. You got the high for a while, but you always needed more. I gave her something quite a bit more permanent."
Gabrielle's momentary outrage was redirected at David. "Gave her what?"
David sighed and reluctantly tapped his temple. "The first time, she tried to take it from me by force, so I gave her everything negative and nasty I could recall. Most of it was completely incomprehensible to someone who's never had the benefit of modern entertainment and my "history". It drove her partially insane, but it also broke Trudis's hold on her."
Gabrielle's eyes were widening.
"With her hold broken, Trudis had to push up her timetable. If Alia became uncontrollable, then Trudis was ready to declare Alia unworthy and usurp the throne. Unfortunately, we showed up and she had to switch her focus on getting rid of you. I think she knew you would be able to present a legitimate challenge to her claim if you were still alive. After that whole fiasco, Alia asked me to finish what I started. So, I did."
"Did what?" Gabrielle persisted. "David. I love you. But if you don't give me a straight answer, I'm going to kill you."
David tapped his temple again. "I gave her the rest of it. The rest of me – or, my knowledge and experience. I gave her a copy of it all."
"All of what?"
"He loaded my head with his brains," Alia said as she stepped back into the chamber.
"Thank you Jesus," David muttered quietly.
Gabrielle turned over and saw the Queen, leaning casually, and most uncharacteristically against one of the four posts, her arms crossed over her chest.
Gabrielle looked back and forth at the two of them. They were two completely different people, and yet, they were acting eerily similar.
David's mischievous smile crawled across the delicate features of the Queen.
"Pretty wild, huh?" Her narrow eyebrows bounced once.
Gabrielle looked in horror at David. Alia seemed to sense the anxiety and pushed herself off the post.
"Oh, don't worry," she said quickly, seating herself at the foot of the bed. She tapped her temple in a mirror image of David's earlier action. "I'm still me, in here. I just have a lot more than I've ever had before. It's going to take a while for me to balance everything out." She smiled, looking at David. "Though, I must admit that I like some of the ideas that your husband has, especially in matters of love."
"Ah, man," David moaned. "Lady, you promised."
"Granted, he's a lot more daring than I ever imagined I could be," Alia continued mercilessly. "But I can see some of the benefits. I just need to get myself oriented correctly, more or less."
"Oh?" David asked, sensing a sensitive spot he might exploit. Alia held up a finger.
"Don't even go there." Then she looked at Gabrielle. "Moving on. I need to have a long talk with you about certain aspects of Amazon culture. As thorough as David's knowledge is about political science, he's sorely lacking in some of the more esoteric aspects of polite society."
"She needs to know how to rule a kingdom," David translated, then he fixed a reproving look at Alia. "Christ lady, your talking like I did when Professor MacGhee made me read my final thesis out loud in his lecture hall. 'Esoteric aspects of polite society'? Sheesh!"
Alia smiled gently and shrugged. Then something marvelous happened.
Gabrielle laughed out loud, though the act caused her to wince in pain with the effort.
In spite of the pain that the laughter created, she couldn't stop.
"What's so funny?" both Alia and David asked at the same time and in exactly the same pitch.
Gabrielle rolled over, grasping at her belly and caught her breath. "Oh, Gods help me," she said. She looked at Alia and then at David and smiled. "I've spent the last few months trying to figure out how I'll deal with one of you. Now?"
"Now just a second," Alia said defensively. "I am nothing like him!"
Gabrielle looked back at Alia and smiled. "Oh, no. Not at all."
"Hey!" David said defensively.
Alia sighed heavily, holding up her hands to get everyone's attention.
"Okay, okay!" She said quickly. "Gabrielle, please. If I'm going to get this right, I'm definitely going to need your help."
Gabrielle looked at David, who nodded in agreement. Then she looked back at Alia.
"All right. What do you want to know?"
Five days later, Gabrielle and David stood before the elders of the village of Tripolis and presented them with a formal request for truce between the newly formed Amazon Nation and the surrounding villages.
Festius read the formal parchment dubiously.
"What kind of ruse is this, young lady?" he asked, staring down at Gabrielle from his raised bench. "These Amazons have plagued the surrounding villages for years, keeping us in a weakened state so that we could never properly protect ourselves. Now that we have combined our forces, they want peace?"
"That's exactly what they want, sir," David said respectfully. "Queen Alia asked us to deliver this treatise to your village first, since yours was the most recently attacked. All unused property that was stolen will be returned, and those children that have been abducted will also be returned, unharmed."
"There is one thing you must know," Gabrielle added carefully. "There were many children, abducted over the past few years, that have grown accustomed to Amazon life. They may wish to stay with the tribe. If that is their wish, Queen Alia asked that you respect it.
In return, she will also provide knowledge and techniques for farming and building that will improve your village and the others nearby. None of the existing villages will be forced to relocate off the ancient Amazon lands, and those within the borders, like Tripolis, will fall under the protection of the Amazon Nation."
"It's a good deal, all the way around," David said gently. "I know it doesn't make up for all the past indiscretions, but it's a start."
"If the Amazon Nation is so determined to make amends for past atrocities," Festius replied. "Then why have they not sent a formal envoy?"
"With the recent events still so fresh," Gabrielle said evenly. "They were afraid that their representative would be received with violence before she had the opportunity to speak with you directly."
"Which is why we agreed to act as mediators in the initial discussion." David finished. "Queen Alia's Chief Advisor is waiting at the edge of town for permission to address you. If you wish to begin these talks, I can send the signal to invite her here?"
"Very well," Festius said, still suspicious that this entire meeting might be some kind of elaborate trap. Send for Mistress – " he paused. "What is the Queens Advisor called?"
Gabrielle looked at David, who was slowly backing towards the door, that mischievous grin spreading across his lips as he drew an arrow from his quiver and notched it to his bow.
"I think you might know her, My Lord," he said agreeably. "Her name is Ariadne."
He ducked out the door, pointed his bow towards the sky and let the arrow fly. It whistled like a crying bird as it flew, the note drifting across the farm fields, fading to stop abruptly when the arrow finally impacted somewhere in the nearby field.
Festius looked down at Gabrielle in shock, and then at another younger woman standing in the assembled crowd nearby. When Gabrielle glanced over, she immediately saw the family resemblance.
"Ariadne?" the woman asked, looking at Gabrielle. "Did he say her name was Ariadne?"
Gabrielle smiled. "He did. She's your daughter, I believe," then she looked up at Festius. "And your grand daughter, if I'm not mistaken?"
Festius rose to his feet in awe when David returned some time later, leading the young Amazon woman into the room.
Ariadne looked up at the old man and then at the woman pushing her way through the last few people before her. They stared at each other in amazement for a few moments and then embraced.
"We thought you were dead," he mother said.
Festius descended the several steps and stood before Ariadne, his hand reached out to touch her cheek as if to reassure himself that this was real.
"I brought some friends with me," Ariadne said nervously. She turned to David, who stepped from his place at the door.
At least a dozen small girls came in nervously, looking about the room. From the throng of villagers, parents cried out in joy and ran to embrace their children while others looked about in vain, their eyes filled with hope.
"I have the list of names of the daughters of Tripolis who elected to stay with the Amazons," Ariadne said quickly. "The Queen has given them leave to return here at any time, provided they will be welcome?" she looked up at her grandfather expectantly.
Festius smiled and nodded. "We have a lot to talk about," he said. "Here and at home." He suddenly stopped, uncertain. "If you would like?"
Ariadne nodded eagerly. "I would."
David slid up to Gabrielle and nudged her gently. "Not bad, for a days work?"
The two of them quietly exited the building and began walking back up the road.
"What about you?" she asked him.
"Me?" David asked. "What about me?"
She took his hand and squeezed it. "The trial exonerated you in the death of Yania, but Alia told me you're still having trouble with it?"
David's expression sobered. "I still killed a kid, sweetheart. The Amazon Nation may have understood, but I still have to deal with it." He sighed and slid his sunglasses on as the sun moved out of a batch of thick clouds. "It'll take time – a lot of time, but I'll be all right."
"You want to talk about it?" Gabrielle pressed gently.
David looked down at her and sighed as they walked.
"I think that we need to talk about a couple of things," he admitted heavily. He watched the earth moving beneath their feet for a few paces before he looked back at the village and that spot in the middle of the street.
"Where do we start?" he asked.
Gabrielle slid under his arm and looked up at him. "You talk about whatever you want to talk about, and I listen. We'll see where it goes from there, okay?"
David sighed again. "Okay."
Sindis stalked through the forest, her mind ablaze with anger. She understood the verdict. The Queen had said that the debt had been paid. David's unborn child for the life of her blood sister, but somehow that had not quenched the fire in her heart for justice.
She paused at a hilltop, looking out over the soft waving plains beyond the line of the forest and simply stewed. Her blood sister was dead, and her killer walked out there, somewhere, alive and well.
It was long past dusk when she turned back towards the village. She had a few things to pack up before they moved back to their traditional village.
"Such fury," A voice cooed from the shadows behind her.
She spun to face the stranger and only saw the shapes of ancient trees, their shadows lengthening in the fading light.
"So passionate," the voice said again, barely a whisper. It was soft and feminine, but filled with power. Sindis scanned the shadows, but still saw nothing.
"Who's there?" she demanded, her sword sliding out of its sheath.
"You desire vengeance?" the feminine voice asked, this time seeming to drift out of the trees on her left. Then it emerged again on her right. "A chance to balance the loss?"
"Show yourself!" Sindis cried. A touch of panic caused her voice to quaver. "Who are you?"
"A friend," the voice said again, this time from the branches above her. "Someone who has your interests at heart."
There was a subtle touch of amusement in that ghostly voice. It terrified her and thrilled her at the same time. It was a melodic voice, soft and gentle with a crisp subtle accent. But the words fell like ice on her heart and chilled her veins.
Sindis felt a cool breeze on her back and spun around, seeing nothing but the trees looming over her like old gnarled figures that stretched out towards her with long, twisted fingers.
"Do you want your revenge?" the voice asked, this time at her right.
"The Queen has forbidden it!" Sindis replied, forcing her voice to remain calm.
"And if you were free of the rule of your Queen?" The voice asked. "If Alia no longer held sway over your actions?"
"If you attack my people, they will fight to the last defending our queen, myself included!" Sindis challenged.
Gentle laughter echoed around her, almost making her dizzy.
"We do not speak of the Queen," it said. "If you were free of her rule – of the rule of all mortals – what would you do?"
"What are you offering?" Sindis asked.
"What would you do?" The voice persisted.
A wave of dark anger swept over the young Amazon woman and she smiled a smile that would have frozen a stream.
"I would slit his throat in the temple!" she growled. "I would utterly and completely destroy him!"
"We can give you that power, child," the voice said amicably. "We can set you above the rule of your sovereign. Above the rule of all mankind for eternity. You have but to ask?"
"How could anyone do that?" Sindis asked.
"Do you want it?" the voice asked. "Do you want to walk in the darkness, free from the constraints that bind you?"
The voice was bouncing all about her now. She spun around, trying to find the source of that mysterious, beautiful voice. IT seemed to be right beside her, yet infinitely distant at the same time.
"Do you want it?" it asked, whispering from the shadows as it taunted her. "Do you want it?"
Sindis lowered he weapon and stood proudly.
"I do," she finally admitted.
The melodious laughter echoed maddeningly around her for some time, and she spun around, feeling the welling of terror in her chest.
She caught a flash of something rushing towards her, clothed in white. It moved as fast as lightning. She saw two brilliant red eyes, felt something cold and strong grasp her about the waist, while cold fingers tugged her hair, forcing her neck back. Then there was a flash of pain and a sudden wave of pleasure so intense that she fell into it. The world around her vanished into absolute blackness. The last thing she heard was the trip hammer of her own heart slowing, and a gentle sucking noise. Then all was silence.