As a Roman commander, Livia had become something of an expert on Amazons, to the point that her familiarity with their traditions and history rivalled that of most scholars, even if her intent was destruction, not academia. She learned from the generals who’d taught her as a child that it wasn’t enough to defeat an enemy, physically. Once that part was over, you had two choices as victor: put your trust in a hand-selected representative to carry your wishes to the people from the inside, or break down the politics and culture that people clung to in times of crisis. Blasphemy, public executions, and destruction of sacred sites achieved the latter part quite effectively. It unequivocally left obedience as the only option.
Along the same vein, Bellerophon had almost succeeded in both the first and second part of conquering the Amazons. Though the tribes had survived, technically speaking… what was left could hardly be called a nation. Word passed that the remaining tribes retreated to the ancient, long-abandoned Amazon city Pygela, along the Thermodon River in Persia, and threw open the gates to new recruits for the first time in a century. They’d carried only what could fit on the remaining wagons and in their packs, leaving behind generations of history and culture in their myriad tribal homelands.
Given the turn of events, Eve wasn’t terribly surprised when a scroll arrived via horseback messenger, asking her to consider a visit to Pygela. The unsigned letter hadn’t been written by Gabrielle—Eve had read all of the bard’s scrolls and knew her handwriting well—but the language suggested perhaps she’d helped with drafting the template, and the unexpected rush of longing at the prospect of seeing her mothers again had the Messenger writing back that she’d arrive within the season.
The fact that they had sent a scroll to her, of all people, was intriguing enough; they had to be a particular degree of desperate, and Eve wondered if she’d arrive to the city to find it stuffed full of wandering souls needing a place to sleep, rather than the powerful, proud Amazons she’d fought before. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The world was changing, and some new minds with new experiences could help the tribes adapt to a post-Twilight reality, one without the protection and guidance of Artemis to shape their sisterhood’s path.
Or, it risked tearing the tribes—their people, their values—apart, leaving an unrecognizable corpse in their wake. Eve was willing to gamble on it, and whatever they asked of her, she would do to help as long as she could.
She left Chin by horse-drawn wagon a fortnight later, with her affairs neatly wrapped up in a way that allowed her to return someday, pick up where she left off… but Eve suspected she would never find herself that far East again. The road was long and difficult, testing her survival chops in more ways than one, but within a couple moons, her wagon trundled into view of a massive sandstone city on the river, ringed by impressive, but crumbling walls, and the ant-line of women and children and carts and livestock all heading that way.
Xena peered through the darkness of their Pygela bedroom, suspecting the pile of blankets on the bed she shared with her bard was obscuring said bard from the light of day. In lieu of poking the sleeping blonde bear, she paced across the room to the closed curtains, keeping her eyes on the lump of furs as she abruptly threw them open.
“I’m awake!” gasped Gabrielle as she bolted upright in an avalanche of blankets, her short hair sticking up on one side. “I’m awake, mhmm.”
“Eve’s here,” deadpanned the warrior, and she counted to three before Gabrielle reacted, on cue, leaping out of the bed like a deer freed from a trap.
“Eve’s here, Xena? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Choosing to skip over the last question, Xena smirked as she handed her wife a comb. “They’re getting her settled in a room, but we’ll meet for breakfast whenever your highness is ready.”
“Oh, stop.” Gabrielle launched a pillow at her head, but it sailed wide to bounce harmlessly against the wall, and the blonde offered no further attitude as she changed out of her sleepclothes and into her queen’s outfit—wolfskin gauntlets and an assortment of decorative pieces affixed to her normal top, including the wide, round pendant that marked her stature. Xena would never admit it, lest the bard never let her live it down, but the post-Twilight version of Amazon fashion on Gabrielle was far and away her favorite. It gave her an excuse to spend a lot of time carefully undressing her wife, and that had never been a bad thing in her book.
After saving Genia from the Zealots and dropping off Hermes’ Helmet, the warrior and the bard had set off on their typical wandering path, maybe edging eastward, closer to where their daughter travelled through Chin, but the call for Gabrielle to come to Pygela had been desperate and impossible to ignore; the Amazon Nation was near death, and only drastic action would save it. They rode for weeks to reach the city’s walls, and once they arrived to the crumbling city and broken people, there was no leaving. Not with a clear conscience, anyway. The bard served on the Council of Queens, which had had no presiding Queen since Varia’s removal from the post. They ruled by majority instead, even though the seven members of the Council didn’t technically represent specific tribes any longer. The goal would be to eventually hold elections for the seats like the Romans, but first, they had to get back on their feet.
Having Eve in the city would certainly help, if for no other reason than giving her mothers that peace of mind… but strangely, the thought of settling behind Pygela’s walls, at least for a time, didn’t bother Xena much at all after three whole seasons of it. She and Gabrielle had been wandering for so, so long, and it was becoming increasingly clear that they couldn’t live that way forever. Retiring amongst the Amazons, both of them alive and keeping busy with people to help? They could do a lot worse than that.
The food didn’t hurt, either. Mostly, that there was an abundance of it—venison, boar, and fish from the surrounding lands. Corn, rice, barley, and wheat from Pygelo, the brother village a day’s ride away, and soon, their own farmlands outside the main walls. For Gabrielle, there was an abundance of sweet treats like figs, pomegranates, and grapes. The nearby salt flats meant properly seasoning all that food was cheap, too, and that was Xena’s personal favorite part. In fact, the land, forest, and water were plentiful enough with food that even the rush of newcomers didn’t clear their reserves, removing at least that stressor from the process of growth. The city center’s dining hall, located at the bottom of the Keep where the Queens slept, was almost always full of people, and Xena had seen many women and children go from heartbreakingly thin to strong and robust within Pygela’s walls. At times it seemed that that, more so than a new Amazon army, was the true benefit of this place.
But even that warm, fuzzy feeling of doing good for the masses paled in comparison to the star-bright joy that flooded her heart when Xena set eyes on her daughter for the first time in a year. She was sitting at the edge of one of the hall’s long banquet tables, dressed in that same outfit with green cloak, like she’d never left at all.
“Mother,” sighed the Messenger, rising from her seat and nearly running into the warrior’s open arms.
Xena’s eyes screwed shut against the tug of emotions as she wrapped her daughter in a tight embrace, overcome with relief. Eve smelled like the cool, minty balms of Chin and the sweaty, musty scent of a long journey, and the warrior was pleased to note her daughter had put some muscle back on her thin frame. The skinnier she was, the more she looked like her other mom, Callisto.
“You look great, kid,” sniffed Xena as she gave her daughter another tight squeeze for good measure. “Chin and Indus kind to you?”
“It was an adventure.” Eve laughed wryly as she wriggled free of her mother’s arms, to fall into her mom’s. “I was ready for a bit of a vacation.”
“Dunno how much peace you’ll find here. I’m just glad you’re safe.” Stepping back, Xena wiped at her eyes as she watched the bard and their daughter embrace, Gabrielle murmuring quiet, consoling-sounding things the warrior couldn’t hear. She hadn’t been sure she’d ever see this, her family together again, and despite the circumstances in Pygela, the old warrior wasn’t sure she could let her daughter go again. Not without finding a really good reason for the Messenger to stay, at least.
“Let’s get food,” offered Gabrielle, louder, interrupting Xena’s thought spiral and giving her a knowing look. “Talk about what we’ve missed.”
Around mouthfuls of blackened bacon, seeded bread, figs, and, eggs, the trio talked about Borias’ son and the last herd of Centaurs, Zealots and Sappho, and then on into run-ins with warlords in Chin and Persia, thugs demanding tolls on the road, and the woman Eve had almost brought with her from the east. Without saying so in exact words, Xena discerned her daughter had perhaps had her first real love and inevitable first heartbreak while she was away, and she felt sympathy for the way Eve seemed to want to play it off as a non-event, even though she’d been under no requirement to talk about it in the first place. The warrior was sure her wife would pull on that thread later, when they weren’t so giddy with happiness at the reunion.
“I somehow knew you two would be here. Why didn’t you write me yourselves?” asked Eve as she leaned against the table, looking almost sleepy after their meal. “You know I’d have said yes.”
“And you did say yes, to the Amazons,” Gabrielle offered, proudly. “It was important for the sisters to see that you came here for them, not for us. You’re here to help.”
A smile slowly spread across their daughter’s face, and the Messenger shrugged as she replied, “I guess I did. I would have stayed to help before, if they’d needed me, or wanted me. I owe the sisterhood that much, at least.”
“You don’t owe them anything, Eve, but it is your duty as an Amazon, a true Amazon, to answer a call. That’s what you say if anyone else asks you.” Xena winked, ignoring the eyeroll Gabrielle shot her from across the table. “Gabrielle is on the Council. I advise them on training for new warriors, security for the city.”
“But we need healers,” continued the bard. “And not just for physical wounds. There are lot of women here who left bad situations. We told them that if they got to the city, they would be safe, and they would be taken care of.”
Eve nodded, eyes dropping to her mug of tea before flickering back up to meet Gabrielle’s. “I’ll need to learn more about the beliefs of the women who need help. Do you have any cultural liaisons or advisors?”
Xena gulped her water at the familiar twinge of awkwardness in her daughter’s voice. Those were things you thought about when you’d deconstructed a culture before; Xena the Conquerer had known the methods well, and the Romans had never been shy about them. But it worked.
“We’ll see if we can get you some people to talk to about who’s in the city.” Gabrielle put her hand over Eve’s, biting her lip as her nose wrinkled in a smile. “But first, you need to rest, and I need to show you all the cool stuff I can do as Queen, that your mother can’t. It’s very refreshing.”
“Ha, ha,” interrupted Xena, hiding her smile with her cup as her family laughed, bellies full, and gathered their empty plates.
Hearing that Xena and Gabrielle had arrived in Pygela was like a lightning bolt to the heart for Varia, former Queen, present nothing. Though she hadn’t been banished from the city before, due in part to Cyane’s unexpected mercy, if they found her here, Varia was sure the Council would find reason to change their minds. Execution could still be on the table, too.
News of her decisions during the battle against Bellerophon had spread through the sisterhood like Greek fire. She hadn’t just betrayed the bard Gabrielle, her friend; Varia had betrayed a legend among Amazons, a Queen with a storied history of fighting alongside other, equally legendary figures like Ephiny and Yakut. A Queen who defeated death dozens of times over, who was powerful enough to ride with a godslayer, and who herself led the Amazons to stop Bellepheron’s genocide. Varia had betrayed the Amazon Nation itself when she agreed to kill Queen Gabrielle, no matter her intentions.
In sum, she avoided Gabrielle and Xena at all costs.
Over the moons, Varia became a name spat over mead, hissed in the street wherever she went, and occasionally snarled at her along with a splash from a waste bucket or rotten vegetables and meat. Twice, she’d been beaten to unconsciousness by her harassers—and twice, she curled in the mud to take what was given to her, confident that she deserved it. Each blow was a part of her penance.
The second attack had been particularly vicious, leaving her with a stiffness and aching in her leg where the bone fractured under a hammer. Teas and poultices didn’t help… but wine did. So did the poppy extract that the healers from Persia and Indus brought to the city, though she no longer got it from them. Once they began to insist that she no longer needed the poppy, Varia got it from a woman who exchanged the extract for whatever people had to trade through a small, unmarked door slot in an unassuming alley. In many ways, the woman behind the darkened doorway was the person she spoke to the most since arriving Pygela.
According to the work rosters, Varia was assigned to kitchen duty, but the chef of her station had a particularly strong dislike for the shamed queen and either abused her when she showed up or didn’t seem to care when she didn’t. She would make that point clear as she growled over a stockpot, “I just assumed you were dead in a latrine somewhere. It would make me smile. You’re less than nothing here, queenslayer.”
That was worse than bruises and broken bones, if anything because Varia agreed with the sentiment. She had nothing left; no Marga, no title, no friends, no family. No hope for those last two, as her name and crimes seemed to precede her even amongst the newcomers, who found it easy to rally together around hatred of the former queen. There were days when lying down and just not getting back up again seemed like the best choice.
And it was on one of those days that, for the first time, she knocked on the door to replenish her supply of poppy… but no one answered. She knocked again, and again, and slammed her palms and kicked her toes against the heavy wood. Nothing happened. The windows were darkened by curtains, and no sound came from inside the building. The one thing she’d had left was gone, and the world kept trundling on regardless, wagons and horses and women moving heedlessly around her.
After that, as she stumbled away with no goal in mind, the pain set in quickly. It began as a stabbing ache her leg, and then a violent twisting of her stomach, and before long, Varia felt as though someone set her skin alight, even as sweat poured down her neck and chest.
“Watch it, queenslayer,” growled someone as Varia tried to move past her, heady foggy with radiating pain. The stranger shoulder-checked the former queen hard enough that Varia fell to hands and knees, fingers sinking into a pile of warm horse shit as derisive laughter filled the air.
Panting, she crawled out of the manure and street traffic, until she could laboriously push herself back up to standing by pulling on a brick wall, muscles screaming in protest, bones feeling like they might turn to dust under the tension in her body. But then another shoulder collided with hers, and Varia fell again, the air rushing from her lungs as she hit the hard ground.
This is it, she thought, eyes closing as boots dug into her side and pressed into her hip; Amazons walking over her. At least not kicking, she supposed. This is where I die.
There was a modicum of relief in that thought, but it was quickly forgotten as her stomach clenched and her breakfast—mostly wine—heaved its way up and out, onto the ground.
This would be the end of Varia, once thought to be the strongest Queen in generations, but revealed as nothing a coward and a traitor: Found dead in the street, half-trampled and lying in her own vomit. Perhaps Gabrielle’s perceived mercy on the beach had been, in truth, the worst punishment she could have delivered.
And I deserve it. Varia went limp, giving herself over to the fire burning up her veins. At least this is finally over.
For a while, that seemed true. She was vaguely aware of someone rifling through her pockets, and then walking away. She was barely conscious, barely able to understand what was happening when scratchy, loose fabric brushed against her nose, someone clicked their tongue, and then hands slid under her shoulders and pulled.
Falling into life in Pygela was simple, almost effortless—there was so much work to do that there was really no wrong way to contribute. The newcomers were given a full moon cycle to settle themselves, receive any medical care they might need, and get their bearings in the city. After that, they received a work assignment based on age, existing skills, and Pygela’s most pressing needs.
A huge contingent was dedicated to construction and cleaning duties: clearing debris and reinforcing walls and roofs and aqueducts, building new structures and razing decrepit ones. After that, there was a cascade of support needs, leaving a somewhat worryingly small pool left for security and an Amazon army. The varying levels of skillsets coming through the gates presented a challenge in training, and General Andromeda, a decisive and experienced warrior from the land of camels and sand dunes across the sea to the south, decided to arrange groups of equal distribution of prowess, resulting in average skill level that might be called “ragtag”, but could still confidently fend off most attacks against the city’s walls.
And with all of that going on, plus the arrivals every sunrise, there was an endless stream of sick and injured pouring into what was once Artemis’ temple, but now served as the city’s healing center. The rolls of elderly and young had already been rocked by waves of illnesses brought in from faraway places, and with the Warrior Princess’ expert help, they’d quickly learned and set up a system for quarantine and sanitation to slow or prevent further outbreaks.
Healing bodies wasn’t technically the type of healing Eve was best known for, but she’d undeniably inherited Xena’s knack for the Hippocratic arts. Some days, she seemed to blink, and the time between dawn and dusk had raced past her, unseen. She often slept in the temple’s staff quarters, usually shaken awake in the night for some emergency or another. There were crush injuries and amputations from the builders, cuts and scrapes and the occasional stab wound from the warriors in the practice fields, burns from the kitchens. Plus, babies—dozens of babies per week. She delivered three in the first day after her mother showed her what to do.
Not everyone who walked (or was carried) through the temple doors made it back out, for myriad reasons, but there was one wing of the building that Eve found particularly difficult—the place where those with trouble in their minds lived. Women who couldn’t escape voices like Furies that lived between their ears, women whose bodies had outgrown the capacity of their minds. It frustrated her most of all to not be able to help or comfort these women like those with strictly physical ailments—but she tried her best, and always ensured the kindest, most skilled nursemaids took care of that ward.
And that was exactly where she found herself walking when one of the orphans who slept at the temple shook her awake in what must’ve been the dead of night.
“Thea needs you,” the girl had whispered, eyebrows furrowed. “You have to come, she says.”
Blinking against the fog of sleep, Eve swung her feet out from the daybed and gave a testing push before rising to standing, though her muscles and joints protested. She shooed the messenger, who couldn’t have been more than nine summers, back to bed, and pulled a cloak around her shoulders before heading out into the cool hallway.
When she found the healer Thea, Eve quickly ascertained the problem—a woman thrashing on her bed, snarling as four other nursemaids held her down, a fifth working on tying down one of her wrists.
“It’s the cursed poppy,” sighed Thea as Eve stopped shoulder-to-shoulder with her. She was a short, robust woman past fifty summers, a feat for an Amazon, and usually one of the most compassionate caretakers in the building. Yet something in her gaze seemed hard as she looked at the patient, and her voice held a hint of uncharacteristic stiffness: “But she’s got some other injuries, and we can’t tend to them until she calms down. I thought you could be of help.”
The Messenger’s brow furrowed, and she took her eyes off the thin, pale patient to question her colleague, “Me? Why me?”
“Well, she knows you, of course.” Thea raised her own eyebrows, giving Eve a sideways look. “Don’t you know who this is?”
“I don’t…” Eve’s voice trailed off as recognition set in, catalyzed by the timbre of the angry curses being slung at her fellow caretakers. Some of them had once been spat in her own face by the woman whose other wrist was being secured to the bedframe, and her identification was confirmed by the deep brown eyes that snapped to meet hers, frenzied and reddened though they were. “Varia?”
Even in the dark of the temple at night, Eve could see that Varia’s dark hair seemed dull, her skin tinged green and rubbery-looking—but there was no mistaking those leonine features, or the expert kicks being directed at the healers as they tried to catch her feet.
“We thought it’d be best for someone not involved in the Bellerophon business to assist,” continued Thea with a sniff. “Unless you think we should get Xena—“
“No, no. Definitely not my mother, or Mom,” Eve sighed. “Does she not have any other friends here in the city? Lovers?”
“I didn’t even know Varia was still alive, to be honest.” The older woman shook her head. “She’s been in and outta here after some axeheads beat her face in, but haven’t seen hide nor hair of her in a long time. Assumed she was dead, until Cyane dragged her in the doors earlier. Thought she might’ve been dead then, too.”
Though she didn’t fully understand why, Eve bristled at the woman’s flippant tone, and she clicked her tongue to get the nursemaids’ attention. “Stop what you’re doing. Stop tying her down.”
“I said, stop.” She must have let more Livia slip into her voice than she intended, because the five healers practically leapt backwards, arms up—but it worked. Varia collapsed against the cot, groaning piteously and writhing weakly against the two arm restraints. “You woke me to help, so let me help.”
A strange something pulled at her chest as Eve moved forward, slowly kneeling by her… old friend didn’t quite describe them. They weren’t rivals or nemeses anymore, but they hadn’t spoken since Varia had pardoned her from a death sentence. But she couldn’t deny that she felt a connection to the hot-headed warrior, an understanding of burdens and perhaps other, more tenuous things that now was not the time to parse.
“Leave us,” Eve called over her shoulder as the noises from the former queen began to dissolve into whimpers. When the other women had sufficiently cleared away, incredulous expressions all around, the Messenger cleared her throat and ladled some fresh water into a wooden cup, speaking in a low tone, “Varia, I know you’re hurting right now, probably everywhere. I can’t give you more poppy to relieve it, but if you calm down, I think I can make you more comfortable. Okay? But you have to calm down.”
Whether because of her tone or because Varia knew her voice, the rambling seemed to help. By the time the warrior (or what was left of her) stopped fighting her tethers, she was falling in and out of consciousness, and Eve sighed as she finally reached forward to touch the warrior’s forehead. The skin was clammy, unsurprisingly, and the Messenger assessed her to be fairly far into her poppy sickness, but she was pleased to find a strong, steady pulse when she moved her hand down to her neck.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that she met Varia, not-yet-queen, in the forests outside her Amazon village. She’d looked more warrior goddess than woman that day, stalking across the forest floor with that red paint across her face and torso, all muscle, swagger, and self-righteous fire. The Varia lying in the bed in front of her was as different from Marga’s second in command as Eve was from Livia. She looked… small. Sunken. Gray. Eve had been brought up to speed on what happened on the shores of Bellerophon’s compound, but the rumor she’d heard most persistently was that Varia had left the city, fleeing her shame. It never occurred to her to look harder.
In truth, Eve couldn’t bring herself to be mad at Varia for almost killing her mom, and in her estimation, she had more of a right to be angry than Thea or the other nursemaids, none of whom were out fighting and dying on that beach. At least Varia’s intention had been good—sacrifice one to save many. An impossible choice, but easy to judge after the fact.
“Varia,” she said, gently. “Varia, if I untie your hands, will you stay still for me?”
The whine she got in response seemed agreeable enough, and she put down the cup to undo the leather straps, frowning at the angry red grooves they’d left in Varia’s skin. She rubbed them with her thumbs, watching her patient’s gaunt face relax slightly, and then picked up a clean cloth to dip into the water. Carefully, she wiped away the layer of sweat, muck, and blood coating Varia’s face, neck, and arms, exposing fresh and half-healed cuts that she treated with a poultice to prevent infection as she went.
The attention seemed to soothe the former queen, and she risked the moment’s peace to lift Varia’s tunic to check for further injury. A huge bruise, possibly several merging into one dark mass, covered one side of Varia’s ribs, all the way down to her hip, and Eve winced in sympathy. Her patient was in for a difficult recovery, in more ways than just this.
Trying not to jostle Varia too much, Eve managed to tug off her manure-crusted trousers with no protest, then pulled the woven blanket up over her sleepshorts. They would give her clean clothes when the laundry wagon arrived in the morning, probably just a few candlemarks from now, but she was at least clean and—
Varia rolled to one side and retched, loudly, the splash of vomit hitting the marble floors making Eve’s stomach tighten, and then the once-great warrior was groaning again, clutching her stomach and rocking side to side on the cot.
Quietly, Eve got another cloth to wipe her face clean, worriedly noting Varia had heaved up nothing but stomach bile. She reached into the small leather bag she carried whenever she was in the temple until she found the sprig of mint she’d gotten from the kitchens, holding it up to Varia’s cracked, bloody lips until they opened.
“This will help with the taste from the vomit, and your nausea,” explained the Messenger as Varia weakly chewed the leaves. “You’re not quite through the worst of your sickness, but… we’ll do what we can. Do you think you can swallow tea?”
“Yeah,” croaked the patient, weakly enough that it was difficult to believe, but when Eve returned to the bedside with a cup of turmeric and ginger tea, Varia did manage to sip about half of it before turning her head away and sinking back down to the cot.
Sighing, Eve pulled the blanket up to Varia’s shoulders again, frowning at the feel of the fallen warrior’s body shivering. She hadn’t gotten any indication Varia registered who she was yet, despite Thea’s assumption the familiarity would help, and perhaps that was for the best, in her opinion. An agitated, confused Varia was no one she wanted to tangle with ever again, no matter what shape she was in.
Still, Varia had responded to her, in a way—there was something of that powerful warrior she knew within the frail woman before her. The one that had sauntered into the hut way back when, smirking and bragging, flexing unsubtly as she showed off her battle scars. Who united the tribes and, despite her subsequent mistakes, had rebuilt the Amazon Nation on the strength of her will and the magnetism of her leadership. It seemed a shame to squander that greatness on judgment of her worst day—but perhaps Eve had a personal bias in that area.
Regardless, she pulled a more comfortable chair to the side of Varia’s cot, set a clean chamber pot near the former queen’s head, and decided it was time to return the favor Varia had once granted her: Redemption.