A Harvest of Separated Souls

By PruferBlue

 

 

PruferBlue@aol.com

ęCopyright 1999

DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.

VIOLENCE: There are several occurrences of Xena-type violence and some hurt/comfort scenes.

SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.

Author's note: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.

My deepest thanks to my friend, Karen Surtees, for the time and effort she spent in critiquing this story. She actually makes it fun to write! I am truly grateful for her kindness and generosity.

Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. Suggestions are also welcome.

And, finally, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I value your encouragement.

 

A Harvest of Separated Souls

 

My warrior, don't abandon me;
Don't tear our souls apart.
Regretted words, that forced you out,
Weren't spoken from my heart.

 

Chapter 1

Other early risers began to fill the Amazon dining hut as Gabrielle and Xena finished a hearty breakfast. Or, rather, as Gabrielle finished a hearty breakfast. The golden-haired Amazon Queen noticed that her tall, dark-haired partner had eaten barely enough for sustenance. The bronzed Warrior Princess had been very quiet lately, even for her, and Gabrielle was beginning to be concerned.

"Xena, what's bothering you?" she inquired.

The warrior's stunning blue eyes turned slowly to meet the bard's tender, mist-green gaze. At first, Xena's eyes were cold and empty then gradually they warmed. A corner of her mouth quirked up in a half-smile and she gave a little shrug. "Nothing, Gabrielle. Just... thinking."

"'Just thinking?' You've been so far away, you might as well not be here," Gabrielle admonished her. "Does it have anything to do with the Harvest Festival? I know you don't want to come, but they'll be expecting you."

"No, it's not the Festival. I said I would come and I will," Xena answered impatiently.

Gabrielle raised her voice. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the Amazons to make a good impression on the villagers who don't know them. I wish you could be a little more enthusiastic about it." She frowned in frustration. "If something's bothering you, just tell me and let me see if I can help."

Xena's mind had been plumbing its own depths and didn't like what it had found there.

The bard didn't seem to understand that some thoughts were best not brought out into the light of day. She believed you should pull everything out, talk about it, examine it, analyze it, find an answer or reason for it; and that would weaken its hold on your soul.

But that was not Xena's way. The Warrior Princess needed to hold her problems close, analyze and solve them herself. To her, talking about them was a waste of time. And this problem was the worst she had ever faced.

Before being killed, the evil shamaness, Alti, had given the warrior a dark vision of her future death on a cross. But the most horrible part of the vision was that, as she lay on the ground being fastened to the cross, Xena turned her head to the side and Gabrielle was being nailed to the cross next to hers.

If we stay together, she will die. This was the agonizing thought that was consuming the warrior, because coupled with its terror was another, almost as heart wrenching: But how can I bear to leave her? Gabrielle was her best friend, her family, her light. Xena's soul was being battered and, true to her nature, she was turning inward. I won't share this with her--I can't. It's enough that it's tearing up my soul. What would it do to hers?

Gabrielle looked intently into Xena's eyes as if she could see what was wrong. Because something WAS wrong; she knew that. And it bothered her that her friend wouldn't confide in her. Four years. Four years together, and still it's almost impossible to draw her out. This stoic bit is going to drive me crazy some day! Let me try one more time... She put her hand on the long, strong fingers resting on the rough-hewn tabletop. "Xena, you've been moody ever since I got over the amnesia. C'mon, tell me about it, maybe I can help."

Irritated by her own thoughts, the Warrior Princess pulled her hand away and snapped, "You can help by not nagging me."

The bard's brow furrowed and her eyes searched Xena's quizzically. What can have caused that nasty reaction? But she wasn't willing to push her friend when she was obviously in a poor frame of mind.

A stillness had come over the nearby tables where Xena's answer had not gone unnoticed. A Warrior Princess in a bad mood was uncomfortable news for everyone.

Gabrielle nodded and gave a tight little smile. "OK, I'm willing to try that."

Xena glared around at the other tables and the talking surged back up again as if on cue. This tiny evidence of her powers of intimidation gave a little lift to Xena's spirits. I'll worry about this later, she promised herself and pushed the dark vision back into the labyrinths of her mind. Feeling a little better, the Warrior Princess stood up and swaggered out the door.

Gabrielle shook her head and followed. One minute she's down, the next minute she's up. I still can't figure her out. Sometimes I'd just like to shake her! Why did she have to pick today, of all days, to be cranky? The bard was already under a strain worrying about the reception the Amazons would find with the villagers. Now Xena had become a concern. Her patience was being pushed to the limit.

By the time Gabrielle caught up to her, Xena was entering the stable. Argo, her palomino warhorse, neighed in greeting to her mistress. The warrior wrapped her arms around the mare's neck and hugged her, whispering, "Hi, girl," against her mane.

Humph! She never gets nasty with Argo! Gabrielle was further annoyed, this time at herself, for being stupid enough to feel jealous of a horse.

As Xena was putting the saddle and bridle on the mare, other women came in to prepare their horses, including one for their Queen. The Amazons were getting ready for the journey to the Harvest Festival at Ellaria.

Those who were planning to attend the festival lined up, on horseback, in their Village Square. The Queen's Honor Guard, formed of four Amazons, lined up first, two-by-two, with one carrying the Queen's flag. Next came Queen Gabrielle and Ephiny, her regent.

Gabrielle asked Xena to ride next to her, but Xena turned the offer down. The ex-warlord, who radiated authority, explained, "You are the Amazon Queen, Gabrielle. You deserve to be leading your people without having any distraction caused by my presence."

Gabrielle nodded and gave in to her friend without argument. "You're right. If you rode up front, someone might think you were the Queen." Then her face dimpled into a smile. "And that would never do, would it?" In an effort to change the warrior's mood, she tried teasing her, knowing that Xena continually refused to become an Amazon.

Xena's cobalt-blue eyes dulled, her lips twisted and her voice came out flat. "No, it wouldn't," she muttered.

Gabrielle tilted her golden head and looked quizzically at her friend. Uh-oh. I didn't mean to remind her of Cyane's tribe. I wonder if that's what has been bothering her?

The bard took a deep breath. "Never mind. You can ride right behind me, with Eponin and Solari, as part of my escort. Will you do that?" Xena hesitated, then nodded, and the Queen breathed out, satisfied.

********************

The Harvest Festival was underway. Villagers from Pergaros, Lanrica and Ellaria roamed through Ellaria's streets, marketplace, and inn, inspecting table after table of wares that were being presented for purchase or approval. The holiday spirit prevailed.

Amidst the constant hubbub, bits of conversation could be overheard mentioning the expected arrival of the Amazons, accompanied by Xena, the Warrior Princess. Of special interest was whether they would compete in the skill contests to be conducted later in the day. Many were excited about the prospect, some not so pleasantly.

Two years ago, the Amazons, guided by Xena, the Warrior Princess, had joined with Ellaria to save it from devastation by the warlord, Mictinos. Defeating Mictinos had freed the neighboring villages from his domination, too. For the first time, the three villages were holding their end-of-harvest celebration together and the elders of Ellaria had persuaded the others to invite the women from the neighboring Amazon territory to join them.

Led by the Queen's Honor Guard, which was followed by Queen Gabrielle and Ephiny, her regent, forty Amazons came riding into Ellaria. Directly behind the two leaders rode Xena, the Warrior Princess, in her usual full armor, flanked by Eponin, the weapons master, and Solari, the chief scout.

As the contingent rode into the main street, villagers gaped and stared. The Ellarians remembered the women warriors and their help in fighting Mictinos. For many others, it was their first close look at such a large group of Amazons. Their eyes went first to the Amazon leader, the Queen, an attractive young woman with golden hair. Then, like a magnet, their eyes shifted to the imposing dark-haired figure behind her. They had no trouble figuring that this was Xena, the Warrior Princess, who had conquered half of Greece; they knew she was expected to come with the Amazons.

A few of the elders met the group in the Village Square and welcomed them. They asked that Queen Gabrielle and her escort come to the town hall to meet with all the elders. Then they were directed to an area where they could hitch their horses and, while the others joined the townspeople, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Xena, Eponin and Solari proceeded to the town hall.

There, the Amazons were again welcomed and shown the agenda for the celebration. The festival would last three days and the Amazons would be provided several large buildings in which to lodge. Food and drink would be available all day, each day, in the inn's tavern. Several contests would be held throughout the first two days and anyone could enter them. The festivities would end at midday of the third day, allowing time for the travelers to return to their homes.

Gabrielle suggested that perhaps two Amazons could give a staff-fighting exhibition and the elders were delighted with the offer. A scribe added that to the scroll listing the activities and the women took their leave.

When they were outside, Gabrielle halted the group and asked, "Who wants to volunteer for the staff exhibition?"

All eyes turned toward Xena, who scowled. "I don't think so. You said two Amazons and that's what I think it should be. How about you, Gabrielle? I'm sure they'd like to see the Queen in action. And maybe Eponin?"

"No, thanks," offered Eponin. "Can't trust this back of mine. If I get sat on my butt, I might never get back up. That wouldn't look too good."

"How about Leese or Gwynna?" chimed in Ephiny. "They are both getting to be experts with the staff."

"I think I'd pick Gwynna," added Solari. "She's a lot kinder than Leese is. That Leese is getting just as bad as..." Cobalt-blue eyes swept toward the chief scout. "... er... I mean just as good as you are, Xena." Solari's breath caught as the gaze stayed locked on her.

"Make up your mind, Solari," the Warrior Princess snorted. "Am I good, or am I bad?" Solari looked in vain for a grin or a lifted eyebrow.

"Take it easy, Princess," Eponin tried to come to her friend's aid. "Solari didn't mean any harm."

The blue eyes slewed to the weapons master and narrowed. "Then she'd better think twice before she insults me again. If it's any of your business." Xena stepped toward Eponin.

Solari quickly stepped in front of the argumentative Eponin and blurted, "Xena, the last thing I would ever do would be to insult you. I admire you too much. Besides, I'd be too afraid that it might really be the last thing I would ever do."

The Warrior Princess pinned Solari again with her eyes. Finally, one eyebrow lifted and a mouth corner twitched and Solari felt like she could breathe again. And so did Ephiny and Eponin. They knew Xena was edgy and no one wanted to be the target of her anger.

Gabrielle had been poised to intervene. Now, she just rolled her eyes and continued the earlier conversation. "OK, I'll ask Gwynna. Let's all just look around, now, and have some fun." The group separated and Xena and Gabrielle began to stroll through the streets.

"Xena, why were you picking on Solari? You know she considers you a friend." Gabrielle was beginning to get a little miffed with Xena's attitude. A bad mood was one thing but taking it out on others was disturbing. Besides, she was determined to enjoy herself at this festival and it irked her that her friend seemed to care less about it.

"Was I picking on her? Maybe I should pick on the villagers instead," Xena taunted. She knew she wasn't being fair to the bard, or Solari, but she just couldn't seem to shake the dark cloud that hung over her. The warrior wasn't used to pushing problems away. Her usual course was to take some action, but she was stymied; nothing occurred to her as a solution. The inability to figure out what to do was making her miserable. Usually, when she felt like this, she just stayed away from people until the cloud lifted. But Gabrielle had talked the warrior into coming to the Harvest Festival, since she had been instrumental in the battle that saved Ellaria.

"Xena! Stay away from any trouble with the villagers. If one of them says something that irritates you, just leave them alone... please! You know how badly I want this visit to go well. If anything happens to ruin it, I'll... I'll..." the bard threw her hands up in frustration.

Xena pursed her lips and determined that she would make a real effort to be civil, just to keep Gabrielle happy. She half-smiled at the worried bard. "Don't worry about me. Suppose you go ahead and do your thing and I'll meet you in the tavern at midday for something to eat. Your exhibition is scheduled right after that. OK with you?"

"OK." Gabrielle knew Xena wasn't interested in walking around the streets and looking through the wares like she wanted to do. And with the mood her friend was in, she was poor company. I'll just have to trust that, if anything annoying happens, she will keep her temper. So, they parted ways.

As the bard walked down one of the streets, she saw Solari near a table on the other side and crossed over to her. Ephiny and Eponin were at the next table and came to join them. "Solari, Eponin, I'm really sorry Xena snapped at you. She's in a foul mood."

"What's wrong with her?" Ephiny's voice showed the concern she felt. "You're back from that misadventure with your amnesia. You'd think Xena would be happy."

"She was thrilled, Ephiny. This is something else, but I haven't been able to find out what. It's like something bad has hold of her and won't let go. I just know when Xena's upset, I can't really relax."

"We don't feel too easy about it, either," Eponin retorted.

Gabrielle put her hand on the weapons master's muscular forearm. "I know, Pony. Maybe you can all kind of help keep an eye on things. I really want this visit to be successful." The three Amazons nodded their agreement and Gabrielle felt a little more confident that everything would turn out well.

 

Chapter 2

Xena found a few sections of the festival that did capture her interest--the leather-, wood- and metal-working areas. She wandered through them for awhile examining and admiring the craftsmanship that went into making the various pieces. The metalworkers were especially talented.

"Have you ever made armor?" she inquired of the man behind one of the tables of metal pieces.

"No, I haven't," he answered. He realized he was addressing the Warrior Princess who had arrived with the Amazons. She looks pretty formidable, but seems harmless enough at the moment. And, she's gorgeous! "I do mostly practical or decorative stuff. That piece you're wearing is pretty intricate. Mind if I take a closer look at it?"

Xena unhooked her armor and handed it to him. He turned it over and over examining it thoroughly. "This is very well done. You have a couple of pieces broken off, though. Forget to duck?" he ventured to smile at the sober, but beautiful, woman.

Xena looked at him with a little more interest. "Landslide," she answered with a lopsided grin.

Nodding, he handed the armor back. "It will need to be fired and hammered. I'm from Pergaros and my shop is there. Why don't you bring it to me when you get a chance and I'll fix it for you?"

The warrior took the armor from him and hooked it back on. She looked up and offered the friendly man a parting smile. "Maybe. Thanks."

Leaving the area, Xena walked to the edge of town. Several contests were underway in the open fields. Some of the Amazons were joining villagers in an archery competition. Others were trying their hand at a tree-climbing match and a number of them were lining up with some of the villagers for a foot race. Xena could see Elisa was one of the race contestants, so she went over to watch.

The runners raced the length of two harvested fields, turned around and raced back. Elisa was closing on the man who was leading the group. As she came up alongside him, he shouldered her off balance and she stumbled behind him, unable to overtake him before he reached the finish line. He slowed as he crossed the line and Elisa, her arms crossed at shoulder height, purposely smashed into his back, sending him to the ground. He jumped up, snarling, to face two tall, dark-haired women warriors, glaring at him.

Xena took a step toward him and he backed up. "What's your name?" she growled.

The fellow looked around, but no one had stepped forward in support of him. He attempted to turn away, but an iron hand grasped his shoulder and turned him back. "Your name," the Warrior Princess repeated.

"Ethros," he spit out.

"Well, Ethros, if I see you lay a single hand on any one of the Amazons again, your new name will be Lefty. And you can pass that on to your friends." Xena gave him a push and released him and he staggered away.

Xena reached out for the whip that was the prize for winning the race and the woman holding it gave it to her. The Warrior Princess passed it to Elisa, then looked a challenge at the people who had been standing around watching this incident. Most of them nodded their heads, agreeing with what she had done, then they dispersed.

"Thanks, Xena," said Elisa.

"No problem, Leese. Just try to stay out of trouble, OK?" A wry grin crossed her lips. "Or the Queen will disown us both."

Xena looked up at the sky. "Speaking of the Queen, I'm meeting her at the tavern. C'mon, it's nearly midday. Let's get something to eat."

********************

Gabrielle had asked Gwynna to join her in the exhibition of staff fighting. Most of the villagers had come out to the fields to watch. They were curious to see the two Amazon women display their abilities.

Xena and Elisa were seated on the ground at the edge of the exhibition area. Ephiny, Eponin and Solari had come to join them and they were chatting about the good time they were having at the festival. When the exhibition started, everyone quieted.

Both Gabrielle and Gwynna were accomplished with the staff and they put on a rousing display. Blocking, parrying, jumping, thrusting, it was awesome to see them make such dangerous moves without either getting hurt. And the crashing sound of their staffs hitting together left no doubt that their moves were not being held back.

The villagers were aware of when an especially intricate move or block had been made and the applause came often and enthusiastically. The two fair-haired women dueled for half an hour with two breaks to catch their breath and take a drink of water.

Ethros and several of his pals were standing a short distance from the Warrior Princess and she was well aware of their presence.

"There they are," Ethros was sneering softly. "Those two seated right there are the troublemakers I was telling you about."

Xena nudged Elisa with her elbow and tilted her head slightly in Ethros' direction. She had taught the young Amazon to use her ears as a weapon and the girl had worked hard at sharpening her hearing.

"Ethros, that one's the ex-warlord we've been hearing about," one of the men warned him.

"Well, she doesn't have an army with her now. I think she needs to be taught a lesson," Ethros continued cockily. "What right does she have coming here and pushing me around? And cheating me out of a prize?"

"You can count me out if you're going up against the warrior. I saw her fight against Mictinos and I want no part of it." One of the men showed better sense than Ethros, and walked away.

"Maybe he's got a point. She does have a tough reputation," one of his cohorts suggested. "So, why don't we rough up the little blonde who's fighting right now? I've heard that's her special friend and she doesn't look as tough. Plus, she's the Queen of the Amazons and it might send them a message, too. We don't need a bunch of women trying to show us up."

"I like that idea," Ethros agreed. "Maybe, sometime tonight, we can catch her out alone and beat her up. And we'll let her know it's because of her bringing the ex-warlord here. But neither one of them will be able to do anything, because they won't know who to blame." The thought appealed to him. "We'll just make sure she doesn't have her staff with her," he sniggered.

Elisa's muscles tensed as she listened. She wanted to jump up and kick the teeth out of the idiots who were cooking up this wild plan. Xena felt her tension, leaned toward her and whispered, "Let's just keep a close eye on these fools." Her own hands were itching to turn the "lesson" on Ethros, but she was hesitant to cause a commotion, for Gabrielle's sake. He might be all talk. But you are pushing your luck, Ethros.

The staff exhibition was a highlight of the day and many of the villagers surrounded Gabrielle and Gwynna to express their admiration for their prowess. Both Xena and Elisa were happy to see them being made the center of attention. Neither of the dark-haired women would have been comfortable with so much notice, but they knew their friends reveled in it.

Afterwards, the four women watched a few other contests, then, near sundown, wended their way back to the tavern to eat. As they finished eating, one of the elders approached their table. With a slight bow, he said, "We have heard that the Amazon Queen is renowned for her story-telling. Would you perhaps be kind enough to share one of your stories with us?"

Gabrielle looked around. The tavern was large and filled to capacity except for a small stage that had been set up at one side. "I'd be happy to," she agreed. The elder escorted the bard to the stage and announced to the throng that she would be performing for them. Light applause greeted the announcement and Gabrielle began her story.

As she launched into her tale, Ethros and three of his cronies entered the tavern. Immediately, Xena and Elisa became alert. The boorish group picked a spot three tables away and pushed the people who were there out of their seats. No one challenged them and they sat down and ordered ale. "And keep the ale flowing," Ethros loudly told the server. "If we have to get bored with stories, at least we can enjoy the drinks!"

Gabrielle's eyes flicked to this small disruption but she continued without halting. Ethros, however, seemed determined to embarrass her. He kept up his heckling with several snide remarks about her story and Gabrielle did her best to ignore him.

Finally, full of too much ale, and exasperated that he wasn't deterring her, he shouted, "You and that tough Warrior Princess, you're telling us such lies about, oughta go back to where you came from and leave us law-abiding folks alone." With that, he heaved his empty mug in Gabrielle's direction.

A tall, dark-haired form shot up and a long, bronzed arm plucked the mug from the air. With a snap of her arm and a flick of her wrist, Xena sent the mug flying back at Ethros, catching him in the middle of his chest. At the same time she flipped over two tables, thrust out her arm and caught him by the neck right after the mug hit him.

Gabrielle had been looking in another direction, but she caught the movement of Xena's body flipping into the air. Her voice faltered, then stopped, as she saw people scrambling out of the way. By the gods! What is she doing?

The Warrior Princess lifted Ethros a foot in the air, and snarled into his face, "You want tough, I can give you tough!" She grabbed his belt with her free hand, swiveled him up above her head and flung him fifteen feet into the nearest wall. He hit with a loud "thud" and fell to the floor, unconscious.

All eyes had switched from the storyteller to the fracas. The bard was furious. She jumped down from the stage and ran toward the commotion. I knew Xena was in a foul mood, but I never thought she would just totally disregard my specific request to keep away from trouble! And right in the middle of my story, too! Which, of course, added to Gabrielle's ire.

The three men with Ethros had jumped up reflexively and raised their fists when the warrior first landed in front of them. Now, she reached to the side with each arm, grabbing a fistful of shirt with each hand. Taking one step forward, she butted her head against the middle man. Then she stepped back and pulled her arms together, hard, slamming together the heads of the other two. All three sank to the floor just as an angry Gabrielle reached for Xena, grabbing her arm.

The warrior spun around, yanking her other arm back, ready to strike, when she saw it was the bard and, with a mighty effort, halted her action. She flicked Gabrielle's hand from her arm, irritated that the bard hadn't shown better sense than to grab her without warning.

Gabrielle suddenly realized she had almost had her head taken off, and she got even angrier. More agile fighting with words than weapons, she threw daggers of spite at her frustrating friend. "Xena, when are you going to learn that violence is NOT the answer to everything? We're not out in the wilds now, we're in a civilized village. If you can't at least ACT civilized, maybe you'd better go back to the wilds!"

Elisa, who alone knew the whole story behind Xena's actions, was startled that the Queen was, in effect, tossing the Warrior Princess out of town.

And Xena, too proud to explain, turned and stalked out, her fury matched only by her heartache. She wants me to leave? Then, by the gods, I WILL leave!

Xena stomped to the hitching rail, tightened Argo's saddle and bridle, vaulted aboard the golden mare and galloped her way out of the village. She rode full-tilt into the forest, pounding recklessly down the trail until better sense prevailed and she slowed Argo to a walk.

All this time I've been tearing my heart out trying to find a way to force myself to leave Gabrielle--to change our destinies-- and here she is THROWING me out! Well, at least I don't have to make up some reason to leave.

And this way, Gabrielle will feel responsible for the breakup. A small voice scratched at her conscience, then was buried.

Xena rode on through the forest for awhile then stopped at a clearing alongside a river to make camp. Instead of making camp, however, she just sat on a rock, staring out over the water. Her mind was playing back pictures of the many adventures she and Gabrielle had shared. Including the many times violence was necessary to defeat an enemy or even to save the bard's life. Can't lead the kinda life I lead without violence being a part of it. She knew that before she joined me. Why is she suddenly so opposed to it? Even enough to insult our friendship by throwing me out of the village. I don't know what in Tartarus is going on! But maybe this is the chance to change? Maybe this will save her life? Xena leaned over and hit her head with her hands as though she could pound the thought into a rebellious mind. I'm not ready...

Xena sat there for a long time, trying to adjust to the almost unthinkable idea of continuing her quest for redemption, her life, without Gabrielle at her side.

********************

The troublemakers had been dragged from the tavern to the jail and one of the elders had restored calm. Gabrielle was invited to continue her story and she received loud applause when she finished it. The bard excused herself and walked outside. Soon Ephiny, Eponin and Solari joined her and Elisa and Gwynna stepped out of the shadows.

There was an uncomfortable silence, which Gabrielle broke. "Did anyone see where Xena went?"

Elisa spoke up, with an accusatory tone in her voice, "Yes. After you told her to leave, she got on Argo and went tearing out of here into the forest."

It was nearing the end of a tiring and nerve-wracking day and the Queen was not at her best form. The news from Elisa actually startled her, but her anger at Xena's behavior in the tavern ruled her words. "Look, Leese, I didn't tell her she had to leave. If she chooses to believe I did, I can't control that. I obviously couldn't control anything about how she acted today. I particularly asked her to stay out of trouble. I should have saved my breath."

Elisa was quick to defend her idol. "But that thug shoved me around in one of the races and Xena warned him to leave the Amazons alone. Then, at your staff exhibition, Xena and I heard him and his pals planning to attack you later in the evening." Elisa told Gabrielle what they had heard, trying to explain the warrior's actions. "We were just keeping an eye on them. But when he threw that mug at you, after being warned, Xena couldn't overlook that."

"Oh, yes she could," Gabrielle said vehemently. "She just chose not to. She knew I wanted the Amazons to look good and she just ignored that. She owes me an apology, big time."

Elisa's anger started to rise. "You expect her to apologize for sticking up for you?" she demanded.

Ephiny grabbed the young Amazon's arm. "Leese, you're speaking to your Queen."

Elisa turned to Ephiny in annoyance and Gwynna grabbed her other arm. "Leese," was all she had to say and her friend took a couple of deep breaths and calmed down.

"Ephiny," Elisa said, when she had recovered her poise, "Gwynna and I are going to join Xena, OK?" The Queen's regent nodded her head and Elisa and Gwynna hurried away.

"No apology," Gabrielle noticed in a wry tone. "She is getting just like Xena, isn't she?"

"Yeah, she is," Ephiny agreed with a smile. "And it sounds like it might be a cold day in Tartarus before Xena apologizes for tonight, too."

Gabrielle sighed. "You're probably right. But maybe some time away might give her a chance to work through whatever is bothering her. I haven't been able to help her."

 

I never truly sent you off;
You used my words like knives.
You strove to separate our souls
And disconnect our lives.

 

Chapter 3

The Warrior Princess, head still down, twice lifted her arm and brought it forward as if beckoning someone. After a moment, Elisa and Gwynna slipped out of the forest into the clearing. Elisa walked up to Xena, who didn't bother looking at her. "I explained to Ephiny and Gabrielle why you had gone off on that guy and his friends. Told them about the race and all the things we had heard him saying at the exhibition."

"But she didn't come with you." Xena's voice was flat and unemotional. Just stating a fact.

Elisa looked to Gwynna for help, but Gwynna turned her hands up and shrugged her shoulders. Elisa stumbled on. "Er... no... Gabrielle isn't with us. She... she's still angry with you. I think both for disturbing her story and for kicking their butts. She was trying hard to make a good impression for us Amazons and she thinks you jeopardized that."

Xena winced. "She's probably right. But I'd do it again. What are you doing here?"

"I think YOU were right. And I don't think it was fair of Gabrielle to tell you to leave," the young Amazon said belligerently. "So, I told Ephiny we would be joining you, if that's OK with you. I... didn't want you to be alone. Can we stay?" Elisa's face reflected her uncertainty.

The Warrior Princess caught the hesitation in the young Amazon's voice and finally lifted her head and turned soft blue eyes on her. Xena just looked at her for a moment. Then the blue eyes moved to Gwynna and a questioning eyebrow arched. Gwynna's blonde complexion turned red with self-consciousness. "I can cook!" she blurted.

Xena laughed out loud, the first real lightening of spirit she had had in days. "Well, I sure can use you. And I guess your buddy can stay, too." The faces of both youngsters split in ear-to-ear grins.

"Xena, there's something else we think you should know," Elisa said.

"When we were coming after you, I missed a turn you made," Gwynna, the expert tracker, said, looking embarrassed, "and we had to double back. But while we were too far past you, we heard... or, rather, Leese heard... what sounded like a large group of people camped nearby."

Xena was already on her feet headed for Argo. "Show me."

The Amazons got their horses and led the warrior to the area in question. Leese raised her arm and they stopped. Gwynna couldn't hear anything but Leese and Xena both listened and Xena said, "Sure sounds like an army. Let's get closer, see if we can find out more. Maybe put the pinch on someone."

They left their horses and moved closer to the camp.

Gwynna pointed out a man who was obviously a sentry. Xena shook her head. They waited a while and finally a lone soldier moved into the forest below them. The three women converged on his position and Xena sneaked up behind him. She hit him in the neck with the pinch.

"You have 30 seconds to live," she told the struggling man, "unless you tell me what I want to know." The man nodded his head fearfully. "Whose army is this?"

"Tranikos,'" he gasped.

"What's he doing here?" the Warrior Princess demanded.

"Attacking Pergaros."

"When?"

"Tomorrow--midday."

Xena's lips pursed. "While there's no one there, right?"

"Right."

The warrior released the pinch and slugged the man in the jaw. She picked him up and slung him across her shoulders and carried him back to the horses. She tied him across Argo's back behind the saddle and mounted the warhorse. While she was doing this she explained a piece of strategy to Gwynna.

"I'm going back to Ellaria and taking this guy with me. I didn't put the pinch on the sentry because a sentry would have been missed." Gwynna nodded to show her understanding. "You two stay here and keep an eye on the army. If they make a move before I get back, one of you come and let me know."

Xena waved goodbye to the two young Amazons and hurried as quickly as possible back to Ellaria. When she arrived, the streets were just beginning to clear of villagers. Xena hitched Argo to a rail where she could keep an eye on her prisoner and walked over to the tavern. She peeked in one of the open windows and saw Ephiny seated at a table with Eponin, Solari and Gabrielle.

An Amazon came out the door and Xena approached her. The woman recognized the Warrior Princess at once and willingly went back in to quietly fetch Ephiny, as Xena requested.

"Xena, I'm so glad you're back," Ephiny greeted her. "We were all kinda worried about you."

"Yeah, I'll bet," was the sarcastic answer. Then Xena felt contrite. "Guess you can see my mood hasn't improved any," she muttered. Ephiny's eyes widened but she didn't dare to respond.

"Come with me, Eph, I have someone to show you," the warrior asked and led Ephiny to the prisoner lying bound on Argo's back.

"This character is a soldier in the army of a warlord named Tranikos. They are camped a few hours from here. Elisa and Gwynna discovered them." Xena gave the two young Amazons the credit they deserved. She cut the soldier loose from Argo and bound his hands together. "They heard about the festival and decided to attack and sack Pergaros while the town is nearly empty. You can take this man as evidence. Someone needs to get the elders of all three towns together to mount a defense."

"Gabrielle will do that, I'm sure," Ephiny assured Xena. "Why don't we get her?"

"You can tell her. I'm not too welcome in her eyes at the moment," Xena growled. "If you want me, I'll be right here." Ephiny looked directly into the cobalt-blue eyes that always pulled on her heart. She could see the pain that had settled around their edges and she sympathized with the Warrior Princess. I wish these two would get straightened out. It's sad to see the way they are hurting each other.

Xena reached down and pulled the prisoner to his feet. "You tell them what they want to know, you hear?" she said softly. The soldier could tell he was being threatened and he nodded. The warrior handed Ephiny the rope that was tied to his wrists and the regent led him into the tavern.

Xena watched through the window as Ephiny handed the prisoner to Gabrielle and explained the situation. Gabrielle jumped up and pulled the soldier to the elders who were in the tavern. They moved out of Xena's vision and a few minutes later, Ephiny came out and reported that the elders from all three villages were to meet in ten minutes in the town council hall. Gabrielle asked that Xena please come, too.

Xena's mood was deteriorating. I had just about convinced myself that I should stay away for her sake. But I see her and I know I don't want to be away from her. I guess I took for granted that she would light my path forever. When she had amnesia, I had a taste of how life would be without her and it tore my heart. Can I do that to myself, on purpose?

Ironically, the agony of possibly losing her friend was causing the warrior to say and do things that drove Gabrielle further away.

Xena and Ephiny waited until Gabrielle and the elders had entered the council hall then they went in. Gabrielle was telling the elders what she had learned from Ephiny and the prisoner was verifying what she reported. Naturally the elders from Pergaros were disturbed by the information. "What can we do?" the chief elder asked. "My people are simple villagers, not soldiers."

Gabrielle turned around and saw that Xena had entered with Ephiny. The bard spoke out, "We have forty women warriors in town and we have Xena, the Warrior Princess. Perhaps she would take charge of this problem if you asked her to?"

The elders spoke for a short moment among themselves. Then the chief elder said, "Yes, Queen Gabrielle, we would be honored to have your Warrior Princess solve this problem for us."

An almost snarling voice came from near the entrance. "Well, I'm afraid HER Warrior Princess doesn't have a solution for this problem," Xena retorted as she strode toward the council table.

"Xena, these people need help," Gabrielle rebuked her.

"Like I said, I don't have a solution. At least, not one that doesn't involve... violence." The Warrior Princess stood to her full height and crossed her arms. She tossed her head back and stuck out her bottom lip as she said the word, "violence."

The elders looked confused.

Gabrielle smiled sourly. She's going to make this tough on me. Make me beg.

"You know what I mean," Xena said. She drew her sword, held it up in front of her face and pretended to examine it. "Violence--that stuff that civilized people aren't involved with, only people who live in the wilds. Are you sure you want to dirty your hands with it?" She looked around at the elders. Both eyebrows raised and disappeared behind her bangs as she feigned astonishment.

"Xena, what you're talking about is between you and me," Gabrielle asserted. "These people really need your help."

The warrior cocked her head at Gabrielle and asked in a surprised tone, "Ohhhh, you mean there is such a thing as GOOD violence? Who would have guessed that?"

By this time, the elders realized that something personal was going on between the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen. Everyone had heard that they were close friends, but it seemed that, for the moment, they were out of sorts with each other. No one knew how to react to this situation, including Ephiny, who looked bewildered. Without the Warrior Princess and the Amazons, the village of Pergaros seemed doomed.

The bard lost her patience with Xena's behavior and spoke harshly to her. "I do not intend to apologize for what I said to you. And you obviously aren't going to apologize for fighting when I specifically asked you not to. But you and I can settle these differences later. If you're going to help, then start helping and if you're not, then leave. Ephiny and I will lead the Amazons against this warlord."

Xena's chin moved higher and her face hardened. She looked at the bard with empty eyes. "I'll help them." And she repeated coldly for emphasis, "With my usual violent solutions." Gabrielle, recognizing Xena's frozen emotions look, shivered involuntarily.

Actually, the fact that the bard had stood up to her raised Xena's respect for her a notch. But the warrior's stubbornness would not allow her to let Gabrielle know that. So she closed down her emotions.

Then Xena's demeanor changed and she became the take-charge ex-warlord. "How many homes are in your village?" she asked of the chief elder from Pergaros. "And how many men capable of fighting do we have from all three villages?

 

Chapter 4

The plan was simple, but potentially effective. Men from all the villages were to hide in the homes, not showing themselves until they heard the sounds of battle. The Amazons would hide in the surrounding forest and attack the sides and rear of the column just as the head of the column was entering the village. Ephiny and Gabrielle would lead the Amazons. Xena, Eponin and Solari would help the villagers. Everyone was expected to be in place by morning.

As the combined forces moved toward Pergaros, Xena rode on ahead to check with Elisa and Gwynna. The two young Amazons reported no unusual activity and went with the Warrior Princess to Pergaros. "You know where I want you two during the battle."

Elisa and Gwynna nodded. "We'll stick to Gabrielle like a burr," Elisa grinned. Her familiar expression had become a standard promise of her loyalty. The two Amazons would protect the Queen with their lives.

By early morning, everyone was ready to move into place as soon as the army got close. Ephiny had sent several Amazons into the trees between Pergaros and the area where Tranikos had his army encamped. They would sound the alarm when the army began its march and keep signaling its progress.

Soon a birdcall was passed up the line that the army was setting out. Other calls noted how fast it was approaching until, at last, it came into view of the village. Tranikos, expecting little resistance, was riding boldly at the head of the column of foot soldiers. As he and his men entered the village, they heard a strange sound. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," caught their attention as a body hurtled through the air and kicked Tranikos off of his horse. At the same time, men armed with swords, axes, knives, scythes, pitchforks and staffs poured out of the houses and attacked the soldiers. Eponin and Solari kept the fighters organized into solid units that proceeded to cut wide swaths through the befuddled soldiers.

Amazons fell upon the part of the army that was still outside the village. Gabrielle's group hit them from one side and Ephiny's from the other. The element of surprise worked well in favor of the defenders. The soldiers hadn't really been expecting a battle and they were slow to react. The Amazons, who constantly practiced their fighting techniques, killed or maimed many before they could regroup. The hand-to-hand fighting was savage but the Amazons were winning.

Xena jumped up from where she had landed after unseating Tranikos, drew her sword and viciously took down every soldier within reach. Many of those around her backed away, choosing to take their chances with the villagers or Amazons rather than face the furious fighting machine they saw kicking, thrusting, swiping, punching and head butting before them.

When Tranikos recovered from being jolted from his horse, he dared to square off against the woman warrior. Xena stood before him, catching her breath. "Who are you?" Tranikos snarled.

"My name is Xena. Some call me the Warrior Princess," the warrior answered, with a taunting look on her face.

"Of course," Tranikos growled. "I thought you gave up fighting."

A silly smile appeared on Xena's lips and her eyes flashed. "Only the BAD fighting, Tranikos. Now I do GOOD fighting."

"Not good enough, woman. Prepare to meet your executioner!" Tranikos lunged forward. Xena easily parried his stroke and punched him with her free hand. He fell back, twirled around and kicked her in the chest. Xena fell to the ground and rolled over to avoid the sword coming down at her. Jumping up, she elbowed the warlord in the face, splitting his lips and bloodying his nose. He flung out a leg, trying to upset her and she flipped up in the air, coming down behind him. He managed to get his sword up behind him to block her thrust, then turned and swiped his sword sideways at her. The edge of the blade smacked her in the chest exactly where her armor was broken and cut her deep enough to start a steady flow of blood.

Incensed, Xena jumped three feet off the ground and kicked Tranikos in the throat, collapsing his windpipe. He staggered to his hands and knees, unable to breathe. Caught up in the bloodlust of battle, Xena raised her heavy sword and spat out the words, "The executioner just arrived." She smote him across the neck with a mighty blow, severing his head from his body.

Looking around, Xena saw that the villagers, led by Eponin and Solari, had forced the fighting into the open space outside the village. With the Amazons, they formed a three-way assault on the soldiers caught within the triangle. For a moment, Xena's heart lurched as she couldn't find the golden head she sought. Then, to her relief, she saw the bard fighting next to Elisa, with Gwynna right behind them. Over to her right, Ephiny had her hands full with a group of soldiers who had ganged up on her. Xena threw her chakram, taking out two of them. Then she flipped several times in the air, catching her chakram and yelling her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," as she came down beside the blonde regent.

The Warrior Princess swiped sideways with her chakram, slicing one soldier across the neck, and thrust her sword deep into the chest of a second man. Putting her boot against his body, she withdrew the sword in time to parry a downward blow by a third attacker. Ephiny stuck her sword in his side, just as another soldier thrust at the regent from behind. Xena shouldered her sideways and impaled the man on her own sword. But the soldier had managed to deal Ephiny a life-threatening stab in the chest even as Xena knocked her away from his blade.

Eponin and Solari both showed up at the same time to take on the balance of the attackers, leaving Xena free to tend to the badly wounded regent. Blood was trickling from the side of her mouth and she was having trouble breathing. The warrior found the hollow tube she kept in the bag at her waist and inserted it into the hole in Ephiny's chest. The tube allowed the air trapped in Ephiny's lung to escape.

The fighting was dying down and Gabrielle and the two young Amazons came running when they saw Ephiny get knocked down. Gabrielle immediately reached into the bag at her side for a needle and thread. She fitted the thread through the needle and handed it to Xena. The Warrior Princess removed the tube and sewed the muscle and skin above the lung wound together on three sides. She left the fourth side unsewed, forming a flap that acted as a valve, allowing air to escape from the lung when Ephiny breathed out, but preventing air from entering through the wound when she breathed in. Gabrielle had a bandage ready and Xena wound it loosely around Ephiny's body and tied it closed.

Gabrielle was appalled at the amount of blood that had pooled around Xena's legs as she knelt at Ephiny's side. She wondered how anyone could survive with such a loss. Then, she was startled to see that some of the blood was running down Xena's body from a wound in her own chest.

The warrior handed the needle and thread back to Gabrielle. She started to put her long arms under Ephiny to lift her when the bard stopped her.

"Xena." She remembered to call her name before touching her. "What are you doing?" She held Xena's arm, keeping her from lifting Ephiny.

The Warrior Princess shook her arm, trying to get free of Gabrielle's hold. "I'm taking her back to the Amazon village. She needs special care."

"You're not taking her anywhere until I fix the wound in your chest," the bard protested. "You can't help Ephiny if you pass out from loss of blood on your way there."

Xena looked down at the bleeding wound in her chest as if seeing it for the first time. She knew Gabrielle was right. She removed her arms from under Ephiny and unhooked her armor. Unwrapping it from her body with help from her friend, she surrendered to Gabrielle's ministrations. With an effort of will, she forced the pain from her consciousness.

Tears were running unimpeded down the bard's face as she sewed the wound closed. Xena saw that she was crying and said, softly, "Ephiny is tough, Gabrielle. She'll fight her way out of this."

I hope you're right, Xena. But I hate to admit I'm not crying about Ephiny. When you hurt, I hurt.

It was all Xena could do to keep from putting her arms around the bard and pulling her close. But if she was really going to separate herself from Gabrielle, she had to stop wanting to comfort her. If only she would stop crying! When she cries, my heart cries, too.

"You're done," Gabrielle managed to say.

Xena looked down at her. "You can take care of things here?"

Gabrielle nodded, afraid to trust her voice again.

"Send my armor to the metalworker here. He said he can fix it. I'll pick it up, later," Xena instructed. She took a leather strip from the bag at her waist and fashioned a holder for her scabbard, which she unhooked from the body armor.

Xena reached again for Ephiny and lifted the regent against her chest. She had seen Elisa take off running but had given it no importance until she looked up and saw the young Amazon riding Viktor toward her with Argo in tow. She pulled up in front of Xena, jumped down and took Ephiny in her arms until Xena mounted Argo. As she handed the wounded Amazon to her, Xena nodded to her. "Good work, Leese."

"I'm coming with you, Xena," Elisa said. She vaulted onto Viktor and was riding alongside Argo.

"I'd rather you'd stay here, Leese. And keep an eye on... things," the warrior answered. "For me."

Elisa knew Xena meant the Queen. She just didn't understand the haunted look in those blue eyes. But the Warrior Princess' wish was her command. "All right, Xena, I'll take care of her."

Xena kicked Argo into a gallop and took off for the Amazon village. She held Ephiny tight against herself, glad now that she had taken off her body armor. Her warmth should help the regent's coldness. The warrior spoke softly, over and over, into Ephiny's hair, hoping she could hear and receive comfort from the sound; hoping it would keep her from slipping away from life. "C'mon, Eph. You know you're tough. Don't give up; don't ever give up. I'm counting on you to beat this."

Finally, she reached the Amazon perimeter guards. She slowed just enough to let them know to signal the village that she was coming in with an injured Amazon. She sped on, arriving in the Village Square to find Claris waiting for her with several other Amazons.

"By the gods, it's Ephiny," the healer breathed.

"Lung wound," Xena informed her as she handed the regent to one of the helpers. Xena slid off of Argo and Claris saw that she also was wounded.

"And what's yours?" she questioned as they followed behind the woman carrying Ephiny to the healer's hut.

"Forget about me; you know how fast I heal. It's Ephiny who needs attention," Xena pointed out. "She's in bad shape. Besides having a serious wound, she's lost a lot of blood. We need to get her warmed up, fast."

As soon as Ephiny was laid on a pallet in the hut, Claris sent the helpers to get more firewood. She had Brisia start the extra fire that was already laid while Rhea prepared clean bandages. Claris always had water heating in the regular fireplace and she and Xena used some of it to bathe Ephiny and put a clean shift on her. Then they covered her with several furs. When the extra firewood was brought in, they loaded up each of the two fireplaces. Soon everyone in the place was sweating. Xena took the opportunity to wash off the blood and gore left on her from the battle.

The healer sent Rhea and Brisia to bed, indicating that she and Xena would watch over the regent. Xena explained Ephiny's wound and what she had done to it. Then, "I left a flap of skin over the wound, so she can breathe properly. The lung should heal in a week or two, and if everything looks all right, then the flap can be sewed closed."

Claris never ceased to be amazed at the Warrior Princess. Here she is with a wound that would lay most people low and she acts as though she doesn't even know she's wounded. How does she shut out the pain?

Xena sat next to Ephiny for an hour, holding her hand. "Claris, she's not getting any warmer," the warrior said.

Claris had been pulverizing some of the roots that Xena had brought back from another Amazon tribe further north. They had remarkable analgesic and healing powers and Claris wanted to make some fresh salve to use on Ephiny's wound. "I don't know what else we can do, Princess."

Xena had taken off her scabbard and chakram and now started to remove her boots. "I'm going to crawl in next to her. There's enough heat coming off me to warm up a frozen river." The warrior pulled her boots, arm guards and leathers off, and was left wearing only her cotton undergarment. She lifted the furs and squeezed onto the pallet. She carefully turned Ephiny away from her and pulled her body up close. The regent felt like a chunk of ice. After a long while, Xena's heat began to seep through Ephiny's skin and gradually, she warmed.

The long, arduous day caught up to the Warrior Princess and she fell asleep. Xena woke at dawn, pleased to find that Ephiny's body was now thoroughly warm. Ephiny was also waking and it took her only a moment to realize that she was plastered up against someone else's body. Startled, she looked down at the long, bronzed arms and strong hands that grasped her around the waist. Oh, sweet Artemis, it's Xena! How did this happen? Next, she realized that she had a very painful wound and, suddenly, her memory of the battle returned. She tried to move and groaned.

She felt warm breath against her ear as Xena's voice said softly, "Don't move, Eph. Claris has a salve that will take most of that pain away. She's been waiting for you to wake up."

Claris had heard the groan and she came quickly to Ephiny's side, salve jar in hand. "Stay where you are, Xena, until I get the salve on Ephiny's wound. It will deaden a lot of the pain in about 10 minutes. Then it won't hurt her for you to move." The healer smiled at the regent. "Glad to see you are awake, Ephiny. Let's get this salve on you and you'll feel a lot better." Ephiny nodded, too sore and weak to talk.

Claris pulled back the furs. "You two look like a mother bear and her cub," she grinned. She took a knife and cut away some of the shift Ephiny was wearing, exposing the bandage around her wound. Carefully, she cut through the bandage and removed it. Then she spread the salve liberally on the wound, careful not to interfere with the flap of skin. "I would have guessed that you sewed this wound, Xena; the stitches are so fine. Probably won't even leave a scar."

Xena and Ephiny lay still for ten minutes while Claris chattered away. Ephiny was bone tired, but her mind was going a mile a minute with thoughts she knew she had no valid reason to entertain. C'mon, Eph, cut it out! 'What if's' are just wishful thinking.

Finally, Xena could feel Ephiny's lungs expanding more, as the regent breathed more deeply, and she knew the salve had taken effect. "I'm going to move away now, Eph," she warned. Carefully, she eased her arms from around the regent and slid off of the pallet.

The warrior walked around the pallet and knelt down facing Ephiny. The regent's face was drawn and abnormally pale. Pain creases showed in her forehead and around her tight-lipped mouth. Xena laid a hand on her forehead to double check for fever, then brought it down to caress the cheek of the woman whose path had crossed hers so many times. "Welcome back," Xena smiled at her. "I knew you were too tough to die."

Ephiny struggled to talk. "Something... you... taught... me.... Never... give... up."

"You were so cold, I had my doubts if your blood would ever get moving again," Claris told her. "You're lucky the Princess thought of warming you up with her own body."

"Thanks," Ephiny whispered and closed her eyes. "Felt... good." Xena holds me in her arms all night to keep me warm and all I can think to say is it 'felt good'? She opened her eyes and looked straight into mischievous blue orbs crinkled in humor. The regent's lips curved up as she struggled to keep her eyelids open. And those eyes... Xena, grinning, leaned over and kissed Ephiny's forehead. "Be well, Eph," she said very softly as the regent, still smiling, fell asleep. She touched her dark head lightly to the regent's blonde curls and her smile died as she whispered, with anguished passion, "Look after my bard for me, Eph." Then her voice went so low that even Claris couldn't make it out. "The vision shows that if she stays with me she will die." Xena kept her head down until she could tame her agony then she rose and moved toward her clothing.

Claris approached Xena to put some of the salve on her wound but the Warrior Princess turned it down. "Save it for the wounded who will soon be arriving, Claris. I'm fine."

The warrior donned her leathers, arm guards, boots and weapons. "Ephiny's lungs are clear. It looks like she has a good chance to fully recover with a lot of rest and your care. It'll probably take her a good month to recuperate. I've done as much as I can, so I'll be leaving."

"You're not waiting till the Queen gets back?" the healer asked, surprised.

"No," Xena answered shortly and walked out the door.

Xena's suddenly cold behavior puzzled Claris. Wonder what happened that would cause her to go her separate way? Maybe just a temporary tiff. I hope so. Their friendship has always seemed special to me.

Claris walked to the door and watched as Xena entered the stable. Minutes later, she came out leading Argo, mounted the golden warhorse and cantered out of the village. Claris smiled as she saw the warrior lift her chin and square her shoulders, making a transition from imposing to formidable. She knows everyone still in the village is watching her, as usual. And she's treating us to her Warrior Princess form. She's a proud woman; maybe too proud for her own good, sometimes.

 

The vision that foretold our deaths
Was frightening you away.
But who's to know if destiny
Decreed that dreadful day?

 

Chapter 5

Gabrielle and the Amazons had camped overnight at Pergaros after helping to clean up the town. Although a number of Amazons had been wounded, none had been killed. Xena's armor had been sent to the metalworker for repairs as she had requested. The festival, of course, had been canceled.

The women woke early and got on the trail for home, the few badly wounded ones being carried by litter. Gabrielle put Eponin and Solari in charge of the litters with ten other women as guards. She and the balance of the group rode ahead, reaching the Amazon village in several hours.

The bard rode straight to the stable, handed off her horse to one of the stable workers and ran over to the healer's hut. Opening the door quietly, she stuck her head in and saw Claris working at a table along one wall. Ephiny was the only patient in the hut. Claris looked up and saw the Queen and came quickly over to meet her as Gabrielle entered.

"How is Ephiny?" asked Gabrielle, concern written all over her face.

"She's doing as well as can be expected; better, in fact," Claris assured her.

Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "That's wonderful news! That was a frightening wound she had. Xena literally saved her life on the battlefield."

"And here, too," Claris remarked. "Xena's a marvel at stitching wounds, but I thought we were going to lose Ephiny when she first got here; she was cold as death. Then that tough Warrior Princess we are all so scared of crawled onto the pallet beside her and held her in her arms all night to get her warm."

A gentle smile came over the bard's face as she pictured her friend holding Ephiny to keep her warm. "I keep telling all of you that Xena has a sweet side to her that most people don't get to see. Even though she sometimes can be completely aggravating! Where is she now?"

"She got on Argo about an hour ago and left," Claris said. "Didn't say where she was going. Said Ephiny looked like she would be all right in my care and off she went."

The hurt and puzzled look on Gabrielle's face told more than words that something was amiss between the two friends. The bard shook her head as if to clear it and walked over to see Ephiny.

Gabrielle sat on the pallet next to Ephiny's and gazed at the regent. Her green eyes reflected the relief she felt that Ephiny would survive. Xena, I don't know where you are or what is bothering you, but I thank you for saving Ephiny's life.

Concerned about Xena, Gabrielle's eyes lowered and she bowed her head. Ephiny's eyes slowly opened and she saw the Queen. "Gabrielle." Her voice was low and throaty.

"Ephiny!" The bard's head snapped up and her worried face changed to a smiling one. "I'm so glad you are all right."

The regent still had a small smile on her face. "Thanks to Xena. Where is she?"

The bard's smile took on a fixed look. "I don't know, Ephiny. Claris said she rode out of the village but didn't say where she was going. I'll find her."

"No, Gabrielle," Ephiny protested. Her voice was weak but sure. "I need you to stay here. The Amazon nation needs you to lead them. You're the Queen; you have to stay."

Gabrielle hadn't given it any thought up to now, but she realized Ephiny was right. With the regent indisposed, it was her duty to lead the Amazons. From the look of Ephiny, that meant she would be tied up here for at least a month. Is Xena coming back or will I have a month of not knowing where she is, what she's doing, how she is? Maybe I can send someone to contact her.

"You're right, of course. I'll stay," the bard promised as she stood up. "Now, you get some rest. We want you well." She leaned down and kissed Ephiny on the cheek, then left the hut.

Ephiny's eyes grew sad as Gabrielle left. Here I am, watching trouble brewing between two of the best friends I've ever had, and I'm helpless to do a darn thing to get them back together.

********************

Gabrielle sent a messenger to Eponin, Solari and their litter entourage to let them know that Ephiny was holding her own and expected to fully recover. Then the bard walked to the Queen's hut. On entering, her eyes fell on the extra pallet that had been placed in her hut eons ago when Xena had first accompanied her, as the new Queen. 'Where I go, she goes,' is what I told them. When did that change? WHY did that change? Puzzled, hurt, angry, Gabrielle threw herself down on her pallet and dropped into a fitful sleep.

Hours later, she awoke to the commotion of the litters arriving. She rose and went out to meet them. With Eponin and Solari, she oversaw the transfer of the patients to the healer's hut. Once they had been settled, Gabrielle went into the hut and spoke to the wounded Amazons, thanking each of them for her part in the success of the battle.

Eponin and Solari eagerly approached Ephiny's pallet and spoke words of encouragement to the regent. Gabrielle joined them and Ephiny smiled up at her. "Gabrielle is staying here at least until I am able to resume my duties. Please try to make her way smooth," she asked her two friends.

"You know we will, Ephiny," Eponin assured her.

"That's for sure," Solari agreed. The dark Amazon's eyes surveyed the hut. "I haven't seen Xena around. Where is she?"

"She... left, Solari. I'm not sure where she went." Gabrielle's eyes fell away as she conveyed this information.

Eponin and Solari looked at each other, then at Ephiny, who shrugged at her lack of knowledge, too. Gabrielle obviously was upset, so no one cared to mention the strangeness of the situation. Instead, talk turned to what Gabrielle would need to oversee during her stay. The bard struggled to put her mind on her duty toward the Amazons while her yearning thoughts sought after her missing friend.

********************

Xena stopped in Pergaros at the metalworker's shop. The first odd thing she noticed was that there was no fire built in the hut. "Hello!" she called. "Anybody here?"

The man she had met at the festival came out of a back room, separated from the metalworking room by a curtain. A sling supported his right arm, which was encased in a bandage. He smiled and nodded to the Warrior Princess. "Xena," he acknowledged. "Your friend left your armor here to be repaired, but I was thrown from my horse and wrenched my arm. I'm really sorry it's not been fixed for you. Do you want to take it, anyway?"

Bolenda, at the Amazon village does good work, but I didn't give it to her in the first place because I knew I wasn't staying there. I'm not about to take it there, now. "When can you work on it?" Xena asked.

The metalworker looked at his bandaged arm and shook his head. "Most probably will be at least a week," he said.

"I'll come back next week," the warrior advised him. She turned to go.

"My name is Stevanos."

Xena looked back over her shoulder at the man. She smiled and nodded. "Next week, Stevanos."

Well, there's a woman no one could accuse of being too talkative, Stevanos grinned. But she sure is beautiful.

As she walked out of the shop, Xena mused, Guess I better steer clear of trouble for a week. Gabrielle would be glad to hear that. Then the fact that thoughts of her friend leaped so readily to mind depressed her and her mood darkened. She climbed aboard Argo and rode off. I don't even know where in Tartarus I'm going... Frankly, I don't even care.

 

Chapter 6

The days at the Amazon village seemed to run together. Gabrielle had plenty to keep her busy, but Xena's absence and lack of communication cast a pall over everything. A day-by-day improvement in Ephiny's condition, coupled with an increase in her vigor and enthusiasm, created the one bright spot in the bard's existence.

Everything seems drab. Was it only a few weeks ago that Xena told me her world seems dim without me around; that nothing's much fun without me? Then why was she so quick to get offended at some tone I've probably used dozens of times, before?

With these thoughts jumbling around in her head, Gabrielle stopped at the healer's hut to see Ephiny. She walked in and saw that Eponin and Solari had preceded her. They were seated on the pallet next to Ephiny's and the regent was half-reclining against some padding that had been placed behind her back.

The three women looked up and smiled as they saw the Queen. "You know, Xena calls you the big three and I'm starting to think that way myself," Gabrielle remarked as she smiled back at them. "I can't think of three more dependable people, anywhere."

"Still no word from her?" Ephiny asked.

"No," the bard sighed. "Haven't heard a thing except that bit about her stopping in Pergaros for her armor."

Eponin frowned. "Which wasn't ready. Which means she's running around the countryside without her armor on. I don't like that idea much."

"Me either, Pony, though I've seen her overpower people, before, when she didn't have any armor on. But I hope she stays out of trouble! No sense in tempting fate."

"Yeah, she'll stay out of trouble. Just like she did at the festival," Solari laughed. "She sure is a one-woman demolition machine."

Ephiny frowned at her and Eponin rolled her eyes. Solari got defensive. "Look, everyone's tiptoeing around the fact that Xena took off. Maybe we should try to figure out why?" The earnest Amazon turned to Gabrielle and blurted, "Nothing's going to be settled between you two until that happens."

Gabrielle was a bit taken aback at Solari's forthrightness; she was usually the quietest of the group. But what she said made sense. "What do you think, Solari? Do you have an idea about it?"

"I think she's afraid," Solari offered.

Eponin snorted. "Xena, afraid? Of what?"

"Of course!" the regent's eyes narrowed as she recognized the truth. "There's only one thing Xena would be afraid of... She's afraid of Gabrielle getting hurt!" Some thought was tickling in the back of her mind, but Ephiny couldn't hunt it down.

Three sets of eyes focused on the Queen. Gabrielle sank onto a pallet next to the Amazons. "But how? Why?"

"She knows you will be in danger if you travel with her," Eponin suggested.

"But we've known that from the time we met, Pony. I accepted that. We've been through all kinds of danger and have survived. What's different, now?" The Queen's brow furrowed. "What can be so awful that she turns her back on our friendship?"

The four women sat in silence for awhile, contemplating possible reasons for Xena's abandonment of the friend they all knew she loved.

Then Ephiny sat up straighter and whispered something indistinguishable. "What? What did you say?" asked the bard.

"A vision. Xena's had a vision of the future. Her future; your future," Ephiny said in anguish. "Before she left, as I was falling asleep, she whispered something to me. I don't think she knew I heard it. What in Tartarus was it? Let me think a minute." The regent raised a shaky arm and pushed her blonde curls back from a forehead creased with the strain of trying to recall Xena's exact words. Then her brow cleared. "Something about having a vision and that you would die if you stayed with her. You know how tight Xena is with some of the gods. I'll bet someone has told her something about the future that has scared her off."

Ephiny looked sorrowfully at her young friend as she continued. "We have all believed for a long time that the only thing that would ever separate you two permanently is... death."

Gabrielle's mist-green eyes formed large pools of soul-searching intensity. "If you're right, then she has seen her death, or my death, or our deaths, together. Together! That's it! She has seen us die together and she is determined to prevent that! She thinks if we are separated, it won't happen!"

The Queen's face looked more hopeful than it had in days. "That's got to be it, nothing else makes any sense. Oh, Ephiny, thank you!" She grabbed the regent's hand and hugged it to her in gratitude.

"Thank you?" Ephiny's eyebrows went skyward. "That's not exactly good news, Gabrielle."

"But it gives me something to work on. I'll just have to convince my stubborn friend that I'd rather..." Gabrielle's throat tightened and, for the moment, she couldn't finish. ...die with her than live without her. But she didn't have to put the thought into words. Her three Amazon comrades knew without being told.

"I'll go after her, Gabrielle, and convince her that you need to talk with her," Eponin offered. "I'll bring her back if I have to drag her back."

The others laughed and then Eponin also joined in.

"Your heart is in the right place, Pony." Gabrielle touched her on the arm. "But let's keep it there, OK? No one's going to force Xena to do something she doesn't want to do and it could be dangerous to try. I think I might send Elisa and Gwynna to persuade her. In any event, if they can't persuade her, maybe they can keep an eye on her for me, until I can go after her, myself. This not knowing where or how she is is driving me crazy."

"Those two pups? What makes you think she'll listen to them?" Eponin protested.

"I'm not sure she will, but I know she won't hurt them," Gabrielle assured the weapons master. "Xena has a lot of respect for your abilities, Pony, but that could work against you. If she gets really angry at you, she won't think twice about decking you."

The bard directed the rest of her words to all three. "But Xena has a real soft spot in her heart for Elisa and, since Gwynna is her friend, she's probably safe, too. Maybe she'll let them get close enough to reason with her and maybe not. But I think it's worth a try."

The bard rose from her seat. "In fact, I think I'll ask them, now. I'll let you know how it works out."

The Amazons watched their Queen leave. Solari, almost overwhelmed by the discussion she had started, blew out air through her lips. "Whew! I sure hope something good comes of this. I hate to see Gabrielle hurting the way she is."

"And Xena, too," Ephiny reminded her.

"Yeah," Eponin chipped in. "The Princess is walking away from her best friend to try to save that friend's life." Then the weapons master looked quizzically at her companions. "Isn't it hard to believe that Xena actually killed Amazons in the past? That had to be another person."

"You're right, she was another person then, Pony," Ephiny agreed. "It's hard to picture the Xena we know being so terrible. I try not to think about it because it makes me really sad. But, as bad as it makes me feel, I know it makes Xena feel a thousand times worse. One proof that she has changed is that she has saved our Amazons over and over. And Gabrielle was a big part of that change. Even Xena says that Gabrielle keeps her dark side submerged."

The regent's face grew even more grave. "What's going to happen if she stays away from the one she calls her light? Will that darkness overtake her? I, for one, don't want to wait around and take a chance on that happening. We have to get those two back together. If Elisa and Gwynna don't succeed, we'll have to come up with an alternate plan."

The big three of the Amazon nation looked solemnly at each other. "So, start thinking."

********************

Gabrielle knew that Gwynna was on perimeter duty and Elisa was helping in the stables. She walked over to the stables and was surprised to see Gwynna sitting on a box next to Elisa, sharing some bread and cheese. "Hi, Leese, Gwynna," the bard greeted the two. "I thought you were on perimeter duty, Gwynna."

Gwynna stood up out of respect for the Queen. "I am, Gabrielle. I just came back to join Leese for lunch. I'll be going back shortly."

"Never mind, Gwynna. They can get along without you for awhile. I'd like to see you and Leese in my hut as soon as you are finished here." Gabrielle looked toward Elisa, "OK?" Both girls nodded yes and the bard returned to her hut to await them.

Elisa and Gwynna entered the Queen's hut and glanced around. Their eyes hovered for a moment on the extra pallet that was Xena's then swiveled back to Gabrielle who was seated at a small table. She beckoned the two friends to chairs placed there. When they were seated, she poured a mug of wine for each of them and one for herself.

"I've asked the two of you here, because I want a favor from you. A very important favor." The Queen studied the alert young faces. "You both know I lost my temper at the festival and told Xena to leave and she took me up on it. What you may not know is that it was very unlike Xena to get that angry at what I said. I've been wracking my brain to try to figure out the real reason why she left, with no success."

Gabrielle took a sip of her wine and noticed with an inward smile that Elisa and Gwynna had not touched theirs until she did. It's nice to see these touches of respect from the younger Amazons.

"Well, I've just had a long discussion with Ephiny, Eponin and Solari, and we think we've hit upon the explanation. We think Xena believes that if she stays with me some terrible misfortune will happen to me." She raised her mug again to her lips and Gwynna did, too.

Elisa, having taken one drink out of courtesy, had pushed her mug away and was absorbed in the bard's words. That sounds like Xena, worrying about Gabrielle, first.

"So, she has used the argument as an excuse to separate herself from me. This separation has all of us worried. You know some of the awful things Xena did before she changed her path." Elisa and Gwynna nodded soberly, remembering what they had learned about Xena and the northern Amazon tribe. "She constantly gives me credit for helping her make that change, saying that I help her keep the dark side of her nature under control."

Elisa was touched that the bard was confiding in them. Xena was her idol but she was beginning to realize that Gabrielle wielded enormous influence over the Warrior Princess and that that influence was for everyone's good. Xena's like a raging river and Gabrielle is like the channel that keeps her going in the right direction. Without that channel, the river could overflow its banks and run wild.

The dark-haired Amazon, always quick to grasp a situation, stated, "And you want us to go get her and bring her back to you."

Gabrielle smiled at Elisa's choice of words. "I want you to go talk to her and try to persuade her to come back to me. But, before you agree, you need to know the situation. Xena was in a terrible mood before she left and, since she's been away for awhile, I would guess that she's in an even worse mood. She thinks staying with me will get me hurt, but our friendship is so strong that being apart is hurting both of us."

Gabrielle twisted the mug round and round in her hands. I've got to tell them the worst possibility. "I know, even if she's in a bad mood, Xena will not harm you. But, her dark side may have started to return. And, if her dark side should resurface, you COULD get hurt. The whole world could get hurt! If there's any sign, AT ALL, that she's not thinking straight, leave her and come back here at once. I'll find a way to go after her."

"When should we leave?" Elisa asked, without hesitation. Gwynna looked askance at her friend but kept silent.

"I'd like you to go as soon as possible, please," Gabrielle said. "I'm asking this favor as your friend, not as your Queen. You may refuse if you wish."

"Gabrielle, I have to admit I'm scared. Xena could pulverize me, and I know it. But, I owe her a lot, and she's worth the risk. She's part of my family. So, I know I'm going." Elisa turned and looked at her blonde friend.

Gwynna's face showed fear, also. But her fear was for Elisa. She knew when Elisa got hold of a purpose, she went at it wholeheartedly and going after Xena that way could be dangerous. But there was no way Gwynna would let Elisa go without her. "Count me in, too," she said.

Some relief showed on Gabrielle's face. "If she won't come, try to stay with her and keep me informed as to how she is, OK? And I'll come as soon as I can." At least, Xena might listen to Elisa. She'd just keep running from me, I'm afraid.

"OK." Elisa and Gwynna rose to go and Gabrielle gave each of them a hug. "Remember, no heroics. Just do your best."

As they turned to leave, the bard pulled on Elisa's arm. "And, Leese," she smiled, "stick to her like a burr."

Both of the young Amazons grinned. "You know I will," Elisa promised.

May the gods go with you, Gabrielle prayed as they left.

 

Chapter 7

Xena had been on the trail for eight days, barely eating or sleeping. Her rotten mood suppressed any appetite she may have had and she ate only to stay alive. As for sleeping, the nightmares had returned full force. In the past couple of years, with the bard near, she had finally been able to sleep with only an occasional interruption by dreams of horror and destruction.

Now, Gabrielle's leavening presence wasn't there to chase the darkness and the battle for Xena's soul had been renewed. By the gods, isn't it enough that I've torn my heart in two? Do I have to be battered over and over again with the sins of my past? Is Gabrielle the only one who can help me push these dreadful scenes away so I can see past them to the light? Of course, she already knew the answer to that question...

Not headed anywhere in particular, she stayed in the vicinity of Pergaros. At last, she made camp in the late afternoon in a desolate area at the base of a cliff where the forest ended. The bare terrain seemed to suit her loneliness. In the four years she and Gabrielle had traveled together, they had rarely been separated. And Gabrielle had never sent her away before.

Be honest. Gabrielle didn't really send me away. I suddenly couldn't get that rotten vision of the future out of my mind and it was making me miserable. And I was taking it out on her. I got annoyed at some of the things she said to me and I built this all out of proportion then decided to use it as an excuse to part.

Now, I have to get my mind straightened out. Can I stay away from her and force our destinies to change? Maybe we could stay together up until that time comes and then I could separate from her? But how can I know when that time is coming? I might wait too long...

Xena's mind was still going around in circles. Sorrow, frustration, and her lonely fight against the darkness within built tension in her until she was about ready to burst. Agitation forced her to pace back and forth at the cliff's base.

Suddenly, she stopped pacing. Her head lifted and her eyes narrowed. She stood like a statue for the better part of a minute, then bellowed, "LEESE! GWYNNA! GET OUT HERE!"

The two young Amazons stepped out of the trees into the clear area.

Xena spread her feet, crossed her arms and looked at them with disdain. "Just what in Tartarus do you think you are doing, following me?"

Gwynna walked tentatively toward the incensed warrior, but Elisa strode right up to her. The tall, dark-haired Amazon stood eye-to-eye with her angry idol. She struggled to keep her voice from quavering. "Gabrielle sent us to look after you."

Xena was torn between smacking her in the face for her impudence or slapping her on the back for her bravery. "Can't anyone understand that I want to be ALONE? If I had wanted anyone with me, I would have said so. You can just turn around and go back home."

"We can't do that, Xena. We have our orders." Elisa stood her ground. A barely visible tremor rippled through her body. This was, after all, the legendary Warrior Princess she was talking back to. The dark Xena had killed people for less.

"Orders?" the warrior sneered. "Gabrielle doesn't give orders that concern me."

"But her orders DO concern ME," Elisa answered stubbornly. "She is the Amazon Queen and I am an Amazon."

Gwynna flinched as she heard Xena's teeth snap together. "GO HOME!" The Warrior Princess clenched and unclenched her fists and her nostrils flared. She spun on her heel and stomped away from Elisa, fighting for control of her temper.

The blonde Amazon reached out in vain for her friend as Elisa stomped right behind the warrior. I hope you're right, Gabrielle, that Xena won't hurt her. Leese sure seems to trust your judgment.

Xena stopped short and spun back around, nose to nose with the young woman. "GO HOME!" she yelled again. She grabbed a fistful of Elisa's tunic at the neck and pulled her even closer. Against her forearm, she could feel the young Amazon's heart beating furiously. Sweat beaded on Elisa's upper lip and the odor of fear clung to her body.

Gwynna threw both her hands up against her cheeks. "GABRIELLE!" she screamed. Xena halted all movement at the sound of her friend's name. What in Tartarus are you doing to this girl? she had sense enough to ask herself. Most probably turning her insides to jelly, Xena thought, disgusted with herself.

Elisa stared into Xena's fiery blue eyes. Her own smoke-gray eyes blazed with an inner light, the light of a woman with a mission. Her knees wobbled as her voice rasped through teeth clamped together. "We... will... not... go... home. No matter what you say, no matter where you go or what you do, we will be there. When you wake and when you sleep, we will be there. The Queen has given us orders and we WILL fulfill them."

The young Amazon's intense devotion to Gabrielle's service, in spite of her obvious fear, broke through Xena's anger, slowly chipping it away. Leese once saved Gabrielle's life and has, many times, stood by her in battle, protecting her when I couldn't. She has earned better treatment than this.

As her temper cooled, she had an oblique thought. The bard was shrewd sending Leese. She knows how much I care for the girl. If it had been Eponin or Solari facing up to me like this, I would probably have busted their chops. But I can't hit Leese when she's only doing what she thinks is right. And look at her, will you? She's scared to death, but not backing down an inch!

The Warrior Princess visibly relaxed, her anger dissipated. She released her hold on the young Amazon. "Maybe I'll have to keep booting your butt out of here till you get tired of coming back," she challenged, with a rueful grin.

Gwynna breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that Gabrielle had been right--Xena would not hurt Leese without strong reason--and her nervousness released into a loud giggle. Both dark-haired women, distracted, turned to look at her. "Xena," she chortled, holding her sides, "your boot would wear out before Leese's butt did. The only thing harder is her head!"

Elisa's raised eyebrows and questioning expression were such a perfect copy of her own that Xena cleared her throat to smother a chuckle.

Elisa, still standing at attention, turned her face back to Xena's face, almost bumping her. The warrior pulled her head back and quirked an eyebrow. "By the gods, Leese, is this what you mean when you say you will stick to someone like a burr?"

Elisa was almost startled that the confrontation was over and she wasn't scattered across the landscape. She bobbed her head erratically and muttered, "Exactly."

"Well, Gwynna's probably right." Xena conceded. "I'd best save some shoe leather and let you two stay." The warrior walked away, then turned back. Neither Amazon had moved. "How about rustling up some firewood?" she suggested.

Elisa took a deep breath, trying to relax the tension that had built up inside her. But she had one more thing to say. "Not until we change this camp," she declared. "I think we'd be better off in the forest than stuck out here against a cliff with no means of escape from an attack."

The Warrior Princess was so pleased that the young Amazon had considered the situation strategically that she forbore mentioning that the cave had numerous outlets to the top of the cliff.

"Ok" she agreed. "You pick a site for us." Xena didn't know it, yet, but a tiny snippet had been cut from the edge of her loneliness.

As Elisa went a little ahead on Viktor, searching for a new site, Xena rode up beside Gwynna. "How is she?" she asked softly. Gwynna turned her head to look into Xena's cobalt-blue eyes. Their concern affirmed that she was asking about the Queen.

"She's... doing all right. I think she's lonely. And, she tries to hide it, but... I think she's hurt, too. She really wants you to come back." Gwynna wasn't sure if she should say anything about what Gabrielle had told her and Elisa. Maybe Leese should tell her after we make camp. She watched as the intense blue eyes turned inward and Xena's face grew still. "We all do."

But the warrior didn't offer anything other than a nod and a subdued, "Thanks." I hurt, too, Gabrielle. Not only from my own pain but also from the pain I'm causing you. Maybe having the youngsters here is a good idea. At least we have a way to keep in touch with each other. But, oh, how I wish you were here, beside me!

********************

Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)


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