Disclaimers: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. This story is written for enjoyment and no profit will be made from this work of fiction.
Hurt/Comfort: This story deals with the difficulties in relationships and may be distressing to some readers.
Subtext: I believe our two main characters have a deep, loving relationship. However, there is nothing graphic and the relationship is mainly implied.
Author's Notes: This is the third story I have written and is a direct follow on from my story 'Behold a Pale Horse.' You may find it difficult to follow the story if you have not read the previous story first.
Nann, as always your help is much appreciated. Your constant friendship and support have kept me sane over some very difficult months and there is nothing I can do to thank you enough for picking me up and dusting me off when I fell.
' A faithful friend is the medicine of life.'
Bible, Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 9:10
Thank you as well to Kay and Sheri who took time out from their lives to offer me suggestions and support.
Like it or hate it, please let me know at Surtees1@aol.com
DEGREES OF SEPARATION
'The way down to hell is easy. The gates of black Dis stand open night and day. But to retrace one's steps and escape to the upper air - that is toil, that is labour."
Virgil, 70-19BC. Aeneid, VI, 126.
"Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell;
Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death;
And the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for
Fellowship's sake ye do them."
William Morris, 1834-1896. The Dream of John Ball, Ch4.
Kiaya saw Xena and Argo thunder past her window on the way out of the village; a puzzled expression crossed her face as she saw the saddlebags and sleeping roll strapped to Argo's saddle. She stood, careful not to jolt her still heavily strapped shoulder and arm. She crossed the room, opened the door and stepped out into the sunshine. Seeing Eponin nearby, she wandered across.
"Where's Xena off to in such a hurry?"
Eponin turned as Kiaya spoke. Shaking her head, she said, "I have no idea. Gabrielle told her about your arm this morning. She didn't take it too well, went storming off into the trees again. Gabrielle was upset; Ephiny said that she was going to do something to see if she could get Xena a little more manageable. I guess she's done it."
A feeling of unease settled into the pit of Kiaya's stomach. She nodded at Eponin and made her way over to the palace. She stood outside the palace door and hesitated, hearing muffled voices behind the wooden barrier, then knocked before entering. Gabrielle was sitting in a chair; Ephiny, the Regent, knelt before her, gently brushing the Queen's blonde hair from her tear-streaked face.
Ephiny looked up as the door opened. "Hello, Kiaya. What do you want?" Ephiny's voice held a tired edge to it and she returned her attention to the young bard before her.
"I just wondered where Xena was off to in such a hurry?" Seeing her young Queen in such a state and her flinch at the mention of her partner's name, Kiaya's suspicions rose. "Has she left?"
It was Gabrielle who replied this time, her voice full of choked emotion, "Yes, Kiaya, Xena's left. She'll be back when she's managed to get this darker aspect of herself under control again."
"Why aren't you with her?" Ephiny shot the Amazon a querulous look. Kiaya ignored the Regent and concentrated on her Queen's shivering form. "She didn't just leave, did she?" Kiaya stepped closer, her voice almost a whisper. "You told her to go, didn't you?"
"Kiaya," hissed Ephiny, "I really don't think this has anything to do with you."
"Like Hades, it doesn't. We risked our lives to bring her back to us. I've lost the use of my arm." Kiaya's voice was rising with anger and Ephiny could feel Gabrielle flinching away from the angry warrior. "What was the point, if we don't stand by her now?"
Ephiny stood and faced the warrior. "Kiaya, Xena is not herself right now. She needs time to regain her self-control."
Kiaya refused to be intimidated by the Regent and stood toe to toe with her. "That's my point, exactly. How is she supposed to do that when the only person," Kiaya waved her hand in Gabrielle's direction, "who has the power to help her regain that balance has just sent her away?" Without another word Kiaya turned and left.
Gabrielle sat and stared at Ephiny. "She's right, isn't she?" she asked quietly, her green eyes boring into Ephiny's brown, looking for an answer.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. Maybe there was another way to deal with this situation, but, if there was, I couldn't tell you what it was."
"But I have left her alone, haven't I, Ephiny? Who does she turn to now? It's not as if she has friends in every corner of Greece, is it?"
"And whose fault is that, Gabrielle? It's not as if she's been a paragon of virtue all her life."
"I know that," hissed Gabrielle standing up and pacing the room. "But she's turned that around since I've known her. She's stumbled a few times but she's always managed to pick herself up, and I've always been there for her, as she has been for me. But not this time; this time I've told her she's on her own."
Ephiny sat with Gabrielle for another candlemark; her young Queen had totally broken down. Finally, the bard had fallen into an exhausted sleep and the Regent had gently lifted her onto her bed and left.
Dusk had settled over the Amazon village as Ephiny emerged from the palace. Seeing Solari nearby, she called the scoutmaster to her.
"Solari, find Kiaya for me and bring her to my quarters."
"I'll send somebody out for her."
"What do you mean?"
"She took a horse from the stables shortly after she came out of the palace, and rode out."
Ephiny ran her hand through her hair. "Get someone to check her hut. See if she's taken anything with her."
Solari reported back to the Regent, a quarter of a candlemark later. Kiaya had taken her weapons and everything needed to travel on the road.
Dawn broke over the slumbering Amazon village; golden rays of sun lit the Village Square. Few Amazons were awake to see this daily spectacle of Apollo's racing chariot. Just those on watch at the village gates and their Queen who, in the months she'd been with them, had risen before dawn each day. Several of the Royal Guard strolled across the earthen-packed square to the practise ground with their Queen, who began to drill with her staff.
Later, when she had warmed up, her Guard would take turns in sparring with her until the sweat of her exertions rolled down her face and arms. Then the entourage would make their way up to the hot springs to soak the ache from their tired limbs. Eventually they would return to the village as it woke, joining the rest of the Amazons in the dining hall. The meal would be eaten in relative silence, unless Ephiny or one of the village council came over to discuss matters with their Queen.
The change in the once spirited Queen had occurred gradually. At first, the whole village had been certain that Xena would return within a few weeks, but, as the waiting grew, more and more of them had come to realise that the warrior would not be returning for their Queen. The Amazons would have seen it as an occasion to rejoice had it not been for the fact that their young Queen had been so dejected by the absence of her partner. The young girl had quickly fallen into a depression from which no one seemed to be able to lift her. Though she carried out her duties as the reigning Queen with conscientious precision, none of her quick wit or humour was present at the council meetings. The young woman seemed to be existing, rather than living.
Ephiny and the council had become so concerned by her condition that they had sent scouts far and wide searching for the Warrior Princess, or Kiaya, the young Amazon who had followed her. But no word of Xena could be found. Kiaya had last been sighted in a village many leagues from the Amazon nation but no one had been able to find out whether she had still been on the warrior's trail.
All the scouts had returned some months ago. Ephiny had not sent any more out to search; everywhere already having been covered. Every now and then, she would send someone to the nearby villages to see if anything had been heard about the Warrior Princess. She'd even sent Solari to Amphipolis to see whether Cyrene knew of her whereabouts.
The simple fact of the matter was that Xena had disappeared, and the surrounding countryside was suffering because of it. Warlords who had once shied away from the area made frequent raids on the local villages; rogue bands of highwaymen made travelling the roads dangerous. People had gone from cursing the warrior for her past misdeeds to cursing her absence now that she was no longer around to protect them.
The Amazon nation had survived virtually intact; there had been a few minor skirmishes along the borders, but nothing that they hadn't been able to handle. On several occasions, Gabrielle had accompanied the warriors in repelling attacks on the border, and respect had grown for her in the village. The Amazons would do anything for their Queen. But there was only one thing that would help the bard regain her spirit and, no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't provide her with it.
The Amazon hunting party had been out for several days, hunting the lands on the southern borders of their territory. The hunt had been successful; deer had been plentiful and they even had managed to bring down a bear. Arguments had already started about who would have the pelt of the magnificent beast.
The happy band of warriors had set up camp near the border markers to butcher and prepare their catch for transport back to the village. The southern border was seldom crossed due to the mountain ranges a league or so beyond; nevertheless, a border patrol was maintained in the area. A number of them had joined the hunting party around their morning fire, catching up on news from the village and partaking of some of the freshly caught venison.
A piercing birdcall stopped the talking and laughter. The Amazons listened as another alerted them to an intruder on their lands. The women grabbed their weapons and melted into the trees, heading for the border markers.
The lone rider sat casually on top of her horse, a sword strapped to her back, equipment required for nights on the road tied to the saddle of her mount. She guided the animal to the Amazon marker, dismounted and waited. She knew they were here and smiled as she heard the first of the alarm calls. She knew within seconds she would be surrounded but she stood, one arm hanging lightly by her side, the other gently holding the reins of her horse. She felt the presence of the warriors as they arrived and took one step forward, dropping the reins.
"I'd lift my arms in peace," she said, in a voice loud enough to carry to the watching Amazons, "but I'm afraid my right arm just doesn't move that far."
Kiaya walked into the village surrounded by her fellow Amazons. News of her return had spread quickly. They seemed excited by her appearance and were constantly asking questions about her disappearance so long ago, but mostly they were asking about Xena. Had she found the warrior, where was she, was she still alive? For the most part Kiaya kept her silence, replying to their questions occasionally but not answering any about the warrior princess. Before the village was told of the happenings of the last ten moons there was another who should be told first.
The sun was beating down on the Amazon village and, as usual, the villagers were going about their daily routines. Little had changed since she'd left. A few new huts had sprung up and the well looked as though it had been rebuilt. The sigil over the palace had changed; obviously Gabrielle had taken up her duties as Queen full time. Kiaya glanced over at the temple. The doors were open but no evidence of the priestess could be seen. The growing commotion at her arrival hadn't seeped into the sacred walls yet.
The party surrounding her came to a stop and a narrow corridor appeared as Eponin, the Amazon weapons master and once her mentor, stood in front of her.
"Kiaya, it's good to see you looking so well. Will you be staying?" The crowd around her hushed as they awaited her answer.
"Yes, Eponin. I will as long as I am welcome."
"You are an Amazon, Kiaya, of course you're welcome."
"I think maybe we ought to see the Queen before that decision is made. I wasn't exactly in her good books when I left, now was I?"
"Come, then, I'll take you to her. I'm sure she will be anxious to see you and to hear any news you have on a certain warrior princess." Eponin studied the young Amazon warrior standing before her because it was obvious that, despite her crippled arm, she was still a fighter. The young auburn-haired girl didn't wilt or flinch under her stare and her face gave nothing away at Eponin's inconspicuous questioning.
"As I said, we ought to see the Queen before anything is said."
Eponin nodded and gave her a fleeting smile. She dismissed the milling Amazons with a flick of her hand and led Kiaya toward the Amazon Royal Quarters. "It's not good, is it?" she asked, once the rest of the Amazons had gone.
"Depends what your interpretation of good is," came the deadpanned reply.
"Is she still alive?"
"If you can call what she is living, then, yes, she was last time I saw her."
"When was that?"
Kiaya stopped short and turned towards Eponin. "Eponin, I'd rather I only have to tell this story once and Gabrielle needs to hear it first."
"Yeah, I know. Sorry. She's been a bit of a mess since Xena left. She honestly expected her to come back for her. She's not the same person you knew."
"Well, that makes two of them then, doesn't it?" With that Kiaya turned and climbed the steps of the palace with Eponin close behind her. At a signal from the weapons master, the Royal Guard at the entrance disappeared inside to announce their presence.
Seconds later the door burst open as the Regent rushed through it and came to a halt in front of them. "Well, you're a sight for sore eyes! Come on in, there is a young bard who could do with some good news right now."
"I'm not sure I can give her that, Ephiny."
"Kiaya, believe me when I tell you any information you can give her is better than the total absence of it."
Gabrielle sat quietly behind an old oak desk that had been passed down from generation to generation of Amazon Queens. Her head was bent forward and her hand was clasped around the quill scratching lightly over the parchment before her. The door in front of her creaked open; she lifted her head and smiled as Ephiny's golden-haired head peeked around the jamb, a slight frown on her face. "Hello there, what's that look on your face for?"
"Er... can I have a word with you for a minute?"
Gabrielle put her quill down and quickly sanded off her scroll. "Sure, come on in." Ephiny opened the door wide and walked in, closing the door behind her. "What's on your mind?" The bard could see that Ephiny was nervous about something.
Ephiny hesitated before she looked into Gabrielle's face. When she'd heard that Kiaya had reappeared in Amazon territory she had thought of it as a gift from the Gods; when she had greeted the Amazon at the palace entrance she had still thought so. But now, she wasn't so sure. Eponin had had that look on her face that meant trouble.
And Kiaya? Well, that she had grown was without doubt. She'd stood there so confidently, and Ephiny thought she had lost that when she'd lost the use of her arm. Her weapon was still slung on her back though it was now set for a left-handed draw. Her face had aged. She'd seen a lot since her unexpected departure from the village, and Ephiny wondered who had given her the new scars that lined her arms. But, more than anything, it had been her eyes that had convinced her that maybe she ought to talk to Gabrielle before she brought Kiaya in to see her.
"Before you get your hopes up, Xena's not with her, but Kiaya's returned to the village." Ephiny looked into her Queen's emerald eyes seeing both disappointment and hope flash within their depths.
Gabrielle sat slightly stunned at Ephiny's words and quickly quelled the trill of excitement that rippled through her. "Kiaya's back here?" Ephiny nodded. "Does she have news on Xena?"
"Yes, do you want me to bring her in?"
Gabrielle sighed, a worried frown crossing her face. "Yeah, if you wouldn't mind." Ephiny turned back to the door. "Eph?" came the quiet voice from behind her. The Regent glanced back over her shoulder. "You'll stay with me when you bring her in, won't you?"
Ephiny could tell by the expression on her face and the insecurity in her voice that Gabrielle expected bad news. "Sure," she smiled. "I can do that."
Gabrielle was already pacing as Ephiny brought Kiaya into the room. The Amazon immediately fell to one knee, her head bowed in homage.
Gabrielle took a second to study the crouched Amazon who had judged her so harshly ten moons ago.
And she was right to have done so. Xena had always been there for her, no matter what. But this time, when Xena had needed her, Gabrielle's strength had failed her and she had turned away from her friend's need.
"Stand, Kiaya." Her voice showed little of the emotions she was feeling. The Amazon rose slowly to her feet and stood quietly in front of her Queen. Gabrielle gave her a small smile. "It's good to see you. Why don't you take a seat." Gabrielle indicated a chair as she wandered back behind the desk and sat. Ephiny positioned herself at Gabrielle's right shoulder.
Kiaya could feel Gabrielle's intent stare on her as she sat, but she didn't speak. The silence in the room grew and Ephiny shifted uncomfortably.
Finally, Gabrielle spoke. "Is she alive?"
Kiaya took a deep breath, wondering whether to blurt the whole story out now or ease her way into it. Easing her way won out; no matter what she told her, Gabrielle still wasn't going to like what she heard. "She was when I last saw her." Kiaya saw the tension ease from Gabrielle's shoulders.
"When was that?"
"About a moon and a half ago."
"We were up in the mountains to the south of the Amazon territory."
"Why have you come back to us, Kiaya?" Gabrielle's voice was low.
"Xena disappeared a moon and a half ago. It wasn't unusual for her to do that while I was with her. But this time, she never came back. I waited over fourteen days but there was no word from her. I decided to head back home."
"You still think of this village as home, then?"
"I'm an Amazon, my Queen. Amazonia will always be my home, whether I'm welcome here, or not."
Gabrielle turned her gaze to Ephiny, then slowly brought it back to Kiaya. "Good. Because you have a story to tell, and I want to hear it all from start to finish."
"In that case, my Queen, maybe Ephiny should sit down. It's rather a long one."
Kiaya launched into her story with barely a hesitation. "When I left the palace, after speaking with you..." Kiaya glanced up at the Queen to see how she would react to her mentioning the time she had burst into the palace and accused her of deserting Xena, but the young bard didn't show any adverse emotion, just nodded at her to continue. "Well, I didn't really know what I was going to do."
Kiaya couldn't remember exactly how she'd managed to saddle the sturdy Amazon-bred equine she was sitting upon, but here she was galloping hell-for-leather after a half-crazed ex-warlord who from all accounts was in a really bad mood. And why? Only the Gods knew the answer to that one, she thought ruefully. She vaguely remembered snatching her travelling pack and food from her hut, which was why she'd been able to feed herself so far, but that wasn't going to last.
She thought she would have caught up with Xena in the three days that had passed since she'd left the village, but she hadn't yet caught sight of the warrior. Xena, it seemed, didn't require food and sleep. The only signs of her passing that the Amazon had found were the crumpled areas around the streambeds that told of the warrior halting to rest her beloved Argo. At each of these sites, there was no evidence that Xena had set up camp or lit a fire, so either the warrior was eating cold or she wasn't eating at all. As a result, Kiaya had allowed herself to stop only to rest her horse and catch a few candlemarks of rest. She'd come to the mountain road early this morning and was convinced from the tracks upon it that she was catching the warrior.
The sun was just passing the nooning when Kiaya sensed the change in the atmosphere, the bird song around her had fallen silent, and even the horse beneath her had grown tense. She slowed the animal into a walk and proceeded slowly down the earthen road. She hadn't yet come across any trouble but now that she'd left the comfortable presence of the forest it was to be expected. Although the Amazon had brought her weapons with her, she had little idea of how she was going to defend herself with them. She hadn't expected to be alone out here; she was supposed to have caught up with Xena by now. Even if the warrior didn't want the Amazon with her, she would have made arrangements for her safe escort back to the Amazon lands; but now she was on her own. She pulled the horse to a halt as four ragged and dirty men stepped onto the road in front of her.
The dirtiest of the men, who, it seemed, was their ringleader, strode forward. "So, what's a pretty little lady like you doing travelling alone on a road such as this?"
Kiaya sighed wondering if there was a school somewhere that taught these idiots their roadside manner. "If you'd be so kind as to clear the road, I'm in a hurry." There, that didn't sound too bad, thought Kiaya, trying to instill her voice with more confidence than she actually felt.
"Now, my lady, my men and I would be remiss in our duty if we were not to offer you the pleasure of our company and protection. For a small fee, of course." The dirty man looked to either side, as his fellow dirtballs stepped up next to him, and smiled.
Kiaya smiled back. Maybe she should try Gabrielle's renowned tactics and talk her way out of this one. Well, it was worth a try, anyway. "Your offer is kind and most appreciated, sir, but as you can see I'm mounted. It would be impractical for you to be my escort."
The man looked a little flummoxed that the lady sitting on the brown mare was actually taking his offer seriously, but quickly recovered by drawing his sword and advancing. "I'm afraid I wasn't offering you a choice in the matter."
Okay, maybe talking wasn't going to help her get out of this situation. But at least I can tell Gabrielle I tried, that is providing I can get myself out of this. Kiaya started to back the brown mare up slowly. She didn't like running, especially when so recently she would have been able to get rid of these idiots without even thinking about it. She was seriously starting to wonder about her planning on this mission; it was flawed, of that there was no doubt.
She glanced quickly around her. She couldn't escape to the sides, the terrain was too rocky for her horse. Riding over them had its temptations but would most likely end in an injury or two. So, the only way left to her was to go back the way she'd come. Which would take her away from her ultimate goal, but would at least leave her alive. She began to swing the mare around on the spot as the men ran towards her, but never got the chance to run, as a familiar form leapt over her head. Gods above, Kiaya hadn't even realised she was anywhere near.
The men halted their full-on charge as a tall, dark-haired warrior landed between them and their prey. Initially stunned by her appearance, they stopped, almost tripping over each other. They soon got over it, though, and, with a rather ragged cry, ran to their deaths.
Kiaya was almost as stunned as the four robbers when Xena appeared. The warrior looked pale and tired, but it didn't stop her from silently ending their lives. Xena pushed the last of the robbers from her blade and then turned to the Amazon and gave her a cold stare. Then she bent down and cleaned her sword on the tunic of one of the dead men, before sheathing it in her scabbard and silently walking back down the road.
Kiaya sat for several moments before urging her horse to follow the warrior.
Kiaya sat quietly before she looked at Gabrielle and then she spoke. "It was then that it occurred to me why I was following a half-crazed ex-warlord that everybody else seemed to have washed their hands of. It occurred to me that, ever since she broke her alliance with Ares, she's been there. Every time the Amazons had been in need, Xena had been there. She was there for you, Gabrielle, even before she knew you; you'd be a slave or worse if she hadn't been there. You wouldn't be the Amazon Queen. Lord Hades below, I doubt the Amazons would be here if it weren't for her.
"I know that you've been there for her, I know the Amazons have helped her out on occasion, but she's just one person, we're a whole nation. And we'd left her by herself when she needed someone to believe in her. She'd always been there for us, so I decided to be there for her. But it shouldn't have been me, Gabrielle."
"I know, Kiaya, it should have been me." Gabrielle's voice was strong despite the pain Kiaya's story was bringing to her.
"Then, why wasn't it?"
"I got scared about things I couldn't control. I was tired of all the pain and hardship we'd been through in the months before we arrived here. I didn't think I could handle it, anymore. Xena was always the strong one when it came to difficult situations, and I always handled the emotional side of things. She didn't need me jumping at her every move, when she was in trouble herself. I thought she would be better off by herself."
Oh yeah, sure, she'd be better off by herself, thought Gabrielle. It only took a demigod and my constant support to help her change and keep on that road. So, what do I do when she's in a worse state than she was then? Send her away. Yep, we were really thinking straight then, weren't we?
Gabrielle took a deep breath, at least she now knew that her partner hadn't gone totally off the deep end when she'd told her to sort herself out. "So, what happened then? Had she been travelling around the countryside as we did? We sent out scouts but no one could find any word on either of you."
"No, as I said, she was headed toward the southern mountains when she left and that was the direction she kept going. She must have known my arm was still giving me a lot of pain though, she slowed down and set up camp every night. She even started to hunt so that we'd have a hot meal in the evening, though it was Hades own bells trying to get her to eat anything at all. Even though we stopped each night, she hardly slept. Spent most of her nights doing sword drills or sharpening her weapons.
"Xena kept us off the roads as much as possible, so we didn't run into much trouble. And, even if we did, she took care of it without even thinking. If they didn't run in the first few seconds, they died; it was as simple as that.
"I always thought I knew her quite well, knew what she was capable of. We've all heard the stories. But I never believed I'd come face to face with that side of her. I mean, I know that when we went to rescue her we met those three different personalities, but they were within her mind. I never expected them to manifest themselves physically. It really was like living with three different people.
"When we came across trouble she was death incarnate. When we were alone she was moody, silent, had a dark nervous energy about her that, quite frankly, scared me. But, every now and then, she showed a flash of that kinder Xena. I remember, we'd made camp one night..."
The days were getting colder as they approached the mountains; Kiaya had even pulled her cloak out earlier in the day but Xena didn't seem to have noticed the insidious change that had crept up on them. She had called a halt to the day's travel, earlier than usual. Kiaya was beginning to wonder whether the warrior was fed up of having a cripple slow her down. She hadn't said anything; then again she hasn't said a word since she'd saved Kiaya's butt. At least, she'd lit a fire before she'd gone hunting.
Darkness had fallen quickly after Xena had returned. She had efficiently gutted and cleaned a rabbit before setting it to cook. Kiaya sat watching the meat intently, knowing that if she was going to eat it in an edible condition, she'd have to keep an eye on it herself. They'd fallen into a routine. Xena would provide the food. Kiaya would eat it and would occasionally get the silent warrior to partake of it, but not often enough for her liking.
Kiaya started, as a hand gently touched her right shoulder and pulled off the cloak. Then she let out a shuddering breath as she realised Xena was by her side. She watched the warrior as she studiously examined the damaged limb, poking and prodding, invoking a painful wince or two. Noting the Amazon's reaction, Xena stood and walked over to her pack and rummaged around in it before pulling a small drawbag from within. She strode back around the fire to Kiaya's side and knelt by her.
Taking another look at the shoulder, Xena took a small vial from the bag, uncorked it and poured a small amount of pungent oil into her hand, then started rubbing it into the muscles of the shoulder. Wintergreen, the Amazon realised. Cassandra had mentioned using it to loosen the muscle spasm in the shoulder, but, of course, she'd left the village before that treatment could be started. The muscle began to warm up under the proficient touch of Xena's hands and the warrior started to rotate and move the shoulder, stretching the muscle. Xena kept the movement up for an age, until Kiaya leapt to her feet and made a dash for the fire.
"Sorry 'bout that," Kiaya said sheepishly as, holding the cooked meat, she turned back to the warrior. "It was about to burn." She looked up from beneath her auburn fringe at the warrior. Xena just nodded and packed away her things and returned to her side of the fire.
"Every night, after that, she worked on the shoulder giving me exercises to do. I eventually started to get some use back; I got the full use of my hand back and can pick up lightweight objects. But we both knew I was never gonna be able to use it to defend myself with again. So she started to train me how to use my left hand to fight with. I'm as good with my left hand now as I ever was with my right."
Gabrielle smiled, and a warm feeling suffused her body. That was the Xena she knew, still looking after everyone else and never thinking of herself. She hardly ever needs anybody else. Except me. She told me that, didn't she? Told me that I was the only reason for her to carry on; I was her family, her home. And just 'cause I couldn't see my way through...Gods in Olympus, how's she ever going to forgive me for this? "You said that you didn't travel, so where did you go?"
"We travelled for about a moon, went way up into the mountains. As I grew stronger and more capable, she pushed the pace; Xena seemed to know where she was heading. Eventually we came to a small village. Well, they called themselves a village. It was more a collection of huts. I dismounted but Xena stayed up on Argo and just sat there. It was some time, but eventually the villagers started to appear." Kiaya paused and looked up, seeing Gabrielle and Ephiny enthralled in her story. "It was weird. There could have been no more than twenty or so of them altogether. But every single one of them seemed to know Xena, even the kids. They weren't scared or fearful; one of the children was even bold enough to take Argo's reins.
"One of the older men of the village approached Xena and she dismounted and followed him into one of the huts. I tried to follow but I was prevented, not unkindly so, but they wouldn't let me into the hut that she'd gone into. I was taken to another hut and given food and drink, was made to feel comfortable. It was just turning dusk when Xena came and got me from the hut.
"Several of the villagers were there with their horses; they were loaded up with food and other essentials and, when we rode out of the village, they followed. Towering cliffs surrounded the village, and I hadn't realised when we first entered, but there were carvings all over them. The most ornate of them surrounded an entrance to a cave. Turned out it was a temple of Hades. I never went in while I was there, but I think Xena did. As night fell we came to another set of caves. The villagers left the food, blankets and wood they'd brought and left. Xena and I made the caves comfortable and that was where we stayed."
Ephiny shifted in her chair and then spoke for the first time during Kiaya's story. "You said Xena disappeared quite often whilst you were with her. Where did she go? What did she do?"
"I had no idea at first. But you remember that storm we had just before we found Gabrielle and Xena at the east gate?" Ephiny nodded "Well, the first time she disappeared it was for about a day. We had a massive storm. The headman from the village and a couple of the village women took refuge in our cave. I'd gotten to know them quite well since we arrived; I was always the one to go into the village for supplies. We became friends but they revered Xena, and I had no idea why until after the storm. As the storm lessened, Argo turned up outside the cave with Xena slumped over her neck. "The headman got her off Argo. She was freezing cold. The women heated some water to warm her, then we got her dry and into her bedroll, to keep her warm, and she slept."
Kiaya got up and started pacing the room ignoring Ephiny's watchful gaze. She stopped in front of Gabrielle and leant forward and gazed into her green eyes. "You have absolutely no idea what you've done, have you? Don't even comprehend the injury you inflicted on her. I can see from the bewilderment in your eyes that neither Lissa nor Cassandra has spoken to you about bonding. Did you even ask when she left? I doubt it. It didn't mean anything to you. After all, you weren't bound to her, were you?"
Kiaya's aggressive change in attitude startled Gabrielle, picking up unerringly on her insecurities.
Ephiny had risen from her seat, now, and stepped in front of Kiaya. "I think maybe you'd better back off. You haven't been here, you haven't seen Gabrielle's..."
The Regent paused as a gentle hand touched her arm. "Ephiny, leave it. She's right. The only time I started really worrying about Xena was when she didn't return for me. And I haven't asked what this bond means for Xena. I need to hear what Kiaya has to say. I need to know what's happened to her and if Kiaya needs to vent her anger at me, for thinking of myself before I thought about Xena, then let her." Removing her hand from Ephiny's arm, she nodded at Kiaya to continue.
Kiaya returned to her seat and sat down, running her hand through her hair. "I wouldn't worry too much, Gabrielle, I didn't have a clue what you had done until Philius, the headman, who it turned out was also a priest of Hades, explained in detail what was going on. I know she told you about her deal with Hades, for the soul of one of her men, and while she travelled with you she was hardly called upon at all to fulfil that roll. Her efforts at redemption were enough for the God of the Underworld, and he only called on her talents if there was no other way.
"But, since the incident with Ares priests, and her loss of control before that, Xena has found it harder to repress the darker side of her nature. It seems she's not the only one having problems. Warlords, bandits, uprisings in once peaceful city-states have increased out of proportion. Hades has been using his messengers more than he'd like, to redress the balance, and Xena is the best of them.
"The storm we had was heralding Xena's arrival. Hades' messengers have the ability to travel the underworld to get to where they are needed. By returning to where they left, by the same route, Hades heals any wounds sustained in his service. But it takes a lot out of them, which is why they are always cold and exhausted when they return. If they don't use the underworld to return, then their wounds remain, but at least they don't have the other side effects.
"Philius was a good teacher; I learnt how best to help when she returned. I spoke to him about what had occurred and brought her to their village. He was shocked that his Lord Hades had allowed her to bond with anyone." The Amazon looked up at Gabrielle. "Did you know that she feels everything you do? If you hurt, then so does she. If you're happy, then a small part of her is, too; if you're sad, so is she. You've gotten yourself into a few scrapes since she left, haven't you?" Gabrielle nodded. "Well, she knew; if you were in danger, she knew. Do you have any idea how it tore at her to know she couldn't come to you, couldn't be at your side? Because you had sent her away. She felt your fear when you did that, you know, and even if she had been able to control her darker side, she would never have been able to return to you knowing that she caused you fear."
The tension in the room was incredible; the silence lingered on before Gabrielle's broken voice shattered it. "Where is she, Kiaya?"
The Amazon took a deep breath. "I was able to look after myself, there was no more she could do to heal my arm. I honestly think that, if I'd not followed her, that it was what she planned to do. She was tired of fighting herself, of feeling pain and not being able to express it; tired of feeling yours, and not being able to comfort you. Towards the end she ate less and less, virtually stopped sleeping altogether. I don't think her dreams were ones she cared to face.
"I woke one morning and she was gone; thought she was off on one of her trips. I waited for a few days before I went to the village, stayed a few more days there before Philius told me she wouldn't be returning. He quickly reassured me that she wasn't dead, but that she had decided to stay in the realm of Hades, she felt she was no longer needed in ours.
"I thought she'd change her mind, couldn't comprehend why she thought she wasn't needed. But I suppose when you can't be with the one you need, the one that feeds your soul, you would feel like that wouldn't you? So I came home." Kiaya stood and looked quietly over at her Queen and Regent. "I know this isn't what you wanted to hear. I know you wanted to hear she was fine and getting on with her life, even if you'd feel betrayal at that. The honest truth in the matter is the Xena you know died when she left the village ten moons ago." The Amazon turned and left the room.
Ephiny turned her gaze to her Queen for the fourth time in as many minutes. Gabrielle was uncharacteristically quiet. Her thoughts had turned in on themselves, shutting out the rest of the world. A lone tear rolled down her face as she took a shuddering breath and focused on her friend. "Well, I obviously made the right choice sending her away, didn't I? I've done what nobody else has managed to do. I killed the Warrior Princess!"
"Gabrielle, she's not dead!" Ephiny took hold of her Queen's hands. "Kiaya said that the priest..."
"Ephiny, it doesn't matter what the priest said. It wouldn't matter if she walked through the door, now." She pulled her hands out of Ephiny's and stood. "The damage is already done. Don't you understand, Eph? I told her where you go, I go, but I conveniently forgot that when it suited me. Gods, she's not somebody you can mess about with like that. She never believed in herself in the first place; she relied on others to do that for her.
"Xena gives her all or nothing; she made a commitment to me and she never failed to uphold it. I used to resent the fact that she used to send me away out of trouble all the time. Heck, I used to get into more trouble totally ignoring her. Until I realised she did it because she was scared that she wouldn't be good enough to keep me safe.
"Even after I inherited Terreis' Right of Caste and you and Eponin taught me the staff, she'd go out of her way to try and keep me out of harm's way. She threw herself into hopeless situations, did the impossible just to keep me safe. That woman would die for me and once she would have said the same about me, but not anymore. Oh no, not anymore. I've destroyed her faith not only in me, but also in herself, in friendship, in family. How does someone who believed in that to begin with come back from that, Ephiny? But Xena had only just started to believe in herself, believe in us. How does she come back from that?"
Ephiny didn't know what to say to her friend and Queen. She couldn't say she understood what she was going through, because she didn't. Couldn't reassure her that everything would be okay, because she didn't know that it would. "Gabrielle, you did what you thought was right at the time. It's easy to look back and say we would have done things differently, after we know the outcome of our decisions."
"What do I do, Eph? What do I do to make this right?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I can't even say we'll think of something, because I just don't know where to start. Look, it's been a rough couple of candlemarks. Why don't you forget about those Treaties you were working on and relax for a while?"
"Yeah, I think I will. Could you get someone to bring me over some food later? I don't think I feel like being sociable tonight."
"I'll bring it over myself." Ephiny stood and prepared herself to leave. "Gabrielle, there are going to be questions. What would you like me to tell the rest of the village?"
"Tell them the truth, Ephiny. Tell them that Xena's gone."
The perpetual sunshine of Mount Olympus shone brilliantly down into the leaf-dappled forest glade; its piercing rays were reflected amongst the trees by the crystal-blue waters of a small pool, nestled in its centre. A stout brown-haired woman dressed in Amazon leathers, with a bow slung over her shoulder, paced restlessly beside the water.
"But I thought we'd managed to avoid this? I thought we'd fixed it so they'd be safe?"
"Well, we had," came the disembodied voice of a middle-aged woman from the water's depths. "However, neither of us anticipated that your chosen would react to her trials in the way that she did. If they are not together, then the treaty we had avoided reasserts itself over their fates. Not even I can change that."
"Okay, okay, so things are not as they should be. Can we change that? I mean, if we can get things back on track, can we still avoid their destruction?" Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and Patron of the Amazons, sat and gazed into the pool's blue depths.
"It doesn't matter what occurs prior to or after the battle, but your Amazons will only survive if your chosen and her partner face the enemy together."
"So all I need to do is to ensure that Xena is in the Amazon village the day of the attack and everything will be as it should be?"
"I didn't say that, Artemis. I said your Amazons would survive. Your Queen and her partner have their own choices to make, and you may not interfere any more than you already have." The Goddess had the grace to look slightly guilty at the minor reprimand. She was well aware that the majority of the bard's problems, and for that matter the warrior's as well, rested on her shoulders.
"How much time do I have?" Artemis rose to her feet.
"Less than a moon."
"Then I have a lot of work to do, and a few favours to call in. Lachesis, thank you once again for your assistance."
Lissa sat on the steps observing the goings on in the village surrounding her. She enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of the women below; there was a marked contrast to the peacefulness and serenity of the temple. The initial excitement caused by Kiaya's return had died down over the last week. Those Amazons brave enough to gossip about the Warrior Princess' continued absence, and some said death, was soon quashed by the irate Kiaya and an equally irate Regent. But things were back to as normal as it ever got in the Amazon village.
The priestess sat quietly, people-watching, for a while longer, before an insistent tugging in the back of her consciousness drew her back into the cool shade of the temple. Lissa walked slowly up the main aisle, before coming to a halt and kneeling before the altar. Shortly, a warm glow suffused the area as her Goddess appeared by her side. Lissa kept her head bowed until she felt a cool touch on it. The brown-haired Goddess always looked resplendent in her Amazon leathers.
"Come on, Lissa, we need to talk." The Amazon Goddess walked slowly away from her priestess towards the temple courtyard. Artemis had been intensely pleased when the Amazons built their temple to her. Her pleasure had only grown when they had created a woodland glade within the courtyard. They had planted it with her favourite trees and plants and whenever she visited the village it was where she preferred to rest out of the sun.
Lissa followed her patron into the glade and waited for her to sit beneath her favourite tree before she sat cross-legged in front of her.
Artemis watched her priestess as she settled. She was about to confide in the young woman whom she had chosen to represent her within the Amazon nation, but before she rested that weight upon her shoulders she would find out about the goings on in the village. "So tell me, Lissa, how are my people faring?"
"Well, my Lady, the village has grown since your last visit; we now have three younglings to add to our numbers."
"And are the borders free from trouble?"
"Mostly, my Lady, but as you would know, the countryside that surrounds us has become a haven for bandits and would-be warlords. The people of this area are sorely missing their protector and your Queen misses her partner."
"Things are changing, Lissa, for all of us. And a time of trial is approaching the nation which some of you may not survive."
"The Amazons have always faced their trials with dignity and honour."
"I know they have, Lissa, but this time the odds are stacked against you." Artemis tilted her head and looked at her priestess. "Do you think you could stand to listen to a poorly told story by a God, instead of an excellent rendition by the nation's favourite bard?" The Goddess let her face relax into a smile.
"I think I might be able to manage that, my Lady."
"Ha, you may regret saying that later, Lissa. I might find I enjoy telling stories and then you would be inflicted to the torture more often; this is, after all, my favourite hideaway." The Goddess leaned back and made herself comfortable against the trunk of the ancient tree and then let her gaze become unfocussed as she stared into the woodland surrounding them. "I am a God, Lissa, and rarely feel the need to explain myself to anyone, mortal or otherwise. But suffice it to say, this needs explaining.
"Some time ago, before most of the Amazons in this village were born, I did a favour for Lachesis. It was not a small one, and all three of the fates benefited greatly from it. In return, I was granted a favour and I asked to see the future of my people. I saw many things, Lissa; I saw good and evil battling for nearly all of eternity with the Amazons trapped in the middle. With the help of the fates I have been able to steer you around the worst of it, and for those instances that could not be avoided, I provided a champion to ensure your success.
"But a time was foreseen when the Amazon nation would be destroyed. We investigated every avenue of escape, to avoid this eventual extinction of the Amazons, but we could find nothing that would help. That was until a warrior of much power and skill was born. At first, it looked as though it would be a simple matter of arranging for this girl to be befriended and eventually adopted by the nation, but that was not to be her destiny.
"She was the chosen of Ares and she followed his teachings with devotion. She committed acts of unspeakable evil, caused the deaths of thousands of innocents, all in the name of her God. If Ares asked, it was done. Her loyalty to her God was almost unbreakable except for one thing; she refused to kill women and children and would only attack those that resisted.
"Ares thought that by having her second in command disobey and undermine her, he would force her into changing her ways to keep her army. He was wrong. She rebelled and was forced to run the gauntlet, but she was not supposed to survive her rebellion. The fates had marked her for death; however, she was the only one who had the ability and power to stop the destruction of the Amazon nation.
"Something was missing. Even if we changed her fate and she lived, there was no connection to the Amazons, so there was no reason for her loyalty and protection to last. I needed to make sure that, no matter what, the Amazons had her on their side; that those same skills and fierce darkness and anger wouldn't be turned on you.
"So I manipulated the situation. You mortals are so easy to read and it was a simple matter for me to see what her soul was missing. I provided that for her, but not by repairing her own soul, as I should have done. I introduced her to Gabrielle. I made sure she was in that glade, I ensured that a warlord's men would be attacking that village, I made sure that they met."
Artemis looked up at her Priestess. "I wasn't happy with the situation, to say the least. Here I was, Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, unable to prevent the destruction of my Amazons unless I relied upon one of Ares' minions to be your saviour. I couldn't reconcile myself to allowing this monster, because that was what she was, to be totally happy. I knew that Gabrielle would be able to tame her turbulent heart and help her to control the rage she had inside her.
"I felt that forcing Gabrielle into something she couldn't break, especially to one such as Xena, was unfair. So, I allowed Xena to bond with Gabrielle but prevented Gabrielle from bonding with her. It never occurred to me that it would be Gabrielle who would bring my work crashing to the ground, by sending the warrior away. By leaving Gabrielle with a way out, I have ensured the destruction of the Amazon nation."
Lissa sat quietly, thinking over what her Goddess had told her. She knew that the Gods frequently interfered in the realm of the mortals but to hear one, her own Goddess at that, state so blatantly that she had altered two lives was, quite honestly, disturbing. "With all due respect, my Lady, why tell us now, if there is nothing to be done. What is the purpose of your story?"
The Goddess sighed and plucked a stem of grass to play with as she continued, "I think I have found a way to resolve the problem..."
"Why do I get the feeling there is a 'but' coming here?"
"Mainly because there is a 'but' coming. There is still a chance to save the nation, but it requires the presence of Xena."
"She's not here."
"I know that, Lissa. I'm a God, after all. I'm going to give you a scroll. When the time comes, give it to Gabrielle. When she reads it, Xena will come."
"How can you be so sure? And when do I give it to her? Before the trouble starts?"
"Xena will come because she has no choice, but only Gabrielle can read it. You give it to her at the last moment. Xena will be more effective if the enemy troops are within the confines of the village. You may tell Ephiny and Eponin of this conversation, but not Gabrielle." The Goddess rose from the ground and looked down at the priestess. "There is just one other thing. Afterwards, Xena will not be able to return to Hades' realm. I have been forbidden to interfere further with those two."
She smiled. "But no one said I wasn't allowed to ask a favour of Hades. That will be Gabrielle's chance to resolve her differences with Xena."
The sun ducked behind several clouds as Solari swung down from the trees near the Amazon village and trotted into the compound. She headed towards the mess hall, where the mid-day meal was being served, looking for Ephiny and the Queen. Spotting them leaving the Palace, she changed direction and ran toward them.
"Ephiny. My Queen." She bowed as she stopped before them. "The scouts were right," she said, bringing herself up to her full height. "The village to the east has been totally destroyed. I had the scouts spread out along the border to see if they could find the army responsible. But it looks as though it is the same one that ripped through Thallis a while back."
Ephiny frowned. "Any idea where they are heading?"
"They look to be skirting our borders and no incursions have been reported, but I figure that isn't going to last long. Whoever is leading the army is making quite a name for himself, and we're just too good a target to leave without taking a hit at us."
"Are we strong enough to defend ourselves against this army?" Gabrielle's voice interrupted the two warriors.
"I'm afraid we won't know that until we know the size of the force we are dealing with. However, no matter its size, we will have the advantage of home ground and the trees."
The scouts found the army some candlemarks later and the first reports back to the village did not bode well for the Amazon nation. The army was over 500 men strong. It had a mounted brigade and woods craftsmen who, it seemed, knew their trade skilfully. For such a large army, they had covered their tracks well.
A council of war assembled in the chambers that usually housed the normal village council. The greatest of the Amazon warriors were discussing how to remove this ominous threat to their nation.
Representatives from the nearest of the Amazon villages had been arriving at the village all day
"They haven't approached our borders. I say we leave them alone. Any move on our part will antagonise them and force them to attack." The ebony-coloured woman sat back in her chair.
"The reports from the scouts have said that Thallis gave the tribute that was requested of them, yet that village is now a smoking ruin." Ephiny's voice echoed around the chamber silencing the grumbling that her colleague's comment had started. "It may not have been an Amazon village but we had good trade treaties with them. Most of the villages along our borders have treaties with us. The nation cannot afford to lose them; we depend on them as they do us."
"We are not obligated in any way; none of the treaties are mutual defence pacts. We need to look after ourselves first," said another of the newly arrived Amazons. The redhead had arrived shortly after the meeting started and came from one of the smaller villages in the north.
"So, we just withdraw and hide ourselves away, is that it?" spat Ephiny. "And just what signal does that send out about the nation? That we'll take whatever people have to offer? Friendship and peace? Trade and right-of-way? But when it comes down to it we won't offer help in times of need because we are scared?"
"We are not scared! We just want to protect our own!" The redhead, whose name was Seska, roared to her feet.
"And that may mean that we have to protect those around us," Ephiny shot back at her, unwilling to raise the temperature in the room any further by climbing to her feet for a face-to-face confrontation.
Eponin sat back in her chair, listening to the bickering and getting more and more frustrated at the lack of progress in deciding a defence against this army. "Shouldn't we be thinking about how we are going to defend ourselves if this army should decide to attack us? I understand we should be concerned about the closer villages we trade with, but we cannot do anything to help them with this threat hanging over us."
The Amazon Regent glanced towards her Queen who so far had said nothing except to welcome the visiting warriors to council. Gabrielle was listening intently to what was being said, but showed no inclination to get involved in the plans for war at this stage. Looking back across the table, Ephiny spoke. "Eponin's right. We should be talking about defence. We'll worry about the rest once we've gotten rid of the problem."
"I have a question." The voice came from the back of the chamber, but Eponin was unable to see who was speaking. "How did a force this large manage to get so close, without us noticing the threat earlier?" Amazon voices rose once again as various warriors argued over the matter and Eponin slumped back in her chair, knowing that this was going to be a long, long day.
"It doesn't matter how they managed to get so close without our knowledge," said Regina, a dark-haired muscular warrior who'd ridden in from one of the nearer Amazon outposts. The meeting had been running for several candlemarks now. "All that matters is that they are here, and we need to decide what to do about it!" The tall warrior stood up and braced herself against the table as she leaned forward to stress her point. "We've been going round in circles for the last day and we've decided nothing. By the time we come up with a plan, they'll already be in the villages!"
"Then let them come." All heads at the table swiftly turned as Artemis' priestess strode through the door and joined in the debate.
"Lissa, we have no way to defend the villages from such a large army." Eponin's voice clearly showed the stress of the last few days, but there was no anger directed at the priestess who knew little in the ways of war. "If we try to protect them against such a force we would spread our warriors too thin to provide any sort of effective protection."
"Besides," another warrior countered, "the hunting grounds would almost certainly be destroyed if we allowed them in."
"So, don't let them attack all the villages then." Lissa had made her way up to the head of the table and stood near Ephiny and the unusually silent Gabrielle. "If we don't have the strength to defend them all, defend one."
"And who gets to make the choice about which of the villages gets to be the one that has the protection?" asked Gabrielle into the silence that had greeted Lissa's last statement.
"My Queen, I'm not talking about sacrificing any of our villages and settlements. This is the capital of the Amazon nation. We are their obvious target, but we are well defended, so they will try to break our will by destroying the lesser villages first. If we can make them believe that we are more vulnerable than they thought, then they might bypass the other villages altogether."
"And how would that help us?" inquired Gabrielle.
"I think I see what our priestess is getting at," said Eponin, leaning forward and showing more of an interest in the discussion than she had since they'd got bogged down on the "how did they get so close" issue. "If we can make them come at us directly, we'd have the chance to concentrate our forces and our attack." The atmosphere in the chamber perked up and discussion began to get more animated as ideas were brought up and discarded or kept for further debate.
Lissa quietly left the dimly lit, humid confines of the council chambers. It was dark outside but the Village Square was lit by flickering torchlight. A few Amazons could be seen strolling from the mess hall or talking in small groups; the topic of conversation most probably being the same out here as it was in the chambers. Lissa took a deep cleansing breath and sauntered slowly towards the temple, stopping when she heard the light footfalls behind her. She turned her head and smiled as Eponin stepped up to her shoulder and gazed past her into the dense forest.
"So, Lissa, care to fill me in on what's going on?" asked the dark-haired weapons master. "No offence, but you've never been one to partake in preparations for war."
Lissa's face broke into a genuine smile of mirth. "Thought that maybe I'd sound a little too confident to fool you."
"Actually, Ephiny told me to find out what's going on with you. You know something we don't?"
"You could say that. Come on back to my quarters. We can sit down and have some tea whilst I tell you what I know."
Lissa pushed open the thatched door to her hut and waved Eponin into its welcoming warmth. The lamps had already been lit by one of the acolytes. Over the fire a small pot of water was just coming to the boil. Lissa tried to hide the grin that crossed her face when she noticed Eponin's concentrated expression as the weapons master studied the varied decorations and hangings that adorned the walls. "Why don't you take a seat?"
Eponin brought herself back to the present and glanced at the priestess. "Did you paint these?" She pointed at one of the pictures that had caught her attention. It depicted a golden sunset sinking beneath the rise on a meadow and, in silhouette, a mounted warrior.
"Mostly, though a few have been given to me. You seem surprised?" The priestess turned her attention to the boiling water and the herbs required for tea.
Eponin took one more quick look around the room before finding a chair and settling down in it. "Not really, we all have hidden talents and abilities. I just wondered why I hadn't seen any of your work before?"
"Not everything is for public consumption, Eponin. The village already has most of my time and attention; I try to keep some things private. Hear we are talking about my work but what about you? Have you done any more since you did that one in the temple?" The weapons master shook her head, as a flush of warmth coloured her face. "Why not? The one in the temple is very good." Eponin shrugged, her face blushing at the praise she was receiving from the priestess. Lissa handed over the warm mug of tea.
"So," said Eponin as she took the mug. "What's up?"
Lissa sat herself down near the fire, stared into its fluttering flame and sipped at her drink. "You ever wonder, Eponin, why you do what you do?" She turned her head to look at the warrior. "I mean, do you ever wonder what it's all about?" Eponin shook her head not really understanding what the priestess was trying to say. Lissa turned her head back to the flames. "I've never wondered why I chose to follow the ways of Artemis; never doubted my decision, until recently."
She sipped at her drink again and Eponin leaned forward and studied her priestess' face as she continued. "I talked with our Lady not so long ago. What she told me concerned me. I always knew that the Gods liked to interfere with our mortal realm. Always knew that to some of them we were nothing more than playthings. But I had always held it dear to me that Artemis was not the same and now, now I'm not so sure."
Eponin began to worry at the disillusionment in Lissa's voice and edged closer to the priestess. "Why has your opinion changed? What did Artemis say?"
"She told me a story." Lissa smiled at the remembrance of their banter beforehand and then a frown crossed her face. "I think if I had not known the people she was talking about, then maybe it wouldn't have bothered me; and knowing that only makes it worse." She sighed and faced her friend. "I mean, does because I happen to know and care about the people involved make what she told me any worse? And what does that say about me? That if I didn't know the people involved then that would make what she's done all right? I've been thinking over this for days and I haven't reached a satisfactory conclusion. It just keeps going round and round in my head." She smiled and noticed her tea was finished. Holding up the mug she asked, "You want another one?"
Eponin grinned. "I think we could use something a little stronger." The Amazon stood and walked across to the door. "I'll be right back." And left.
Lissa had hardly time to clear the cups before Eponin knocked on the door and entered carrying two skins of wine.
Eponin sat down opposite Lissa, after grabbing a couple of mugs for the wine. She placed one of the wineskins on the table and opened the other, pouring herself and the priestess a generous helping. "So, what's our Goddess been up to that has gotten you so upset?" she asked, passing the mug across to her friend.
"Messed with a few lives, changed a few destinies." The priestess hung her head and played with a bit of twining that had parted from the woven mat they both sat upon. She took a deep breath and looked up at her friend and smiled.
"We've always known they mess with people's lives. So, what's new?"
"What if I were to tell you that the Amazon nation shouldn't even be here. That we should have been destroyed seasons ago and that the only reason we weren't was because Artemis was owed a favour by the Fates. That now we face a danger so great she purposely changed the destinies of two people. That their lives had been irreparably damaged and that they had been almost destroyed by her actions."
Eponin looked earnestly at Lissa. "I'd say she was doing her job as our patron." She drank the last of her wine and poured herself another, then lifted the wineskin, offering to refill Lissa's, who gratefully held out her mug. "If you knew that the Amazon nation was about to fall wouldn't you do everything in your power to avert it?"
Lissa frowned. That was exactly what she had been trying to figure out. Artemis had handed her the salvation of the Amazon nation, but she knew that to use it might inflict further pain on two people she considered friends. To do nothing, though, meant the destruction of the Amazon nation. Could she put the needs of two people above the needs of a whole nation of people? She thought not, but knowing that didn't make her task any easier. She stared directly into the eyes of the weapons master. "And if I told you that the two people involved were Gabrielle and Xena? And that the only way to avert our destruction was to force Gabrielle into doing something that will further harm Xena? What would you say then?"
Eponin's eyes grew wide as she listened to the Priestess. The destinies of Gabrielle and Xena were the ones that had been changed by the Goddess? "How? How were they changed?"
"Artemis had searched the known world to find a champion who would be able to protect the Amazon nation from their enemies. She couldn't find one; that was, until the birth of a particular warrior. She thought it would be a simple matter to get this warrior to become part of the nation, for us to befriend her and adopt her into our society. But she was born to Ares and not even Artemis could interfere and change that. She would grow to become so feared that she'd rule over half of Greece.
"Artemis knew, however, that if she could manipulate the situation so that Xena would have an attachment to the nation, then we would have her protection. Xena was never supposed to have survived her Army's betrayal; she never should have lived through the gauntlet. But Ares' time in Xena's heart was over and that allowed Artemis to influence Xena's decisions. She gave her the strength to survive her Army's trial of pain and pushed her in Hercules' direction. She knew that if Hercules could get Xena to change her ways and see that her skills were needed, then maybe the Amazons still had a chance." Lissa gazed into her empty mug then held it up.
Eponin continued to concentrate on the now quiet woman in front of her with some concern. Like most of the Amazons, Lissa had been know to overindulge on occasion, but the weapons master couldn't remember seeing her in such a morose mood before. She refilled the offered mug, prompting, "Where does Gabrielle come into this?"
"Ah," replied the priestess raising her mug in salute. "That's where Artemis' plan was really ingenious. You see," she took a long draw of wine, "our Goddess knew that Ares wouldn't stand by and let his precious chosen leave his fold without a fight, and she knew that Xena would not be able to resist his charms for long. After all, it isn't easy to travel in a country where one-half of the people are terrified at the mere mention of your name and the other half are seeking your head; a country where even your own family wishes you dead." Lissa, noticing her mug was once again empty, rose unsteadily to her feet and walked to the table.
Eponin watched as Lissa poured herself another drink and wondered whether the wine had been such a good idea. The priestess made her way back to the fireside, mug and wineskin in hand. She took another mouthful of the wine and carried on. "Not even the greatest warlord in the world can survive that on her own, especially one who was as damaged as Xena. Artemis had a decision to make: how did she ensure that Xena survive? She could repair Xena's soul and make it whole, enabling her to cope with the hate and loathing she would encounter. After a suitable period of time, after living in a world where she was not wanted, our Goddess would have steered her towards us and we would have welcomed her with open arms--after a little prompting from our Goddess."
Taking another mouthful of wine, Lissa was starting to slur her words as her narration continued. "But, you see, Artemis had a problem with that. By going down that course Xena, warlord, Destroyer of Nations, would live a long life, would even find happiness and a family. How could our Goddess justify that the monster, Xena, was having a happy life when so many had died at her hands?"
Imbibing another swallow, Lissa didn't even notice that Eponin had risen to her feet and removed the wine from by her side, or that the mug was being gently pried from her hand. "So, our Goddess decided to provide what Xena's soul required, in another form," Lissa paused and looked at Eponin for the first time in a while, still not noticing the mug was missing. Eponin raised an eyebrow in question. Lissa sighed in exasperation. "Don't you get it? Gabrielle?" Still no response from the warrior. "Gabrielle is the other half of Xena's soul. Artemis made it so that Xena wouldn't be able to function in this world without Gabrielle by her side."
Lissa twisted round on her seat resting her elbows on her legs, her arms and hands becoming animated, almost excited by the story she was telling. "But here is the big stinger in the tail, get this. Artemis actually felt guilty about introducing such an innocent to such a monster, so she fixed it. She fixed it so that Gabrielle would have a way out if she chose it. She allowed a bonding to occur; Xena was allowed to bond with Gabrielle, but Gabrielle was prevented from bonding with her. It ensured Xena's loyalty to Gabrielle and Artemis ensured Gabrielle was accepted into the Amazon nation, so, by default, we would be under the same protection."
Eponin sat back down next to her friend and handed her a mug of water. "How did Artemis know Gabrielle would stay with Xena?"
Lissa took the mug and drank, frowning when she realised it wasn't wine, but answered Eponin's question. "She couldn't, but she had done her research well." She stood quickly, swaying and reaching out her arm to steady herself. "But, let's face it, Eponin, she chose so well. Have you ever seen anyone deal with Xena the way Gabrielle did? All she had to do was ask and Xena made sure it happened. And it wasn't as if it were forced, they were totally absorbed in each other. I've never seen two people so close as those two were. If you had asked me whether Gabrielle would ever have sent Xena away, I would have sworn, on any God you'd asked me to, that she wouldn't have. I still don't understand why she did; they had been through so much worse together."
Eponin rose and took hold of Lissa's arm, guiding her towards her bed. "None of us can claim to really understand what happened, Lissa. You said Artemis had a way to prevent our demise, but that Gabrielle would have to do further harm to Xena. What did you mean by that?" she asked, lowering the priestess onto the cot.
"Oh, well, you see, the key to defeating this army is Xena. Yep, the Warrior Princess has to be here or we're gone"
"And how do we get her here?" Eponin pushed her friend down and lifted her legs onto the bed.
"That's easy," she said drowsily as she settled down into the comfort of the bed. "Gabrielle has to call her."
Ephiny stood and stretched as the council meeting finally came to an end. The chambers were now empty except for herself and Gabrielle. The young Queen had been quiet throughout the meeting, taking advice and council from the elder, more experienced, of the Amazon warriors. The Regent frowned a little, noting the look of concentration on her friend's face. "You okay?"
Gabrielle managed a small smile for her friend. "Yeah, I guess," she said standing. "Just never thought I'd be sitting here preparing for war."
Ephiny placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "We'll get through this somehow. We always do."
"Without meaning any disrespect to the warriors, Ephiny, but how many times has that relied on a certain Warrior Princess coming riding to the rescue?" She turned and walked quietly out of the chambers.
Stunned, Ephiny stood still for a few seconds, before sitting back down at the table, head resting in her hands. The young Queen had a point. In recent history, the Amazon's greatest victories had been due to the influence of the Warrior Princess. She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there, before she realised someone had joined her at the table. Looking up, she saw that Eponin was seated across the table. "And where did you sneak off to? We could have used your input, you know. It is likely that you will be in charge of organising our warriors."
"Yeah, well, I had the feeling that there was more to what Lissa was telling us than she let on."
"Did you find out what it was?"
"Oh, yeah, but you're not going to like it."
"Eponin, do me a favour and just tell me. I don't think I could take the suspense."
Several candlemarks passed, before the Regent and the weapons master emerged from the council chambers. Neither of them looked happy at their situation but at least they had a little more to go on. What disturbed Ephiny more than anything else, though, was how right Gabrielle had been with her parting comment. And now it looked as though the Amazon nation would be relying on Xena to come to their rescue again.
The only thing she had to do now, was convince Gabrielle to go along with Artemis' plan, which would be no mean feat. Would the young woman have the strength and courage to bring her partner into the fray? For all Gabrielle knew, Xena was quite happy where she was; no bounty hunters after her, no brigands or warlords to fight, no Gods interfering (well, much anyway). For all the young bard knew, Xena was at peace, which is all she had ever been searching for since her break with Ares.
Would Gabrielle risk that for the sake of the Amazon nation? Ephiny had to believe she would, but what price would she have to pay? She had suffered enough when Xena had not returned to her; would she risk it? The only way to find out was to ask her, but Artemis had told Lissa that Gabrielle was not to be told until the last moment. Ephiny could see her point. If Gabrielle were given the chance to think it through too much, she would tear herself up trying to decide what was the right thing to do. Yet, if they followed Artemis' plan as supplied by Lissa, and Gabrielle didn't have luxury to mull it over, she would instinctively call on her partner.
Artemis had put the Regent and her closest advisers in a poor position. Gabrielle was the chosen of Artemis, the Amazon Queen; she had the right to make her own decisions, didn't she? Artemis had chosen her to run the Amazons. Was she now saying that she didn't trust her to make the right decision for them? Ephiny rubbed her head and looked over to the palace. Gabrielle's parting shot only made this harder. She took a deep breath and glanced back at Eponin, "I'm going to tell Gabrielle."
A look of consternation and worry came over Eponin's face. "Is that wise? After all, Artemis said..."
Ephiny started walking towards the palace. "I know what she said. But she's wrong to ask us to betray Gabrielle's trust like that. Artemis is the one who has dug us into this hole, and she's trying to get out of it smelling of roses. Well, she chose Gabrielle to run the Amazon nation and, by the Gods, that is what she's going to do, with all the facts at hand. If Artemis didn't think she would do what's best for the nation, then she should never have interfered in the first place."
"Ephiny, she's not going to like this!" protested Eponin, running to catch up with the angry Regent.
"Who? Gabrielle, or Artemis?"
"Well, if you're being picky, both of them."
"Well, Gabrielle is going to have to make the decision and Artemis is just going to have to abide by whatever she decides, isn't she?"
"But what if Artemis decides to, you know, punish you or something?"
Ephiny stopped suddenly, barely giving time for Eponin to stop before running into her, and turned around. "Pony, either Gabrielle will make a decision that Artemis likes, or none of us will live to receive her punishment. I'm in a no-lose situation, except for the fact that, if we do survive this little adventure, I very much doubt Gabrielle will ever speak to me again. And only the Gods know what she's going to think of them."
"Okay, okay, if you insist on telling her, at least wait until Lissa can join us. She's the one who talked to Artemis; she might be able to shed a bit more light on the situation."
Ephiny considered the suggestion for several seconds. "Fine. I'll wait until tomorrow, since you very kindly managed to get her smashed out of her skull. What did you give her to drink anyway?"
Relaxing now that the Regent wasn't going to go storming into the palace to tell their Queen everything right that second, Eponin smiled. "Oh, just that stuff I brewed earlier in the season."
"You'd better make sure you get over there early tomorrow then. She's gonna have one Tartarus of a hangover."
To say that Gabrielle took the news of Artemis' interference and plan badly may have been putting it mildly. The young Queen's temper had erupted as soon as Ephiny finished telling her the story.
Lissa had arrived with Eponin shortly after Ephiny asked to speak to Gabrielle. Amazingly, the priestess didn't seem too handicapped by the horrendous hangover she must have been suffering. In fact, when Eponin had told her just what Ephiny had planned for her morning chat with their Queen, she'd been up and out of bed in a flash. No doubt she would suffer for her earlier indulgence, later. At least Eponin hoped she would; she was rather proud of her beverage. About the only person it hadn't flattened in the village was Gabrielle and that was because she'd declined to partake on previous occasions. Though Eponin was sorely tempted to get another skin of it now, in the hopes it might calm the bard down a little bit. The weapons master winced as her Queen shot another sharp rebuke at Ephiny, who was trying to reassure her.
"Are you telling me that my friendship with Xena was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a spell from Artemis?" demanded Gabrielle.
"I don't know, Gabrielle, I'm as much in the dark with this as you are. But I doubt it. Not even the Gods can make friends as close as you and Xena are; even with the influence of one of the other Gods."
Gabrielle was pacing the floor, frantically trying to think her way through what Ephiny had told her. "So Artemis just took a chance that I wouldn't leave Xena?"
"Well, no, not really. She allowed Xena to bond with you, so I doubt even you could have got her to leave you totally alone."
"But I did get her to leave, didn't I? Or we wouldn't be in this mess now, would we?"
Lissa shifted in her seat as she spoke. "That is true, Gabrielle. But we get the feeling, especially after Kiaya's story, that the only reason she stayed away is because she thought you were scared of her. It's obvious to us that Xena loves you very much and the only thing I can see keeping her away from you is the fear that she might harm you, or hurt you, in some way."
"That's ridiculous, Lissa. Xena would never hurt me..."
"It doesn't matter what you think, Gabrielle," said Eponin. "It only matters what she thinks. And if she picked up on your fear, like Kiaya said she did, then she must have thought that you believed it was possible. Otherwise, why send her away?"
"So, I brought us to this crossroads. It's my fault that the Amazon nation is about to be destroyed." Gabrielle's voice was weary at the thought that her decisions were the cause of this strife.
"That's not what I meant, Gabrielle. We all make mistakes," said Eponin, feeling like she was digging herself into a deeper hole than she'd already managed to get herself into.
"What Eponin is trying to say, Gabrielle," interrupted Ephiny, "is that it is no one's fault. We all had a hand in the situation. But what we really need to know, Gabrielle, is what you are going to do about it?"
The bard paced silently for a while longer, the three Amazons watching intently as she pondered on her choices. "Lissa," she said, finally, straightening her back and pulling back her shoulders--a look of determination on her face, "I want to talk to Artemis."
"I don't know whether that will be possible, my Queen," she replied, noting Gabrielle's formal attitude.
Gabrielle's eyes hardened. Why was it that everyone thought she would just lay back
and let them walk all over her? Did they really still see her as someone who could be
pushed about? Well, she wasn't, not anymore. Once maybe, but Xena had taught her to rely
on no one but herself. Artemis wanted to play with people's lives? Fine, she could, but
Gabrielle was determined to get something out of it for herself and Xena. "You're
her priestess, make it possible. If I'm going to do this, then I want some
reassurances." She walked across the room. "And someone get me Kiaya, I want to
talk to her." She turned and looked at the three Amazons. "Sometime today would
Eponin and Lissa left the palace at speed. Lissa to the temple; Eponin into the forest, heading for the watchpost that Kiaya was assigned to that day. Neither of the Amazons had ever seen their young Queen in such a determined mood, but they had seen her in a temper and neither one of them wanted to be on the receiving end of it.
Ephiny stood quietly in the palace, waiting for Gabrielle to talk to her. The young woman had been pacing restlessly since Lissa and Eponin had left. The silence was getting to the Regent, so she decided to break it. "Gabrielle, what are you planning?"
Ephiny's voice broke into her deliberation. "Huh? Oh, sorry, Ephiny. I know you want answers but I don't know whether I can give you them. It's funny but I was just thinking, 'What would Xena do in this position?' She is the best at getting out of difficult situations with the minimum of problems. But you didn't want to know that, did you? You want to know what I'm going to do with the Amazons, don't you?"
"I know you have a lot to think about and I know this is hard for you, but, yes, I need to know what you're going to do?"
"Have faith, Ephiny. I won't let you or my Amazons down. But I have to ensure that Xena comes out of this as well."
"How are you going to do that?"
"Well, I'm not quite sure yet. But Xena always said I had a knack of talking people into things, so I guess I'm going to have to use that talent."
A knock at the door interrupted anything Ephiny might have said in reply. Gabrielle acknowledged the knock and the door was opened revealing one of the temple acolytes. The young girl bowed as she saw her Queen.
"Queen Gabrielle, your presence is requested at the temple."
"Thank you. You may tell Lissa I will be with her shortly."
"Yes, my Queen." The young girl inclined her head and left
"Well, I guess it's time to go use my talents on our Goddess."
Gabrielle was met at the top of the temple steps by Lissa and escorted to the Gallery room she'd seen the first time she'd visited the temple. At that time, Artemis had appeared to Gabrielle and spoken with her, urging her to believe in her friendship with Xena. Gabrielle hadn't known whom she was talking to on that occasion. Looking back on it now, Artemis had not only been helping Gabrielle, she'd been ensuring the continuation of her plan. And in some ways it had worked to her advantage; she and Xena had become closer after that incident. Their friendship had deepened, or was it that Xena's bond to her had strengthened? And did it really matter? Could she change what had happened? Did she want to?
Gabrielle sighed; trying to think through this was like trying to get Xena to talk about her feelings, impossible. Turning, she wandered around the room, noting that several new pieces adorned the walls. She stopped and stared intently at one in particular. Was that her? She bent closer. Yep, that was supposed to be her. Curious, had she really done anything that the Amazons considered a pivotal point in their history? Obviously some had, and Lissa and Artemis must have agreed, for it to be placed inside the temple.
Straightening again, she turned to glance around the room, a slight shiver running down her spine. She couldn't see anyone in the room with her but, somehow, she knew someone was there. "I know you're here, so you might as well show yourself." She waited several seconds before the shimmering form of Artemis appeared.
Stepping toward Gabrielle, the Goddess smiled. "You're getting as good as Xena at sensing when we're around. Lissa tells me you wished to speak to me?"
The Goddess didn't seem too perturbed to have been summoned to the Amazon village. "I had an interesting conversation with Lissa today," Gabrielle said, keeping her gaze on the Goddess. "She said you told an extraordinary story about the possible destruction of the Amazon nation."
"I had thought I'd told her not to tell you."
"She didn't. She told Eponin, who, in turn, told Ephiny. Who decided that, as your chosen and Queen of the Amazon nation, I ought to make the decision on whether to call Hades' Horseman of Death to our aid. After that, Lissa really didn't have a choice in the matter and filled me in on the rest of your story. Tell me, Artemis, were you so unsure of my loyalty to the Amazon nation?"
"I had wondered whether you might feel you owed something to Xena."
"And you thought that might be more important to me than the whole of the Amazon nation?"
"Yes, I did." The Goddess sat at a table, which appeared by her side. "Wine?" She lifted the carafe and poured the ruby drink into a goblet.
Gabrielle walked to stand opposite the Goddess and leaned, arms braced, against the table. "You were right to believe that. I do."
To be continued in Part two.
Disclaimers: The Characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. This story is written for enjoyment and no profit will be made from this work of fiction.
Hurt/Comfort: This story deals with the difficulties in relationships and may be distressing to some readers.
Subtext: I believe our two main characters have a deep, loving relationship. However, there is nothing graphic and the relationship is mainly implied.
Nann, once again your help with this endeavour has been phenomenal and this story would not have been written without your encouragement and support. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you also to PT whose comments and suggestions were greatly appreciated.
Sorry it has taken so long to get this part out but life has a way of interrupting.
Comments of the non bruising kind can be sent to Surtees1@aol.com
Artemis sat in shocked silence, goblet half raised to her lips. "You would do that? You would sacrifice the Amazon nation for your friendship with Xena?"
"No, I didn't quite say that; I said you were right to believe that. You see, Xena is very important to me and so are the Amazons. So we are going to come to an arrangement." Gabrielle sat and poured herself some wine.
"And just what type of arrangement are we going to come to?" Artemis was intrigued, and also a little proud. She'd chosen well, when she'd picked the little girl from Poteidaia to be Xena's companion. She'd grown so much in the seasons she'd been with the warlord; maybe Xena wasn't so bad after all. There was a time when Gabrielle would have quaked at the thought of meeting a God, never mind bargaining with one. Yes, being with Xena had taught the woman much.
"Lissa said that Xena had been damaged during her time with Ares. That part of her soul had been destroyed." The Goddess nodded wondering just where her chosen was going. "She also said that you had repaired that to some extent by allowing her to bond with me." Artemis again nodded. "I want that bond to work both ways."
"Because then I will know how she feels. I'll know when she needs me, just as she knows when I need her. Because then Xena will know that I feel the same about her as she does about me."
"And what will that do?"
"It will provide her with the security she needs to maintain her course."
"Is that all you require?"
"No, I want you to make a deal with Hades."
Shock stopped Artemis from laughing, especially when she realised that Gabrielle wasn't laughing. She quickly wiped off the smile that had been forming on her face. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Gabrielle deepened her voice but kept it matter-of-fact. "Deadly." Her green eyes bored slowly into those of the Goddess.
Artemis shifted in her seat and concentrated harder on the bard in front of her. "What do you want?"
"I want Xena released from her bargain with Hades."
"Ha," laughed Artemis. "You don't want much do you? What makes you think I will be able to get Hades to release her?"
"You've already gone to great lengths to secure the Amazons' future. Why stop now?"
"And say I can get Hades to agree to let her go, what do we Gods get from this deal?"
"Nothing. You've had your fun and games; Xena seems to have been the favourite toy of most of the Gods at one time or another. Now it's time to stop acting like children, grow up and put your toys away. Xena deserves her chance."
"Chance!" Artemis pushed herself up out of the chair. "She had her chance and she chose to be a warlord. She killed thousands, destroyed kingdoms and nations. And you say she should have a chance. How can you justify that?"
"I don't, but you did." Gabrielle stood, to be on the same level as the Goddess, refusing to be intimidated by the powerful aura crackling off of the Huntress. "If Xena had lost her life when she was supposed to, then she would have been judged and sent to Tartarus. But you stopped that judgement from taking place; you put us on the path we were on to save your nation, and save it we will. And in return for that, you will fix the things you've damaged and you will let us live our lives as we see fit, not as you would wish them. You made your choices, now it's time to find out whether you chose well."
Artemis paced the room, keeping the delightful amusement she was feeling off of her face. There weren't many mortals who were prepared to confront the Gods and play them at their own games. Gabrielle was truly a force to be reckoned with. Taking a deep breath, she forced a scowl onto her face. "Fine! I'll see what I can do with Hades, but no promises," she agreed, already knowing that Hades had agreed to help. "And I will allow you to bond with your partner, if that is what you truly want."
"It is!" Gabrielle made no attempt to keep her exhilaration out of her voice.
"Okay, but I warn you, Gabrielle. I cannot repair the damage between you and Xena. You have to do that for yourself."
"I know," Gabrielle smiled at the Goddess. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," the Goddess said, fading from view.
Lissa and Ephiny were sitting waiting on the temple steps as Gabrielle left the shady confines of the building. Both leapt to their feet as they saw their Queen. Ephiny was the first to approach.
"Is everything okay?"
Lissa didn't like the look on Gabrielle's face. "Considering what?" she asked.
"Considering I just told Artemis to stop playing games and grow up." Ephiny felt a shiver run down her back, and Lissa turned white at Gabrielle's announcement. "Is Kiaya back?" Ephiny nodded not yet able to trust her voice. "Good. I'd like you to bring her to my quarters in half a candlemark. Lissa, I'd like you and Eponin to join us as well." Gabrielle gave the two Amazons a smile and strode off toward the palace. Ephiny and Lissa looked at each other.
"She wouldn't have, would she?" Lissa's voice was tentative.
"Right now, Lissa, I wouldn't put anything past our Queen. If she did, Artemis must have taken it in good grace since we are still standing here, don't you think?"
On her return to the palace, Gabrielle had sent two of the Royal Guard over to the mess hall to bring food and wine to the palace for her forthcoming meeting. She had decisions to make and she needed to know as many facts as possible before her choices were made. The one thing she needed to know more than anything was how Xena was likely to react on her arrival at the village. In fact, knowing how she would arrive would benefit the Amazons immensely. Eponin and the other warriors would need to know how to organise their attack around the warrior. Gabrielle wasn't even sure the Amazons were supposed to be involved in the fighting once Xena arrived. She was hoping that Kiaya would be able to answer some of these questions.
Kiaya arrived with Eponin just after the Guards had finished laying out the meal Gabrielle had asked to be provided for them. The two women sat and made themselves comfortable, Eponin providing them each with a mug of wine. Ephiny and Lissa arrived shortly afterwards, Lissa steadfastly avoiding the wine after the previous night's adventure into the realms of drinking with Eponin. The small group of friends chatted and ate before they turned to business.
"Okay." Gabrielle drew everyone's attention to her. "We all have some idea of what's going to happen. Eponin, have the plans been made to draw the army towards the Village?"
"Yes, Regina and her scouts will harry the point men away from the other villages which will hopefully steer them in our direction," replied the weapons master.
"How do we make sure they keep headed in our direction? Won't they just turn back towards the other villages?"
"Well, we can't guarantee which way they'll turn, but we can help them along. Warriors and scouts from most of the other villages will booby trap the game trails and stage ambushes along them. We will keep one trail that leads to us relatively free from traps. They should take the path of least resistance."
"Which will lead them right to us," said Ephiny. "Our main forces will meet them within the confines of the village. We should have whittled their forces down somewhat by the time they get here."
"Lissa, how soon will Xena arrive once I've used the scroll Artemis has provided for us?" Gabrielle used all her skill as a bard to keep the nervousness and fear she felt at the thought of seeing her partner again.
"Very quickly; the Horsemen travel through the underworld. She will be here almost as you finish reading it."
"That doesn't give us much time." Or me for that matter, she thought. "Kiaya, do you have any idea what she is likely to do once she gets here? You've had more experience with this side of her than any of us." It seemed funny to Gabrielle that someone who Xena had come so close to killing at one point was now the only person who'd been near enough to her to have an understanding of the person she had become.
Kiaya pondered her answer for several seconds and then shook her head. "No, not really, I was never with her when she arrived, only when she returned to the cave. But, from what Philius said, she'll know who the enemy is and her focus will be on them, not us."
Great, Gabrielle let her thoughts wander as one part of her listened to what Kiaya was saying the other considered what would happen when Xena arrived. Will she know me? Will she consider me the enemy? Will she focus on me rather than the battle? Would Xena allow her, to beg forgiveness for the pain she had caused her? Or would she be so subsumed by the other personalities that there was now nothing left at all of the warrior she knew and loved. She turned her attention back to Kiaya.
"Hades' Horsemen normally work alone." Kiaya carried on not noticing that for a split second that she had lost the attention of her Queen. "But they have been known to work with armies. I suppose it depends on what Hades wants."
"Well, we shouldn't have a problem then." Gabrielle looked over at Eponin. "Just let all the warriors know to keep out of her way once she gets here. The next thing to consider is what happens after; providing we defeat this army; which Artemis assures us we will if Xena is with us. What about at the end of the battle?" Her gaze fell once again on Kiaya.
"We can pretty much guarantee she'll have injuries. Not being able to return to Hades' realm is going to cause some problems. Xena always fights full out, anyway, but if she believes that any wound will be healed when she returns to the underworld, she's not going to worry about protecting herself."
"What about when she finds out she can't return to Hades' realm?" asked Lissa.
Kiaya sighed, "I don't know. Will she see it as a threat? An attack on her?"
"No," Gabrielle's voice was full of sadness. "No, she'll see it as rejection, as someone else throwing her loyalty back in her face. That will be the most dangerous time for us. That will be the time she will turn on herself or us, if it's going to happen. We'll have to hope it doesn't come to a confrontation. Well, let's not dwell on it until it happens. How is the evacuation of the children and elderly going?" Gabrielle turned the conversation to other matters, yet keeping her own mind on the problem her partner could potentially cause. How was she going to react to seeing Gabrielle, to being unable to escape back to Hades' underworld? Gabrielle's mind spun with possibilities. If nothing else, this problem would keep her awake at night.
Regina and her scouts crouched in the hidden safety of the trees as the squad of soldiers passed noisily beneath them. Hand signals and birdcalls passed among the Amazon warriors then, silently, they descended. So blended into their environment were the Amazons that the soldiers didn't realise the warriors were among them before the bloodshed started. It ended quickly; the soldiers could put up little fight against the suddenness of the attack.
The Amazons cleared all trace of the bloodbath they had inflicted and ascended into the trees from which they had come to await their next victims. The pattern of silent attack and withdrawal occurred throughout the forest as the Amazons began to whittle down their enemy. Several squads of soldiers never even met the Amazons before they died, falling victim to the various traps that the warrior women had set up on the trails to the other villages.
Eponin swung across the trail and landed next to Solari, sharing the sturdy branch the warrior was perched on. "Less than a candlemark, there are about fifty soldiers heading our way. Everything ready?" whispered the weapons master as she settled.
"Yep. I've got Kiaya and ten archers at the clearing. They'll take out the first group as they get there. Providing we coordinate everything correctly, we will take the rear guard at the same time."
"Kiaya managed to get up into the trees?" Eponin raised a querying eyebrow.
"Oh, Artemis, you better believe it," smiled the Amazon. "Wouldn't stay at the village. Venna and Diana are keeping an eye on her. But, to be honest, we could use a sword of her calibre down there if they have to go hand to hand."
"Fine, what about the rest of them?"
"In place. Rhea will sound the retreat as soon as you give the word."
"Good. See you back in the village when this is over." Eponin gave her friend's shoulder a squeeze then disappeared into the foliage with barely a sound.
Kiaya sat awkwardly braced between two branches in one of the tallest trees she had ever seen. When she had first insisted that she be allowed to fight in the forest rather than the village, she had thought to hide herself on the forest floor amongst the bushes. But her two erstwhile self-appointed guardians wouldn't hear of it and, between the two of them, had managed to get her into an almost ideal vantage point, except for the tight squeeze between the branches. For the last candlemark, she had been practising loading the crossbow the two women had supplied. Kiaya only hoped it didn't come to a ground fight, though she could get down from her perch without help; in fact if push came to shove she'd just fall down. She'd seen Xena jump further and survive but knew full well that in real terms that meant nothing. Xena could survive just about anything if she put her mind to it.
The warrior stiffened as a birdcall reached her ears. Looking to her left she saw Venna's hand signal and pulled back the cord on her crossbow and loaded it. Kiaya hadn't arranged a signal as such with the archers. She had just told them to wait for her to fire the first shot. Peering intently down to the forest floor below, she waited for the first of her prey to show themselves. She didn't have to wait long. First one, then another and another of the soldiers crept wearily into the small clearing.
Kiaya held her breath, waiting as long as she could, to allow as many targets as possible into view. Then, just before the first of the soldiers disappeared from sight, she fired. Her bolt sailed fast and true, embedding itself into the throat of the first soldier and liberally coating two of his colleagues with a fountain of crimson blood as he fell to the ground. A hail of death followed as the rest of the Amazon archers, hidden around the clearing, fired.
Solari steadied her breathing as she saw her Amazon sister signal the attack. Watching what seemed like hundreds of soldiers pass below, without attempting to stop them, had tested her patience severely. Now that the signal had been given, she dropped her braided cord and absailed quickly to the ground, drawing her sword just as she landed.
The clash of steel and cries of the injured and dying echoed through the forest as the two opposing forces met in battle.
Eponin spared a second to catch her breath and wipe the sweat and blood from her face. Things were not going as badly as she had feared. The Amazon warriors were, for the moment, holding their own; but that would not last for much longer as the army moved more and more of their soldiers into the Amazon hunting grounds. The ambushes the scouting parties had set up could only accomplish so much and, now that they 'd attacked, the element of surprise was no longer theirs. The Amazons were slowly backing towards the clearing where they would make a stand, until the numbers were too many to hold. The plan was for the retreat to be sounded at that time and the warriors would take to the trees and head for the village. The warriors would then arrive nearly a quarter of a candlemark before the army, allowing them to reinforce the village defenders.
Eponin backed up slowly, parrying the odd thrust and slash thrown her way, and making sure the younger Amazons were retreating. Subconsciously, she was noting where her fallen sisters' bodies lay, shying away from the faces she recognised and vowing silently to herself to make this army pay a high price for the lives it was taking. A gore-covered soldier lunged at her from behind a tree, making the weapons master duck beneath his swinging blade. Eponin sliced her blade along his abdomen and stood upright smashing the hilt of her sword against the back of his neck as he fell.
More and more soldiers were beginning to appear; word must have got back to their lord that the fight had been engaged. Eponin's sword began to fly as she thrust against another soldier, her blade blocking his swing while her fist connected with his face, knocking him back several paces. He recovered quickly and replied in kind, faking a swing to the left to Eponin's head, then reversing it and swinging to the right. Had that move not been tried so many times on the practise grounds, she would have lost her head; instead she stepped into her attacker and blocked with her arm against his wrist, deflecting the momentum of his swing and allowing her to bring her sword across his neck.
Pushing the body away from her, she looked up to check on her sisters, just in time to see Solari fall to a dagger thrust to the stomach. Without hesitating, Eponin flung herself across the dividing space between her and her friend, driving her shoulder into the side of Solari's attacker before he could make a killing blow. The soldier fell, hitting the ground hard but managing to keep hold of his knife. Eponin glanced at her fallen friend, relieved to see that she was still breathing, then turned to the soldier who was struggling to his feet. She ran her sword deeply into his chest, bringing herself almost face to face with him. So close to the dying man was she, that she didn't see his arm swing round to plunge the dagger into her shoulder.
Eponin felt the searing pain as a hot burning poker in her right shoulder and violently pushed the dead soldier away from her. Using her other hand, she probed the wound and decided it could wait. "Solari?" She knelt down by the side of her friend. "Solari?" She shook her shoulder gently, and let out a sigh of relief as the fallen Amazon groggily opened her eyes. "That's it, well done. Now you keep those open while I check this wound." She squeezed her shoulder again then looked at the bloody wound on her right side. It was deep and bleeding heavily. "Oh, honey, we've got to get you out of here. I'm gonna sit you up and I want you to put your arm around my neck. Then we're going to stand you up and get you home, okay?" The Amazon gave a weak smile and nodded.
The small clearing that Kiaya and the archers had set their ambush up in was now a mass of bodies. The Amazon archers had soon run out of quarrels. They had then dropped from the trees to fight their enemy face to face. Kiaya had actually been enjoying the battle, especially once they'd left the safety of the trees, mainly because trying to reload a crossbow and hold herself in the tree with a crippled arm was no picnic. Venna and Diana, her two guardians, had remained close and Amazons had been steadily retreating through the clearing back towards the village as previously planned. Rhea, the young Amazon who would sound the full retreat, had arrived in the clearing sometime earlier but neither Solari nor Eponin had appeared. Kiaya took charge, figuring they had waited as long as they dared. "Rhea!" she shouted. "Sound the retreat."
Gabrielle and Ephiny heard the deep bellow of the horn as it echoed through the forest and the village. As its cry faded, the Amazon warriors began to swarm from the trees into the village. Yet, even with so many appearing, it was obvious to their two leaders that many others would not be returning. Ephiny turned to Gabrielle. "You'd better get over to Lissa. We won't have much time now that we've called our warriors back here."
"Okay, but you take care of yourself, you hear me?" Gabrielle managed a small smile then reached up and wrapped her arms around her friend, giving her a hug.
Ephiny squeezed the young bard tightly then pulled away. "As you wish, my Queen, but that goes the same for you. Now get going." Gabrielle turned and jogged off towards Lissa and the temple, two of the Royal Guard glued to her side, where they would stay till the bitter end, no matter what.
Assured that Gabrielle would be as protected as possible, Ephiny turned her attention to the Amazons who were heading her way, noting sadly that neither Eponin nor Solari was with them. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the pain that the absence of her two closest friends caused her to the back of her mind. "Regina, make sure everybody gets out of sight and make sure they know not to make a move until we see whether this plan of our Goddess' works. And if it does, make sure everybody stays out of Xena's way."
Gabrielle stood hidden within the shadows of the temple, surrounded by her Amazon Guards, as she watched the first of the invading army enter the village. They were cautious at first as they walked tentatively through the seemingly deserted village. Gabrielle saw the hand signals passed along. Then the Amazons attacked.
A roar of challenge echoed around the Amazon village as a wave of arrows arched towards the soldiers; then the Amazons appeared and the battle began in earnest.
"Now, Gabrielle, read it NOW," urged Lissa.
Gabrielle unrolled the scroll. Taking a deep breath, trying to calm her shaking hands, her dread was building as she began to read. "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see." Sweat broke on her brow; her stomach clenched in tight knots. She knew she'd told Artemis that this was the right thing to do. But was it? "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and her name that sat on him was Death, and Tartarus followed with her."
Was bringing Xena back the right thing? For any of them? Was she being selfish? Was her desire to see and be with Xena again endangering them all? They didn't really know how Xena would react to being called. And the thought of her dark side reacting to Hades' apparent betrayal was terrifying.
But more than that, Gabrielle worried at how Xena would react to her. If that reaction was bad, the Amazons would do everything in their power to protect her and they would die doing it. And if that dark side couldn't be tamed in the Amazon village then what were they releasing on the world? The stories that she had written chronicling her friend's struggle for redemption flashed through her thoughts. If that darkness couldn't be contained then she was risking everything that Xena had fought for. If Artemis persuaded Hades to release Xena from her deal with him then there would be nothing to stop her return to Ares. Her fear deepened; was she doing the right thing?
All she had ever wanted to do was to help Xena. Ever since the fateful day they had met she had wanted to be by her side, to travel the land, to find adventure. She hadn't thought about the consequences of her actions, hadn't thought that she would find the friendship and love that she had with Xena. Her actions now could destroy all that was and that could be. Too late to worry now. She had made the decision and they would just have to deal with the consequences. Her lips spoke the last of the incantation. "And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
It was faint at first, but, as time passed, the pull became stronger until it was impossible to ignore it anymore. The warmth and security of the void, of darkness, of silence that surrounded her and prevented her from thinking and feeling was shattered. Her place of refuge was pierced by the blinding light of the call from the one soul that she could not deny, the one voice that had always had the power to pull her out of the darkness. The voice that had ripped her soul in half, had rejected her, had forced her to leave the only home she had ever truly known. She felt the rousing of her anger, the seeping trickle of rage that would turn into a torrent and bring Tartarus to all who stood in her way. Gabrielle wanted her now, needed her now; needed that darkness she had rejected. An evil smile creased Xena's face. Gabrielle wanted the darkness now, did she? Her eyes opened and around her the fires of Tartarus burned, the heat caressing her body, the screams of the tortured echoing through her. The powers of the Horsemen were great; that paled in comparison to the anger that the remembrance of Gabrielle's betrayal stirred in her soul. Her rage built until the need to kill was the only thought she held. The thundering of hooves approached from behind and instinct guided her vault into Argo's saddle. She felt Argo gather herself for the jump she knew was coming, then the mighty horse leapt.
A warm breeze blew through the village, ruffling Gabrielle's hair; the stench of death grew heavy. Then a chilling voice rang out in reply to her summons and Hades' Horseman of Death was among them. Gabrielle looked up and the scroll fell from nerveless fingers. Her heart started pounding, her breathing became fast and shallow as her body instinctively reacted to the magnificent sight of her partner. Argo was gleaming, her tack and saddle polished to a bright shine. Xena's armour glared blindingly in the sunlight, her raven hair pulled back severely into a braid. She looked... she looked... awful. Her face was gaunt, with dark smudges beneath her eyes. Those eyes locked with hers, blazing with the fury of madness.
The sounds of battle imploded around her as Argo charged into the dazzling sunlight. And Xena roared the reply to her summons, "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of the Gods, and for the testimony, which they held: Kill them all."
Xena focused on her surroundings, recognising the Amazon village, the Amazons fighting and Gabrielle. For one eternal moment their eyes met; a cataclysm of pain and sorrow cleaved through her soul. Her rage erupted in a blistering inferno. Standing tall in her stirrups, she let out her bloodcurdling war cry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyia." Urging Argo forward, she plowed into the writhing mass of fighters before her. If the soldiers hadn't felt fear before, they did now as Xena's sword swung mercilessly among them.
The village was now a mass of swarming bodies as the fight had spread to every corner of the compound. Gabrielle found herself and her Guard fighting on the steps of the temple. Her staff flowed with blinding speed as she swept the legs out from beneath the bloody soldier who had tried his luck with the Amazon Queen. She ducked, as another thought to catch her off guard with a thrust that would have taken off her head, and rammed the end of her staff into his chest, breaking several of his ribs and knocking him backwards down the steps.
Whenever there was the slightest lull in the fighting, her gaze would travel across the savage battle before her, looking for the form of her partner. What she saw was horrifying. Xena had no mercy on any who stood in her way; the Amazons had soon left the battlefield around her as they recognised that they were in as much danger from her as the soldiers were. This Xena didn't just kill; she played with her victims, inflicting as much pain as possible while still leaving them alive. If they were lucky, she would inflict a death blow before she went to find a new toy. More often than not, though, it was an Amazon warrior who put them out of their misery. A sliver of fear at what she'd brought into the world crept up Gabrielle's spine sending chills across her body.
A cry brought her attention back to the fight as one of her Guard stumbled into her, sword protruding from the woman's stomach, and fell at her feet. Gabrielle stepped over the young Amazon and swung her staff at the head of the laughing soldier, causing him to step back right into the sword of another of her Guard. Gabrielle swung her gaze around and saw that Lissa and one of the healers had dragged the wounded Amazon into the temple. Seeing that nothing more could be done for her, she turned and stepped to the side of her Guard and engaged the enemy once more.
Eponin pulled Solari close as another band of soldiers ran past their hiding place in the bushes. Eponin had been unable to carry her friend far; her own wound was bleeding severely and giving her great pain. She would have ignored that, if it would have meant getting her friend to the relative safety of the village, but neither of them had been able to take to the trees and going by ground would have meant all but certain death.
They'd heard the horn sound and knew that their sisters would be on the retreat and that there would be little chance of help in the near future. So Eponin had made the decision to take cover and wait the battle out. It had been a difficult decision for the weapons master to make. There was a battle going on that she should be taking part in, if not leading. But she also knew that to leave Solari would mean her friend's death and that, with the wound to her own shoulder, she would be of little use to her sisters.
Solari was unconscious. The deep wound in her side had stopped bleeding after Eponin had bound it, but the loss of blood had been great. Her skin was pale, cool and clammy to the touch; her breathing was rapid and shallow. Eponin hoped that the battle was short and that her sisters would start looking for wounded soon; otherwise, she would be standing beside her friend's pyre that evening.
She looked up suddenly and strained her hearing as she heard a faint war cry from the direction of the village. Xena had arrived. She felt the pounding of her heart settle and a tinge of relief swept through her. She felt better about not being part of the battle now that the Warrior Princess had arrived; the loss of her sword in battle would mean little now the warrior was there. Solari stirred in her arms and she held her tighter. "Don't worry, it won't be long now. A certain warrior friend of ours has come to chase all the bad men away." She pressed a kiss to her friend's forehead and settled back to wait out the battle.
The joy of battle roared through the warrior's veins; her sword was in a perpetual dance of death. Soldiers fled from her laughter, several of them throwing injured friends at her feet, hoping that sacrificing their comrades' lives to the unstoppable force would be enough of a distraction to allow them to escape. The remains of her victims spread a carpet of blood wherever she went and those that saw her coming ran.
Xena's ice-blue eyes continually roved over the carnage about her, looking for her next target. She blocked and thrust her way through the army, leaving the dead and dying in her wake. The Amazons found the pressure on them easing as the army turned their attention to getting away from the far more deadly threat of the Warrior Princess.
Ephiny found herself weaponless as a soldier knocked her sword from her hands. The soldier laughed at her helplessness until a familiar sword cleaved through his neck and removed his head from his shoulders. Ephiny stood stunned, chilled to the bone, looking at the Warrior Princess coated head to toe in the blood of her enemy, eyes feral in intensity, the look of madness total. The Regent shuddered, wondering whether she would be next under her sword, and then the warrior was gone, back into the morass of fighting. Ephiny let out the breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, with serious concerns over whether Xena would stop, once the fighting had.
Xena yelled her familiar war cry as she leapt into the middle of a pack of soldiers and Amazons. The Amazons scrambled to get out of her path as the warrior began to decimate the ranks of soldiers that stood in her way. She thrust her sword, all the way to the hilt, into the abdomen of a tall, muscular soldier who stood before her, then reached around him with her left arm and drew his dagger as she pushed him off her sword with the aid of her foot. She now had weapons in both hands and used them with lethal effect. Her left hand struck with the speed of a snake, ripping the throat out of a soldier to her left. Her sword blocked the strike of another then disarmed him with negligent ease. The smile on her face was one of malicious enjoyment at the destruction she was causing.
Finding herself facing three soldiers, she grinned, causing a flicker of worry to cross the faces of her opponents. She dropped to the ground, her foot whipping out and taking their feet out from beneath them, sending all three crashing to the ground. Then she sprung up in a twisting leap, landed behind them as they scrambled to their feet, and laughed out loud at the looks on their faces as they turned, realising she was behind them. Two charged at her, swords held high. She blocked them, twisting to the right and throwing the dagger held in her left hand deep into the chest of the third. The dark joy of battle shone in her face as she quickly threw back the two other swordsmen, parrying their thrusts and lunges. Then she jumped, her left leg striking out, sending them spinning away then crumpling to the ground.
The tide had begun to turn. Where soldiers had once poured from the trees they were now beginning to run back toward them. The Amazons took heart at the thinning of the enemy ranks, and tired arms and bodies fought all the more fiercely. Ephiny grabbed hold of Kiaya as she ran past after a fleeing soldier. "Gather a squad and harry them as much as possible, but be careful, I don't want to lose anyone else. I'll send others out to help once I'm sure we're secured here." Kiaya nodded and turned to leave, but was pulled back by a tug on her arm. "Keep an eye out, we may have some sisters still alive out there."
Kiaya studied Ephiny's face and returned the clasp on her arm. "If they're out there, we'll find them." She turned and ran off, shouting for several of her sisters to join her. Venna and Diana were the first to follow her into the trees.
Gabrielle swept the legs from beneath the soldier then reversed her swing, knocking him down the steps. She planted her staff on the top step and leaned her head wearily against her clenched hands, her eyes scanning the battleground before her, looking for her partner. Ephiny had gathered several of the Amazons and formed a cleanup party, moving the bodies of the soldiers and tending to their injured sisters.
There were still a few groups of soldiers holding out near the tree line and that was where Gabrielle spotted the familiar blood-splattered form of the warrior, throwing off several of the still fighting soldiers. A hand touched her shoulder and she turned to her remaining Guard and smiled. "I'm fine. Why don't you go and help Lissa in the temple?" The Guard nodded and walked into the temple.
Taking a long, drawn-in breath, Gabrielle stood up straight and moved off down the temple steps, avoiding the pools of blood that had settled there. Looking amongst the bodies for those of her Amazons, kneeling next to one of the fallen, she gently touched her hand to the neck looking for a flicker of life. She dropped her head in despair at not finding it, then stood and moved on looking for the next. Several unresponsive bodies later, she caught the first sign of life beneath her fingers. A young, blonde Amazon warrior not yet out of her teens, with a vicious abdominal wound, still stubbornly clung to life. Gabrielle looked up and yelled to the nearest of the Amazon healers to bring a stretcher.
The young Amazon had apparently acquitted herself well in battle; a small group of dead soldiers lay scattered around her. Gabrielle was shocked to see how young many of them were. One whose throat had been cut looked as if he were hardly in his teens. She slowly pushed the body of another over to move him off of the Amazon's legs when his arm flashed out, hitting her in the stomach with his dagger.
The first thing that told the Amazons that something was wrong was a horrifying scream of pain, not from their Queen but from the Warrior Princess. As the dagger slashed into Gabrielle's stomach an identical ripping sensation in her gut brought Xena to her knees and a roar of pain erupted from her mouth.
The soldier she was fighting couldn't believe his luck and swung at her exposed neck. An Amazon, seeing her predicament, charged the soldier, ramming into his chest and deflecting the blade enough to avoid a killing blow, while still leaving a wickedly deep wound in Xena's shoulder. The Amazon finished the soldier off with her sword then turned to the Warrior Princess, but she was gone. Looking up, she saw the warrior charging across the square to the slumped form of the Queen.
Ephiny swung round at the cry of pain that echoed across the Amazon village, her eyes frantically scanning the area, then fixing on the terrifying sight of the blood-soaked Xena sliding to a stop next to the still body of her friend and Queen. A cold chill invaded the Regent's body and she ran towards the pair shouting instructions to the Amazon warriors and grabbing hold of the nearest. "Get Cassandra out here, now!" And she pushed the Amazon stumbling towards the temple where the hospital had been set up.
Xena gingerly reached for Gabrielle's shoulder; the young bard had fallen forward over the body of an Amazon warrior. A scrabbling sound made her look up and she saw an injured soldier pushing himself away. Her rage erupted and, lightning fast, her fingers shot out and stabbed at the pressure points in his neck, cutting off the flow of blood to his brain. His death would be relatively quick but excruciatingly painful. She turned her attention back to her companion and pulled her carefully into her arms. Her hand gently pressed against her neck searching for life. She let out a ragged breath and closed her eyes as she found a faint fluttering beneath her fingers.
Ephiny came to a halt beside Xena and watched the warrior intently. This wasn't the same Xena that had just been slaughtering soldiers, her whole demeanour had changed. She even looked different-- softer in some way, less intense, the darkness that had surrounded her had eased. The warrior lifted Gabrielle's clenched hands away from her stomach, revealing a wide gaping wound. She quickly replaced her hands, pressing down to stem the flow of blood. The Regent heard the warrior whispering over and over again, but couldn't quite make out what she was saying.
Cassandra roughly pushed her way through the gathering Amazons and came to rest by the fallen Queen. Looking over her pale features, her eyes travelled down the Queen's body searching for injuries and stopping where Xena's hand pressed against her partner's. Knowing she had to see the extent of her Queen's injuries before she could even think how to treat them, Cassandra cautiously tried to pry Xena's hand away, only to find herself shrugged off as easily as a child would throw a toy. Blue eyes of death locked onto her and for a split second the Amazon healer saw her own death within them, then Gabrielle moaned and the crystal eyes refocused their attention.
Ephiny saw the change as Cassandra reached for the Queen. It was startling at how fast it had occurred; for a moment the Xena they all knew had been with them, then she was gone. A much darker Xena cradled the form of their Queen, but this one was much more controlled than the one who'd so viciously defended the village such a short time ago.
The crowded Amazons quickly shuffled backwards as the Warrior Princess rose from the ground with the Queen cradled in her arms. Cassandra climbed to her feet and tried to direct the warrior towards the temple and the equipment she had within it. But Xena was having none of it and strode off in the direction of the palace.
Kiaya had spread the Amazon scouts out into a long line and had told them to search the battle site amongst the trees for their fallen sisters. The last of the soldiers who had not fled from the Amazon lands had been swiftly dealt with. Some of the Amazons were giving those wounded that still clung to life the mercy of a quick death. Others tended to their own injured and prepared stretchers to transport them back to the village and the care of the healers.
Knowing that her sisters were well cared for, Kiaya decided to search the game trail Eponin and Solari had last been seen on, hoping deep down that the gods had been kind and spared their lives. Venna and Diana, her two guardians during the battle, followed her down the trails, moving the bodies and searching in the undergrowth for two of their greatest warriors.
Kiaya looked up and sighed as she rolled the body of one of the younger Amazons over, unable to look at the peaceful face of the brutally slain girl. A tight knot clenched in her stomach and a tear rolled down her face as she struggled to choke down the sob that was building.
Once she had lusted for the glory of battle, had thought the Amazon nation weak when their new Queen had insisted on speech before war. But now she understood, like never before, the futility of war. Why had someone so young had to die for the right to live on her own lands, without the interference of others? Why had the Amazons been forced to kill just to live? Wiping the dampness from her face, she stood and, with a last glance at the fallen warrior, strode off.
Xena kicked the door to the palace open before any of the Amazons had the chance to open it for her. Her eyes swept the interior. Discarding the outer room as a place to rest her bard, she continued on to the sleeping chamber. Ephiny and Cassandra followed. Cassandra had sent one of the Amazons to gather her herbs and equipment and, as she entered the palace, rapidly began issuing orders for a fire to be made and water to be boiled. Ephiny grabbed her shoulder before the healer could enter the sleeping chamber. "Wait." Cassandra tried to shrug off the restraining hand but Ephiny held tight. "I said, wait."
"But the Queen needs to be treated."
"I know, Cassandra, but you can't do that if you're dead, can you?" The Regent looked at her pointedly. "Now, wait and see what she does." It's amazing how quickly these changes of personality occur. Every time Gabrielle even flinches our Xena is back with us, but as soon as anyone else tries to talk to her, never mind touch her, the warlord is back. Look at her now. I don't think I've ever seen her look so vulnerable.
Xena tenderly placed Gabrielle on her sleeping pallet, then stood, looking around the room. Seeing a blanket, she quickly bundled it up and carefully lifted the bard's head and placed the blanket beneath it. She slowly pushed Gabrielle's hair from her face, leaving a trail of blood from her fingers. For an instant, she paused, and stared at her blood-coated hands. Then she stood up and turned from the bed towards Cassandra and Ephiny who were standing in the doorway. She looked down at her hands again, then at Cassandra, and waved the healer into the room. Cassandra didn't hesitate. She rushed to the Queen with Gina, the Amazon's junior healer, following with the healer's equipment.
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