Kiaya had walked the trail twice and still found no sign of either the weapons or scout master. Most of the Amazons had returned to the village but several groups still searched the forest, with more than ten warriors unaccounted for. Teams had taken the injured back to the village and others had provided an honour guard for the dead. Kiaya swung round drawing her sword as a twig snapped off to her side, then relaxed as Venna, her tall, golden-haired watchdog, appeared. "Still nothing?"
The Amazon shook her head. "Not a sign. I hate to say it but shouldn't we think about calling this off until tomorrow? It will be dark soon and we can't do much more with so few of us out here."
"Yeah, I know." Her voice held a defeated edge to it. "But I hate to think of them out here." She sheathed her sword. "We'll carry on until dark and then call it a day. Let's check over by the stream. I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to get that far, even if they were injured."
Dusk had fallen and torches had been lit around the Amazon village. Funeral pyres for those who had fallen that day were being built and it was planned to hold a mass ceremony at dusk the next day. Most of the Amazons gathered in small groups; some at the temple helping the injured, some at the mess hall getting an evening meal ready, the rest cleaning up the village, though that was mostly complete.
At every opportunity, however, most of them sent their gazes towards the palace, their thoughts with their Queen.
Cassandra stood and stretched, trying to release all the kinks that were making themselves known in her back. The Queen's injury was severe. It had taken several candlemarks just to stop the bleeding. The wound was jagged and stitching it was difficult enough, but having the menacing form of the Warrior Princess standing over her shoulder had only made it more so.
Ephiny tried, to no avail, to get the warrior to leave and let Gina, or Ariana, see to her shoulder wound and other cuts that, no doubt, littered her body. But the warrior refused, standing there silently watching over the healer. The Regent had actually felt fear as those cold eyes had locked onto her. This was not the Xena that she knew but a cold calculating creature whose eyes showed no feeling at all. It was a wonder to Ephiny that the warrior had shown such concern over Gabrielle.
Ephiny got worried when she noticed the blood pooling at Xena's feet. She wondered whether the shoulder wound was more serious than Xena knew, but it didn't seem to bother the warrior. She had tried to point out to Xena that letting herself bleed to death wasn't going to help Gabrielle. Xena had responded by taking a step forward, grabbing hold of the Amazon and lifting her from her feet. Ephiny had rapidly held her hands up to ward off the other Amazons who rushed to her aid, knowing that the Warrior Princess wouldn't think twice about killing them if the urge took her. Thankfully, the show of strength, and the threat of violence that was implicit in that show, was enough for the warrior.
Ephiny stepped back from Xena's line of sight when she was roughly thrust away by the warrior. The Regent stood to the side trying to calm her pounding heart. She wished desperately that Kiaya, or even Eponin, were around to deal with this positively dark-souled Xena.
"That's as much as I can do," Cassandra said wearily as she turned to face the Regent. "We'll have to wait and see how she does through the night."
Ephiny stepped closer to the healer and wrapped her arms around her, pulling her into a hug. "Thank you. Why don't you go and get some rest? We don't need you exhausted any more than you already are. If there are any problems, someone will come and get you."
"I will, but someone braver than I am needs to take a look at our friend over there, first," she said, pulling away from the Regent and looking over at Xena who was still covered from head to toe in gore. "And then I want to have a quick check in the temple and see how Lissa is getting on over there."
"Okay, but I'll take care of Xena." That's if she'll let me and I don't die of fright first. Her hand ran through her hair and tears crept into her eyes. "Has there been any news on Eponin and Solari? Have they been found yet?" Come on, somebody tell me Kiaya or Eponin are going to walk through that door and solve this mess for me.
A surviving member of the Royal Guard shook her head. "Nothing yet, but Kiaya and others are still out looking."
The Regent blew out a deep breath. "Okay. Well, someone let me know when they get back; and get me some warm water." Ephiny looked at Cassandra. "Gina or Ariana can stay and keep an eye on Gabrielle. Other than that I'm kicking everybody else out."
It was fully dark when a despondent Kiaya, Venna, and, eventually, Diana, met on the banks of the stream. Kiaya took one last, sweeping gaze up the stream. "Come on then, let's call it a night. We can head out again at first light." The other two Amazons nodded in agreement and all three turned and began to work their way through the tangled and matted undergrowth that grew thickly in this part of the forest.
Maybe it was that her eyes had adjusted to the darkness that had settled down over the trees, or the way that the shadows had grown and deepened, that made Kiaya look twice at the knotted snarl of brambles huddled next to the ancient husk of a fallen tree. Curiosity piqued, Kiaya veered off of the path they were following and hiked over to the tree, Diana and Venna still following. About ten feet away from her objective she began to battle against the thorny barricade. She drew her sword to cut her way through, managing another five feet or so before coming to a complete halt. The bramble was forming what appeared to be an impenetrable wall against their invasion.
"See anything?" Diana's deep voice asked from behind. Venna was scouting around the outside of the thicket.
"Not really," replied Kiaya. "It just occurred to me that we've searched everywhere it was possible to get to, but knowing our scout and weapons masters, searching where we wouldn't expect them to be would make more sense. This looked ideal... nobody could get through this, though."
"No, but they could go underneath." Venna's voice came from ahead. Kiaya looked up to see Venna perched on the dead tree trunk. "There's a gap under the trunk. Want me to check it out?"
"Might as well, now that we're here," she said to the Amazon, then turned to Diana, "Come on, we'll walk around," and trudged back the way they had come.
Venna jumped to the forest floor from the trunk, landing in a crouch. The tree was large but had fallen over a natural hollow in the forest floor, creating a small tunnel. Getting to her knees, the Amazon began to crawl beneath the huge monolith. The space beneath the trunk was pitch-black and Venna felt her way through gingerly with her hands, stopping as they came against cool, clammy skin. She jerked her hand back then pulled herself further in, her hand now reaching out to discover just what she had found. "Oh sweet Artemis," she whispered, then louder, "Kiaya! There are people under here!"
Kiaya ran stumbling through the undergrowth. "Who?" she yelled back.
"Kiaya! How in Hades' name am I supposed to figure that out? It's dark under here. Wait, wait there are two of them. I can feel two heads... sweet Aphrodite, they're Amazons! I can feel the leathers."
Kiaya grabbed hold of Diana and shoved her in the direction of the village. "Go, get help. The others will have gone back to the village by now." She watched after the Amazon for a few seconds then turned back. "They alive?"
Venna ran her hand over the bodies, finding a neck to push her fingers into, feeling a faint flutter. "Yeah, one of them is." Her hand continued up to the face, then paused as she began to trace the features. "Kiaya," she said, so softly the other Amazon had to strain to hear. "I think this is Eponin." The voice was tinged with relief and hope.
"How can you tell?" Kiaya felt her own hope building.
"I've attempted to punch this face often enough. I know it almost as well as my own."
Kiaya managed to smile at the rueful comment. "You ever succeed?"
"No, she always dumps me on my ass before I get near." There was a silent pause, then, "Actually, that's a lie. I did get her once but she was drunk at the time and she still dumped me on my ass afterwards."
That comment brought a chuckle. "Trust Eponin to pick the most difficult place to find to hide in. Any idea who she dragged in there with her?"
"No, I can't reach that far; they're pretty well wedged in. Don't think we'll be able to get them out before help arrives."
"Okay, then, we'll wait. You okay in there?"
Venna's voice rose in pitch as something crawled across her leg. "Yep, but I hope Diana doesn't take too long. I don't think we're the only things alive in here, if you get my meaning."
Cassandra and Lissa were just leaving the temple as Diana barrelled into the village, knocking two Amazons flying and barely avoiding another as she skidded to a stop. Her eyes swept the village. Seeing the healer and the priestess on the steps of the temple, she ran towards them and bounded up the steps until she was in front of them. "I need to see the Regent, can you tell me where she is?" she panted, her chest heaving, as she pulled in the much needed oxygen her body required after the exertion of running all the way back to the village.
Lissa placed her hands on the unsteady Amazon's shoulders. "She's with the Queen and Xena and cannot be disturbed. What's the problem?"
"No problem." Her breathing started to steady as she brought herself under control. "We found two more of our sisters and we need a healer and help getting them back to the village. Kiaya and Venna stayed behind with them and sent me for help."
"Okay. Okay. Cassandra, have you got someone who can go?" Lissa kept her hands on the young Amazon's shoulders but looked at the healer.
"Ariana can go; your acolytes are doing well in the temple. And Gina's tied up at the palace with the Queen."
"Diana, you round up some of the scouts and take them back to Kiaya and bring our sisters home."
Ephiny stood silently in the corner of Gabrielle's room, absently playing with a strand of her hair. Gina was in the outer chamber mixing a poultice for Xena's shoulder wound. Xena had sat herself down cross-legged beside Gabrielle's pallet and had been there ever since Ephiny had cleared the room, patently ignoring the Regent every time she spoke.
Ephiny was reluctant to push the warrior, remembering the power in her grip and the steel in her eyes from earlier, but her wounds needed cleaning--not only to stop infection in herself but to prevent her causing one in Gabrielle. Of course, getting her to see it that way was easier said than done. Ephiny had discussed the problem with Gina and both of them had decided to wait until they had the poultice made and enough hot water to let her bathe if she wanted to. "Ready?" Ephiny inquired.
"Bathtub is full, poultice is warming and I got the cooks to bring some food and wine over. All we need is the patient." Gina stuck her head through the doorway.
"You want to get her?" Ephiny asked the young healer with a smile.
"Uhuh, I think I'll leave that to you," she replied quietly with a nervous laugh. "Cassandra taught us about difficult patients during our training, but I know for a fact that she wasn't thinking at the time in the Warrior Princess league for uncooperative patients. I'll have the bandages ready."
Ephiny looked quizzically towards the healer. "Mine or hers?"
"I'm a healer, ready for any eventuality," she smiled.
"Thanks for your support, Gina." The Regent took a deep breath and shook her arms, loosening them up. "Right. I can do this. I can," she murmured to herself. "Heck, I might even survive." She took a step forward. "Xena?"
Venna jumped, hitting her head on the trunk overhead as a twig snapped behind her. "What was that?" she asked over her shoulder to Kiaya.
"Me. Help's arriving, I think. I'm just going to steer them in the right direction." Kiaya stood and made her way back towards the trail, stumbling occasionally as roots and vines hidden by the darkness reached out to snare her feet. She scrambled onto the trail, kicking away the last of the snarling undergrowth, and paused, listening to the night sounds. Sure enough, she could hear the sounds of Amazons approaching and breathed a sigh of relief. She let out a piercing whistle and heard the pace of the Amazons pick up.
Shortly, she saw Diana and several other Amazons, including the healer, Ariana, trot into view. The group hurried back to the fallen tree, two of the Amazons climbing onto the trunk to peer at the mass of thorny brambles on the other side, another clearing an area to make a fire to provide a little light.
Kiaya leant one arm on the trunk and bent down, looking into the black hole that hid Venna, Eponin and her unknown partner. "Venna, crawl out and let Ariana get in." She waited until she heard the scrabbling noise of Venna reversing out then turned to the healer. "We're pretty sure that Eponin is in there. Don't know who the other is; Venna couldn't reach in far enough. And, since they are unconscious, we're assuming that they're injured."
Venna emerged and dusted herself off. "They're all yours." She pulled a twig out of her hair and scowled at Kiaya. "Next time, you can go crawling and I'll stay out here." Kiaya grinned and patted the Amazon on the shoulder.
Ariana had disappeared into the vacated space beneath the trunk. Kiaya could hear her mumbling to herself about Amazon warriors hiding themselves in the most difficult of places to reach. When they were finally pulled from their hiding place, Eponin and her friend were in for an ear bashing from the healer.
The two Amazons on top of the dead tree began to hack away at the thorny cage from above, while two others retraced Kiaya's footsteps and the path she had cut earlier. A flickering golden glow illuminated the now crowded area as the torches were lit from the small fire, and work began in earnest to free the two warriors.
Kiaya wandered over to the fire and sat herself down, rubbing at her right shoulder and arm. It had been a long day, and she was looking forward to collapsing into her nice warm bed. Her eyes closed as she basked in the warmth the crackling fire threw towards her and her body began to relax, letting the stresses of the day ebb away. She sat like that for what seemed like an eternity but was no more than a brief moment before her hearing caught snatches of the conversation which was buzzing around her in which Xena seemed to be figuring prominently. Her eyes snapped open when she heard Gabrielle's name mentioned.
Ephiny kept up a constant spiel of chatter, not wanting to startle the warrior by coming up unannounced from behind. Not that anyone she ever knew had managed such a feat but she wasn't taking any chances, especially with Xena in such an unstable state. Once again, she silently wished that Kiaya or Eponin were here to deal with her; they had so much more experience with her in this condition.
Ephiny wasn't at all convinced that she would be able to get Xena to allow anyone near her. In fact, it occurred to her that she really was in more danger now than she had been during the battle. She reached Gabrielle's bedside and slowly adjusted the blanket covering her. Cerulean-blue eyes fastened onto her and her hand froze, then slowly pulled away. "Xena, you really need to clean up and let Gina take a look at your shoulder," she said, hesitantly. "I can watch Gabrielle for you. You'd only be in the other room." She caught her breath sharply as Xena rose to her feet, the hardening in stature heralding the return of her darker side. Oh, Artemis, think I've done it now.
Xena stared intently at the Amazon standing before her, liking the fear that she induced in her eyes. She could see a cold sweat break out on the tanned body in front of her. An evil grin spread across her face and she could see the pulse in the Amazon's neck double in speed. Her muscular arm lifted from her side and caressed the Amazon's face. She could feel the shudder run through the woman's body. "Are you trying to tell me what to do?"
Ephiny gulped, trying to swallow several times. Xena's voice was deceptively gentle but Ephiny had the feeling that she'd just made a big mistake. She shook her head, knowing that to try to move herself away from the warrior would only engage her wrath.
"Good. Now get out and stay out. Both of you." Her hands gripped the shoulder it rested on, increasing the pressure until she saw a grimace of pain on the Amazon's face.
Ephiny nodded her head once more and slowly stepped back from the Warrior Princess, never taking her eyes from her lithe form. She reached her hand back until she felt the door, then quickly turned and walked into the outer chamber, letting out the breath she'd been holding. She looked at Gina who was standing near the door. "Come on, we're leaving. I don't think the softly, softly approach is going to work."
Gina picked up a small bowl of water and walked towards Gabrielle's chamber. "I'll just put this where she can get to it," she said, walking through the door before Ephiny could stop her.
Ephiny leapt forward, following her. "Gina, get out of there, now."
Gina heard Ephiny's order but, seeing that Xena had returned to her position by the Queen's bedside, she ignored it and quietly walked behind her placing the bowl and cloth on a small table in the corner. She turned to leave the room and walked straight into the gore-covered armour of the Warrior Princess. A hand closed vice-like around her throat and, much like Ephiny had earlier, she found herself dangling in the air as Xena pinned her to the wall. Xena's gaze left the healer and swept to Ephiny.
"I told you to stay out!"
Ephiny gingerly entered the room, her brain working at a frantic rate, trying to figure out a reply that would satisfy the warrior and settling on the one thing she was sure of. "Gina meant no harm. She just wanted you to have water nearby should Gabrielle require it." Wincing inwardly, Ephiny wondered whether the ruse would work or whether Xena would just snap the healer's neck for the intrusion. Xena paused, seeming to consider what the Regent had told her. Then, in one quick motion, she threw Gina through the air, knocking Ephiny off of her feet and sending them both sprawling to the ground. "No more second chances." The warrior's voice was cold. "Get out." Clutching hold of Gina's leathers, Ephiny scrambled up, pulled the healer to her feet and dragged her from the room and out of the palace.
Kiaya ran with as much speed as her tired body could muster and as much as the grasping undergrowth would allow. She ducked and weaved as branches reached out to grab her, jumped roots that seemed to leap out at her. Her only thought was to reach the village as soon as possible. She cursed herself and sent prayers to Artemis and one or two to Hades, hoping he would keep his warrior on a leash.
Whilst searching for Eponin and Solari, as well as the other missing Amazons, Kiaya had believed the day to be a complete success in terms of the Amazon nation's survival. Now she wasn't so sure. It hadn't occurred to her that Gabrielle would be hurt, and the thought of the village having to deal with a Xena, who was, on some level, worse than their darkest nightmares, chilled her to the core. One wrong word, wrong look or action and she would destroy what was left of the Amazons. Even this Xena would never hurt Gabrielle physically; she would only be hurting herself, but she could and would destroy everything she held dear.
Her breath was ragged as the village came into sight and she startled several of the on-watch Amazon sentries as she blew past them and headed for the palace.
Ephiny was standing at the entrance to the palace surrounded by a small group of Amazons. She had had Cassandra wakened and Lissa brought from the temple to discuss the problem of the Warrior Princess.
"Nobody goes in there." Ephiny pointed at the palace. "I want a guard around the clock. If Xena moves out of there, I want to know about it. But nobody goes inside and nobody tries to stop her; we've lost enough of our sisters today without adding to them." The Regent looked each one of them in the eye until she got a nod of acceptance from each of them.
"Lissa, Cassandra, a word, please?" The other Amazons moved off to their duties, leaving the three alone. "Lissa, this isn't going to work, not with her like this. If Gabrielle were conscious, or if Kiaya or Eponin were here, we might be able to manage this, somehow. But she's swinging between moods so fast it's hard to know what she'll do next. One moment, I see the Xena that Gabrielle knows and loves, the next she's in full Warlord mode and unreachable. And, when she was fighting, there wasn't a shred of humanity in her eyes; she was almost uncontrolled and that frightened me more. She hasn't made a move against Gabrielle, and I don't think she will, but that isn't protecting the rest of us from her."
"I can ask our Goddess for advice but she is not allowed to interfere further," replied the priestess.
"Cassandra, will our Queen be okay without attention to her wounds?"
"Her dressings will need changing but other than that I have already done all that I can."
"What about drugging Xena? We've done that before."
"We could try, but the penalties are likely to be severe if it doesn't work, and she has a tolerance for soneral, now. I wouldn't know how much to use. We could kill her if we tried."
"That may be our only option if we can't come up with anything else. Can you think of anything else we could try?"
"You can let me in. I'll talk to her," panted a voice from behind Ephiny, making her jump. The Regent swung round to see Kiaya bent over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath.
"Thank the Gods, Kiaya, am I glad to see you. We already tried talking--it didn't work."
"It will work for me," she said, straightening up and looking the Regent in the eye.
"How can you be so sure? It was all I could do to prevent her from killing Gina and me."
"Because she trusts me and I know this Xena better than any of you."
"Are you saying she doesn't trust us?"
"Why should she? She feels betrayed. Gabrielle sent her away and nobody tried to help her. I went with her; I put up with the violent mood swings. I stayed when everyone else deserted her. She trusts me."
Ephiny hung her head and sighed. "I guess I can understand that." She looked up. "Do you need anything?"
"Just make sure we have some hot water. She'll want to bathe." Kiaya started to walk past them.
"There's a tub already in there but the water will have cooled by now. I'll have some more brought to you. Kiaya?"
The Amazon stopped and turned, seeing a hopeful look on the Regent's face. "Hades, Ephiny, I should have said. We found Eponin. She's a little battered but she's alive." Kiaya saw a tear trickle down the Regent's face and stepped forward pulling her into a hug. "Didn't stay long enough to find out who was with her, but Venna and Diana should be here with them soon." She wiped a tear from Ephiny's face. "You okay?" Ephiny nodded unable to speak as emotion choked her. "Why don't you go and get some sleep. I'm sure Cassandra or Lissa will wake you up when they bring her in. In the meantime, I'm going to try to settle Xena down." Try being the word here, I have no idea whether anyone can calm her down anymore. Still I have to try. "And I'll check on Gabrielle for you, too." Kiaya handed the Regent off to the priestess and then walked up the steps into the palace.
Kiaya's eyes swept the interior of the palace as she stepped through the door, noting the cooling tub of water and the medical supplies on the side. The door to Gabrielle's room was open and Kiaya could see the pacing form of the warrior through it. She walked toward the room just as Xena's voice roared out. "I told you to stay out and I meant it."
Undeterred, Kiaya walked through the door and stared the raging warrior straight in the eye. "No, you told Ephiny and Gina to stay out."
Xena stared at Kiaya for several long seconds; her muscles tensing in reaction to the brazen Amazon standing before her. Then she relaxed a little, recognition dawning in her eyes. "I didn't know you had returned to the Amazons, Kiaya."
"It's home. Where else was I going to go? Are you gonna throw me out like you did the others? Or are you going to let me have a look at that shoulder, and get cleaned up?" Xena looked back at the sleeping bard. "She isn't going anywhere, Xena."
"No, she isn't. But, since you're here to keep an eye on her, I am." The warrior walked past the stunned Amazon.
"Oh, but I can. My job is done."
"I mean you can't return to Hades realm, Xena, not in that way." Xena stopped short and turned back toward Kiaya. "The Gods are at play. Artemis asked Hades for your presence and Hades granted it. How else would Gabrielle have gotten hold of the scroll? Or known how to get you here?" Kiaya saw Xena's eye's darken at her words and hurried on. "You can always go back at Philius's village, you know that, but it will take time to get there. You're injured and exhausted. Take a day or so to rest up and then go."
Her reasoning didn't seem to penetrate the anger that was building. Xena's whole character metamorphosed in front of her. Her stature hardened, muscles became more defined, her face paled even as blackness rolled across her eyes. Kiaya unconsciously took a step backwards, bumping her legs against Gabrielle's pallet, as she saw the little reason that Xena's psyche still held dissolve. Xena's fist flew out, hitting the wooden wall with enough force to crack the timber and shake the rafters. Kiaya flinched as Xena's fist struck again.
Kiaya's words struck a deep wound in Xena's soul as the bitter taste of betrayal made itself known once more. Her rage began to boil to the surface and she hit out at whatever was in range. The impact of her fist briefly lessened the urge to destroy, before the wave of anger rolled back up and broke.
Kiaya was rooted to the floor, terrified that the slightest movement might bring the warrior's rage in her direction. But her fears were groundless; Xena's rage was directed elsewhere. The warrior spun round and strode furiously out of Gabrielle's chamber and through the palace, destroying anything that got in her way. Kiaya hesitated; Ephiny needed to be told Xena was on the rampage. She quickly reassured herself that Gabrielle was still unconscious then turned to follow the warrior.
She'd reached the door to Gabrielle's sleeping chamber when she heard the bard stirring. She stopped and looked at her Queen, seeing her eyes fluttering; she was coming around. Kiaya felt herself torn between warning the Amazons, not that they wouldn't soon know Xena was out of control, and staying with her Queen. If Gabrielle was awake they had a better chance of halting Xena. She hurried back to Gabrielle's bedside.
The wooden door that barred unwanted entrance to the palace blocked Xena's path. With a negligent ease that belied the turmoil she was feeling, she kicked it open, knocking it off of the hinges and sending it crashing down the palace steps into the Village Square, scattering the Amazon guards.
Ephiny was just climbing into her pallet, when one of the Royal Guard came crashing through the door without announcement, sending the Regent scrabbling around for something to cover her nakedness. The Royal Guard slid to a halt, ignoring the Regent's state of undress. "She's lost it. She just kicked the door off of the palace."
It took several seconds for the words to pierce the fog of exhaustion that clouded Ephiny's mind. Then, with sudden clarity, she realised the Amazon was talking about Xena. "What about the Queen?"
"We can't get into the palace to check," said the Amazon, turning her gaze away from Ephiny's shapely body as she dressed.
"Why not?" asked Ephiny, as she pulled the last of her leathers on and secured her sword to her side.
"Xena's pacing like a caged animal in front of the palace. Everyone's backed off as you instructed us to."
Gabrielle felt as though she was lifting a heavy weight as she struggled to open her eyes. She was tired, very tired and the smallest thing required the greatest effort. She felt pain as well, her own and something else, something alien to her. She felt fear; her heart began thudding in an unnatural rhythm. Anger, she felt a horrendous anger, the need to hit out, and the need to destroy, to kill. Her eyes flew open, startling Kiaya who was standing over her. The Amazon brushed her damp hair from her forehead and spoke, "My Queen can you hear me?"
Gabrielle nodded and slowly pushed herself into a semi-sitting position. "Where's Xena?" she managed to mutter through teeth clenched against the pain. The anger striking her mind like a battering ram threatened to overwhelm her. She struggled to bring her thoughts into some semblance of order.
She vaguely remembered hearing Xena's whispered voice as the warrior had lifted her and gently cradled her in her strong arms. She'd felt safe, secure, protected. She'd known that voice, those arms, had come to rely on the feeling of security they imbued. But those feelings had gone, replaced by feelings so alien to the bard that she was battling to keep her own ethics intact. Never had she felt such hate, felt the need to destroy and kill, such betrayal; and within the maelstrom of darkness there were glimmers of light, of soul wrenching loss, hurt and love.
The Amazons stood far back, keeping out of direct sight of the anxious, pacing warrior. Cassandra had joined them shortly after Xena had burst from the royal quarters. That the warrior was severely unsettled was immediately apparent from her incessant prowling back and forth in front of the palace. But what concerned the healer more was the constant, mumbling conversation she seemed to be having with herself. Her hands were in perpetual motion, twitching every now and then towards her sword as movement in the village and noises attracted her attention.
Looking around the torch-lit village, Cassandra was glad to see Ephiny approaching. But she started to move the gathered Amazons to more discreet vantage points to watch the warrior from. That Xena was nearing breaking point had been communicated well to the healer by her actions; having Amazons obviously watching her would only serve to antagonise her more.
Xena, however, ignored the watching Amazons as her mind struggled to come to terms with the revelation of Hades' betrayal. The quieter part of her soul wanted to leave the Amazon village and find somewhere to heal her wounds. The more violent, darker aspects of her soul demanded a more aggressive resolution to the God's actions.
Throughout her life her greatest changes had come about due to betrayal; her reaction to it was deeply imbedded in her psyche. Caesar's betrayal had sent her on a quest of death and destruction. Darphus' and her army's betrayal had eventually flung her into Hercules' hands and the road to redemption, but revenge had been first on her mind, and the destruction of her army.
Then Gabrielle rejected her. The bard's influence had ensured that Xena's reaction wouldn't be as destructive, but knowing that violence was the inevitable outcome she had turned to her last refuge with Hades. Now, even that had been taken from her and her soul was demanding action.
Other thoughts and feelings that she associated with Gabrielle made themselves known, fear and pain foremost among them. Gabrielle must be conscious, and that knowledge only served to make fury grow. She'd tasted that fear once before when Gabrielle had told her to leave the Amazon village. And that small wave of perceived fear was all that it took to push the warrior over the edge of the abyss she'd had been balancing on since Kiaya's words about Hades.
Ephiny blanched as she saw Xena stop her pacing and look towards the Amazons still in view. Cassandra had most of them out of sight and she herself had ordered that others be woken from their sleep. She had no idea what to expect from the Warrior Princess but the look of rage on her face, now, told her that, whatever Xena was going to do, it would be bad. She reached out and grabbed Cassandra by the shoulder and pulled her towards her. "Get over to the temple. I've told the rest of the warriors to go there. Get inside and lock the doors and don't open them unless you hear from me."
"Cassandra, don't argue with me, just do as I say!" Ephiny pushed the healer in the direction of the temple.
Xena halted her pacing and finally turned her attention to her surroundings. There were a few Amazons about, most of them running in different directions away from her; one, though, stood still, watching her from the bottom of the palace steps. Ephiny. Their eyes connected and Xena felt a feral smile cross her face as she read the Amazon's fear. She reached over her shoulder and drew her sword and took pleasure as she saw the Amazon's breathing rate increase and trickles of sweat appear on her body.
Ephiny slowly took a step backwards as Xena began to advance down the palace steps. She was unable to take her eyes off of the warrior. The power and strength that rippled through Xena's body was as intoxicating as the terror she also inspired. She couldn't see hate in the steel-blue eyes that were locked on her, they were empty.
There was little thought behind Xena's actions anymore, vengeful subconscious driving the violent mind. Ephiny knew deep in her heart that Artemis had been right: the Amazon nation would be destroyed today. Not, however, by the army she had seen, but by the saviour she had brought here. Xena was going to tear the village apart and there was little anybody could do about it.
Xena reached the bottom of the steps, sword still in hand. She was slightly surprised that the Amazon who stood twenty or so paces in front of her hadn't run. The Amazons were fierce fighters by reputation and by nature, but most of them had the sense to run when their death was staring them in the face. Should she kill her now? Or should she kill her last, after she'd seen her village destroyed and her family dead?
An ominous change slowed Gabrielle's racing mind; the murderous energy she had felt pulsing through her disappeared and was replaced by a cold chill which sent a shiver down her spine. "Where's Xena?" The bard repeated with more force, her gaze boring into Kiaya's eyes. Something was terribly wrong; she could feel it.
"She just went outside," replied Kiaya. Then she took a deep breath and told her what had happened. "Gabrielle, I told her about Artemis' deal with Hades and that she wouldn't be able to return to his realm. She didn't take it too well. I thought, at first, she was going to tear the palace down around our heads, but she stormed out of here, instead. I was going to follow but you started to come round."
Gabrielle flung back the blanket covering her and tried to swing her legs off of the pallet, the pain causing her to catch her breath. "Get me out of this bed." Beads of perspiration covered her face, her jaws clenched as she commanded the Amazon before her, "Take me to her."
It was obvious to Kiaya that the Queen was in no condition to be moved. "But, my Queen..."
"Kiaya, I can feel her. I know what she's feeling; the hate is almost overwhelming. She is going to destroy this village if I don't stop her. Now get me out of here and take me to Xena."
"You can't walk." Kiaya saw Gabrielle's eyes flash in anger and held her hand up to forestall anything Gabrielle might have said. "I'll carry you." Relief flooded Gabrielle's face.
Ephiny hastily drew the sword she wore at her side, nervousness making her grip slick with sweat, but her determination to prevent Xena from harming any of her Amazon sisters rooted her feet in place and she stood defiantly in the warrior's path.
Xena's respect for the Amazon before her grew when she pulled her sword from her scabbard. Did this brash Amazon actually believe she could stand up to her? Could stop her from destroying this village? A movement across the square caught her eye and she watched as several Amazons scurried towards the temple. Obviously the temple was where they were gathering their forces. She tensed as her eyes found one figure she was eager to meet. She disregarded Ephiny's presence as insignificant when her wandering eyes had found Lissa standing on the temple steps. Where once there had been indecision and conflict, there was now purity of purpose. With a silence-shattering roar, Xena flipped over Ephiny and charged towards the priestess.
The howling cry echoed throughout the village and surrounding forest. Every living creature within its reach paused and turned its gaze in its direction.
The small group of Amazons who were slowly carrying two of their companions back to the Amazon village stopped in their tracks and listened. Even Eponin, who had not stopped grouching since she'd come round, paused in her tirade against the indignity of being carried. Only Solari, whom they'd found clutched in Eponin's arms and who now slept peacefully in her litter, seemed unaffected by the piercing cry.
Lissa wished she'd stayed in the temple when Cassandra had come in trailing several of the warriors with her. But she had decided that she would be of more use outside than locked in. She'd managed to get some of the story from Cassandra before the doors were shut, but that hadn't prepared her for the reality of the situation. Ephiny was standing in the Village Square not twenty paces away from Xena. The warrior held her sword waist height and was slowly advancing on the Regent. Lissa could see several other Amazons watching proceedings from out of the warrior's sight; none of them seemed too keen to intervene.
Xena was exuding a lethal energy; the atmosphere around her rippled with destructiveness. When Xena's eyes locked and focused on her, Lissa froze. A chill suffused her body as the warrior smiled at her, then launched herself into the air. The priestess realised with horror that she had attracted Xena's attention.
Ephiny spun, following Xena's flight, startled that the warrior had ignored her defiance and not cut her down where she stood. Then she saw whom Xena was heading towards; Lissa was standing near the top of the temple steps. "Lissa, get in the temple!" Come on, Lissa, move it. Xena's not in the mood to play right now. Why isn't she moving? Ephiny sent a quick prayer to Artemis as she realised that Lissa was unable to move--the hunted caught by the hunter.
She sent out a birdcall hoping that some of the warriors would be able the slow Xena's charge, but knowing also she might be sacrificing them to Xena's wrath. She followed behind the warrior, seeing various Amazon warriors materialise from their hiding places to converge on the temple steps.
Faster, we have to move faster. Gabrielle was becoming frantic at the seemingly slow pace at which Kiaya was moving. In reality, they were proceeding as fast as the exhausted Amazon could with her Queen cradled in her arms. Gabrielle had her arms wrapped around Kiaya's neck while the Amazon tried to negotiate the debris that Xena had left in her wake.
Gabrielle was rapidly coming to realise why she often saw frantic relief on Xena's face when she came to rescue her from whatever trouble she had managed to get herself into. If the hate and anger she was feeling now was even a fraction of the terror Xena regularly found herself feeling, whether she cared to admit it or not, then Xena must have been driven half crazy. No wonder she always used to tell me to stay behind. It was amazing that the warrior hadn't just tied her up and left her someplace while she solved the problems they were called upon to fix. But now, now all she wanted to do was get to her partner.
Kiaya was glad the palace door was no longer attached to the palace. Even though Gabrielle was light she didn't think she'd have the strength to pick her up again if she'd had the door to contend with. The metal screech of swords clashing and Gabrielle's spasmodic grip around her neck urged her to pick up the pace as she stepped through the doorway.
Even though Gabrielle could feel the battlelust of Xena's anger coursing through her, the sight that greeted her was horrifying. It reminded Gabrielle of seeing a deer surrounded by a wolf pack, the wolves darting inwards to bite at the deer's feet. The deer had lost that battle. In this case, though, the wolf was in the centre of a herd of deer and the deer were losing. Several of the Amazons were already sporting injuries, but their tactics of quick diving attacks had kept any of them from being killed, so far. She could see Ephiny making her way around the edges of the fight, trying to get to Lissa who seemed to be frozen at the top of the temple steps. It was obvious to Gabrielle that Lissa was Xena's target since she didn't take her eyes off of the priestess. "Can you get me to Lissa?" she asked urgently into Kiaya's ear.
"I think so. We might get jostled a bit. Are you going to be up to that?"
"Just get me there, Kiaya, this has to be stopped once and for all. I can't carry on like this anymore and neither can Xena."
Xena swung her sword around, knocking the pale-faced Amazon from her feet, sending her sword clattering to the ground. Another jumped at her from behind as several of the fallen Amazon's sisters pulled her from the reach of the warrior's sword. Xena's anger was building even more as the Amazons managed to stay out of killing reach and prevented her from getting to her target.
She would kill them all, eventually, but first, she wanted Artemis to know her people were doomed and the easiest way to get her attention would be to kill her priestess. Lissa was so stunned at becoming a target that she hadn't moved since Xena had locked eyes with her. The warrior felt a biting sting on her sword arm as one of the Amazons got a blow in under her defences. Once again she launched herself into the night sky and flipped herself over the heads of the Amazons, coming to rest on the steps of the temple.
Lissa couldn't move. Her feet were bound to the ground. Even when the Amazons had come to her defence, she hadn't been able to take her gaze from the drama being played out in front of her. It was as though some invisible force were holding her in place. Incredibly, she didn't feel panic as Xena leapt over the Amazon forces. Hands grabbed at her shoulder and pulled her towards the temple doors but it was too late. She sent a small prayer to Artemis and waited.
Ephiny reached Lissa's side just as she saw Xena leap over the phalanx of Amazon defenders. Grasping hold of Lissa's shoulders, the Regent pulled at the priestess, intending to get her into the temple before Xena reached them. But a chilling voice caught hold of her.
"Uh, uh, Ephiny, she's mine." Xena's voice was close and Ephiny whirled around, coming face to face with Hades' messenger of death. Terror squeezed Ephiny's heart as Xena's empty eyes looked past her, still focused on Lissa. The Regent clenched her hand tight around the hilt of her sword and prepared to defend Lissa to the death. Then for a frightening moment her muscles froze.
"Time to say your prayers, priestess." Xena raised her sword. The priestess first, then the Regent, and if that didn't get Artemis' attention then the whole village would go this night. An explosion of light robbed her vision, but she drove her sword downward for a killing blow.
The light was so brilliant it hurt Ephiny's eyes but it restored her to action. Her body worked on instinct and she swung her blade up in a desperate move to block Xena's blow. The force of Xena's strike almost took the Regent to her knees, but she resisted with strength born of fear and determination and deflected the blow away from the priestess and herself.
Kiaya stopped as the light blinded her; they were almost at the top of the side steps to the temple, only a handful of paces away from Ephiny and Lissa. She held Gabrielle tightly as the bard buried her face into Kiaya's shoulder, protecting her eyes.
The Goddess stood resplendent in her Amazon leathers, a glowing aura shrouding her body, protecting Ephiny and Lissa with her presence. The Regent let out a trembling breath and stepped back, pulling the priestess nearer to the temple doors and further away from Xena, though the warrior's attention was now firmly attached to the Goddess.
The appearance of Artemis didn't faze Xena; she had expected the Goddess to turn up at some point, though she had to admit to being a little disappointed that it hadn't taken a few deaths to get her here. The Goddess obviously doted over the Amazons more than Xena had realised. Well, now that she was here, maybe they could finish this game that Artemis was so fond of playing.
"Well, well, well, look who we have here." Xena let her sword drop to her side as she walked towards the Goddess. "Couldn't resist interfering with my life again? Or is it you were scared I might hurt your precious Amazons? You invited me here to play, but I guess the game is getting a little rough for you?"
Xena stood before the Goddess, eyes blazing in accusation. "Are you happy now? Are you pleased that your toys have played your games so well?"
"This isn't a game for me, Xena. It never has been; my Amazons are all that matter to me. Gabrielle is one of my Amazons, my chosen. You had a second chance; I gave that to you. I gave you life. I gave you Gabrielle."
"Then why have you had Hades prevent me from returning? Gabrielle doesn't want or need me here. She's terrified of me! I know what she feels; I've seen it in her eyes. I've felt it in my being."
Gabrielle pulled Kiaya's attention to her; they were standing a handful of paces behind and just to the right of Artemis, still in Xena's vision. Gabrielle felt a compelling need to be standing on her own two feet. She had never seen Xena carried to a confrontation and it made her feel uncomfortable that this Xena would think her weak for its necessity. "Kiaya, put me down."
The Amazon looked at her Queen. "Are you sure you are strong enough to stand?"
"I'll be okay. Just stay near." Kiaya put Gabrielle gently onto her feet but remained in close contact, supporting her.
"Xena!" The warrior turned from the Goddess as the familiar voice yelled her name. Gabrielle stood against Kiaya, the tall Amazon supporting her injured Queen. "Xena, it wasn't Artemis. She passed on the request to Hades but it was me who asked her to prevent your return to his realm. It was my decision to call you here; Artemis only provided the means to do it."
Gabrielle's heart thudded against her ribs as she stared at the stranger before her. Not even when she had travelled in Xena's dreamscape and met her as Death had she looked so terrifying. Yet she could see the conflict in her eyes as she battled her own inner turmoil. Could feel the war of wills that raged inside her body, the fleeting echoes of vulnerability and tenderness that had distinguished their relationship.
Xena left the Goddess behind her, walking ominously towards Gabrielle. "You? It was you? Weren't you satisfied with destroying my life, my world? What, you wanted another go? You can't play with people like that! You can't play with me like that and not expect payment in return. Well, consider that debt repaid." Xena twirled her sword around her hand then thrust it towards the unarmed Queen.
Whatever familiar aspects Gabrielle had seen in Xena's manner were now awash with darkness, but no matter how much darkness there was, she never expected Xena to harm her and was totally unprepared for her attack.
Ephiny had been watching the interplay between her Queen and Xena with rapt attention. It was obvious to her that, whenever Gabrielle spoke, Xena had to battle herself not to answer as her partner. If she looked closely, she could see the conflict in the way her body moved. The warrior, though exhausted and tired, moved with precision. Yet, when Gabrielle spoke, there was a hesitancy, as though something buried deep inside fought her natural inclination to hit out.
But Ephiny could also see how quickly these instances were beaten back. And, while she knew that Xena, in her right mind, would never hurt her bard, she also held no doubt that this incarnation would have little trouble in causing her harm. Maybe it was because Xena was so focused on Gabrielle that she let her intentions show in her eyes. As Xena thrust her sword at Gabrielle, Ephiny charged, ramming her shoulder into Xena's side, knocking them both from their feet.
Kiaya also reacted immediately to Xena's attack, swiftly stepping in front of her Queen as Ephiny charged. Gabrielle was barely strong enough to stand by herself and Kiaya felt her wavering strength as she leant against her back. "Lissa! Help the Queen into the temple."
Lissa tore her gaze from her Goddess, who had made no move to help her chosen when Xena had attacked. The Goddess had a strange sorrowful look on her face and Lissa realised that Artemis was unable to interfere; she was prevented from doing so by the Fates. Lissa looked back towards her Goddess even as she moved to aid her Queen. She's not able to help, but she knows what is about to happen. And once again the priestess felt true fear as the glistening of tears could be seen in Artemis' eyes.
Xena threw the weight of the Amazon off of her and scrambled to her feet. She had managed to keep hold of her sword through the impact but Ephiny hadn't been so lucky; her sword and dagger lay just out of reach. Xena took a quick step forward and kicked the rising Amazon, lifting her off of the ground and sending her tumbling down the temple steps.
Ephiny felt the crunching impact as Xena's boot connected with her body. Experienced the swirling confusion of sight and sound as she careened down the steps into a crumpled heap at the bottom. She rolled onto her stomach and tried to push herself to her feet but a sickening pain dimmed her vision. At least she'd distracted Xena enough to let Kiaya get between the warrior and their Queen. Ephiny lifted her head as her vision cleared and looked up to the top of the temple steps.
Kiaya stepped away from Gabrielle, as Lissa came to the Queen's side to support her, and drew her sword. Ephiny's charge had taken Xena's attention from Gabrielle for a short time but the warrior had soon recovered and was once again focused on Gabrielle. Kiaya knew she was hopelessly outmatched even against the battered form that was before her. But she had been trained by Xena and had fought with her countless times; maybe she could give Lissa and the other Amazons time to get Gabrielle away. It was just possible that, with her out of sight, Xena might be calmed; unlikely, but possible.
She blocked Xena's path and the warrior of death didn't even glance in her direction as she engaged her in battle. The first blow sent a familiar ringing vibration through her arms, but it was not as powerful as Kiaya remembered it and Kiaya threw it off with more ease than she had anticipated.
Gabrielle felt Lissa's arm around her waist and leant into its strong succour. "Let's get into the temple, Gabrielle. Kiaya won't be able to hold her and I don't want the doors to be open any longer than necessary."
"I'm not leaving," she said, as Kiaya's sword sang against Xena's. "This has to stop here; if we go inside, Xena will just follow. We can't risk letting her in amongst the injured. It would be a bloodbath."
"She won't be able to get in. The doors are blessed by Artemis. Nobody can pass who isn't invited," replied the priestess, vainly trying to pull Gabrielle towards the entrance. Even in her weakened state, she was proving too unyielding to move.
Gabrielle looked Lissa in the eyes. "Lissa, you said yourself that Artemis was no longer allowed to interfere in our affairs. The doors won't hold Xena. Our only chance is to stop her here. Because, if we can't stop her, once she has finished destroying the Amazons the rest of Greece won't be safe from her wrath. I doubt even the Gods would be able to stop her... and we know one would actively help her. So it ends here."
Lissa gave up her attempt to get Gabrielle into the temple, knowing it was futile and that the Queen was right. "What do you want me to do?"
"Just stay out of her way. It's me she wants."
The strain of the day was taking its toll on Kiaya. The initial battle and the search for survivors, her first confrontation with Xena, even carrying Gabrielle that short distance had weakened the already fragile strength of her arms. She had told the truth when she had said her left arm was as strong as her right had ever been, but it had never been put through a day like today had been. It was only because Xena's attention was focused on Gabrielle, behind her, that she had lasted this long. And Xena seemed somewhat reluctant to breach her defences. There had been a couple of times when Kiaya was sure she'd left herself open to a killing blow but it had never come.
She danced back out of reach of a wide sideswipe from Xena's blade, her new position allowing her to see Ephiny clamber to her feet with the aid of several Amazon warriors. If she could hold Xena for a few moments more, then maybe they could overwhelm her.
Gabrielle was certain her Xena was in the warrior in front of her. Kiaya should never have been able to fight her for this long. In fact, she was hardly even looking at Kiaya as she parried and blocked her thrusts; Xena's gaze was locked onto her.
Gabrielle let their eyes meet and felt the shock of their connection echo through her. The turmoil she saw within those eyes was great and what she felt was even stronger yet: conflict. One sentence kept surfacing in her thoughts; you have to end it. With a jolt, she realised these were Xena's thoughts as well. She shook herself free of Lissa's restraining arms and stepped forward, bracing herself with a strength from deep within her, a well of courage she had never found before.
Xena had let her instincts take over as Kiaya had stepped into her path. Deep inside, she recognised the Amazon as someone who had never lied to her, as someone she trusted. But that part of her was submerged so far in hate and anger that it was unable to stop the beast that demanded vengeance. While one part of her mind fought the Amazon, another concentrated on Gabrielle standing in the embrace of the priestess--just one more betrayal to the warped personality that was driving her.
She felt a stirring from within Gabrielle, a determination she had rarely felt from the bard before, and she recognised it for what it was. The bard wanted this confrontation as much as she did; she wanted a conclusion to this just as she did. An end, an end to everything would suit her just fine.
The change in the air currents alerted Xena to the presence of Amazons behind her, and, for a few seconds, she focused all her might and anger onto Kiaya. The power of Xena's blows intensified, and Kiaya saw that she now had the warrior's full attention. She only partially managed to deflect the thrust of Xena's sword and stumbled backwards. Raising her sword ineffectually against Xena's continued attack, Kiaya fell to the ground.
Xena stepped forward, intent on delivering the final blow, when a well-known presence moved into reach. Forgetting the Amazon, she swung her fist, hitting Gabrielle.
The pain was intense but Gabrielle had been expecting it. She had known what Xena would do if she came within reach. As she fell to the ground, her arms outstretched, her hand closed around the hilt of Ephiny's fallen sword. Feeling the cold steel in her hand, her heart clenched. It has to end here.
Kiaya looked up to find out why the killing blow hadn't landed and saw Xena towering over her Queen, sword raised. She scrambled to her feet, leaving her sword behind, and flung herself towards the warrior.
Xena stood above the sprawled bard, eyes filled with rage. Anticipation that the end of her torment was near filled her as she swung her sword down at the unprotected bard. A movement in her peripheral vision alerted her to Kiaya's attack and she twisted the blade to counter the Amazon's headlong charge.
Gabrielle watched in horror as Kiaya flung herself, unarmed, towards Xena, as the warrior's sword began its descent. Xena began to turn towards the Amazon's attack and Gabrielle knew Kiaya was leaping to her death. Sending a quick prayer to the Gods for forgiveness, Gabrielle raised the sword and thrust it forwards, hitting Xena just below her armour.
Xena felt the furnace-hot pain slice into her side below her armour line. Felt the burning pain that didn't come from her injuries, shock and guilt that didn't belong to her but to her friend and partner. She turned incredulous eyes towards the pale-faced Gabrielle whose hands were now covered in the red gore of battle.
Her bard, her friend who should never have been exposed to the terror of battle had now killed to stop the blind rage that had threatened her people, even though it was in the form of her best friend. Xena felt the terrible rage that had consumed her falter. Each beat of her heart was sending waves of pain through her body; her arms began to weaken as the loss of blood took its toll, and her sword began to slip from her hands.
Fierce pain and shock battered at Gabrielle's mind and she watched in silent dread as Xena turned and stared at her. The warrior's face had gone a deathly shade of white, but her eyes still burned blue. But, even as Gabrielle watched, the fire in those eyes began to dim and falter.
Then Kiaya, still charging, crashed into Xena, driving the sword further into the already damaged body. A small inarticulate cry of horror tore itself from Gabrielle's throat and she instinctively jumped up, pulling the sword from her partner's crumpling form.
Ephiny and her Amazons reached the top of the temple steps and came to a sudden halt at the tableau before them. Gabrielle stood, physically shaking from head to toe, Ephiny's sword grasped in her blood-covered hand. Kiaya was slouched over Xena, who was lying in a rapidly spreading pool of blood. Lissa and the Huntress stood to one side, silently absorbed in the deadly play being acted out before them.
Kiaya found herself once again on the ground, tangled, this time, in the arms of the Warrior Princess. Fascinated by the fact that she was still breathing, she scrambled away to give herself room to defend against Xena's next attack. She sat staring at Xena, pulling deep lungfulls of breath, puzzled at why the warrior wasn't moving... until she saw a ribbon of blood trickle from the corner of her slightly parted lips.
The echoing clatter of Ephiny's sword hitting the ground, as it fell from the bard's hand, spurred both Gabrielle and Ephiny into action. Ephiny moved towards Gabrielle as the bard threw herself to her knees at Xena's side.
Ignoring her own injury, Gabrielle slid her arm beneath Xena's shoulders, lifting the now limp body into her arms. "Xena?" Gabrielle's shaky voice barely carried to Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons. Tears began to stream from her eyes and her hand trembled as she carefully wiped the blood from Xena's face. "Xena?" Her voice became more frantic as she shook the warrior, getting no response.
Her hand, that had so gently caressed the warrior's face, now forcefully pressed against Xena's side as Gabrielle tried to staunch the blood that ran freely from the deep, gaping wound. But the precious life force continued to seep between her fingers. "Come on, Xena, stay with me!" Gabrielle's voice choked as the pain of the emotion she was feeling took a vice-like grip around her heart. Then Xena's eyes fluttered and opened, blankly staring towards the sky, and Gabrielle's heart stopped.
The bard leant nearer, holding the warrior close. "It will be alright, I promise, Xena, I'll make it right. Just hold on for me, Cassandra will fix you up." Gabrielle's gaze never moved from Xena, her tears leaving rivers of white as they washed the blood from her face. She lifted her partner higher as the warrior tried to speak. She could barely hear what Xena was trying to tell her and dropped her ear close to Xena's mouth.
"It's... over... no... more." A feather-light touch startled the bard as Xena managed to lift a gore-covered hand to the bard's face. "Sorry... I didn't... mean to... hurt you."
"Shh, you didn't." Gabrielle started to rock the warrior as she spoke. "You didn't. That wasn't you."
"Forgive me?" The bard had to strain to hear the words.
"Oh, love, there is nothing to forgive." Gabrielle's tears began in earnest once more. "Don't talk now; save your strength."
A hint of a smile crossed Xena's face. "Love you." And her eyes drifted closed.
"Xena? Xena, don't do this to me, not again." Gabrielle gently shook the fallen warrior. "No!" Her voice became harsher. "Don't you dare leave me, you promised." She lifted her hand from Xena's side and pressed it into her neck, searching for her pulse. No flicker of life remained. "No!" Her eyes frantically looked toward the watching Amazons then up at Ephiny, who shook her head, helplessly. Despair twisted Gabrielle's face and she pulled Xena's limp form tightly to her chest. "Noooooooooo!"
The Amazon nation stilled as Gabrielle's cry of grief echoed throughout the village and forest, then into silence. Not an Amazon moved, not a bird sang, as the bard folded herself around the body of her soulmate.
Gabrielle sat clutching tightly at the still warm, yet lifeless, body of her partner. She still couldn't tell whether her heart was beating so rapidly that she couldn't feel it or whether it had just stopped completely. A dark empty hole had opened in her soul and she knew that, no matter what, nothing would ever be able to fill it. She barely felt the tears that were cascading down her face; the pain of her wound was insignificant compared to that of her heart and soul. She was unable to close her eyes. Each time she did, her mind was filled by the dazzling, yet so rare, smile of her partner. The smile that put shame to the golden orb of Apollo's chariot and now would never be seen again. She wanted to scream, to hit out, but her body refused to release its hold on her friend, so she just sat gently rocking her.
Eponin sat upright as the cry echoed around her, recognising the voice of her Queen. "Stop! Let me get off of this thing." Her voice was thready from the battering her body had taken in battle but it still held the edge of authority. The Amazon entourage came to a halt and Eponin pushed herself up and swung her legs off of the litter.
"Where do you think you're going?" Eponin hadn't seen the young healer as Ariana walked up behind her.
"I'll get to the village quicker on my feet."
Ariana reached a hand out to restrain the weapons master but it was slapped away as Eponin rose to her feet. "Eponin, you're injured."
"Yes, I am. But last time I looked I was still the weapons master of this village. That's the second cry that's come from there and that time it was Gabrielle. If you think I'm staying here, then you are sadly mistaken."
Ariana sighed and looked at the other Amazons who were wisely staying out of the argument. "Fine, go. I won't stop you."
Eponin smiled at the young Amazon, making a note in her mind to tell Cassandra how well she had performed. Then she turned and, at a steady, yet still jolting, pace, ran the several hundred paces that still needed to be covered to the village. She'd gone at least a hundred of those paces before she realised that Diana and Venna had followed her. The lethargy that the inaction of the last few candlemarks had settled over her lifted and she pushed her pace up a few degrees.
Ephiny stood silently at her Queen's shoulder, horrified at the turn of events. Tears of grief and anger streamed down her face. She slowly raised her head and looked over at the huddled form of Kiaya, who was staring at Gabrielle. Then the Regent slowly turned to face Artemis, her anger burning hot. "You knew, didn't you?" She took a step closer to the huntress, her face full of anger and sorrow. "You knew this would happen."
"I had my suspicions that it might end in this way, yes." Artemis' voice held no anger towards the questioning Amazon, only quiet resignation at a course of events she could not change.
"Then why?" Ephiny's fury overwhelmed whatever inhibitions talking to a God normally fostered in her.
"Because that was the only way," came the soft reply.
"That was the only way? You're a God and the death of our Queen's partner was the only thing you could come up with? And, not just her death, but at Gabrielle's hands?" Ephiny's emotions caught up with her and tears streamed, again, down her face.
"Yes, I am a God, Ephiny, and I can control many things, but death is not in my domain; that belongs to another. You already knew I couldn't help and any interference by me would have been construed by the fates as help." The Goddess took a step forward, frustration showing on her face. "You think I wanted it to end this way? I didn't I need my Queen to be strong. There are still many trials ahead for our nation. I may not have liked what Xena was, but even I can see that her death in this manner will destroy Gabrielle."
"So, what happens now?" asked the Regent, frowning as the Goddess began to fade from her sight.
"The matter has left my hands and now rests in the hands of others, Ephiny."
Ephiny looked at Lissa as Artemis disappeared. "That's all she can do?" The priestess shrugged her shoulders. Ephiny looked back toward her Queen, her shoulders slumping even more as she watched the young woman rock her partner back and forth, gently.
Eponin and her two followers pounded past the unguarded entrance to the village. The weapons master's eyes quickly scanned the village. Seeing the cluster of Amazon warriors at the top of the temple steps, she made her way over to them.
Ephiny's gaze left the grief-stricken bard as she heard footsteps ascending the steps. The Amazons she had called to her side parted. Seeing the battered, but alive, body of her friend lightened the load she had settled on her shoulders, but not by much.
She hurried over to Eponin as she reached the top of the steps to prevent her from charging over to Gabrielle and her warrior. Ephiny took in the wounded shoulder of her friend but enveloped her in a tight embrace, anyway. Eponin returned the Regent's hug but was shocked at Ephiny's reaction to her arrival; until she looked over her shoulder and saw Gabrielle wrapped around the very still, blood-covered form of the Warrior Princess. Ephiny felt the weapons master stiffen as she saw their Queen and her partner and she pulled back out of the embrace. "It's good to have you back. Things got way out of hand."
Eponin looked deeply into Ephiny's brown eyes. "What happened?"
"I'll tell you everything, later, but Xena is dead "
"Who did it?" Eponin's voice was small, showing the shock she felt at the great warrior's demise.
"I promise I'll tell you everything later. Are you well enough to help me with Gabrielle?" Eponin nodded. "Thank you."
The Regent turned and softly called over to Lissa. The priestess, hearing her name, quietly made her way past the grieving bard to the Regent. "Lissa, get Cassandra out of the temple and bring her here. But tell everybody else to stay put until they are told it's safe. I don't want anymore than necessary to see this." Lissa nodded her head in reply and left, walking towards her entrance at the back of her place of worship.
"Eponin, you think you could get these warriors to clear somewhere that we can lay Xena's body?"
"Yeah, I can sort that out." Her eyes hadn't left the tragic scene before her. "What's up with Kiaya?" she asked, after noticing the Amazon huddled near Xena's body. She looked at Ephiny, seeing the pain in her eyes burn anew at the question. "Never mind, tell me later. I'll get these ladies to work, then come give you a hand."
Eponin turned towards Venna and Diana who were still close to the weapons master and who, though trying hard to hide their shock at the situation, were failing miserably. Eponin swiftly looked at the rest of the silently gathered Amazons, noting that the same look of grief appeared on all of their faces and their eyes told the story of a great warrior lost.
Ephiny watched her friend take charge of the Amazons and felt the balance of responsibility shift. Eponin would take care of the village, allowing her to look after their Queen. Though how she would manage to bring Gabrielle back from this disaster, she had no idea.
Cassandra, like every other Amazon in the temple, had heard the heart-wrenching wail of their Queen echo through the building, but, unlike most of the others, she had some idea what may have happened. Her fears were confirmed when one of the acolytes pulled her into a side room and ushered her through another door into Lissa's presence. Cassandra took in the distressed form of the priestess and her now tear-stained face.
"Xena's dead," Lissa stated in a matter-of-fact way and raised her eyes to the healer's. "Gabrielle killed her." Her voice broke as she told the healer the news.
For several moments, Cassandra's heart actually stopped beating. Then it started again, pushing the blood around her body at a much faster rate than it had done previously, while she tried to determine the consequences of what Lissa had just told her. She had thought the Warrior Princess dead, and knew that Gabrielle was having a hard time accepting her soulmate's death. But in time she would recover, as she had begun to since she had told the warrior to leave. But to have Xena die at her own hands might be an insurmountable torment. Cassandra let out a sigh. At least Gabrielle hadn't bonded to Xena, she thought.
"She had." Cassandra looked up, puzzled, at the priestess. "You said, 'at least Gabrielle hadn't bonded to Xena.' Just before she confronted her, Gabrielle said she could feel everything that was going on inside Xena and that if she wasn't stopped now she would be unstoppable."
Cassandra realised she must have spoken aloud. "Oh, sweet Artemis; this is bad, Lissa. Where is she? I need to get to her, fast."
"Ephiny has asked for you to attend her, anyway; but I thought you should know what has happened before you went out."
"This could kill our Queen, Lissa. The loss of a soulmate is not something to mess about with. It is bad enough that Xena is dead, but for it to be by Gabrielle's hand... That alone may have pushed our Queen so far into despair that we are unable to get her back. But if she has bonded to her then the chances are we will lose her, too." The healer looked around the small room. "I need my things."
"We can go through the main doors, now. Ephiny has asked for everybody not already outside to remain in the temple. Get your things; I'll meet you at the doors."
Kiaya sat with her eyes still locked on her grief-stricken Queen, unable to tear her eyes away from Gabrielle's pain. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest, its pulse beating a loud tattoo behind her eyes. She felt her hands begin to tremble as the shock of Xena's death began to make itself known.
This was her fault. If she had not returned to the Amazons then they would have been unaware of Xena's continued existence. But she had so wanted to make things right for her friend. She had known that returning with her story to the village would start Gabrielle thinking about her partner and her whereabouts.
She knew that the little bard wouldn't allow the warrior to hide from the world and her own fears. She knew that Gabrielle would force Xena to find a way to defeat or at least suppress the darkness that lay within her. But for that defeat to have meant her death was inconceivable.
Kiaya's body flinched violently as a hand clasped hold of her shoulder. She managed to tear her eyes from Gabrielle's tortured face and looked up at Ephiny.
Ephiny squeezed Kiaya's shoulder tightly. "I need to you to help me with Gabrielle. Can you do that?"
Kiaya heard the concern in the Regent's voice, and was faintly disgusted with herself that she was causing Ephiny that concern. She shook herself physically, trying to shake off the shroud of grief that held her immobile. "Yes, I can do that."
She planted her hands on the ground to push herself to her feet and stopped. Her eyes slowly travelled down to see her hands bathed in the crimson pool of blood that had spread from Xena's body.
Ephiny, seeing Kiaya's eyes widen in shock, grabbed the Amazon beneath her arms and hauled her to her feet. Kiaya's eyes hadn't left her blood-soaked hands and Ephiny turned the Amazon round so she could look into her face.
"This is my fault." Kiaya's voice was no more than a whisper. "I killed her."
Ephiny placed her hands on either side of Kiaya's face and forced her gaze away from her hands. "Listen to me. None of this is your fault; none of this is anybody's fault."
"But if I hadn't come..."
"No, Kiaya, this is not your fault, it's not Gabrielle's, it's not Xena's, it is not anybody's fault. We are just pieces in some cosmic game that the Gods are playing. If anyone's to blame, they are. But we have to help Gabrielle, now."
"Yeah," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "I'm fine. It's just... I'm fine." She took a deep breath and turned towards Gabrielle, then looked back to the Regent. "Hades, Ephiny. How do we help her get through this?"
"I have no idea, Kiaya, but we will find a way. We need to get her away from Xena's body. Eponin has some of the warriors preparing a resting place for her."
"I'll look after Xena," the younger Amazon said. "I think you'd better be with Gabrielle."
"Ephiny!" The Regent looked over to the temple door and saw Lissa and Cassandra exit through it. "We need to talk." The healer's voice drifted over to them and Kiaya and Ephiny slowly walked across to them.
"Cassandra, we need to get Gabrielle over to the palace. But I don't think she's going to react too well to us taking Xena from her."
"No, she's not, Ephiny. Lissa was telling me that Gabrielle told her that she could feel what Xena was feeling. Gabrielle has bonded to her, Ephiny." The healer ran her hand through her hair. "This is bad. This is really bad. I don't know whether we'll be able to get her through this." Cassandra hated to be the one to cause the stricken look on the Regent's face, but she could think of no other way of telling her.
"This just gets better and better doesn't it?" said the Regent, anger building up in her voice again. "You think our illustrious patron is enjoying herself, now?"
"Ephiny!" hissed Lissa. "It does us no good to curse the Gods."
The Regent's shoulders slumped. "I know, Lissa. I'm just mad and have no one to take it out on. Anyone know how we can do this?"
"Yeah," said Kiaya. "Lissa and I will take Xena, and you and Cassandra can look after Gabrielle."
"Okay, let's get this over with."
Lissa and Kiaya stepped nervously into the pool of blood that coated the floor in front of Gabrielle and her partner. The plan was quite simple: Lissa and Kiaya would gently remove Gabrielle's death grip from Xena and then remove the warrior's body, whilst Ephiny and Cassandra took the Queen over to the palace. None of them believed it would be as simple as that, but if they didn't do it soon they might not be able to. They dropped to their knees ignoring the warm fluid that adhered to their skin.
Lissa tentatively reached out toward Gabrielle's hand, studiously avoiding looking into the Queen's face; knowing that to gaze into that well of grief would paralyse her with sorrow and pain. Gabrielle's skin was ice cold, but the young bard didn't flinch at her touch. The priestess glanced to the left to see that Kiaya gently held her other hand. Gabrielle seemed unaware of their presence; Lissa looked over her head and saw Ephiny nod. She took a firmer hold on the chilled hand and started to pull it away from the warrior's body.
The bard was stronger than she looked, but Kiaya knew it was more than physical strength that was keeping her arms clutched around the dead warrior. It was the knowledge that to let go would make it real; the knowledge that this would be the last time she held Xena in her arms. It was goodbye.
It was only as they forced Gabrielle's hands away from Xena's body that the grieving Queen reacted to their presence. She didn't make a sound and her silence was deafening as she attempted to pull her hands back to the warrior, but Kiaya and Lissa held firm.
Ephiny, seeing her young friend begin to struggle, knelt behind her and wrapped her arms around her, trying to provide some measure of comfort to her. She could feel Gabrielle trembling under her touch; her muscles clenched in anger and denial as her body refused to accept the separation from Xena.
"No." At first, Ephiny was unsure that she'd heard the bard's broken voice, but the heart-rending cry was repeated with more force. "No! Don't touch her!" It wasn't just her arms that were battling against them now; Gabrielle had thrown her whole body into the struggle to stay with Xena. Despite the lancing pain that Ephiny felt in her soul at depriving her friend of her heart's wish, she didn't let go but gradually pulled the bard back from the warrior.
Cassandra could see that speed was required. The pain of removing their Queen's soulmate from her arms was causing as much agony to the Amazons as it was to their Queen. As soon as they had loosened Gabrielle's grip around the warrior, Cassandra stepped in and grabbed the limp form beneath the shoulders and began to slide the body out of the bard's arms. Gabrielle's attempts to free herself from restraint grew more determined, her cries of grief more profound. Cassandra had misjudged the strength required to move Xena's body and was struggling to completely remove her from Gabrielle's grasp; then two hands appeared by her side. The healer glanced up; she felt the strain on her arms ease as Eponin took the weight of the warrior's body.
Ephiny braced herself from the torrent of grief that she knew would come from Gabrielle as Xena was slipped from her arms. She was startled when the bard slumped, the fight having totally gone out of her as soon as the warrior's body was beyond her reach. Lissa and Kiaya quickly released Gabrielle's arms, allowing Ephiny to gather the bard more closely to her.
Eponin helped Cassandra move the warrior's body out of Gabrielle's line of vision then waved the healer away as Kiaya and Lissa came over to help her. The weapons master lovingly crossed Xena's arms across her chest, then, seeing her sword on the ground, picked it up so it could accompany the warrior to her resting place. She signalled to the Amazons who had been helping her and together they gently lifted the warrior's body and carried it away.
The healer quietly approached the Regent and their Queen, her concern growing as she saw the spirit had fled from the bard. Her hand gently rubbed Ephiny's shoulder to get her attention. "We should get her over to the palace." The Regent nodded and together they got Gabrielle to her feet and led her towards the palace.
Several candlemarks later the Amazon village was subdued; the funeral pyres for the fallen had been lit and Lissa had presided over the ceremonies in place of the Queen and her Regent. Ephiny had refused to leave Gabrielle's side and the Amazons hadn't really expected her to. The souls of those crossing over would understand their absence.
The injured, including Solari, who had been brought in shortly after the Amazons had left the temple, had been moved from the temple to the healer's infirmary under the care of the junior healer, Gina. Cassandra was in the palace, attending to the needs of the Regent and their heartbroken Queen. She had welcomed Ariana on her return and had asked the young healer to care for Xena's body.
The young healer had been conscious of the huge responsibility she had been given. She wanted things to be perfect--a show of respect for the warrior who had done so much for the nation and was so loved by their Queen. She had had the warrior's leathers removed so that they could be repaired and cleaned. Her armour had been given to the blacksmith, who had assured her it would be gleaming by the time it was required. She had warm water brought to the hut and had gently cleaned the blood and gore from the warrior's body. She had left the hut only for a short while, to collect the equipment she would need to close the wounds on Xena's body and to attend the lighting of the funeral pyres.
It had been a tiring day and the hut had a sharp chill to it now that the sun had been down for a couple of candlemarks. The flickering torches that dimly lit the room did little to alleviate the shiver that ran down her spine. Ariana felt her heartbeat double as her eyes once again fell onto the body of the warrior. Her forehead creased in a frown as she noticed blood trickling from the wounds on Xena's body.
Placing the needle and thread she had acquired from Cassandra's hut on a table nearby, she picked up the cloth she had used earlier and rinsed it in the water bowl standing on the table. The healer slowly walked to the warrior's body and carefully began to wash the blood away for the second time that day. The back of her hand caressed the warrior's face and her frown deepened; she put the cloth down and placed her hand firmly on the warrior's cheek.
Continued - Part 3 (Conclusion)
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