See Part1 for disclaimers.
Xena looked at the group of Amazons gathered in front of the inn. She knew most of the women wearing feather decorations and their ritual masks. There was couple of new faces though. "I see you have some new apprentices, Pon," the warrior remarked to the weapons master.
"Observant as always, eh? These three girls are from our western village. They have come to us to complete their training. This here is Elita." She pointed to a rather small and slim young woman who had short, spiky hair. "She is very skilled with the bow. If you need a good sniper, she is your pick."
"Hi, Eponin has told a lot about you," Elita smiled.
"How do I get the feeling that it's something you wouldn't tell as a bedtime story." Xena grimaced to the weapons master.
"Hey, I can't help that those are the best parts," Eponin said a sheepish grin on her face. "Anyway " She moved forward with the introduction. "Shanni here is training to be a healer. Eph thought, you could use a extra pair of hands in the infirmary."
"Nice to meet you, Xena," the blond woman said.
"Glad to have you with us," the warrior replied.
"Last but not least." Eponin pointed to the third girl, who was standing a bit further from others and was looking at the opposite direction. "Annika, who is a natural swordfighter but who also is the most stubborn and disobedient person, I know - after a certain warrior princess, perhaps." Eponin pretended not to see Xena wrinkle her forehead.
Xena went to the woman, whose hair was almost as dark as hers. She stared the younger woman straight in the eyes. "Let's make one thing clear," she said with a low voice. "If you cause any trouble, I personally pull you from your ear back to your village and make sure you end up working in the sorriest possible duty you have. Got that?"
Not one muscle twitched on Annika's face. "Whatever," she only said.
The warrior decided this was neither the time nor the place to shape her attitude. She turned around and walked back to Eponin and the others. "Mother, can we accommodate all of them?"
"Some of the merchants gave up their rooms this morning. If you don't mind having three or four in the same room then we might be able to squeeze you all in."
"That's perfectly okay. We are used to living in much worse conditions than that," Eponin said.
"Okay, now if that's taken care of, we'll start planning of the defense," Xena said. "Calimos, we need to inspect the outer perimeters of the town," she continued, looking at the head of the council. "Pon, care to join us?"
"Sure, lead on," the Amazon said.
Shiro had been watching all this from a distance. He looked at the Amazons with great respect. As a warrior, he could see their potential. Especially that dark one who is separated from the others. She has a lot of strength. She just needs to channel it right.
Annika saw the man wearing silks observing her. Strange place with strange people, she thought. Where did he find that outfit?
Gabrielle dismounted her stallion. It was early noon and the clouds had given way to the blue sky and the sun, which was now scorching quite hot. "How about we take a little break?" She asked the merchant who arched his back on the seat of his wagon. "There's a little spring near the road. I can take the horses to the water."
"Sure, sounds great. Nature was just about to call me." Salmoneus grinned. And stepped off from the wagon.
Gabrielle took the horses and walked to the spring. She took a handful of the fresh water and drank eagerly. Oh, I sure needed that. My throat is dry like a desert from all that dust. She took her skin and refilled it with cool water. She wandered back to the wagon, where Salmoneus was chewing a piece of dried meat.
"You want some?" The merchant offered a piece to the bard.
"Thanks! Didn't have time for breakfast this morning." Her stomach was growling as a confirmation. She took the piece of meat and started chewing.
"Do you think Xe will be there, when we arrive to Amphipolis?" Salmoneus asked.
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment before she answered. "I don't know, probably."
"How do I get the feeling that you are not too eager to see her?"
Well, it had to come up sooner or later, the bard thought. They had not spoken much on the way. Gabrielle had not been too eager to start a conversation because the subject would come up. "No, not in particular," she only said.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Gabrielle was going to say no, but then she realized something. Gods, Gabrielle! You're more and more like Xena when you first met her. All do and not talk. And you always used lecture her that you should solve things by talking. She cleared her throat. "It happened about a year ago, when Xena and I were going to visit the Amazons "
"Okay, how many men do we have?" Xena asked from Calimos, when they were walking on the road.
"With the Amazons, about two hundred," the old man answered.
"And what are the estimates of Parseus' army?"
"It varies. Eight hundred, at least, possibly even thousand."
The warrior sighed. Talk about a massacre.
"Phew! I hate to say this but those are pretty lousy odds," Eponin remarked.
"I know but what choice do we have? We cannot possibly evacuate the whole town," Calimos said.
"Besides, Amphipolis is the intersection of two major roads. The one who controls Amphipolis, has unlimited access to everywhere in Greece," Xena said. "There would be no stopping of Parseus, then."
"How much time we have left?" the Amazon asked.
"A week, maybe ten days," Calimos replied.
The road, they were walking was in a valley between two mountains. The valley itself was quite vast and consisted mostly of fields. A river flowed alongside the road giving irrigation to the fields. Further ahead, the valley narrowed the fields changed to forest.
"This is the only possible direction, they can come from. They can't get past the mountains," Xena said. "The forest will give us a bit of advantage. We can't let them get through that."
"I guess, our defense is based on guerrilla tactics?" Eponin asked.
"Mostly. 'Hit and run' type attacks on the front." The warrior sighed again. "That will probably only slow them down. We needed more men. Couldn't Ephiny spare any more troops?"
"She tried, but she met with a lot of opposition," Eponin said. "She was glad, she could convince the council to send us."
"Then will just have to make the best of what we have," the warrior said as she took a final look at the forest and turned back towards the town.
Shiro was walking at the outskirts of Amphipolis, when he saw Annika training with her sword on a field. He walked closer and observed her.
Annika sensed that someone was watching her and turned around. "Scram! This is a private exercise," she said when she recognized the man wearing silks.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I did not mean to disturb you," Shiro said and nodded apologetically.
"Well, you did so scram, before I make you!" Annika said with an irritated voice.
"May I say, that one should not fight with restless mind. The mind should be peaceful."
"Oh yeah? And what does a sissy boy like you know about fighting?" The woman asked arrogantly.
"One should never judge a person by appearance," Shiro only answered.
"Oh you mean, you can actually fight? Well I sure like to see that!" Annika laughed.
"Do you wish to challenge me to a match?" Shiro asked.
Annika had not expected that question. "S-sure, I wish to challenge you," she said a bit of uncertainty in her voice. She saw his sword appear from nowhere. It was different from any sword she had ever seen. "Okay, so you have a sword. Let's see if you can handle it."
They circled around each other, both waiting the other to make the first move. Both observing each other's movements.
"Well, are you going to do something or are you just going to wave that sword in front of you?" The Amazon began to lose her patience.
"The offender's mind is never pure and if one does not fight with pure mind, one does not succeed," Shiro said with a peaceful tone.
"What?" That was the last draw for the dark Amazon. She made an attack against the man who easily blocked her strike. She gave hit after hit and every one of them was blocked with an unbelievable ease.
"One should never give control to emotions. Emotions distract you," Shiro said like he was giving a lecture and in a way he was. He saw her potential and was also fascinated by her. He looked at her eyes. They were brown but they shined like gold, when the light reflected from them.
Annika screamed in frustration. She had not managed to get one single hit through. This man was unlike all the others she had fought or sparred with. Taunting seemed not to have any effect on him. This can't be happening! I have to get through his defenses sooner or later, even if it's the last thing I do.
Xena and Eponin had separated from Calimos at the main gate and were walking to the other end of the town. The Amazon observed the warrior. She was more reserved from the last time she had seen her. It wasn't hard to figure out what was causing that. "So, you haven't heard from Gabrielle either?" She poked the ice.
A shadow came on the warrior's face. "No, I haven't. Why?"
"Just a thought. We haven't heard from her either. I thought she might have gotten in touch with you," Eponin said.
"No, she hasn't," the warrior said matter-of-factly.
Eponin was surprised of the insensitiveness in Xena's voice. "Have you tried to find her?"
"Not anymore. Look, if she doesn't want our help, we'll just have to respect that," Xena said, ending the topic.
They had reached the field, where Shiro and Annika were still sparring.
"Well, look at that," Eponin said. "I didn't know that guy was a warrior. He's giving our Annika a hard time."
Xena glanced at the fighters. "He surprised me too, when we first met."
"Did you " the Amazon asked.
"No, he took care of some bullies at the inn last night," the warrior answered.
Shiro saw them coming and decided that it was time to end this fight. With a swift stroke he disarmed the Amazon and with a quick leg sweep he knocked her down. Annika never knew what hit her. She found herself lying on the ground and the silk clad man offering his hand. "You have great potential, but you need training in control of your emotions," he said to the stunned woman.
"You just got lucky!" She refused to take the offered hand. She picked up her sword and walked away.
Eponin grinned to the warrior. "I'll better go after her," she said and followed the young Amazon.
"That sure shook some bravado off of her," Xena said to Shiro, who put his sword away.
"She is a very talented woman. She just needs some guidance," Shiro answered.
"I know, she reminds me of me when I was her age." The warrior smiled slightly. "You were pretty good with that sword of yours."
"Oh I'm just a shadow when compared to my sensei," Shiro said.
"My mentor. I have spent ten years in Kyushu, a small island east from Chin. My mentor was a warlord and a great swordsman. I ended up there on my travels and he took me to his apprentice." Shiro sighed. "I fought for him in more battles than I can even remember. When my mentor died, I became a ronin, a warrior without a master. I failed to protect him. That's when I decided it was time for me to leave Kyushu and head back home." He started to walk towards the inn.
"Where is your home?" Xena asked.
"I don't know if I can call any place home anymore. My origins are in north. I haven't been there for almost fifteen years. I do miss the summer nights, when the sun doesn't set and it's light."
"You mean it doesn't get dark at nights?" The warrior became curious.
"It must be beautiful," Xena said. That's something, Gabrielle would love to see.
"It is." Shiro noticed the wistful expression on the warrior's face. Something was hurting her from the inside. He wondered what it was.
They stepped inside the inn. Cyrene was behind the desk. "Did you get things cleared with Calimos?" She asked her daughter.
"Pretty much. We'll start organizing the troops tomorrow," Xena replied.
"Could you prepare the bath in my room if it's not too much trouble?" Shiro asked the older woman.
"Sure, but didn't you just bathe in the morning?" Cyrene asked.
"Yes I did, but now I'm dirty again," Shiro answered.
Cyrene exchanged glances with her daughter and said, "Give me half a candlemark and the bath will be ready." She walked into the kitchen.
The night began to cast shadows over Gabrielle and Salmoneus, when they arrived to a small opening.
"We'd better camp here for the night," the bard said when she dismounted. "We'll reach Amphipolis some time tomorrow." The stallion snorted and paced restlessly. "What is it, Pegasus?" Gabrielle said to the brown horse. Then she stood silent for a moment and listened.
"How does dried meat formmph " Salmoneus started but Gabrielle put her hand on his mouth.
"Shh " She had heard right. Voices, not far from here. "Wait here, I'll go check that out." She left the merchant and walked into the woods. She didn't have to walk too far. She could see the glow from a campfire between the trees. She moved behind one tree and looked towards the glow. She could not believe her eyes. There were about a hundred and fifty soldiers sitting around campfires. She could hear whinnying of horses further back. She recognized the insignia on the flag. Those were Parseus' men. That wasn't the whole army, just a leading group, but they were closer than anyone had suspected. With the element of surprise, they could cause serious damage to the defensive forces.
She backed away from the opening and returned to Salmoneus. "We'll have to keep going. There are Parseus' men out there." She mounted her horse.
"How many?" The merchant asked when he set his wagon going.
"A little over hundred, a hundred and fifty perhaps," the bard replied.
"How in the name of Hades did they get that close to Amphipolis?"
"I don't know. Probably they have used those attacks on the neighboring villages as a diversion."
"Listen, I'm slowing you down with my wagon. If you ride alone, you can reach Amphipolis by midnight," Salmoneus offered.
"What about you? There might be Parseus' scouts on the way."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be careful."
Gabrielle looked at the merchant. She knew that it wasn't easy for Salmoneus to let go the extra protection that her presence offered. She also knew that every hour was now essential to Amphipolis. Salmoneus knew that also. "Okay, I'll go. Take care of yourself," she said.
"You too. See you in the morning."
Gabrielle spurred her horse and galloped into the night.
It was a little past midnight when she saw the first dwellings of Amphipolis. A guard stopped her at the main gate. "Halt!" The man said.
"Paulus, is that you?" She asked when she heard the voice.
"Gabrielle?" The guard now recognized the honey haired bard. "What brings you here?"
"I came to warn you. There are about a hundred and fifty of Parseus' men only a six hours ride away," she said to the guard.
"Gods! Are you sure?" He asked.
"I know what I saw."
"Okay, go right into the inn. Xena's there. She's in charge of the defenses." Paulus opened the gate.
Gabrielle was in front of the inn before she even realized it. All she could think of, was the raven haired warrior that was inside. The lights were still on at the inn, so she opened the door and stepped inside. She made out Eponin and the other Amazons. She let her look wander around the room until she saw the tall figure of the warrior behind the desk.
She took a couple of steps, when one of Amazons pointed at her and gave Eponin a pat on the shoulder.
"Gabrielle! Is that really you?" The weapons master stood up.
"Hi, Pon! Long time no see," the bard replied and turned to face the warrior, who was still standing behind the desk. "Hello, Xena," she greeted.
"Gabrielle," the warrior answered coolly. She looked at the bard who stood in the middle of the room. She could hardly recognize her anymore. The bard's once so long hair only came down to her shoulders. She wore dark blue leathers and a ring armor. A short sword was in a scabbard on her side. Only thing that still reminded her about the woman that she once loved, was the wooden staff that was in the bards left hand. "What brings you here?" She asked.
Gabrielle felt that her heart was being ripped to pieces. Still, nothing in her voice revealed her misery when she answered, "Parseus' men are only half a day's ride away from here. Well over hundred of them."
"How is that possible? We have gotten words that there are only scouts in the area and they are at least a days ride away," Xena said skeptically.
"I don't know but they are there. I wouldn't joke around this. You know me better than that," Gabrielle said with a firm voice.
"Do I?" Xena asked but inside her she knew that the bard wasn't kidding.
"Gabrielle?" An older woman's voice came from the kitchen. Cyrene came out, walked to the bard and closed her into warm embrace. "Let me look at you, child. It really is you."
"Hello, Cyrene. It's me, although hardly a child anymore." Gabrielle smiled at the older woman.
"Oh, centaur's poop! You'll always be my little girl," Cyrene said. "But look at me! Here I'm just fussing around when you must be exhausted. Are you hungry?"
Deep growl in Gabrielle's stomach answered in that question.
"You just sit down and I'll bring you some food." Cyrene marched back into the kitchen.
Xena cleared her throat to catch the bard's attention. "Where exactly did you see them? I might as well go and take a look."
"I can come with you and show," Gabrielle offered.
"No, you stay here. There's no point in both of us going," the warrior rejected. "Besides, mother was right, you look like hell. You just get some rest. We're going to need you up and perky tomorrow."
Gabrielle felt hurt but could see the point in the warrior's talk. She was really worn out so she didn't object. "You'll probably bump into Salmoneus on your way. He sent me ahead," she only said.
"I'll keep that in mind," Xena said when she exited the room.
As soon she was outside, she let her emotions took over. Oh, Gabrielle, what has happened to you? You are totally different from that girl I met in Poteidaia. Are you still the one that I fell in love with? With those thoughts in mind, she walked to stables, saddled up Argo and rode away.
Gabrielle stared at the door long after the warrior had left. It took all in her will power not to run after her. Instead, she joined the Amazons in one table.
"It's good to see you again, my queen," Eponin addressed Gabrielle by her title.
"I'm glad to see you too, Pon," Gabrielle replied with a hint of smile on her face. "So what takes you guys to Amphipolis? Did Eph send you?"
"That's right. Eph thought, it would be a good idea to lend a hand to Amphipolis. We all volunteered to come here. Well, maybe except for Annika who was ordered to come here as a disciplinary action," the weapons master said.
"Annika?" The bard asked.
"Oh, I forgot that you haven't met all of the girls here," Eponin said and introduced Elita and Shanni to their queen. "And then there's Annika, who is moping in our room at the moment. She's still sour about that someone could beat her at sword fight." She took a swift glance at upstairs.
"Did Xena " Gabrielle asked.
"No, not this time." Eponin pointed at Shiro, who was sitting on the other side of the room. "Hey, Shiro! Come to meet our queen!" She waved to the man, who stood up and walked to them.
"Shiro, this is Gabrielle, the queen of the Amazons," Eponin said to him.
To everyone's surprise, the silk clad warrior knelt down and bowed deep. "It is a great honor to meet you, queen Gabrielle," he said to the bard, who was staring him her mouth wide open.
"Err, there's no need to be so formal with me. Just call me Gabrielle. Everyone else does," Gabrielle said to him when she was able to say something again.
The warrior stood up slowly and pulled a chair. "I'm sorry. Where I come from, you must never address your superior looking down at him."
"Are you from Chin?" Gabrielle asked, looking at his clothing.
"Further east. From an Island called Kyushu," Shiro replied.
"You don't look oriental, though," the bard remarked.
"No, my origins are in the north, but I've spent almost half of my life traveling," the warrior said.
"Well, now that everybody knows everybody, tell us what you have been up to during the past year, Gabrielle," Eponin said to her queen.
"Not much to tell, really." Gabrielle leaned backward on her chair. "I've spent most of the time traveling from one place to another." She didn't feel like telling about her events, but Eponin didn't give up that easily.
"Oh come on! We all have heard the stories. You single handedly saved a village from a bunch of raiders," the weapons master said to the bard.
Gabrielle smiled condescendingly at Eponin. "Now that's a lot of exaggeration! The villagers did the most of the work. I merely helped," she said with an uneasy expression on her face.
"You're just being too modest," Eponin objected. "Just like " Eponin bit her tongue.
"Like Xena? Was that what you were going to say?" The bard glared Eponin right in the eye. "Xena may be modest, but that doesn't change the fact that she's well worthy of her reputation. I of all the people know that. And I also know that I'm not even half a hero, she is!" Gabrielle stood up and ran outside.
Eponin went after her. She saw the bard leaning on the wall and crying. She went to her and put her arms around her. "You want to talk about it?" She asked the sobbing bard.
"I should have never left her," the bard said between the sobs. "I didn't feel that I was worthy of her back then so I left to seek for my redemption. Didn't find it though. By the time I realized that, I had been away too long. I couldn't just go back into her life. Now I have lost her."
"Do you still love her?" Eponin asked.
"Yes." A silent whisper.
"Then you'll have to tell her that."
"I can't. I couldn't bear if she rejected me." Gabrielle looked down.
"Then she rejects you but you'll have to give her a chance to know how you feel about her." Eponin shook the bard from the shoulders. "Look, whatever happens, you're always welcome to live with us. You know that, don't you?"
"Thanks, Pon. I really appreciate it." Gabrielle hugged the dark Amazon.
"Now let's go back inside and have something to eat. I bet, Cyrene's prepared quite a treat for you." Eponin walked back to the inn with her.
Xena's hair fluttered in the wind as she rode forward in a furious gallop. Some branches lashed her but she didn't care. She had been riding for almost two hours now. She had not been able to spend a moment longer in the same room with the bard. She had to get away. Seeing Gabrielle after such a long period had been like a slap on the face. The walls built around her heart had come tumbling down at the first moment she had laid eyes on her.
She slowed to a peaceful trot. Now that was not very mature behavior from you, Xena. Instead of riding here, you should be in the town planning the defense against that leading force. The reconnaissance trip had only been an excuse to get away from the bard. Well, it doesn't hurt to make sure that Salmoneus makes it safely to Amphipolis, she tried to reason.
Xena pulled Argo to a stop and listened. Someone was coming towards her. She dismounted and pulled the pale mare out of sight. "Shh, girl. Don't make a sound, now," she whispered to the horse.
She could now make out a shape of a wagon pulled by a single horse. She sighed out of release when she recognized the figures of the bearded merchant. Xena didn't step out of the bushes yet. She wanted to make sure that Salmoneus wasn't followed. The wagon went by her and she kept on waiting.
I guess, everything's okay, she thought and was about to go after the merchant when she heard the sound of the hooves. Moment later four armed men passed her. The warrior waited a moment before she went after them. Those men could only be on a scouting mission. If that were to be the fact, they wouldn't let Salmoneus see them and spoil the element of surprise they thought they had. If they were after Salmoneus, that put things in a different light. She would have to interfere and then Parseus would know that the Amphipolitans were expecting him to come sooner than predicted.
In her warlord days, Xena would have let the merchant to be killed and thus keep the advantage to herself. But things were different now. Besides, she considered Salmoneus a friend. That in mind, she spurred her horse.
It looked like that her luck was running out. The warrior saw the soldiers circling around Salmoneus' wagon. She could hear the merchant trying to talk his way out of it.
"Amphipolis? Never heard of the place. Is it somewhere near Athens?" Salmoneus smiled nervously to one of the soldiers.
"A merchant who doesn't know one of briskest market towns. I doubt that," their leader said. "We can't let you go in there to tell that you have seen us." He gave an evil smile to the merchant.
"Hey, I won't tell that I've seen you guys. Hell, I can just go past the damn town without stopping in there," Salmoneus tried to persuade them.
"I would like to believe that but have to play it safe. Take care of him and make it snappy!" He ordered the other men.
"Is this a private party or can anyone join?" A dark, husky voice caught everyone's attention. They saw a raven haired woman dressed in armor sitting on a pale war horse.
"Xe! Am I glad to see you," Salmoneus said with a relieved voice.
"So you are Xena, the former destroyer of nations," the leader of the soldiers said.
"To some, perhaps," Xena replied. "And who are you? Leader of the boy scouts?" She asked an evil grin on her face.
"It will be a pleasure to finish you off." The man didn't smile.
Two of the soldiers came towards the warrior with their swords out. She grabbed her chakram and threw it. After ricocheting from a couple of trees it hit the attackers throwing their lifeless bodies down from their horses. Normally, the deadly ring would have returned to its owner but this time it was stuck to a tree. Oh, Hades! I'm a bit out of touch, she thought remembering that she hadn't done any practicing for nearly six months. With that in mind, she confronted the two other men.
As the two soldiers approached the warrior, she leaped off her horse and landed straight on one of them, taking him down with her. A swift slash from the warrior's sword finished the job. The group leader could not believe his eyes. In just moments that woman had taken his men down. He could only watch when she approached him and pulled him down. She lifted him by the collar and held him against a tree with a feral look in her eyes.
"I want you to take a message to Parseus," Xena said to the man who stared at her with horror. "Tell him that the Amphipolitans won't go down without a fight. Tell him that he'll have to go through Tartarus to take that town. Tell him that Xena told you that." She threw him to the ground. He stumbled to his feet and ran to his horse. Moment later, he was gone.
Xena grabbed her chakram from the tree and turned to look at the merchant who was still sitting on the seat of his wagon. "Well, hello there, Salmoneus," she said to him.
"Hi, Xena. Your timing is perfect as always," Salmoneus replied.
"Gabrielle told me that you were heading this way, so " She shook hands with the merchant.
"So she got there safely," Salmoneus noted. "Did she tell you about the soldiers?"
"Yes, she did. It's a shame that we lost the element of surprise but at least Parseus now knows that he can't take Amphipolis just like that. He'll have to rethink his tactics and that will give us some time." Xena mounted her horse. "We'd better get going so that we'll get to Amphipolis by dawn."
Gabrielle found herself standing on the hill by the river. She had her sword in her hands. She looked at the blade, which was a color of crimson from all the blood on it. She looked down and saw her lover lying on the ground next to her feet. The expression on the dead warrior's face was surprised, the lifeless lips forming a single question. Why? She looked around and saw more bodies. Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, Lila, Hercules, Iolaus, Salmoneus Body after body she found more people that meant something for her, that she cared about, that she loved.
She looked helplessly around for something where she could find comfort. Nothing could be found, only more and more bodies. Come on, Gabrielle! Give in to the darkness! A voice out of nowhere said.
"Where are you? Show yourself!" Gabrielle shrieked and waved her sword. But I'm right here, inside of you, in your darkest desires. The voice continued. It sounded awkwardly familiar. Come on! Just let go! Gabrielle now recognized the voice. It was hers.
She let her sword fall to the ground. Tears emerged from her eyes. She walked slowly to the edge of the hill and jumped. There was no ground, just the deep black darkness
A scream brought Eponin to her senses. She saw the bard squirming restlessly on a bed next to her. Gabrielle had decided to share the room with the Amazons when they had retired. One of the beds had been given to her by the right of her status.
The weapons master moved to her and shook her. "Gabrielle! Wake up!" For a moment, the shaking seemed not to have any effect on the bard but finally, her eyes blinked open and she stared the Amazon in disbelief. A couple of more blinks and Gabrielle's expression began to show the awareness of her surroundings.
"Pon?" She asked the weapons master, who was still holding her.
"Shh, it's all right. You were having a bad dream," Eponin said with a calming voice. Mildly stated, she thought to herself.
"Thanks, I've been having these nightmares almost every night since " Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Since I left."
"I suppose, you don't want to talk about it," Eponin let go of her.
"No, not right now," the bard answered.
And probably not with me, the Amazon thought. "I understand," she said.
"Is it morning already?" Alysa mumbled under her blanket. "Can't be! I feel like, I haven't slept a full candlemark."
"That's not far off when you're concerned," Eponin said wryly to the redheaded archer. "You and the youngsters decided to a couple of rounds still when I retired."
"Ouch, that probably explains the tantrum in my head," Alysa remarked.
"I expect you to have the girls ready in time. We don't have time to be sick," the weapons master said.
"Ugh! Give me a candlemark." Alysa rolled over.
"You get a half," Eponin replied.
"Aww, crap! I guess I'd better get up then," the archer said in a grumpy tone.
"Okay, everybody up!" Alysa slammed the door open. She was rewarded with growling from half a dozen sleepy Amazons.
"Do we really have to? It's still dark outside," Elita tried to object.
"You have exactly quarter of a candlemark to get in gear and be downstairs. Everyone, who is late gets her butt kicked down by me." Alysa emphasized her words with a kick on one of the beds.
All the Amazons began their morning chores, except for Annika, who was still sitting on her bed and staring at a piece of parchment in her hands. She had found it from her bed last night.
"What do ya got in there?" Shanni came to her and grabbed the parchment from her hands.
"Hey, give that back!" The dark Amazon tried to grab it back but Shanni backed away from her.
"Ooh, listen to this!" She said to the others.
Wild as a tiger,
warm like the desert wind.
Beautiful as a flower of lotus,
darker than the darkest night.
A soul so restless,
born to be free.
"Looks like our Annika has a secret admirer," Shanni said with a teasing tone. All the others chuckled.
"Give it back!" Annika said in fury as she tried to capture the parchment.
"It must be that guy with that silky garment," Elita said with a grin.
"Annika and Shiro, sitting in a tree! K - I - S - S - I - N - G!" Everybody shout with one voice.
"Give me that!" The dark Amazon said and pushed Shanni on the floor.
"Hey, chill out! We were only joking," the blond woman retorted. "Come on, let's leave miss hothead here to cool off." She led the others outside.
Annika stood quiet in the room, holding the parchment against her chest.
Gabrielle and Eponin found Xena downstairs. They could see the tiredness in the warrior's face. Xena had returned from her trip just a moment ago.
"Did you find Salmoneus?" The bard asked.
Xena merely nodded and turned her attention to the dark Amazon. "Eponin, is your group ready for today?" She asked ignoring the resentful look that Gabrielle cast to her.
"As ready as they can be," Eponin answered. She could feel the tension between the bard and the warrior. "What do you have in mind?"
"We'll start training the troops and building the defenses. We have two days at most. They know that we know that they are there. They won't try to take us by surprise. They might even wait for the rest of the army to arrive, but I have my doubts about that." Xena took a sip of her port.
More Amazons began to gather downstairs. Alysa gave a wry look to Eponin. "Okay, here we are, happy?"
"Where's Annika?" Eponin asked.
Alysa glanced around and then looked at Elita and Shanni who exchanged an impish grin.
"Oh, she will be down in a moment," Elita said.
"Okay, Alysa, you go ahead with the others. Xena and I will join you right away," Eponin instructed.
The Amazons went outside. Xena looked at Gabrielle, who stayed. "Did you have something on your mind, Gabrielle?" The warrior asked.
"No, why?" Gabrielle replied.
"Then what are you still doing here? Go outside with the others," Xena said.
For a moment, Gabrielle was going to speak her mind but instead she turned around on her heels and followed the Amazons. A silence fell into the room. Annika who walked down the stairs broke that silence.
"You are late, Annika," Eponin said with a serious tone.
"Oh come on! I was right behind the others." Annika objected.
"That's not good enough. I don't give orders out of spite. You'll have to learn some discipline, so I'm sending you to practice with Shiro," the weapons master ordered.
"What? There's no way " Annika started but she was interrupted by Eponin.
"I don't want to hear any objections," the Amazon said firmly.
The warrior stood quiet. This was a disciplinary matter and as a warrior, she knew how important authority and respect was.
"All right, I go," Annika said between her teeth and left them alone in the room.
"That girl has been giving me gray hair since the day, she arrived to our village," Eponin said with a frustrated tone.
"She certainly has spirit," Xena grinned.
"Yes, she does. I bet the chief of her home village was glad to get rid of her," the dark Amazon smiled condescendingly.
"Maybe you should give her some responsibility. I see her potential," the warrior remarked.
"Maybe," Eponin agreed. "Shall we join the others?"
Xena emptied her mug. "Let's go."
Annika found Shiro on a hill. The warrior was alone, kneeling on the ground, keeping his eyes closed. The young Amazon watched the man for a while. He looked like he was in a trance. It was weird, and fascinating.
"Hello, Annika," Shiro said suddenly.
"You knew, it was me?" Annika asked with a surprised tone.
"I sensed your aura." The man turned to face her. "And I asked Eponin last night, if I could give you some lessons." He gave an impish grin to the Amazon.
"I don't need any lessons. I'm as ready as I'll ever be," Annika said.
"Life itself is a lesson," Shiro remarked. "Now, kneel down and close your eyes."
"What? I thought we were going to spar."
"All in good time. You have to learn patience. Now, close your eyes and empty your mind," the warrior instructed.
Annika felt stupid but she did as she was told. She knelt down and relaxed.
"Think of nothing, just feel the nature around you, become one with it." Shiro's words faded into distance.
The young Amazon let go of her thoughts and let her senses do the work. She felt the mild morning wind on her face. She smelled the scent of the moist grass. She heard a swallows mating call, heard how the wind waved the leaves of the trees. She felt - peace.
"Open your eyes," Shiro said. "We are ready for our first lesson."
Xena walked in the forest. Eponin, Alysa and six soldiers that she had chosen to be group leaders accompanied her. She looked up in the trees and turned to the Amazon archer. "How many archers do we have?"
"Twenty-one, including me," Alysa answered.
"This forest is our best advantage," the dark haired warrior said. "I want you to place the archers in appropriate spots near the edge of the forest. Your goal is to take out as many of Parseus' men as possible, before they get to the forest."
"Okay, I'll look into it," the Amazon said.
"As for the rest of you," Xena continued. "We'll work up two lines of defense. The first here in the forest, only infantry. The second " She turned around. "Will be on that slope around the road that leads to Amphipolis. The riders will be kept in reserve." She turned to look Eponin. "You'll lead the second front on the slope. I'll take the first front."
They returned back to the training grounds. Xena recognized the familiar figures of Gabrielle, who was sparing with her staff with one of the Amazons. She took a moment to watch the bard's movements. Gabrielle had really become an expert with her weapon. Xena turned away, when the bard stopped fighting and turned to look at her.
Gabrielle had caught the warrior from a corner of an eye and lowered her staff. She saw Xena turning away from her. Oh no! You're not getting away from me that easily, she thought and ran after her. "Xena wait! I want to talk to you!" She shouted after the dark haired woman and was relieved, when Xena stopped and turned to face her.
"Yes, what is it, Gabrielle?" Xena asked a stoic expression on her face.
"I was just wondering if I could help in any way," the bard answered.
Xena thought for a moment. "You can train the staff fighters," she finally said.
"Where do you want me when the fighting begins?" Gabrielle asked the obvious question.
"You'll join Eponin in the second front," Xena answered.
"While you're out there fighting with the first front," the bard retorted.
"Yes, you got a problem with that?" The warrior said firmly.
"No, absolutely no problem, miss high and mighty warrior-type," Gabrielle said with a stubborn voice.
"Look, either you do it my way or you do it no way." Xena ended the conversation by walking away from the angry bard.
"This is enough for now," Shiro said to Annika as he lowered his sword. "You have shown great progress during the last hours."
"You really think so?" The young Amazon asked. Her body was sweaty from the intense swordplay. They had been training for almost three candlemarks.
"Well, you have a natural talent for the sword and you have good stamina," the warrior commented. "But most of the time you're controlled by your emotions. That gives your opponent some benefit. When you're fighting, you have to keep your emotions down." He sheathed his sword and started walking. "You don't have to hate your opponent. Always judge your opponent by his skills, not what he is. Always keep your motives pure. That gives you the final edge."
"But doesn't taunting give you the upper hand?" Annika asked as they walked to the road.
"Maybe, but more important is not to let your opponent's taunting get to you," Shiro answered.
They walked together to the inn. Shiro turned towards the door and Annika headed towards the training grounds. Shiro was opening the door when he heard the young Amazon calling his name.
"Thank you for the poem," Annika said to him when he turned to face her.
"You're welcome," Shiro answered and stepped inside.
Gabrielle was walking towards the market place when she saw the dark, young Amazon approaching. "Hello, you must be Annika," the bard greeted. "We didn't have the chance to meet last night. I'm Gabrielle."
Annika looked the relatively short, honey haired woman in disbelief. This was supposed to be their queen? She had heard stories about their queen's appearance but she had disregarded them.
"Not, what you'd expect an Amazon queen to look like, huh?" Gabrielle asked with a smile on her face when she saw the Amazon's reaction.
"Me I You're Gabrielle?" The Amazon was seldom speechless but this was one of those times.
"So you're the sword expert with attitude," Gabrielle said referring to comments that she had heard from the other Amazons last night.
"Yeah, according the stories, I keep hearing." Annika grinned. The queen was totally different from the other Amazons. No rank-pulling hard ass like Ephiny and Eponin was. "So you're the storytelling staff wonder," she tossed back.
"According some other stories, yeah," Gabrielle answered. "Although the storytelling plays a lesser part in my life nowadays." She turned to look to the training grounds, where she saw the figure of the raven haired warrior.
Annika caught the yearning look on the bard's face but said nothing.
"Care to join me for a mug of cider at the inn?" Gabrielle asked to change the subject.
"Well, I was going to the training grounds, but sure, I'd love to," Annika answered.
Xena sat on a rock and watched the miscellaneous group of people. Soldiers, Amazons and townspeople were all training together. Most of them were armed with swords, some had staffs and axes. A smaller group in the lead of Alysa was training with bows.
Her thoughts were far from the happening around her. Despite how much she tried to concentrate on the training, her thoughts drifted to the honey haired bard. She regretted that she had snapped to Gabrielle. The bard was only trying to help and apparently she was still concerned about her well being.
She still loved Gabrielle. There was no denying it. Did Gabrielle still feel the same about her? Xena had not given the bard any reason to do so with her attitude towards her. For Hades' sake, I have my pride too! She thought. Right, or then you're just too chicken shit to make the initiative because you're afraid she might reject you, she thought to herself. Act, don't react. Isn't that what you always keep telling to others. Maybe it's time that you took your own advice.
She stood up and walked to Eponin. "Have you seen Gabrielle?" She asked the Amazon.
"I think I saw her walking towards the inn," the weapons master answered.
"Thanks," Xena said and left the training grounds.
Well, at least it's good to clear the air between us, the warrior thought when she approached the inn. She opened the door a little and found Gabrielle sitting with Annika. From the looks of it, the bard and the young Amazon seemed to get along just fine. Her heart twitched a bit when a thought sneaked into her mind.
"Gabrielle, I need to talk with you," Xena said with a cold tone as she approached the table. "Shouldn't you be training?" She remarked to Annika.
"I guess, I'd better get going. It was nice talking to you, Gabrielle," the Amazon said to the bard. She knew better not to start arguing with the warrior.
"You didn't have to be so rude to her. We were just having a break, that's all," Gabrielle said to Xena when Annika had left.
"She has a job to do. She doesn't have time to socialize with people and neither do you." Xena was still standing and looked down at the bard.
"I am their queen. It's my job to know my people," Gabrielle retorted.
"Yes, I can see that," the warrior said sarcastically.
"What's that supposed to mean?" The bard stood up and looked Xena right in the eyes.
"You know perfectly well, what I mean," Xena answered.
"Yeah, I guess I do." Gabrielle smiled condescendingly. "Well, let me make one thing clear to you. I'll talk whomever I choose to. You have nothing to say to that!" She walked outside leaving the warrior in the empty room.
Xena looked at the wall. You certainly handled that well. She was angry to herself. They were only talking and you acted like a six-year old. She went behind the desk and poured some port in a mug.
Salmoneus had his merchandise nicely arranged in the temporary booth that was made out of his wagon. He figured he had a couple of days to do some business, before he had to move on.
He turned to look at the inn and saw the bard walking fiercely towards the market place. "Hey, Gab! What's up?" He asked.
"Ooh, that Xena is really getting on my nerves! Who does she think she is?" Gabrielle stopped at the merchant's booth and glanced furiously at the inn.
"You gotta give her some slack," Salmoneus said to her. "She's got a lot on her mind right now."
Gabrielle's mood began to calm down. "Yeah, I guess you're right. It just seems that every time we talk, we almost end up jumping at each other's throats." She sighed.
"I sure hate to see you two like this. I always thought of you as a perfect match," the merchant said compassionately.
"Well, times change," the bard commented.
"Hey, I know what helps to bring your mood up." Salmoneus changed the subject. "Shopping!" He gave his best merchant smile to the bard.
"A salesman to the end, eh?" Gabrielle grinned. "Okay, let me see." She started to go through the various items that the merchant had set on the table. Her eyes stopped at a small gem in a box. It was a small opal. It's perfectly round shape lost only to the pale blue shade that was glittering in the sunshine. Gabrielle took the opal in her hands. The shiny surface felt so smooth against her fingertips. And the color Just like
"How much for this?" She asked without thinking further.
"You certainly have eye for quality," Salmoneus commented. "For you, let's say twenty dinaars."
"For this piece of rock?" Gabrielle's natural talent for haggling surfaced. "You gotta be kidding me. Since you gotta make a living, I'll be generous and give you ten."
"Ten? Come on, Gab," the merchant tried. "That's not even close to what I paid for it. Seventeen," he offered.
"Well I hate to say this but you've been had if you have paid any more than ten for this. But hey, what are friends for? Twelve dinaars." Gabrielle hadn't done this for a long time and she began to enjoy the situation.
Salmoneus was well aware of the bard's ability to haggle and he wasn't going to give up without a fight. "Fifteen, and I'm already losing in this."
"Fourteen, and that's my final offer," the bard said self-confidently.
The merchant spread his hands. "You're ruining me!" He said with a beaten tone. I'll only make two dinaars out of this, he thought to himself.
Gabrielle handed him the money. "It was nice doing business with you," she said. This couldn't be worth more than twelve, but hey, what are friends for?
Parseus looked down at the valley. Far in the horizon he could see the buildings of Amphipolis be drawn against the sunset. Where someone could merely see a small town resting in the mountain's embrace, he could see the keys to entire Greece.
To conquer, that had been his destiny from his early adulthood. Power had always fascinated him and he had an uncontrollable hunger for more. This lust had had proven to be fateful to his father, a ruler of a small kingdom, when Parseus had killed him in order to get in power. Ever since he had built his army and waited the day to begin his conquest. Now he was on his way to fulfill his destiny.
His army had marched over Trachea in two months and he now controlled the province. Amphipolis was next. When he would have the town under his grip, he could start building his fleet and therefore control the northern parts of the Aegean Sea. Amphipolis also provided him a good access to the rest of Greece.
His was well aware of the fact that the Amphipolitans were preparing to defend their homes against the attack. He was also aware of who was in charge of the defenders. Yes, Xena. He had heard all the legends about this warrior woman, this former destroyer of nations. It was a pity that she had given that up. She would have been a worthy ally. Parseus knew what this woman was capable of and didn't take her lightly.
He had gotten the warrior's message. He had now lost the element of surprise but he had thought of that possibility and put together an alternative plan that was messier but would smoothen the way as well. After the first strike the town would be ready for him to pick.
Parseus walked back to his adjutant who was holding their horses. "Let's head back to camp. Start preparations for tomorrow as soon as we get there," he said to him.
"Yes, sir," the adjutant nodded as he handed the reins to his commander.
Cyrene looked at her daughter who was sitting alone at a small corner table and emptying yet another mug of port. Xena had been drinking since the early afternoon. Cyrene knew that something was bothering Xena. It wasn't like her to drink so much, especially before an important event like this.
The older woman walked to the table and put her hand over Xena's mug. "I think you've had enough to drink for the night, young lady," Cyrene said with her most motherly tone.
"Leave me alone, mother," the warrior slurred.
"You have hard day ahead of you," the older woman remarked. "You have to get some rest." She grabbed Xena's arm.
"Let go of me!" Xena pulled her hand back and stood up. "I'll go whenever I pleashe " She fell against the table.
Cyrene put Xena's arm on her shoulder and picked her up. "Okay, off to bed you go," she said as she walked the drunken warrior upstairs.
Cyrene opened the door to Xena's quarters and set her daughter on bed. There was no point in undressing her. She only removed her armor. She was about to go outside when she heard Xena's mourning.
"Why is she doing this to me? Just when I thought that I'd gotten over her, she comes back and opens the old wounds," Xena mumbled with a crying voice.
"To me it is quite obvious that you have NOT gotten over her. Otherwise you wouldn't be behaving like a child," Cyrene said firmly. "Sure, she did run away but at least you should let her tell her side of the story."
"Why did she leave me?" Xena continued crying. "Why didn't she let me help her?"
"You know that only one person can answer to those questions," Cyrene took her daughter's hand. "Ask her."
The sobs slowly faded and changed to a steady breathing. Cyrene drew a blanket over the sleeping warrior and left the room.
Gabrielle ran through a dark endless maze. Something was after her. She didn't know what it was but she could sense the evil. The maze was very strange, a set of corridors that didn't seem to have any dead ends. Few torches cast some light to the otherwise so dark maze.
Gabrielle didn't know how long she had been running but it felt like forever. She had chosen her path totally irregularly, hoping that there would be a way out. At this point, she would have been grateful for a dead end, so that she wouldn't have to run any more.
Another fork, another corridor. Gabrielle stopped. She realized that she could run till the end of time and still get nowhere. She might as well confront her threat. Gabrielle took a tighter grip from her staff and turned around. The forest green garment of her top moved up and down in the pace of her breathing.
"Come on! Show yourself! I'm not afraid of you!" She shouted into the darkness. She could hear the steady paces come closer. Soon, a dark figure was standing in the other end of the corridor.
"Gabrielle, let it go. Give into the darkness," the figure said with a voice that Gabrielle recognized to be her own. The figure stepped into the light and Gabrielle saw a perfect image of herself standing there, wearing dark leathers.
"Never!" The bard stared right into the red gleaming eyes. "I rather die!"
"That can be arranged," the figure said and drew her sword. She made a fast swing that Gabrielle barely managed to stop with her staff. The bard made a quick counterattack but the hits seemed to have no effect on her counterpart that was laughing evilly. She cut Gabrielle's staff in two pieces with a quick slash. "Do you really think that you can beat me with that stick?" She asked.
Gabrielle took a few steps back and trembled down on the ground. She could only watch as her evil counterpart prepared for the final hit. Gabrielle braced herself for the hit and closed her eyes. The hit never came and she opened her eyes again. The figure was staring past her. The red eyes were pale from horror. The figure dropped her sword and ran away from the amazed bard.
Gabrielle turned to look what had scared her counterpart that badly. Something was coming from the other end of the corridor. It blocked all the light from that direction. It was something huge, something threatening. Gabrielle could only watch the dark figure come closer
The hit on the floor snapped her awake. She was lying next to her bed. Her elbow was hurting from the hit. She slowly rose to a sitting position and thought about her dream. It had been different from the nightmares that she usually had. Was there a meaning to that?
Well, no time to think about that now, she thought and stood up. Dim light came through between the curtains. Gabrielle walked to the window and opened the curtains to see the gray morning sky. She could hear some movement behind her back.
"Umph, is it morning already?" That was Eponin's sleepy voice coming under the blanket.
"A-ha," Gabrielle answered. "We'd better start getting ready for today."
"Yeah, I guess," the weapons master replied. "We have a hard day ahead of us."
"That we do. Artemis help us so that it won't be our last." Gabrielle's words sounded heavy.
Shiro was knelt down in a middle of his room. Incense was burning close to him. He opened his eyes slowly and stood up. Not a single piece of clothing covered his body. This was a part of the purification ritual before the battle.
Battle. There seemed to be no end to the violence on his path. He remembered Kalervo, a young man filled with ideals. He had had a friend called Tapio. Those two had been like the two sides of the same coin. Everything had been mutual for them. One always stood up for another. They were inseparable, until one thing had came into their lives that they couldn't share, a love of a woman. Both Kalervo and Tapio had loved the same girl. When the girl had chosen in Tapio's favor, Kalervo had killed him. The girl never overcame the loss of her lover so she took her own life. At that point Kalervo had realized what he had done in a burst of jealousy. He had left his home for good.
Kalervo's journey had taken him to east to a small island called Kyushu. There, a warlord had taken him under his wings and trained him to a warrior. In A way Kalervo had died in there and Shiro had been born.
Ten long years he had spent fighting in his protector's ranks, achieving a reputation as an excellent swordsman. Then, one day his protector had lost an important battle and therefore forced to commit seppuku to save face. Shiro had had the task to behead his master with his sword after he had pushed his own sword through his stomach.
Shiro had become ronin, a warrior without a master. He had decided to leave Kyushu and here he was, preparing for a hopeless battle. Here he had a chance do die in a way like a warrior was supposed to. But now, death wasn't so tempting as it had been for a long time. Now some strange feeling inside of him was weakening this death wish.
Shiro was distracted from his thoughts when the door opened and Annika dashed in.
"Morning, Shiro! You ready for " The Amazon went silent when she stared at the bare muscular body of the warrior. "Oh, I'm sorry I didn't " Annika mumbled, still looking at the figures of the body.
"It's all right," Shiro said as he grabbed his kimono. He realized that the young Amazon was in an awkward situation. "I wasn't expecting anyone. I was doing my purification rituals. I'm sorry if I have embarrassed you."
Annika didn't answer. She still kept looking at him. She felt the warmth in her veins. This feeling wasn't strange to her. She must have been one of the youngest girls of her village to lose her virginity. She had also found out that both women and men attracted her. There was something so animal and yet so fragile in this man. "Do you think that we are going to die today?" She finally asked.
"There's always a possibility," Shiro answered. "But dying is an inseparable part of our life."
"So don't you think that you should always seize the moment because you never know when you're going to die." Annika closed the door and came closer.
"Y- Yes, I think you're right," Shiro said a bit timidly.
"That you should live each day as if it was your last." Annika touched the hairy chest and removed the kimono.
"I " Shiro started but stopped when Annika's lips met his.
Xena opened her eyes and closed them immediately when her brains registered the pounding in her head. She felt miserable and that wasnt just because of the amount of port she had consumed last night. She could remember that she had cracked in front of her mother. She could also remember the words that the older woman had said to her. Even though she hated to admit it, her mother was right. She should talk to Gabrielle. Actually that thought had passed through her mind more than once since the bard's return.
The real problem was that she didn't have the courage to go to talk with her. Xena knew that she wouldn't bear it if Gabrielle rejected her. She needed her so much that she would rather keep up false hope than no hope at all. That wasn't right either, for either of them.
But now wasn't the time for that. She had a battle to fight. Xena was quite certain that Parseus didn't have all of his army together. If he attacked today, there would be only the leading army. That gave some advantage to the defenders. This attack would be stopped today. A couple of days later Parseus would lead his whole army against Amphipolis, but many things could happen within a couple of days.
Xena stood up and put on her gear. She checked her sword and chakram, which were in pristine order. Well, it's time, she thought and stepped outside of her room.
Parseus looked at his second in command, who was approaching him on horseback. "Well?" He asked the man when he dismounted.
"Everything is in place as ordered, sir," the soldier answered.
"Excellent!" Parseus rubbed his knuckles. "What about the men?"
"Ready to march from your order."
"Very good." Parseus took his cape from a stool. "Prepare my horse!" He ordered his servant who ran towards the pastures.
Xena looked around her. The archers were in their positions and about fifty others were among the trees and bushes, ready to take on the attackers. If everything went well, Parseus' men wouldnt get through the forest.
She turned to look at Alysa, who was approaching her. "Are the archers ready?" The warrior asked.
"As ready as they'll ever be," Alysa answered.
"Good, remember to let them get close enough before you start shooting," Xena reminded her. "That way they don't have any choice than to run in the forest where we'll be waiting."
"Don't worry, we'll get the job done," the archer assured the warrior.
"You'll better get in your place. I got a word from our reconnaissance that Parseus' troops are getting ready to move," Xena said.
"Okay," Alysa said and ran to her position.
Elita watched her mentor climb to a tree close to her. "Is it time?" She asked the red haired Amazon.
"Yeah, any time now," Alysa answered. "You excited?" She asked the younger woman.
"A little bit," Elita answered. She smiled to her mentor. Her emotions towards the red haired woman had become deeper each and every day that she had spent with her. She didn't know what Alysa thought of her but she intended to find out. Maybe after this battle is over, she thought.
Parseus looked at the forest at the end of the opening. He knew that the defenders were waiting his men to show up. Oh, they most certainly will - with something else on the side. He grimaced at the thought.
He turned to look at his second. "Sent the soldiers!" He ordered.
"Aye, aye, sir!" The soldier answered and turned to the awaiting men. "All right men! Forward!"
Slowly, the numbers of armored soldiers started their march toward the forest. Most of them were on foot but some had horses. They were mowing in four lines, each line holding thirty men. The riders formed their own line in front of them.
Parseus followed the march of his men. Soon, he thought. Very soon.
Elita saw the approaching men between the leaves. She readied her bow and waited for the order.
"Wait, wait, let them come closer," Alysa whispered. She felt her heart pounding. It was always like this before the battle commenced.
"Remove the covers!" Parseus ordered the men who were standing around some rough looking tents.
The men pulled the tents down and revealed about twenty catapults that were armed and ready.
"Light the ammunition!" the warlord continued giving his orders.
Ammunition consisted of barrels filled with oil. Each barrel had a fuse that was now lighted.
"Everything is ready, sir!" One of Parseus' lieutenants said.
"Fire at will!" Parseus gave the order.
Gabrielle and Eponin were in their positions and looked at the forest before them.
"Uuh I just hate waiting!" The weapons master said impatiently.
"I guess you'd want to be there where the action is," the bard said reading the Amazon's thoughts.
"You got that right," Eponin said and sighed. "I guess this is what they mean when they say that you have to start taking responsibility. Besides, I have a feeling that we'll get our piece of the action pretty soon." She looked further and saw Annika standing there with Shiro. Both were exchanging glances every now and then. Now what are those two up to? She thought. She'd have to have some serious talk with the young Amazon later today.
"Look!" Gabrielle shouted suddenly. "What are those?"
Eponin turned to look at the direction the bard was pointing. She saw some round objects in the air landing into the forest. Next moment, the forest was a flaming inferno. She turned to look at Gabrielle. The bard's face was something between disbelief and despair.
Continued in part 5
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