Learning the Hard Way
DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: This story occurs in a hard, violent time and my writing reflects that. If you are sensitive to that, you may want to skip some of the battle scenes.
SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.
Author's notes: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
How does one count the worth of a friend? Priceless? Invaluable? Incalculable? They all apply to Karen Surtees, but my word of choice is "cherished." Thank you, my friend, for "holding my hand" as I write, and for keeping me motivated. You are a treasure!
And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.
"Kinda nice, being out here on the trail by ourselves again for the last few days." Gabrielle strode energetically along next to Argo as the warhorse plodded patiently through the forest. The tall, dark-haired woman sitting astride the palomino didn't answer, knew she wasn't expected to. The golden-haired bard really just liked to hear the sound of a voice. Since Xena was never very talkative, Gabrielle long ago had gotten accustomed to speaking aloud to herself.
The thoughts of the imposing Warrior Princess centered at the moment on Amphipolis which they were nearing. Home. Or at least the place she grew up in, the one where her mother and her brother still lived. Nowadays, Xena's home was much simpler. Wherever she and the bard were was home. The warrior smiled gently at this thought and looked down at the young woman treading beside her.
As she felt Xena's eyes on her, Gabrielle looked up and, meeting her gaze, dimpled a smile in return. Argo chose that moment to toss her head and the young bard laughed. "Look, even Argo is happy!"
"Gabrielle, I never even asked you if going to Amphipolis suited you."
"Xena, I had a little problem with going to Poteidaia and you proved me wrong, I really enjoyed it. But Amphipolis? Never a problem there. Your family treats me like one of them and you know I am crazy about your mother."
Xena grinned. "Because my mother fills you with her wonderful food! You'd love anybody who was a good cook."
"Not so!" Gabrielle protested. Then her face dimpled again. "Well, maybe that is so, but I love your mother beyond her good cooking, and you know it." Xena did know that was true. Cyrene welcomed the bard into her home as a member of her family and the two women were as close as many mothers and daughters were. She heard more about Xena's exploits in one visit from Gabrielle than she ever learned from her stoic daughter.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing her again. I have a few more good tales to tell her."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Guess I'll never get a word in edgewise."
Gabrielle snorted and the warrior's grin turned lopsided. It's great to see Xena in a good mood. She's had a pretty rough time for awhile.
"Xena, what do you think was wrong with you that Artemis' potion cured?"
"I don't know. I would guess it had something to do with all the blood I lost over a short period of time. When I see Claris again, I'll ask her. She disappeared before I could question her about it." And before I could ask her exactly what in Tartarus was in that potion. Xena's mind flicked back to the excruciating pain she suffered after drinking the healing potion. For a few minutes there, I thought Artemis was trying to get rid of me.
"I'm just really grateful that she made you well again. Now all we have to do is fatten you back up. But I'm sure Cyrene will take care of that."
Xena raised an eyebrow . "You've managed to turn the conversation back to food again. You must be getting hungry." Gabrielle grinned and nodded her head. "Well, Amphipolis is just over the next rise so you'll soon get your fill." The Warrior Princess chuckled as the bard quickened her pace.
Cyrene and Toris were in the kitchen of their inn when the Warrior Princess and the bard arrived and slipped in the back door. Cyrene spied them first. "Toris, look who's here!" She ran to the doorway and threw her arms around her daughter, noticing that her frame, though solid, lacked the substance it usually had.
The warrior's kin both had the same dark hair and noteworthy blue eyes that she had, though the intensity of Xena's eyes set hers apart. Toris stood an inch or two taller than his sister and Cyrene about six inches shorter.
She turned from hugging Xena, to clasp Gabrielle in a warm embrace while Toris and his sister greeted each other boisterously. This time, though, Toris didn't dance Xena around as he usually did. Once he picked her up and realized she had lost a lot of weight, he kept her up in the air.
"Whoa, Sis. What's going on? You're light as a feather!" He gently set Xena back on her feet and held her away, searching her face. He and his mother were dismayed to see how drawn the warrior looked.
"There's nothing to worry about. I was sick and now I'm well. I 'm counting on Mother to help me regain my lost weight." A knowing look passed between Cyrene and Gabrielle. The innkeeper knew she would get the full story from the bard.
"I'll take care of Argo and get your saddlebags. You just sit down and rest and I'm sure Mother will start filling you out, right now. Or, at least, filling you up." Toris grinned, then gave Gabrielle a welcoming hug. "Welcome home, Gabrielle. Save anything you might say about your adventures till I get back, OK? I don't want to miss a word."
"Sure, Toris," the bard promised and he went on out to the stables.
As she had observed the brother and sister together, it struck Gabrielle again how much they looked alike in their coloring and features. But Xena had an aura of command and power that Toris didn't have, a projection of formidable strength that she wore like a second coat of armor, silently challenging any who dared oppose her.
When the Warrior Princess stayed in Amphipolis, she made an attempt to downplay this aura, but it was so much a part of her persona, it was impossible to completely hide. No one, looking at her, could doubt that she was anything less than a person to be reckoned with. The way she carried herself, even at rest, said, "You might come at me, but you can't come through me. And you'd be a fool to try."
Cyrene steered the two younger women to the kitchen table, set some mugs of ale in front of them and went to the counter to prepare their supper. She chattered away about events that had happened since their last visit. She was getting very little communication in return from Xena so Gabrielle joined the conversation and turned the one-way narration into a true exchange, lifting Cyrene's spirits considerably.
By the time Cyrene had made up four plates, Toris had returned and joined them for their meal. Gabrielle promised to recount some of their latest experiences after they had eaten.
The bard, true to her famed appetite, wolfed down two helpings while the others made their way through one. "Ahhhhhh. That was food for the gods." she rubbed her stomach in satisfaction as Cyrene beamed and Xena and her brother, Toris, grinned.
Cyrene cleared the table, furnished them all with fresh mugs of ale, and rejoined them. The supper trade in the large dining room was being handled by her employees.
As she had promised, Gabrielle recounted the rescue of Prince Ricondo, Xena's illness and her cure by Artemis.
"Wow, you mean a goddess cured you? You must have a lot of influence with them!" Toris was impressed.
Xena gave him a wry grin. "Wasn't me, Toris. Gabrielle is the one with the influence. In this case, it paid to be best friends with the Amazon Queen."
"Artemis is the patroness of the Amazons," Gabrielle explained. "She did me a favor because Xena has helped the Amazons many times."
"Hummmph!" Xena snorted. "She did you a favor because she likes you. Not because of anything I did."
Gabrielle blushed. "It doesn't really matter. She cured you and that's that."
"Yeah, she cured me." Xena's eyes suddenly went far away and a look of torment raced through her expression. Cured me so I can watch you be nailed to a cross. Her eyes refocused and she quickly looked down as she realized the observant Cyrene hadn't missed the swift interlude.
Cyrene reached across the table and put her hand over her daughter's long fingers. "Xena, what is it?"
"It wasn't 'nothing' that caused that terrible look on your face."
Xena's jaw rippled. "It doesn't really concern you, Mother."
Cyrene tightened her fingers on her daughter's bronzed hand and gazed intently at her lowered head. "Look at me, Xena."
The Warrior Princess fought down the pain of the horrific vision and raised clear eyes to her mother. But Cyrene was not to be fooled.
Gabrielle, seeing Cyrene's face, thought, Just like her formidable daughter, she is relentless.
Her mother's low, passionate voice struck Xena's heart. "Anything that causes the agony I just saw on your face concerns me. If you won't explain it, I will imagine all the worst things possible, so you are not 'saving' me by your silence."
Xena turned her hand over and clasped the work-worn hand that rested on hers. The warrior's magnificent eyes darkened with pain and she tried to unclench her jaw but only managed to part lips that suffered a slight tremor. Cyrene's cobalt-blue eyes were glued to Xena's face but with her side vision she saw Gabrielle take Xena's other hand between her two and squeeze it.
"Are you still sick?" Cyrene whispered hoarsely. A mute Xena shook her head.
What could have caused that awful pain on my daughter's face? "Are you
dying?" her mother persisted, asking the unthinkable question. Xena squashed her lips
back together and her hold on Cyrene's hand tightened.
"By the gods, Xena, tell me SOMETHING!"
Toris' questioning blue eyes darted back and forth from his mother to his sister. Hesitant to interfere in this interrogation, he sucked in his breath when his mother mentioned dying and he saw the change in Xena's face.
The Warrior Princess threw a pleading look at Gabrielle. "Xena has seen a vision," the bard responded reluctantly.
Cyrene's eyes narrowed in concentration. "You've seen a vision?" Xena's head bobbed once. The innkeeper's eyes widened and her face lost its color. "A vision of your death," she guessed. The anguished look that overtook the warrior's features when she looked at her mother's face answered the question. Cyrene struggled to stay calm, to keep her wits about her.
Gabrielle couldn't look away from her partner's face. I know I don't really put much store in this vision, but Xena sure is beating herself with it. Why is she letting it tear her up like this? She doesn't even know if it's true but, if it is, I know she'll find an answer to it; she always does.
"But we don't know that the vision is true," the bard protested.
Ahhhh, but look at my daughter's face. That terrible look has fought its way past her iron discipline. SHE believes that it is true. Cyrene, still clasping Xena's hand, rose and went to her side. With her free hand, she brought the warrior's dark head to her bosom and stood there clutching her against her body. "No, no, please, Xena I can't lose you." My dear, dear daughter. I know you fly into danger day after day. I've tried to steel myself to the idea of someday losing you. But I'm not ready for it. I'll never be ready for it. Please say it isn't true. As the potential reality of the vision sifted into her being and spread a dulling numbness through her body, Cyrene moaned and tightened her hold on her beloved daughter.
Tears began rolling from Cyrene's sorrowful eyes. Gabrielle released Xena's other hand, allowing her to slip it around her mother's waist, adding support to Cyrene's trembling frame.
Toris, frustrated by his inability to do anything, jumped up and started pacing back and forth. "When does this happen? What's going on? What can we do? Tell us!"
The Warrior Princes took a ragged breath. "It's hard , Toris "
Toris swung toward Gabrielle and stopped near her chair. "Gabrielle, you tell us. Please."
The bard's mist-green eyes questioned Xena and the warrior briefly nodded. "Xena was shown a vision of her death by a woman who was fighting her. We don't know if it is true or not. She might just have been trying to beat her by distracting her."
"But what happened in the vision?" Toris persisted.
Gabrielle continued reluctantly. "We were in Rome. We were about to be crucified "
Cyrene let out another moan. "You, too?" The bard nodded. "Oh, nooooo." Toris quickly pushed a chair under his mother as her knees finally buckled. She pulled Xena's head down with her, then, releasing it, she put her own head cheek to cheek with her daughter's. She let go of Xena's hand and the mother and daughter put their arms around each other. "Both of you by the gods both of you." Oh, Xena, now I know why your iron discipline has slipped. Gabrielle, too our sweet, lovely Gabrielle the one you've vowed to love and protect If the idea is so unthinkable for me, it must be tearing you apart.
Cyrene rocked back and forth, pulling the pliant warrior with her. Tears, rolling down their cheeks, mingled and dripped from their chins. Gabrielle rose from her chair and knelt next to Cyrene. She placed her golden head in the older woman's lap and overlaid Xena's arms with hers. Cyrene moved one hand down and entwined it through the bard's hair. Then Gabrielle felt her partner's arm move and a strong hand rested tenderly against her cheek.
Toris resumed his pacing and kept running his hands through his hair after swiping them at his own cheeks. "Can't we do something? Can't we stop it?" But no one answered him.
Trying hard to cope with his own unsettling grief, Toris walked out into the night.
Gabrielle woke the next morning and looked up at Xena, surprised to see that she had just finished dressing in her leathers. The warrior usually rose before the sun. If she could be persuaded to sleep a little later in the mornings, maybe she would regain her weight sooner. "Hi," she murmured. "Are you OK?"
Xena looked down at her and grinned wryly. "Wondering if coming home was a mistake."
Gabrielle sat up and threw her legs over the side of the bed. "No, Xena, it was the right thing to do."
Xena plopped down next to her. "But I know I've hurt Mother and Toris. I feel like someone pulled out my heart, chopped it into little pieces, patched it back together and stuck it back in my chest."
"Wow, that was a pretty introspective speech for you," Gabrielle grinned. She wasn't too sure whether a little teasing would help or not, but thought it worth a try to lighten Xena's mood.
"Hummph! Right," came Xena's dry retort.
Xena was rewarded with a quick smile from her green-eyed friend. Then Gabrielle's tone sobered. "Xena, that's what happens when you love someone. If you cause them pain, it causes you pain, too. Love puts your heart at risk. But if you don't reach out to others, you never discover the wondrous joy it brings."
Xena looked down at the floor. Uh-oh, the bard thought, here we go again with the vision thing.
But the warrior surprised the bard. Raising her head, her cobalt-blue eyes glanced sideways at her friend. Then Xena turned, threw an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. "Don't I know it!" she laughed and quickly kissed the golden hair. Then she bounced off of the bed, said, "I'll meet you at the breakfast table," and strode out of the room.
"I was talking about your mother and Toris!" Gabrielle called to the empty doorway. A bronzed hand reached back and wrapped itself around the doorjamb, followed by a dark head with sculpted face. "That wondrous joy just helped my hurting heart." Xena's special smile lit her face; she winked one of her magnificent blue eyes and resumed her passage.
Gabrielle beamed. Xena was talking about me! That cheery thought kept a smile on the bard's face all the way to the dining room.
Xena stepped lightly into the kitchen looking for her mother. Sensing a presence, Cyrene turned from the table where she was ladling out porridge and saw the warrior. Her lips turned up in a soft smile. "Good morning. I was thinking about fixing a breakfast platter and sending it to you."
Xena walked over into her mother's embrace. "No need to do that, Mother. But thanks." She gave Cyrene an extra squeeze. "Thanks for everything."
Cyrene held the hug an instant longer than usual and a tear crept out onto her cheek. "This will take some getting used to, Xena. So, excuse me if I sometimes cry into your porridge." The innkeeper had learned that a little humor helped to make almost any situation a bit more bearable.
"Oh, Mother, I wish I could spare you this." Xena buried her face against Cyrene's head.
Cyrene tightened her hug, then gently pushed her daughter away and brushed the tear from her own cheek. "Well, we're all pretty strong women and we will cope. We will not spend this time together weeping over possibilities. What's to be will be. Now, you go sit down and let me feed you."
Xena leaned down and kissed Cyrene's cheek. "Yes, Mother," she said dutifully. Then her lips twisted into a grin and she sat at the kitchen table.
"Maybe you'd rather eat in the dining room?" Cyrene suggested.
"I'd rather be here with you," Xena answered. "If that's not too much trouble."
"Never any trouble, Xena. You stay right where you are. Here's a mug of tea. I'll have some food for you in a minute. First, I have to take these bowls of porridge out to some customers."
Cyrene smiled as Gabrielle entered from the dining room. "I'll help you with that, Cyrene." The bard came over to the serving table and gave the older woman a good morning hug. Then the two of them put the bowls onto two large serving trays, adding spoons and pots of honey. "Who gets them?"
"Everyone out there," the innkeeper laughed. "Porridge is the only item on today's breakfast menu. I overslept this morning and didn't get any eggs gathered."
"I'll go get the eggs," Xena offered. She got up and went out the back door, stepping into the yard that held the stable and the hen house. As she passed the stable door, she saw movement within and entered. Toris was forking hay into the feeding bins for Argo and Racer, his ink-black stallion. He pretended not to see Xena, just kept his head down and continued working.
The Warrior Princess walked over next to him and stood there, not speaking. After a few moments, Toris straightened up and stuck the pitchfork into the earthen floor. Grasping the end of it with both hands, he leaned it against his chest and stood there, staring off into space. Xena stood there with him, staring in the same direction.
At last, Toris was able to speak. "Isn't there anything that can be done to prevent this?"
"I don't know, Toris." He strained to hear Xena's low voice. "When the time gets closer, maybe I can come up with something. Right now, I can't think of anything to do. I can't just stop living."
The dark-haired man slowly turned his head and looked at his sister's profile. Oh, Xena, your beauty and strength and courage make my heart ache. I can't imagine a world without you in it. My little sister.
"I keep thinking about when you were a little girl," he mused. "How you used to pester me with your questions! Followed me everywhere I went, demanding that I teach you everything about everything! How many stars are in the sky? How do you tell when a horse is sick? Why does flint spark when you strike it with metal and other rocks don't? I didn't even know the answers to most things you asked, but you just kept asking."
The sides of Toris' mouth turned up with fond memories. "Do you remember the summer you decided that your legs would grow longer if you stepped in my footprints? You spent hours walking behind me, stretching to reach your feet into the same spots mine fell on. Lyceus was fit to be tied, because he didn't have his playmate."
A tiny puff of laughter came from the warrior's throat and she turned toward her brother. "Well, it must have worked. I'm almost as tall as you are."
Toris stopped smiling and his voice became serious. "Xena, you're taller than I'll ever be. You've gone more places, seen more things, hobnobbed with kings and queens. Half of Greece knows your name."
"That's not exactly something to be proud of, Toris." Xena frowned, thinking that her brother was putting value on the wrong experiences.
"Well, it used to be they knew you because you were a warlord. But now they know you because of all the good you've done, all the people you've helped. And you won't even take anything in payment. I'm proud of you, Xena." Toris nodded his head and smiled into the cobalt-blue eyes that were mirrors of his own.
"And when the time for your vision comes, if it ever does, I want you to call on me if there is anything at all that I can do. Will you promise me that?"
Xena leaned forward and kissed her brother on the cheek. "I promise. And thank you."
Toris cocked his head. "I think I'm going to try to follow Gabrielle's lead and expect that it won't come to pass."
Xena smiled and smacked her brother's arm as she turned away toward the hen house. "You do that, Toris. Maybe if the two of you wish hard enough, it won't happen. And if I don't go get some eggs, my breakfast won't happen, either."
The Warrior Princess hurried out of the stable, quickly brushing away a few tears that suddenly brimmed from her eyes. Damn wind! she kidded herself, then chuckled softly as she heard Toris blow his nose. Must be windy in the stable, too.
When Cyrene and Gabrielle returned from serving the porridge, the older woman waved the bard to a seat at the kitchen table. "Sit, Gabrielle. Would you like some porridge, or do you want to wait for Xena to bring the eggs?"
The bard hesitated and Xena's mother laughed. "I should know better! Of course, you will have both." As she talked, Cyrene ladled some porridge into a bowl and set it in front of Gabrielle, together with a spoon and some honey.
The golden-haired woman grinned. "You read me almost as well as your daughter does."
"At least where food is concerned," Cyrene teased. The innkeeper came and sat opposite the bard, setting a mug of tea in front of each of them.. She placed her hands on the table, fingers entwined, and stared at them for a moment. Then, looking up, she met Gabrielle's mist-green eyes overflowing with sympathy.
"You don't put much belief in this vision of Xena's, do you?" Cyrene asked point-blank.
Gabrielle looked a bit uncomfortable. "I guess what's bothering me the most about it is how much it's bothering Xena. It's not like her to be so " The bard hesitated, hunting for the right word.
"Emotional?" Cyrene suggested.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes emotional. Usually, if I looked at her face a hundred times, maybe twice I could tell what she was feeling. She holds things very tight within herself. Yesterday was a real exception."
Cyrene smiled sadly. "That indicates how distressed she is. But, knowing Xena, I think most of her distress is for you rather than for herself. She seems frustrated."
Again, Gabrielle nodded. She gazed into the concerned blue eyes, so reminiscent of her friend's, and matched Cyrene's sad smile. "I think you're right. She always has worried more about me than about herself. And when something bothers Xena, if it can be fixed, she fixes it and if it can't, she ignores it. But she can't seem to do either one, at the moment. That's where the frustration is coming from."
"Has she tried to do anything about it?" Cyrene, also a headstrong woman, couldn't picture Xena just waiting for something so terrible to happen.
"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle retorted. "She's tried to walk away from me, figuring if we were apart, we couldn't die together. But that didn't work for either one of us. We strengthen each other; we need to face this together."
"You seem more optimistic than Xena," Cyrene noted.
"It seems I have more faith in her than she has in herself," Gabrielle
replied. "No matter what the problem, Xena always finds a solution. And I'm sure she
will figure this one out, too."
"But don't you think you are putting an awful lot of pressure on her? Your expectation that she will save you both could be part of what is weighing so heavily on her." Cyrene believed in her daughter, too, but knew that every human being, including Xena, sometimes faltered.
"You're probably right, Cyrene. I just know from past experience that when she puts her mind to something, nothing stops her. She gets it done, one way or another."
Gabrielle's optimism lightened Cyrene's heart. "My daughter is relentless," the older woman agreed with a smile.
The bard reached over and patted Cyrene's hand. "Just like her mother!"
"Not me, I'm afraid," Xena called, hearing the last remark as she came through the door. She had five eggs in each long hand and placed them on the serving table. "My mother, at least, remembers to take a basket to gather eggs."
"And it doesn't take me twenty minutes to do it, either," Cyrene gibed as she rose to prepare breakfast.
"Yeah, well, I ran into Toris and we had a little talk."
Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "Talk? You mean you actually talked?"
Xena made a face at the bard. "Yeah, but I used up my quota of words for the day. I'm ready to eat." The Warrior Princess looked at her mother who was standing, turned toward their table, listening to them. "You want me to cook those eggs, Mother?" she asked with a grin.
Cyrene bustled over to the frying pan. "By the gods, Xena, Gabrielle would never forgive me! Besides, I don't believe in torture."
"Thank you, Cyrene, from the bottom of my stomach," Gabrielle intoned in a deep, theatrical voice. Xena flicked the bard's arm with the back of her fingers as all three women laughed.
In the afternoon, Xena brought in four game birds she had caught. Whenever she came home for a visit, she tried to "pay" for her and Gabrielle's room and board by replenishing the inn's store of meat. Cyrene put two large pots of water on the fire to heat, to facilitate the plucking of the carcasses.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked. She grabbed a mug, filled it with tea from the pot sitting on the back of the iron range, and sat at the table.
"She went with Toris to pick up some supplies. They'll be back in time for supper." Cyrene's face glistened with the exertion of preparing meals for the evening trade she was expecting. The game birds would be a welcome addition. She wiped her face with her apron and, dipping a mug of water for herself, she joined her daughter at the table.
"I'm glad you came in, Xena. I know you don't like to labor over discussions, but I need to hear more about your vision. Your distress really bothers me. And your frustration. I think if you talk a bit about it, it might help you."
The warrior's fingers worked around the mug she was holding and her eyes were glued to it as though fascinated. Silence held for so long, Cyrene thought she wasn't going to get an answer.
Finally, Xena frowned and spoke. "I had a fight with a woman named Alti. She was kind of a sorceress and she could put thoughts and scenes into people's minds. She put one in my mind that showed Gabrielle and me getting put on a couple of crosses. Nothing more." Xena's cheek twitched.
"Nothing more," Cyrene repeated. "You didn't see the actual nailing?" Xena shook her still bowed head. "Then Gabrielle is right to be optimistic. Don't you think if you actually were crucified, this Alti woman would have shown you hanging on the crosses? Maybe you do get saved."
Xena's lips twisted up into a caricature of her lopsided grin and she forced a hoarse voice. "You and I are a lot alike, Mother, but now you sound like my bard. She thinks I can do anything, solve any problem. But I'm just human like the rest of you."
"And you're scared." And Cyrene knew what caused her daughter's biggest fear. "You're scared for Gabrielle."
Xena's haunted eyes raised and met her mother's. A look of agony, heartache, and understanding passed between them and there was no need for Xena to answer. Then the warrior dropped her eyes back to her fingers, playing with the mug, and the two women sat silently for several minutes.
Cyrene broke the silence. "I'm going to say again what I said earlier. We are strong women and we will cope. What's to be will be. Let's put this horror behind us until it has to be addressed." She watched her distressed daughter fight to bring her emotions back under strict control. Finally, Xena sat up straighter, brought her magnificent eyes back up to meet her mother's and smiled. Another look passed between them and this one soothed Cyrene's heart.
The innkeeper rose from the table. "Now, if you'll give me a hand, we'll pluck these birds."
Xena and Gabrielle had been in Amphipolis for three weeks and the Warrior Princess had improved immensely. Most of her lost weight had been regained and, once the initial shock of the vision had been absorbed by Cyrene and Toris, the stay had been without incident. Once in awhile Xena would catch one or the other of her relatives gazing pensively at her, but they would exchange accepting smiles and go on about their business.
After those first days, they had agreed to put the darkness of the vision aside and enjoy each other's company. Knowing this could be the last time they ever saw each other added a clarity to even the smallest detail of their visit, while spreading a bittersweet tinge to their actions.
Finally, it was time to leave and no one wanted to let go. Cyrene held Xena in one arm and Gabrielle in the other, crying silent tears. "I've tried very hard to be brave about this vision, but, now that you two are leaving, I can't help myself," she said hoarsely.
Xena squeezed her tighter and answered with a lopsided grin, "It's OK, Mother. I've had a lot longer to get used to the idea and it still bothers me, too. Gabrielle's the only one who doesn't seem fazed by it."
Gabrielle kissed Cyrene's cheek. "That's because I don't believe it will happen. Xena always figures a way out of a bad situation and I'm sure she will this time, too. We'll be back here next visit, laughing at all this."
The bard's optimism brought a small smile to Cyrene's face. She kissed Gabrielle and Xena and finally let go of them.
Xena grabbed Toris in a bear hug and squeezed unmercifully. He hugged her, too, then held her away, staring at her beautiful face for a slow moment, locking it into his memory. Then the two embraced again and kissed each other's cheek. "I love you, Xena," Toris said, blinking.
"I love you, big Brother," Xena answered. "Take good care of Mother." The two stepped apart and Toris hugged Gabrielle as Xena mounted Argo. Then she lifted the bard onto Argo's back behind her; they waved and rode away.
Several mornings later, the two travelers hit the trail even earlier than usual. Xena had awakened in a bad mood and when she tossed Gabrielle out of her blankets, the bard took one look and decided silence was the wisest choice. At least until she woke up enough to handle the barbed looks she knew she would get when she started talking--no matter what she said.
So, for the first hour, Gabrielle practically sleepwalked next to Argo. Then the exercise, coupled with the bright sunshine filtering through the treetops, gradually brought her fully awake and re-energized her courage. She decided to throw out a line and test the waters. "You got special plans, today, Xena?"
No answer. Well, I didn't really expect one on the first try. "Are we headed anyplace in particular?"
Still no answer. I don't think she even hears me. "We're not too far from Amazon territory, are we?"
When Xena still didn't answer, Gabrielle looked up at her silent friend. For the first time, she noticed that Xena was riding in fully alert mode. She sat tall in the saddle, her head swiveling very slowly from side to side. "What is it, Xena? Is something wrong?"
The change in Gabrielle's intonation finally caught the warrior's attention. "I've had a bad feeling ever since I woke up," she answered.
"Hey, I was looking for some news," Gabrielle joked. But she was concerned. She knew the accuracy of Xena's intuition could be counted among her many skills.
As expected, one of the barbed looks was thrown down at the bard who smiled and shrugged.
"Stay alert," Xena growled.
Like I'm going to hear something before you do, Gabrielle thought, but kept the remark to herself and did walk more observantly.
Fifteen minutes later, Xena pulled the golden palomino to a stop and quickly swung down to the ground. "Wait here," she warned the bard, handing her Argo's reins. Turning away, she ran off into the forest.
Forty minutes later, she returned. "There's a large army camped about five miles from here, back in the forest, away from this trail. I don't know what they're up to, but I don't like it. They are just west of Amazon territory and too close for comfort."
The "What are we waiting for?" wasn't even out of Gabrielle's mouth before Xena had grabbed the reins, mounted Argo and was reaching down an arm. She swung the bard up behind her and urged the warhorse into a gallop.
"What if they have guards along the trail, Xena? Won't they see us?" Gabrielle hung on tight to the warrior's waist, the side of her face pushed hard against the muscular back. She still found a fast-moving Argo a bit scary.
"Not any more," was Xena's curt answer.
Not any more? What does that mean? Then the significance of the words became clear. "You killed them?"
Gabrielle felt the snort rather than heard it. "No, Gabrielle, I asked them please not to tell anyone that I am in the area, then sent them on their way."
"Sorry," the bard apologized. "That WAS a dumb question." She could imagine the Warrior Princess rolling her eyes and decided to say nothing more until they reached the Amazon territory.
Xena continued in her fully alert mode and stopped once more. This time, she didn't bother to speak, just swung her leg over the front of the saddle and hit the ground running. Fifteen minutes later she came jogging back and flipped over Argo's head into her seat. "Advance scouts," was the full report Gabrielle received.
Seemingly not in any great hurry now, Xena alternated Argo between galloping and walking until they reached the Amazon perimeter. The Warrior Princess pulled Argo to a stop when she heard a birdcall that she recognized. The perimeter guard was sending an alert that the Queen and Xena were approaching the village. Then Gwynna dropped from the trees with a big grin on her face. "Hi!" she called, then remembering herself, she dropped to one knee in front of her Queen.
"Please rise, Gwynna," Gabrielle responded. "How are you?"
The blonde young Amazon rose, still grinning. "I'm fine, Gabrielle. Sure is great to see you two. Maybe I can get a smile out of Leese now, for a change."
"What's wrong with Leese?" the bard asked, a frown showing her concern.
The tall girl's brown eyes turned serious. "There's an army camped to the west that has us all worried. Everybody has been on alert since even before they arrived and we're all a bundle of nerves. And you should hear Eponin! She wants to go fight them and she can't get anyone to agree with her." She looked toward Xena and her grin came back. "Perfect time for the Queen and the Warrior Princess to be getting here."
Xena grinned back at the youngster. "Thanks, Gwynna. We'll see you back at the village." She and Gabrielle waved and continued down the trail. About halfway there, an honor escort met them and led them the rest of the way into the Village Square. The "Big Three"--Ephiny, the regent; Eponin, the weapons master; and Solari, the chief scout, were gathered there with almost every other Amazon in the village.
As Gabrielle and Xena came into view, a murmur arose from the assembled women and all knelt in homage to their Queen. The warrior halted Argo in front of Ephiny and the two travelers slid down to the ground. Gabrielle motioned all to rise, then stepped into Ephiny's embrace.
"Are we ever glad to see you two," Ephiny almost shouted in her joy
"That's what Gwynna said," Gabrielle laughed. Then she turned to Eponin and Solari and greeted them with hugs also, noticing that Eponin, indeed, looked out of sorts.
Xena's cobalt-blue eyes took on the mischievous glint they always seemed to bear when she greeted Ephiny. The Warrior Princess reached out an arm for the warrior handshake but Ephiny brushed right past it and grabbed Xena in a hug. "Don't really think I'm going to pass up a chance to hug you, do you?" the regent murmured quietly, chuckling.
Out of devilment, Xena wouldn't let Ephiny go. The startled regent struggled to be liberated and Xena finally released her when Gabrielle turned back around and lifted her eyebrows. Solari, with a perfectly straight face, stage-whispered, "Doesn't Eph look good with a red complexion? Goes really well with her blonde hair."
Then she tried very hard not to laugh as Ephiny glared at her and the Warrior Princess gave Gabrielle one of her totally innocent looks. A few muted laughs could be heard from the other Amazons grouped about. Eponin frowned at Solari and shook her head.
Ephiny gathered what dignity she could muster and said, "Gabrielle, the Queen's hut is ready for you. After you and Xena freshen up, could we all meet at my place?"
"Sure, Ephiny, we won't be long. How about fifteen minutes?"
"Fine, see you then." Ephiny looked at Eponin and Solari and tossed her head toward her hut. The three went off and the group dispersed. Xena and Gabrielle followed one of the Amazons to the Queen's hut. The Amazon took Argo from them and left.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the hut and saw that some fruit and drinking water had been set out for them, and a large wash bowl, complete with washrags and towels.
The two women ate and drank some of the provisions. While they were washing the trail dust from themselves, Gabrielle asked, "What was going on out there between you and Ephiny? Have I missed something?"
"Er no. I mean no." Gabrielle marveled at the fact that the Warrior Princess actually looked sheepish and a slight flush crept up her cheeks.
"Xena, when I turned around and looked at you two, you looked like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie crock."
The warrior put up both her hands, palms toward the bard and tried to hold back the puffs of laughter that threatened to spurt up her throat. "Ephiny likes me, Gabrielle. I mean, she LIKES me. And I can't resist teasing her about it. I offered to shake hands with her, but she insisted on hugging me. Soooo," Xena couldn't stop the laughter from bubbling out, "I wouldn't let go of her. And she got red. And Solari had to get her two dinars' worth in, too." A full-fledged belly laugh made Xena grasp her sides. "And Eph's probably raking her through Tartarus, right now."
The Warrior Princess sat down on one of the chairs and laughed her fill.
"Well, I 'm happy to see that it's improved your mood about one thousand percent," Gabrielle said dryly. "But don't you think it was mean to tease Ephiny in front of the other Amazons? She is the regent and needs to hold their respect."
"Sorry!" Xena barked and went off into another spasm of laughter.
The laugh was infectious and Gabrielle started smiling at her partner. Actually, having the Warrior Princess give her a great hug probably enhanced Ephiny's stature with the others. "Well, you better pull yourself together so we can go meet with the Big Three."
Xena was completely sober for about two seconds. "Yes, my Queen," she droned, then her face crumpled and she started giggling, accompanied this time by the bard.
Gabrielle tried to catch her breath. "Use some of that iron discipline you're so famous for," she pleaded in a squeaky voice.
"I'm trying, I'm trying," Xena promised through another wave of giggles. Finally she got herself under control. She got up, grabbed one of the washrags and wiped the tears from her face. Then she walked over to the bard and washed her face off, too, and Gabrielle was able to stop giggling, at last.
She threw her arms around Xena. "That was fun. I don't think I've ever seen you laugh so hard."
Xena tossed the rag back into the bowl and wrapped both her long arms around her dearest friend. "It WAS fun. It's been too long since I've laughed like that." She kissed the top of the bard's head. "And I didn't mean to be such a bear today. I think I could 'feel' the threat of that army and I didn't know what it was." She relinquished the embrace and smiled down at the mist-green eyes. "Guess we better go see Ephiny."
"Yeah I guess." Sometimes I wish I could close the door on the rest of the world and just enjoy being with you. But then who would be there for all the people who need help? Gabrielle sighed and led the way out the door.
Ephiny, seeing them approach, waved Queen Gabrielle and Xena into her hut and seated them at the round table. She led Gabrielle to a seat next to hers, leaving the seat between the bard and Eponin for Xena.
A flagon of wine rested on the table and mugs sat at each place. Ephiny picked the wine up and poured some into Gabrielle's mug and then into Xena's, taking care not to look at the warrior while so close to her. Then she, too, sat at the table.
"How long has that army been camped there?" the Warrior Princess asked. She picked up the mug and drained half of the wine.
"Three weeks, " Ephiny answered, finally meeting Xena's eyes. "They moved that close to us, set up camp and have just been sitting there. They have advance scouts who have nudged our perimeter a couple of times, but never crossed it. When they first started moving toward us, five weeks ago, we prepared for an attack that has never come. Now, we're just sitting here, quietly going crazy, waiting to see their next move."
Eponin spoke up, her voice echoing her disgust. "I've been trying to get the
council to send us against them, but they won't do anything."
"Have you estimated the size of the army?" Xena asked the weapons master.
"Looks to me like about three hundred men. With maybe a hundred and fifty horses."
"That's more than enough to mount a battle against you." Xena's voice went quieter as though she were speaking to herself. "But they haven't. I don't like it. Sounds like they are waiting for something in particular, maybe reinforcements."
"Eponin thought so, too," Ephiny said, nodding toward the weapons master.
"Yeah, and if they get reinforcements, we are in big trouble," Eponin asserted. "That's why I wanted to hit them right away." The weapons master, true to Gwynna's description, was obviously agitated that her opinion had been disregarded. "But it looks like we have to wait for the Warrior Princess to OK it."
Solari, disturbed by her friend's rash remarks, hurriedly jumped in and took up the talk. "We've been sending scouts out all around the perimeter and beyond and haven't seen nor heard of any other large body of troops. We can't figure it out."
"Who's in field charge of the scouting parties?" the warrior inquired.
"Your pup," Eponin growled, making a sour face.
Xena slanted her cobalt-blue eyes at the caustic weapons master and raised her brows. "Leese?"
"Yep," Eponin answered. "Seems like being a pupil of yours takes precedence over being experienced."
The focused warrior continued to ignore the weapons master's impetuous remarks. "Send her to me as soon as she gets in." Eponin bristled at Xena's commanding tone, but Solari grabbed her shoulder and frowned, forestalling anything further.
The Warrior Princess drummed her fingers on the table then turned back to Ephiny. "How far out from the village have you mapped?"
"About 50 miles in every direction. The maps are in the council chambers."
"Have them sent over to the Queen's hut." Ephiny, like Eponin, bristled at Xena's tone. She opened her mouth to retort to this order, then clamped it shut when she realized it wasn't really Xena talking; it was the ex-warlord. One who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. Having her on the side of the Amazons had saved them more than once before. That was worth swallowing a little pride for.
"Xena, we'll have to call an assembly of the council of war to legally put you in charge of this battle," Ephiny informed her. "I don't foresee any problem with that; it is just a formality."
Xena nodded. "Do I have to be present?"
"No, but Gabrielle, you should be."
"I'll be there, Ephiny. We should get the council together as soon as possible and get this taken care of." The regent nodded her accord.
The Warrior Princess looked again toward Eponin and Solari. "Meet me at dusk in front of the Queen's hut. We'll go check out this camp, see what we can discover."
"We'll be there," Solari answered. Surprised that Eponin hadn't agreed, she nudged her friend. "You're coming, too, aren't you, Pony?"
"Yeah, I'll be there," Eponin responded curtly. "At least that's SOME kind of action."
Xena downed the rest of her wine, then rose. "Get me those maps right away, Eph. I'll be in the Queen's hut. I have some thinking to do." She walked out the door, then stuck her head back in, almost as an afterthought. "You coming, Gabrielle?"
"Not just yet, Xena. I'll help Ephiny round up the war council so we can get that vote taken care of."
"OK. See you later." Gabrielle walked to the door and watched the ex-warlord swagger across the Village Square. Every available eye turned to watch, also.
Solari had walked to the door with the bard. She grunted a laugh as she saw the reaction Xena was having on the villagers. Ephiny moved to her shoulder and looked out, too.
"That's our Warrior Princess," the regent said. "And we're darned glad to have her."
"Amen," came the answer from two of the three other occupants.
Xena sat at the table in the Queen's hut poring over the maps that Ephiny had sent over to her. "C'mon in, Leese," she called before the girl had a chance to knock.
Tall, dark-haired and wiry, Elisa bore a striking resemblance to the Warrior Princess. Elisa's face was narrower and her cheekbones higher, but the major difference in their looks was in their eyes. Xena's were cobalt blue while Elisa's were smoke gray. A very slight tilt to her eyes gave the young Amazon a slightly exotic appearance.
Xena stood as the girl entered and they gave each other a mighty hug. Stepping back, Elisa grinned. "When I heard that you and Gabrielle had returned, it was like a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders. Thank you for coming back."
Xena smiled fondly at her protégé. "I'm told you have field charge of the scouts. That's quite an honor, Leese. Congratulations."
A faint blush crossed the Amazon's bronzed features. "Thanks, Xena. I'm trying my best to make the right decisions."
Xena nodded. "Take a look at these maps. I want to see just what areas you have
scouted." The two women looked down at the map that lay on top. Elisa pointed out
exactly where the eyes of a scout had looked at the terrain. She did the same on the next
"The only thing out of the ordinary was here." The young Amazon pointed to an area northwest of the Amazon territory, just slightly beyond their borders, and several miles above where the army was currently camped. "The forest here encircles this bluff. Just to the left of the bluff, in a large portion of the forest, the trees have been cleared. By the time we realized this, our scouts checked the area out, but weren't able to determine anything. Other than that, we found nothing."
Xena laid the four maps so that they overlapped on their edges, forming a square. "See this line of mountains?" She pointed to a ridge of peaks that ran from the south directly north from one map to the other, 40 or 50 miles east of the Amazon village. Then the ridge curved in a westerly direction across the plains about 20 miles north of the village, before turning directly north again. Elisa nodded. "Have you looked on the other side of the ridge?"
"Not down here. As I showed you, we checked through the pass north of here and even went several miles above it, but found nothing. I figured anything that came at us from the east would have to come over the ridge and, at 40 to 50 miles away, would still be plenty far enough away for us to prepare for them." Elisa looked inquiringly at the warrior. "Was that a mistake?"
Xena didn't answer that question. Instead, she pointed to the bottommost point of the ridge. "Suppose an army started down here, swung over to the other side of the mountains, and marched north along the outside ridge." Xena ran her finger up the mountain ridge drawing, on the side away from Amazon territory. "It would take them several weeks, but they could continue to follow the mountains where they turn west, and when they reached about this point here," she stabbed at the pass in the mountains that Elisa had indicated, "they could coordinate with the army to the west. The western army attacks us, we throw everything we have at them and along comes this other army through the northern pass. We'd be outflanked and in a heap of trouble."
Elisa's face blanched and her large eyes grew even larger. "I never thought of that, Xena. I'll go check the other side of those mountains, right now." The girl straightened up and started to turn away.
"Which way do you plan to go?" Xena inquired.
Elisa stopped and looked back down at the map. She put her finger on the pass. "This is closest. I'll ride to the pass then follow back down along the ridge until I see something. That way, if there is an army, I'll pinpoint where they are."
"Good. Take Gwynna and a couple others with you." Xena smiled up at the young woman and tilted her head at the door.
The Amazon turned and strode swiftly toward it.
"Leese," Xena called and the girl looked back. "Be careful, they may have lookouts posted. Don't take any chances; right now, we only need to know if an army is there, and its approximate size, if possible. Report to me as soon as you get back, no matter what the time. If I'm not here, wait for me." The young Amazon nodded and left.
A few minutes later, Gabrielle came through the door with a plate of food. "I knew you probably wouldn't stop to eat, so I brought you some supper."
"Yeah " Xena, seated again, was still studying the maps and barely answered.
The bard walked over across from the warrior and plunked the food down in the middle of the maps. "Either you eat or I feed it to you," she threatened.
"Gabrielle!" Xena didn't move her lowered head. Looking up at the bard, she raised a warning eyebrow.
"C'mon, Xena, take a break. It's almost dusk and you'll be out scouting. You need your nourishment." Gabrielle scooped up a spoonful of stew and held it in front of Xena's lips. "Open up," she grinned.
The eyebrow notched a little higher. Gabrielle changed her tactics. "You know I don't want you to get sick again. Eat pleeease," she wheedled, and waggled the spoon below Xena's nose.
The Warrior Princess snorted. I know she'll just keep pestering until I eat something! "Gimme the damn spoon." She grabbed the offending utensil and a big smile graced the bard's face as her friend cleared the whole plate.
Xena got up from the table and stretched her stiffened body. "Eponin and Solari should be here soon. And Leese will be back in a few hours with some information for me. I told her to wait here."
The bard nodded. "While you're gone, we'll hold the vote. Ephiny and I got hold of most of the council and we're meeting in about an hour." She put a hand on Xena's arm and felt the tension that had built up in her muscles. I'm probably lucky she didn't dump that food on me. Gabrielle smiled up at her friend. "Thanks for eating."
Xena patted her hand and smiled back. "You were right, as usual. Gotta stoke the fire to keep it burning." She looked through the doorway into the darkening evening. "Here come Eponin and Solari. I'll see you later."
Xena started to walk away, but Gabrielle kept hold of her arm until she turned her head back and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Be careful," the bard requested, letting go of the bronzed arm.
"I'm always careful." Xena grinned and left.
Riiiggghhhtt. The golden-haired Queen watched as Xena met Eponin and Solari. The two Amazons listened attentively as the warrior spoke, then all three headed for the stables.
The bard sighed. Poteidaia and, especially, Amphipolis were pleasant interludes. Now it's back to work for the Warrior Princess.
She walked out of the hut and headed toward the meeting at the council chamber.
Xena stopped and silently raised her hand. Eponin and Solari moved up next to her. The horses had been left behind while the women crept up to the edge of the army encampment. Full night had fallen and a heavily clouded sky diminished whatever light might have been coaxed from the quarter moon. Multitudinous campfires cast the only glow visible other than an isolated tent, lit from within. Desultory conversations, occasionally punctuated by a loud yell or raucous laughter, lightly reverberated around the area.
After thoroughly surveying the site, Xena reached out to either side and softly touched the two Amazons. A tilt of her head brought them following closely behind her as she moved away, deeper into the surrounding forest.
Xena stopped so abruptly that the two women barely avoided running into her only by skirting her. They recognized the Warrior Princess' alert stance and stood quietly, their eyes and ears seeking the source of the warrior's caution. Xena touched them again and pointed up and the three of them leaped for a low branch and swung into the tree.
They waited two full minutes, then heard several riders coming through the trees. It looked to be a scouting party leaving the camp. Eponin got Xena's attention and made a slicing motion across her throat, her eyebrows raised in question. The Warrior Princess shook her head, then noted the look of disgust that crossed the weapons master's barely discernible dark features.
After the riders had passed, Xena turned to Eponin. "Remember, Pony, this is a get in, get information and get out mission. We don't want to be calling attention to ourselves."
"Yeah, but nobody would have missed them until they were due back," Eponin argued.
"Fighting them would serve no useful purpose," Xena pointed out.
"Humph," a disgruntled Eponin snorted. "You getting wimpy? That sounds like something the bard would say."
Solari gave her friend a warning poke in the ribs, but Xena disregarded the Amazon's bluster, knowing that she loved a fight. "In this case she would be right. Now, let's get to work. I've got to get near that command tent but there are a couple of campfires between it and the forest. The question is, how do we get the men distracted so I can get close enough to see if I can hear anything useful?"
"Pony and I could stampede the horses," Solari offered. "Of course that might get a camp full of people chasing our tails."
"But if you stampede them INTO the camp, they just might be too busy to chase anyone for awhile," Xena suggested.
"And if we weren't anywhere near the horses, it might be even better." Eponin pulled a blunt-nosed fire arrow from the quiver strapped on her back and purposely waved it dangerously close to Xena's nose.
"Great idea, Pony." Xena's long fingers moved the arrow away from her face. "But I'm not interested in eating one."
"No?" snapped Eponin. "I thought you heroes ate fire for breakfast all the time." Solari frowned at her partner and Xena turned full-face toward her.
"What's eating you, Eponin? You got a problem, spill it." The Warrior Princess' voice had gone dangerously low.
Eponin's dark brown eyes swerved away from the intense cobalt-blue ones that were aimed at her. Her lips twisted for a moment, then her eyes came back and her chin jutted out. "The whole damn Amazon Nation sits on their duffs for weeks, not doing a thing about this army, even though I've been urging some kind of action the whole time. No, they delay till the super-tough, ex-warlord Warrior Princess shows up, then everyone acts like you're the savior they've been waiting for. If they'd done something when I wanted to, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"This is a pretty big army. The council hoped it would pass us by," Solari tried to calm her friend. "We didn't want to fight if we didn't have to."
"That's bull crap! When has any army come this close to us and then passed us by?" Eponin protested vehemently. "They're sitting here waiting for some reason, and I think we shoulda hit them before that reason happens."
Xena took into consideration that the weapons master's frustration was fueling her belligerence, but any assault on her own authority riled her. Her palms itched and she flexed her fingers, as she willed herself to inaction. Her voice came out flat and deadly. "Even if you hit this army with your full force, you would have trouble beating them. There might be a lot of casualties and your forces could be heavily weakened. Right?"
"Right," Eponin answered curtly, wondering what point Xena was making.
"Then what would you do when the second army hit you?" the warrior taunted, battering the words at Eponin like a sledgehammer.
Eponin jerked her head back then countered derisively, "What second army? Our
scouts haven't found anything anywhere near us." She glanced at Solari, who shrugged
and shook her head in agreement.
"I believe there's a second army coming up on the other side of the eastern range of mountains," Xena informed her in a cold voice. "I think that's what this group is waiting for."
The weapons master snorted. "That's forty or fifty miles " She stopped and her face lost its color as she saw, finally, what Xena was driving at. "The pass the pass is only a four or five hour march for an army." Eponin's belligerence left her like pulling the cork from an upturned flask. "By the gods, Xena, they'd annihilate us. How do you know ?"
Xena willed the tension to drain from her. Only partially successful, she fought to clear her expression but it came out half sneer and her voice was hoarse. "I don't know for sure. Leese is checking on it, now. Just call it the super-tough, ex-warlord's intuition."
Even in the faint light, Xena could make out the flush on the face of the weapons master. "By holy Artemis, Xena, that was just my stupid pride talking. I've been so damn frustrated I train our women hard every day for battle and then when an army comes, everyone backs off. I know you had nothing to do with that, but it's tough to take when you show up and suddenly everyone turns to you for advice."
Red-faced, Eponin muttered. "Now it looks as though I was wrong, and they were right. Besides, I should know better than to take my gripes out on you; you're my friend." There was a pause, then Eponin asked, with some hesitation, "You're still my friend aren't you?"
The Warrior Princess' face was somber and her voice dry as she mimicked Eponin's tone. "You're still alive aren't you?"
Nah, she wouldn't She heard Solari release a held breath and a glance at her friend showed traces of trepidation on her face. or would she?
"But, Eponin " Xena's face hardened and her eyes glittered in the near-dark. "Don't push your luck." Her voice was low but now there was no doubt in Eponin's mind that the veiled threat was very real. The weapons master shivered as if a cold wind had blown past her.
Eponin cleared her throat and closed her eyes for a split second. I know you're tough, Xena, and you are the best one to lead us. But that doesn't keep me from resenting your influence on my Amazons.
"Now, let's get this job done." Xena's no-nonsense voice called them back to the work at hand. "Solari, when I give you the signal, you slip down to where the horses are and cut the rope that's penning them in. Eponin, you cover her. As soon as she gets back to you, the two of you shoot the fire arrows in behind the horses to force them into the camp. By that time, I should be in place near the tent and can get close to it in the confusion. Once your part is finished, take off back home. Just leave Argo's reins hung over the saddle for me in case I have to leave in a hurry. You ready?"
"I don't like it, Xena," Eponin barely muttered. Solari rolled her eyes in disbelief.
"What?" Xena's impatience showed. "You want to go to the tent?"
"No, you're the best choice for that." Eponin fidgeted a moment with one of the feathers on her tunic. "I don't like leaving you here."
A reluctant regard for the gruff weapons master's bravery succeeded in cooling some of Xena's antagonism toward her. Damn, she's actually worried about me. Mad, but worried. "I'll be OK. I want you two out of here. If they suspect outside interference, it's harder to find one person than three."
Eponin looked into Xena's calmer face. OK, I'd like to kick her butt, but I think
she's our savior, too. She took a deep breath. "All right."
"You ready now?" Both women nodded. "Let's go."
The stampede worked perfectly. Almost too perfectly. The only thing that saved the command tent from going down was a bunch of pikes that someone had stuck into the ground in a circle with their poles entwined. In the dim light, the horses could see the structure and veered around it, bypassing the less solid tent.
In the ensuing melee, Xena crept to the back of the tent and sliced along one seam with her dagger, just enough to see into the tent. The furnishings were sparse, as befitted a field headquarters. Against one wall stood a narrow cot with a small trunk at its base. A hole dug in one corner apparently served as a crude latrine. A table and four chairs shared the rest of the space with a central pole that held clothing on a peg. A large oil lamp on the table threw light in the center of the tent, leaving the edges in shadow. The tent's occupant, a warlord Xena did not recognize, ran outside after the horses had passed, shouting orders to his men.
Taking advantage of his absence, Xena deftly loosened the seam enough to allow her to squirm under the cloth wall and enter the tent. Tuning her ears to the warlord's exact position, she hurried to the table, which held a large map.
A quick examination of the map showed, as she had suspected, the route of a second army traveling outside the mountain range to the east. A date was written below the pass, surely the date the army was expected to arrive in that position. The map also showed the route of attack planned against the Amazon territory.
Perfect! Shows the whole plan. Though that's kind of a strange formation. She mused on the situation for a moment. The army to the west is going to attack from the southwest and the army from the northern pass is supposed to swing and attack from the northeast. Alarm bells went off in the warrior's mind. SOMETHING is attacking from the northwest. But the map didn't show what.
A movement outside the tent alerted Xena to the warlord's imminent return and she threw herself across the tent onto the ground, and squirmed back out. Quickly, she pulled the loosened threads tight and peered through the original small slit. The warlord came in by himself and flopped down on the bed. Since there was no conversation to eavesdrop on, the Warrior Princess silently crept back to the forest.
She ran toward where Argo was waiting, flipped onto her back and rode away. Her mind was working hard throughout the ride, trying to figure what might be in store for the battle ahead. We're going to need help, that's for sure.
What Gabrielle and Ephiny thought was going to be an open and shut council meeting had proven to be a headache instead. When the regent proposed that Xena be put in charge of the Amazons in light of the impending battle, a few of the women were vociferously reluctant.
Peraka, surprisingly for an Amazon, always seemed loath to fight. Her voice rose almost immediately. "I know we already voted to fight if necessary, but we don't even know if this warlord is going to attack us. If he hears that Xena is in charge, he may come just for the challenge. I would feel better if she weren't even here." Black-haired and olive-skinned, Peraka was of medium height and sturdily built. Right now, her bottom lip stood out in an unattractive pout.
A rumble of agreement met this outburst. Ephiny stood up, her eyes blazing. "Seems to me, I heard almost those same words from you awhile back, Peraka, just before we fought Mictinos. If Xena hadn't been around then, we might not be here today." She swept the dissenters with her eyes. "Are your memories so short?"
Another Amazon spoke up. "That was then, Ephiny, this is now. I don't have anything against Xena. I know she helped us in the past. But I think Peraka has a point. Why should we put the Warrior Princess in charge at this time? Why don't we wait and see what this warlord is going to do? We have scouts watching him. If the army makes a move to come toward us, then we can address the issue. Until then, I say let's keep things as they are."
Ephiny shook her head in disbelief. "You people seem to think that Xena will just stand on the sidelines waiting for us to make up our minds. Well, I've got news for you; that's not her style. If we don't ask for her help now, she may not be here when we need it."
Open argument broke out among the ten women present. Then Gabrielle stood up and rapped the table with her staff and the arguing ceased. The bard stood tall, her face stern with intensity. "Xena is scouting the army right now, together with Eponin and Solari, and Leese is scouting another area that Xena pointed out to her. I propose we meet here after breakfast tomorrow, when we may have further news that will give us a clearer picture of where we stand. This meeting is adjourned."
The women started chattering as they rose and left, still arguing the point among themselves. Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and shrugged in frustration. "I guess some of them have to be seeing the army coming down the trail before they will believe that we are in danger."
"Humph," Ephiny replied. "Seems that way doesn't it. Surprised the Tartarus out of me. I was so happy to see you and Xena, I figured everyone else would be, too. I can't believe they think having the Warrior Princess on our side is a handicap."
"I'm anxious to hear what Xena has found out. Why don't you come on over to my hut and wait with me?"
"Be glad to." Ephiny grinned at Gabrielle and accompanied her to her home. On the way, she stopped one of the Amazons and asked her to fetch some ale and mugs for the Queen's hut.
"And some fruit and cheese if you can find some," Gabrielle called after her.
The two women entered the hut and headed toward seats at the table. Gabrielle had flint and a striking stone on the table next to the oil lamp and she quickly had the lamp glowing.
Ephiny looked around as she sat down. She smiled as her eye caught the pallet standing against the wall opposite the larger one meant for the queen. "I remember the day you ordered that pallet moved in here. You were trying so hard to be friendly and Xena was mad as Tartarus at me for acting like she was an intruder. Then you touched her arm and calmed her down and said, 'Put an extra cot in the Queen's hut. Xena goes where I go.' And she's been a big part of the picture here ever since."
"Yeah, she has, hasn't she?" Gabrielle grinned and nodded. Both women sat up straighter as they heard a signaling birdcall.
"It's Eponin and Solari," Ephiny said. "Those are their signs being whistled in."
"Xena's not with them?"
"Apparently not." Ephiny saw Gabrielle's features tighten. "She's probably right behind them, Gabrielle. C'mon, let's go out on the porch and watch for them."
A short while later, Eponin and Solari rode into the middle of the Village Square, lit by a central bonfire. They swerved toward the Queen's hut, jumped from their horses and ran up the steps onto the porch.
"Where's Xena?" Gabrielle and Ephiny asked together. "Coming soon behind us," Eponin answered. "She sent us on ahead. We started a stampede of the army's horses to cause a distraction, and she wanted to make sure we weren't caught."
"A distraction for what?" The bard thought she could probably guess.
"She wanted to get close to the command tent. See if she could find out anything about their plans." Solari didn't feel comfortable when the Queen looked so uneasy.
"How many men do you think there are now?" Ephiny inquired. She wondered if they had been reinforced.
Eponin looked at the regent. "Still about 300."
"Three hundred men there and you went off and left her?" Gabrielle was more than uneasy, she was getting downright disturbed.
"Gabrielle, she told us to leave. Neither one of us is crazy enough to disregard a direct order from the Warrior Princess." Eponin retorted, then looked at her partner who was nodding agreement. Especially when I wasn't exactly in her good graces as it was.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to retort, when another distinctive birdcall sounded through the trees. All three Amazons relaxed in relief. Ephiny smiled and put her hand on the young Queen's shoulder. "It's Xena. And she's fine."
A few minutes later, Gabrielle thrilled with the sight of her friend steering Argo past the bonfire and up to the steps. Not satisfied to dismount in the usual way, Xena threw herself in the air, flipped over, twisted and landed on the porch alongside the bard.
"Hi," she said nonchalantly. She was soaking wet but she put her arm over the bard's shoulders and pulled her close for a quick hug. She could feel the remnants of tension in the golden-haired woman's body. "Miss me?" her low voice teased.
"Were you gone somewhere?" Gabrielle asked coolly, but her arm went around Xena's waist and squeezed. They both chuckled, and the Amazons smiled, too. "C'mon inside, I'll pour you some ale. And get you a towel," she grinned.
"I was filthy after crawling all over that camp. Took a side trip to the river coming in." Xena shook her head and the others ducked as she sprayed them with droplets of water.
Everyone went back into the hut and settled themselves. Gabrielle and the Amazons sat at the table with their chairs turned to face Xena. She removed her armor, bracers and boots, and toweled herself down quickly. Pushing her wet hair back from her face, she sat crosswise on her cot, with her feet against the table's crossbar.
The flickering light from the oil lamp softly stroked her face, casting shadows in the hollows of her cheeks and chin, emphasizing both her fascinating eyes and her full lips. She made such a striking picture that for a moment there was silence while everyone admired her beauty.
The bard cleared her throat and raised her eyebrows. "So, what did you find out?" she prompted the warrior. She doesn't know how beautiful she is. Or how it clutches my heart.
"I got into the tent and was able to see the map of their battle plans." Everyone's attention swerved to business at this news.
Xena looked directly at Eponin. "Another army is coming up on the other side of the mountains, just as I suspected." The weapons master swerved her eyes away and frowned as a flush moved up into her cheeks. Damn. Is she always right?
Except for Solari, the others didn't know what this byplay signified, but were too
anxious to hear the rest of Xena's report to question it.
They will come to or through the northern pass in two weeks. When Leese gets back, maybe she can give us some numbers and more information. It also looks like they have something else planned, but I don't have any details on that yet."
"We're going to need some help." Ephiny's somber brown eyes reflected her concern for the Amazon Nation.
"We can address that at the meeting tomorrow," Gabrielle responded. "Xena, the council couldn't reach agreement on whether to name you as leader of our troops or not. They won't face the fact that we are on the brink of war. I called them to another meeting after breakfast tomorrow. Leese should be back by then and you can fill them and us in on anything further."
"Sounds good to me. Now, if you all will excuse us, I am ready to hit the sack. Tomorrow is going to be a long day." The other women rose, said their goodbyes and left.
Gabrielle crawled up onto the pallet next to Xena, put her arm around the warrior's waist and laid her head on the bronzed shoulder, with her bent knees allowing her feet to stay on the cot.
Xena automatically slipped her long arm behind the bard's head and across her shoulders, resting her hand lightly on Gabrielle's upper arm. "So you did miss me, huh?"
"Ummmm. I always miss you. You know that."
"Yeah, but it's always nice to hear that someone cares."
"Well, then, I care. How about Eponin? Does she LIKE you, too?" the bard grinned.
Xena snorted. "No, she didn't like me at all for awhile there, today. Not that I think that's changed."
"She was a little bent out of shape that no one seemed to be listening to her, but they were willing to listen to me."
"Looks like you got her straightened out."
"Not exactly, but at least I didn't have to hurt her."
Gabrielle jerked her head up and stared at Xena's profile. The warrior had closed her eyes and was falling asleep. The bard grabbed her arm and shook it and Xena's eyelids opened halfway. She turned her head slightly toward her friend and slanted softly smiling eyes at her. "What?" she inquired gently.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to berate Xena, then paused. "Nothing. Go back to sleep." How can anyone who looks like that be callous enough to hurt a friend for disagreeing with her? I forget sometimes that you are two very different people, Xena. The sweet, caring, gentle woman that I know and the hard-as-nails ex-warlord that the rest of the world sees.
The bard got off the pallet, eased her sleeping friend's torso down onto it, swung her legs up and covered her with a blanket that was lying across the bottom of the cot. She pulled the blanket up around the warrior's shoulders, then leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Goodnight, Xena." She was rewarded with a sleepy smile. Xena tonight, Warrior Princess tomorrow. No wonder you confuse me, sometimes.
Gabrielle washed, changed into a shift and climbed into bed.
Three hours later, four horses cantered into the village. The lead palomino turned toward the Queen's hut and came to a halt at the bottom of the porch steps. Elisa slipped off and ran up the steps, almost bumping into Xena who stood at the top. "Hi," the young woman grinned wearily.
"You found them?"
"Yeah. They still have more than a week's travel before they get to the pass, but there are about 200 of them. Most are on foot, about 20 on horseback."
"Good job, Leese. There's a council meeting right after breakfast and I needed that information for the meeting. I'll get a full report from you later. Go get some sleep; I'll take Viktor to the stable for you." The Warrior Princess clapped Elisa on the shoulder and sent her off. The young Amazon slipped into the trees behind the Queen's hut. Guess Gwynna hasn't been able to get her to sleep in a hut, yet. The grinning warrior flipped off the porch onto Viktor's back and took him to the stable.
Breakfast was finished and it was time for the council meeting. Gabrielle put her arm through Xena's to walk with her to the council chambers. She could feel the surge of energy coursing through her friend's muscles as a result of her usual predawn drills.
When they visited Amazon territory, Elisa joined the warrior for the drills and they sparred afterward, giving both of them a real workout. Though the young Amazon didn't have Xena's strength, she had superb timing and agility and her constant improvement was developing her into a fitting adversary. This morning's outing had afforded time for Xena to get Elisa's full report on her scouting trip.
The bard and the warrior walked into the council hut, then parted ways. Gabrielle took the Queen's chair at the head of the table next to Ephiny. Xena leaned against the opposite wall, one foot propped against it, waiting for all the council members to arrive and be seated.
Finally, everyone was there and Gabrielle called the meeting to order. "Before we do anything else, Xena has a report to give you. It's going to put a whole new complexion on the situation." She nodded to Xena who stepped up to the table.
"You are all aware of the army camped west of here. Perhaps you've wondered why it is just sitting there, waiting. Last night, we found out the answer. I saw a map of their plans, and Leese, Gwynna and a couple other Amazons tracked it down and verified it."
She looked from face to face, her cobalt-blue eyes boring into theirs. "The army is waiting to be joined by another army that is moving up on the other side of the eastern range of mountains." An audible gasp sounded through the room, then everyone tried to speak at once. Xena raised her hand and they quieted.
"That army is planning to move north, swing west as the mountains do, then come through the pass that is 20 miles north of here and attack. I suspect they plan to coordinate their attack with the army west of here, so that you are fully engaged with the western army when the northern one hits your flank."
The Warrior Princess paused, to emphasize her next point. "The map did show one curious thing. The western army is planning to swing down and hit you from the southwest and the northern army will swing east and hit you from the northeast. Something else is planned to attack you from the northwest, but we haven't clarified that yet.
"The army to the west is 300 strong and the one moving up is 200 strong. That's 500 swords to be turned away. And they are planning on being here three weeks from today." Now the council members sat in shocked silence, visualizing the devastation that threatened them.
An Amazon stood up slowly, her forehead wrinkled in thought. She addressed the regent. "Ephiny, why don't we follow what Eponin has wanted to do all along and attack the army to the west? We could hit them before the other army gets here."
Eponin's consternation was evident as her gravely voice cut in. "Because we waited too damn long, that's why. That army is so entrenched they would cut us to ribbons if we tried anything now."
"What do you think we should do?"
"We're gonna need help, if we can find some." Eponin took a deep breath.
Another voice came from the group. "Maybe the surrounding villages would help us. We helped them, before. Besides, if we fall, they will, too."
Eponin blew her breath out and shook her head. "Those people aren't soldiers. Sure, they fought for their homes. But they were fighting for their own lives and in their own territory, and we were able to control some of the conditions. If we brought them out here, against a well-organized army, they would be more hindrance than help. It would be a slaughter. I can't see even asking them."
Xena had stepped back from the table and was standing at ease, just listening to the conversation.
"How about one of our sister Amazon tribes?" another voice suggested.
Ephiny answered this inquirer. "Most are too far away to get there and back in time."
Gabrielle spoke up. "The northern tribe, led by Fidalia, is the only one close enough. We intend to seek their aid."
Ephiny raised her voice. "Look, I could lead our forces in battle. The gods know I've done it before. But this is not your usual ordinary battle against an arrogant warlord who makes dumb mistakes. Someone has united two armies and has set up a strategy that is more sophisticated than what any of us are used to." As she swept the group with her eyes, she could see Xena standing back, apparently aloof.
"The best way to beat a general is to think like that general. Here we have Xena, the Warrior Princess, the woman who conquered half of Greece. She took a look at our scouting maps and figured out right away what was going on. Personally, I would welcome someone of her expertise leading our forces "
A voice from the group interrupted. "Then, what are we going to do, Xena?"
"We?" The Warrior Princess elevated a dark eyebrow over a frozen face. "I was told you didn't want me here."
Peraka stood up. Sad-faced and frowning, she obviously was deeply disturbed by the definite prospect of war. "I was the one who made that remark, Xena. I didn't mean we didn't want you. I thought there was a possibility that we wouldn't have to go to war, and I was afraid that putting you in charge of our forces would send a message that we WANTED to fight. I was wrong, and I apologize. I would like to be the one to nominate you for the leadership of our forces, if you would agree to that."
Xena hesitated, then nodded one time.
"Do we need to hold a secret ballot for this?" Gabrielle asked the group. "Or shall we just have a hand vote?" The question was barely out of her mouth when every hand in the room went up. Gabrielle smiled and said, for the record, "All in favor, raise their hand. I pronounce Xena, Warrior Princess, the general of the Amazon forces."
"All right, Xena, I'll ask the question this time." Ephiny gazed down the length of the table toward the woman they were all looking to for salvation. "What are we going to do?"
The warrior, standing at ease and slope shouldered through the preliminary explanations, now stood tall, squared her shoulders and took on her Warrior Princess persona. "As Eponin said, you can't go out and fight this army, it's too big and too entrenched. Your best bet is to wait here for them. You're going to need whatever weapons and fortifications you already have in the Amazon territory and anymore you have time to build.
"In the past, Eponin has shown me her plans for fortifying and defending this village. She has a unique grasp of the territory and how to make use of its advantages and disadvantages. So, the first thing I am going to do is put Eponin in charge of not only the fortifications but also the bulk of your Amazon forces." The weapons master almost fell out of her chair and Ephiny raised both eyebrows. Then the regent cast her eyes to the table to hide her disappointment.
"Secondly, Gabrielle and I are going north to enlist the help of Fidalia's tribe. They are strong and fierce fighters and I believe they will come if we ask them to. With their assistance, we will engage the army that is coming along the mountains and should be able to at least slow it down enough to disrupt their plans."
The Warrior Princess stepped up to Ephiny, grasped her shoulder and turned her toward herself. Ephiny raised her eyes and looked into Xena's and, for once, didn't flinch. "Ephiny, I want you to pick 30 Amazons to act as a special force, roving between the two Amazon groups. Keep their skills honed because I want you to be ready, at a moment's notice, to go wherever I need you."
Cobalt-blue eyes threatened to twinkle as they saw the gleam return to the regent's warm brown eyes. Ephiny's chin went up as her spirits lifted. She raised her hand and wrapped it around the forepart of the arm that Xena grasped her shoulder with. A mocking glint flitted across her eyes as she answered, "You know I'll go anywhere you need me. All you gotta do is say so."
"I know I can count on that, Eph." Xena grinned and squeezed her shoulder then let go of her.
She turned toward the council members. "I want to get on the trail as soon as possible. Gabrielle and I should be leaving within the hour. We'll advise you of our progress with Fidalia's Amazons as soon as we have any news. Any questions?"
An Amazon stood. "You're telling us we should just continue to sit here and wait?"
"Yeah, you should wait. But you won't be just sitting here. Eponin has some great ideas on defensive fortifications and you will be building them. The longer the army sits there, doing nothing, the more opportunity you have to strengthen this area. By the time they decide to move, we hope to be back with the other Amazons."
"What if the other Amazons can't come?" another council member asked.
Xena looked from the questioner to the regent. "Then Ephiny's force is going to have one very tough battle on its hands." The warrior's intense blue eyes swept the sobered faces at the table. "Anyone else?"
No one else spoke, so Queen Gabrielle wrapped the meeting up. "Be guided by what Eponin tells you in relation to the war. Everything else, as regent, Ephiny will still be in charge of. Meeting adjourned."
The buzzing group filed out, leaving the queen, the regent, Eponin and Xena.
The Warrior Princess turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, I'd like to ask Leese and Gwynna "
"Uh-uh." Ephiny interrupted. "You said I get to pick the 30 I want and those two are my first choices."
Frowning, and looking a little exasperated, Xena swung her gaze to the regent. "I want those two with me."
Ephiny was mad at herself that she was getting somewhat emotionally rattled, but she stood her ground. "Xena, thanks to you they have become two of the best fighters in the village. You've been teaching Leese and she's been teaching Gwynna. I'm gonna need them worse than you do."
But I need them to protect the bard! screamed inside the warrior's head. With reluctance, she admitted to herself that Ephiny had the better argument, at least from a strategic point of view. "OK, you're right. I'll leave them with you."
"Xena." Eponin had joined them. The Warrior Princess, her mood deteriorating, swung to the weapons master.
"What?" she growled.
Eponin's jaw tightened. Her irritation with the way everyone kowtowed to Xena just wouldn't leave her. Xena's commanding attitude didn't help matters any, either. "I just wanted to say I'm glad to be in charge of our forces," she growled back.
The Warrior Princess shrugged as if it was of no consequence, further stepping on Eponin's bruised ego. "You were the best person available for the job."
Available? Without Solari's calming presence, Eponin's temper flared. "You don't give a damn inch, do you?" she snorted. "I know I'm no blood-covered ex-warlord, but I'm no amateur, either. I'll do as good a job as anyone else could, and you know it!"
Xena's lips twisted and her angry eyes turned silver-blue. Gabrielle saw, and as Xena stepped toward Eponin, the bard grabbed a staff from against the wall and hurriedly swung it against Xena's chest to stop her progress. She hit the warrior harder than intended, since her purpose had been just to block her way toward Eponin.
Reflexively, Xena grabbed the staff and pushed back, throwing a surprised Gabrielle off balance. The bard staggered back and sat down on the floor. The Warrior Princess, now armed, took another step toward Eponin, who was too stubborn to retreat. Ephiny, her face white, jumped in front of the weapons master.
"Xena!" she shouted and put her bare hands up as if to ward off a blow. "Stop!"
The warrior hesitated a split-second and Gabrielle, who had clambered up quickly in spite of her heart thudding in her chest, grabbed her friend's arm. "Xena, calm down. It's all right. Calm down. Please, calm down." The bard's soothing voice and touch finally got through to the formidable woman and the haze of anger began to lift.
The golden-haired queen lifted the staff from Xena's grasp and handed it to Ephiny. The regent looked like a statue, frozen into a defensive position. Behind her, Eponin was still seething. Ephiny relaxed a bit, accepted the staff and returned it to its former resting place against the wall.
Gabrielle looked from the warrior to Eponin. "We're all on the same side, you know."
"Yeah," agreed Ephiny, supporting Gabrielle, albeit with a shaky voice. She looked pointedly at the weapons master. "Remember, Xena's here because we've asked her to be here. C'mon, let's put some of that energy to work beefing up our defenses." She took hold of Eponin's arm and, after a slight tug-of-war, led the still angry Amazon away.
Gabrielle turned around to Xena, whose whole demeanor shouted ferocity. The bard's words reproached her friend. "You could have taken it easy on her, you know. She's right, you don't give an inch."
"I wouldn't be who I am, if I let subordinates insult me," Xena's cold voice came out of a darkened visage.
Subordinates? Gabrielle looked into the warrior's fierce blue eyes and felt a chill. She moved closer to this stranger and put a hand on her arm. "And who are you, Xena?" she asked gently. The formidable Warrior Princess looked down at the bard, her face showing angry arrogance.
"I'm who you all want me to be," she retorted.
The truth of her words cut into Gabrielle's heart. Her eyes blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm sorry that all of us need to lean on you. We want Xena the Warrior Princess, but sometimes forget that the Destroyer of Nations is part of you, too. We ask you to call on your dark side to solve our problems and then we hate your reactions to it."
She stepped closer and put her free hand against the bronzed cheek. "But it is just the reactions we hate, Xena," she whispered. "Not you. Never you."
The warrior's chest heaved and her lips twisted as she struggled against the darkness in her soul. Finally, the bard saw her eyes slowly start to change.
A shiver shook the Warrior Princess' long body and her expression lightened. She put her own hand over the bard's that rested on her cheek. Turning her head, she kissed the bard's palm, then pressed the palm back against her cheek. "I'm sorry, too," she said hoarsely.
Gabrielle smiled, though her mist-green eyes still held concern for her friend. "Welcome back."
Xena moved Gabrielle's hand away, slowly uncurled her long fingers and let go. She turned so her eyes were averted from the golden-haired woman's. "There's a very fine line there, you know. Between the warrior and the destroyer."
Gabrielle put her hand against Xena's back, not wanting to lose contact with her in such a potentially dangerous situation. "I'm more aware of that now. I don't remember ever seeing you cross that line outside of battle."
"Eponin got under my skin a lot." Xena paused and took a deep breath. "I show up here, the Amazons are about to be attacked, and right away everyone expects me to save them. They expect me to have all the damn answers. Do you have any idea what that's like?" She turned enough to slant her steel-blue eyes back towards the bard. "Do you?"
Gabrielle slowly shook her head. We all look to you to have all the answers. I'm just as guilty as everyone else. We give no thought to what a burden it is for you.
"Then, to top it all off, Eponin sits around here for weeks, getting angry and surly and frustrated because no one will do as she says, then turns all that onto me when I offer to help her tribe." The warrior shook her dark head. "Talk about ungrateful! I tell you, Gabrielle, if you weren't the queen here, I'd walk away and let them all rot." Xena's anger was still there, but the arrogant sneer was gone.
Gabrielle's hand started patting her friend's back. "I know you don't really mean that. What about Leese and Gwynna? And Ephiny and Solari? And Claris? And all the rest of the Amazons who like and respect you?"
Time to give humor a try. "I hear that some of them even love you." Gabrielle's cheeks dimpled as Xena crooked another look back at her. This time her eyes held for a long moment on the bard's expressive face.
Slowly but surely, the Warrior Princess' lopsided grin appeared as Gabrielle's sunny disposition worked its magic on her. "Whoever told you that?"
The bard turned Xena toward her and threw her arms around her neck. "A dear friend."
Xena's long arms pulled Gabrielle into a tighter embrace. She kissed the top of the golden head and leaned her cheek against it. "And you're an even dearer friend. No matter how miserable I act, you're always there for me."
Elisa stuck her head through the door of the council chamber. A big grin settled on her face and she loudly cleared her throat. Xena and Gabrielle looked toward her. "Just thought I'd let you know that Argo is all packed and saddled. So, when you two are finished, uh taking counsel with each other she's ready for your journey."
The two friends laughed and stepped apart. "Thanks, Leese. We'll be leaving as soon as we pick up a few things from the Queen's hut." Xena smiled at her protégé. "Sure wish you were going with us, but Ephiny insists that she needs you more than we do."
Elisa's face showed her disappointment. "Yeah, she just told me. I'm sorry, too, that I'm not going with you, but Ephiny convinced me that I will be more valuable to the Amazons here. Guess you taught me too well."
Xena walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "This is gonna be one tough battle, Leese. You and Gwynna be careful, you hear?"
"We will, Xena. And you take care of the queen, OK?" Leese smiled toward Gabrielle. "I have to say goodbye, now. It's time for me to be on scout duty again."
Xena pulled the girl to her and hugged her, then Gabrielle hugged her, too. They walked outside the council hut and, waving, parted company.
Gabrielle and her warrior headed toward the Queen's hut to prepare for the next phase of their journey.
Taking a trail that led to the northeast, Xena and Gabrielle left the Amazon territory. Xena wanted to get a closer look at the cleared area, near a bluff, that Elisa had told her about. They soon came within sight of the bluff and took a side trail that angled toward it.
Xena suddenly sat up straighter in the saddle and stopped Argo. "Single rider flying toward us." The dark-haired woman moved Argo to the side of the trail, just within the trees.
Soon Gabrielle heard the pounding hooves, also. Both women watched as a lathered horse
came into view, a large, dark-haired man astride it. "Stevanos!" Xena steered
Argo out of the trees and hailed him. He pulled his mount to a halt.
"Xena!" The metalworker's usually friendly face was taut with tension. "My little niece has fallen into a deep hole in the ground and we can't reach her. We'll have to dig her out. I'm going to get help."
The Warrior Princess absorbed this information in a flash. "Digging could be dangerous, Stevanos. You might collapse the earth above her and smother her. Take me there. Let me see what I can do." Stevanos quickly turned his horse around and headed it back up the trail with Argo following.
Riding steadily upward, Stevanos reached the top of the bluff that Xena and Gabrielle had been heading toward. They rode out of the forest into open fields dotted with trees. A patch of cleared farmland with a house, a barn and a corral came into view. At some distance from the house, beneath the overspread branches of a tree, a woman knelt on the ground. Stevanos headed straight for her.
When the riders reached the woman, they quickly dismounted and Xena ran to the hole next to her and stretched out onto the ground. She reached her arm in as far as she could, testing the size and consistency of the hole's sides.
"Xena, this is my sister, Zermada. Zermada, this is Xena the Warrior Princess I've told you about." The dark-haired sister looked at Xena with tear-reddened eyes. "My little girl is down there. Can you help her!"
Xena could hear a child's whimpering voice. She jumped up, dusted off her hands, and, reaching down, squeezed Zermada's shoulder. "We'll get her out of there. What's your daughter's name?"
"Bettia," the sister answered, hope beginning to creep into her eyes. "She's only five years old."
Taking a rope from one of Argo's saddlebags, Gabrielle tied it to the rope usually carried against the saddle. Xena removed her weapons and armor and laid them on the ground. "The top three feet of the opening is dirt, but then it becomes stone. That makes it safer for Bettia, but stone has no give. It's going to be a pretty tight fit to crawl down, but digging would never work."
"Maybe I should try, Xena." Gabrielle looked at her partner with concern. "I'm smaller than you are."
The warrior nodded. "Well, you are, but I think I can make it. Besides, it's going to take a lot of strength to pull a body down through there." She turned to Zermada. "Do you have some kind of lard or grease that I could use? That might help some. And some more rope."
Zermada nodded and got up. Stevanos ran to his horse. "I'll take you," he offered. Mounting, he reached down, pulled his sister up behind him and hurried to the house. Soon they returned with a coil of rope and a pail of lard.
Xena removed her leathers, reached to the bottom edge of her cotton shift undergarment and pulled it up above her thong underpants, tying it around her waist. Startled, Stevanos averted his eyes, but the focused warrior didn't even notice that her standing there in the barest of clothing disturbed anyone. She reached into the pail of lard and spread globs of it on her hips, thighs and shoulders.
"Gabrielle, tie the rope around my waist." The bard had already tied the third rope to the others and secured one end to the trunk of the tree. She tied the other end tightly to the Warrior Princess.
"Zermada, tell Bettia I am trying to come down and get her. Don't want her to be afraid of me." While the mother shouted that information to her child, Xena cleaned her hands off on the grass. Then she knelt down next to the hole and went in headfirst. Gabrielle and Stevanos payed out the rope as she descended.
Damn, this is tight. And made of sharp rock, not smooth. For about twelve feet, Xena made good progress, pushing against the sides with her boots and pulling with her hands. Nevertheless, the sharp rock cut into her skin and she could feel tiny rivulets of blood oozing from her hips and shoulders and trickling down over the rest of her body. The moisture dripping from her face and arms was half sweat and half blood. Good thing it's too dark for this kid to see me, I'd probably scare her to death.
Xena called to Bettia every few minutes to let her know she would soon be saved. Then, reaching ahead, Xena felt a slight narrowing of the sides and the texture became rougher. Well, m'girl, this is where they separate the wimps from the warriors.
Noticing Xena had halted, Gabrielle yelled down to her. "Are you there? Have you reached her?"
The returning voice was muffled but strong. "Not yet, The hole is narrowing. Gonna take a little longer than I thought."
"Xena!" Gabrielle was worried. "What if you get stuck?"
There was a moment's hesitation, then Gabrielle could hear the exasperation in Xena's shout. "Then, you'll just have to get Argo to pull me out!"
The bard's eyes twinkled at Stevanos and Zermada. "If she's getting mad at me, I guess she's OK."
OK was not an apt description. Xena shoved her arms against the rough stone and pushed as hard as she could with her powerful legs. Using every ounce of strength that was available to her, she strained her muscles over and over again until she had inched painfully through the narrowed section.
Tiny rivulets of blood had turned to thin, steady streams and the Warrior Princess had to blink her eyes repeatedly to clear them of the sanguine fluid. 'Bettia!" she called. "Are you getting wet?"
"Yeah," came the answering voice which sounded much closer.
"Don't worry about it, OK? It won't hurt you. I'll be there in just a minute." Xena shoved hard one more time and her hands felt the end of the vertical tunnel. "Gabrielle! Give me about four feet of slack, then hold tight."
The warrior pulled, then pushed, on the lip of the exit until she had dragged her body clear. Swinging around to right herself, she hollered once more. "Let me down slowly." Her change of position reversed the streams of blood and Xena swiped a wet hand at her eyes to clear them. She could hear the youngster breathing about six feet below her.
"I'm almost there, Bettia."
Xena swerved her feet away from the girl's body and settled right next to her. The ground seemed to be cushioned with a heavy matting of some kind. Feels like woven material. "Here I am, Bettia, I'm going to touch you." Wiping her blood-covered hands on the matting below her, Xena reached out and felt Bettia's shoulder. The scared youngster practically threw herself into Xena's arms. Xena knelt down and pulled her close. "You're OK, now. I've got you," she soothed, caressing the girl's hair. "We'll have you out of here soon."
With both hands she checked the clinging youngster for any broken bones, but other than being wet with Xena's blood, the girl seemed to be without injury. "She's all right!" Xena hollered toward the opening. "I'm going to make a harness for her."
Untying the rope from her waist, the Warrior Princess fashioned a harness around the youngster. "Bettia, this rope will take you up to see your mother. You can hold on to it if you want, but it will pull you up by itself, OK?" Xena yelled once more. "OK, pull her up! Tell her mother not to be afraid, that's not Bettia's blood on her."
This last sentence jolted Gabrielle. It hadn't occurred to her that Xena might be injured. "Xena, are you all right?"
"Yeah, just some scrapes. Nothing to worry about. Pull the rope up."
Gabrielle and Stevanos pulled Bettia to the surface. As she appeared, Gabrielle gasped. The girl was covered with blood. Her mother gathered her into her arms and hurried toward the house. Just a few scrapes, huh? Nothing to worry about? Gotta get her up here and take care of those wounds.
Down at the bottom of the hole, Xena reached down again to touch the material she was standing on. This has to be manmade, so someone brought it in here. "Gabrielle, throw me down a candle and flint. Might be another way outta here."
"Xena, will you please come up here right now? We need to stop that bleeding. I'll throw the rope back down and we'll pull you back up."
"Look, I already left half my skin in that hole. I'm in no hurry to leave the other half there. Drop me the candle and I'll see what I can find."
There was a moment's delay, then Gabrielle came back. "Here comes the candle." She dropped it down the hole. Xena had untied her shift from around her waist and she held the bottom away from her body, forming a large pocket. First she caught the candle, then the flint.
She stuck the candle between her teeth, held the flint in one hand and struck it with the dagger she had pulled from her boot. When the candle ignited, she stuck the dagger and the flint into the scabbard and held the candle in the air.
The candle illuminated a fair-sized cave. Looking down, Xena saw she was standing on a pile of discarded tree branches with a large piece of torn, mud-colored, woven material immediately beneath her feet. The whole pile formed a padded area that had caught Bettia and saved her from injury and, possibly, death. There was a wide opening nearby in one wall of the cave.
The Warrior Princess jumped from the branches onto the dirt floor and walked through the opening. She caught her breath at the sight that appeared. Row on row of large catapults, formed no doubt from the trees of the cleared area of forest, stood silently waiting. Waiting to be hauled out and used to attack the Amazon village from the northwest. So that's what they have in mind!
A huge, heavy piece of the mud-colored material had been drawn across the opening that led outside. Xena crossed to it and, pulling aside one edge, she exited into the forest. They'll just have to knock down a few more trees between here and the trail and they'll have a clear path to the Amazon territory. Clever devils.
She blew out the candle and stuck it into a pocket on her boot. She grimaced when she saw what a mess she was. Her body was covered with blood and her shoulders and hips were still oozing. She kicked some loose earth over her tracks, then started to climb the easiest looking side of the bluff. Fortunately, there were numerous handholds and footholds and she was able to quickly get to the top.
Seeing Gabrielle and Stevanos in the distance, still kneeling near the hole, she loped over to them. They heard her coming and turned around. "By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle gasped. "You're covered with blood."
"C'mon up to the house, Xena. There's a rain barrel right outside the door. You can wash off there." Stevanos was as startled as the bard. He grabbed Argo's reins and brought her over to the warrior.
"Give Gabrielle the horse, Stevanos. If you don't mind, I'll run over. Don't want to get blood all over my saddle when there's no need to; it's had more than its share already." Xena turned and ran off toward the house before anyone could object.
Gabrielle picked up Xena's leathers, armor, bracers and weapons, piled them into a saddlebag, and climbed on Argo for the ride to the house. By the time she arrived, Xena was already there and had flushed most of the blood from her frame. Stevanos had given her a towel to dry herself with, then had gone inside to check on his niece.
Gabrielle slid down from Argo and fetched Xena's healing kit from one of the bags tied securely to the golden palomino. From another saddlebag, she grabbed a fresh cotton shift and walked over to warrior.
Xena pulled off her wet undergarment and donned the clean one. She performed the exchange quickly, but the bard had seen that the nasty gouges on her hips and thighs were even worse than the ones on her shoulders. "Come here, Xena. Let me put some of this ointment on you."
The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes, but dutifully allowed her concerned friend to treat the injuries. "Some of these really should be bandaged, Xena."
"Don't worry about it, Gabrielle. Guess what I found down there?" Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. Does she ever worry about herself? Every time she needs attention, she changes the subject.
"OK, I'll play that game. What did you find down there besides an easier way out?"
"Bettia dropped into a huge cave. And it was filled with catapults!"
"Catapults?" Gabrielle frowned, then her face cleared. "To use against our village!"
"What are we going to do about them?"
"Nothing at the moment. I don't want the army to realize that they've been discovered. I'll get Stevanos to take a note to Ephiny, warning her about them, but I'll tell her to hold off till she hears from me."
While she talked, Xena retrieved her leathers, armor, bracers, and weapons from their resting place and put them on. Gabrielle got out a scroll, quill and ink and Xena dictated the message for Ephiny.
Zermada came outside with Bettia in her arms, followed by Stevanos. "Xena, I don't know how to thank you for saving my daughter. Please, at least stay and have a meal with us."
"Thanks, Zermada, but we have to be going. Maybe some other time." The woman nodded and Xena turned to the metalworker. "Stevanos, I have an important message for the regent of the Amazons. If you would take it to the perimeter and pass it on to her, I would be very grateful. Just tell them it is from Xena."
"I'd be happy to, Xena. And thank you for helping Bettia. If you ever need anything that has to do with metal shucks, if you ever need me for anything at all, just give me a call." The metalworker blushed as his own statement conjured up some wishful thinking.
Xena handed him the scroll, clasped arms with him, then turned and walked over to Zermada. She bent to look eye-level at the little girl. The Warrior Princess smiled at the shy little girl and kissed her on the cheek. "Bye, Bettia."
"Bye, Xena." The little one smiled back, then hid her head against her mother's neck.
Xena straightened up. "Goodbye, Zermada. If we come this way again, we'll stop in. Meantime, get your brother to cover that hole, OK?"
"Sure will, Xena. Thanks again. Goodbye."
The warrior climbed on Argo, lifted Gabrielle into her usual place behind her and they rode off.
"Nice day's work," said the bard, her arms around Xena's waist and head laid against her back.
"Yep. That was a good one."
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