Parts II & lll
Copyright Trey 1998
See Part I for full disclaimers.
The wolf stalked proficiently through the undergrowth, keeping to the darkest shadows, moving with agile elegance through the foliage along a path untrodden by man. Dusk was falling rapidly now, and an air of desperation hastened his pace.
Ahead of him walked three figures, their soft murmurs of chatter tossed like ships by the gentle breeze, and two weary horses - one Argo and the other the black stallion named Seass.
'So how long have you been searching for us?' Xena asked, taking an unusual roll in the conversation.
'A couple of days I guess,' Rel replied, 'you guys sure move around a lot.'
The dark woman smiled at the thought of the younger warrior tracking their path through the dense forests. She was still curious as to exactly why Rel had been sent, and not one of the older Amazons like Ephiny. She voiced her question tactfully.
'Oh, the rest of the tribe is busy getting ready for the festival,' came the calm response, '...plus the fact that I volunteered.'
'You what?' Gabrielle asked.
It was Rel's turn to smile, 'I couldn't very well pass up the offer to meet the Amazon Princess now, could I?'
The discussion drifted on, and the wolf drew nearer.
Rel gradually became conscious of its presence trailing them - the efforts of her own vigilant senses combined with the tense movements of Seass.
'Uh, how about we set up camp somewhere round here?' she suggested, 'if we carry on at this pace tomorrow, we should make it to Amazon territory within a day.'
Xena noticed Gabrielle's pleading look as she rubbed her head for effect.
'Okay, if we.....uh, Rel?' the warrior cut off mid-sentence as she saw the girl turn and head back the way they'd come, 'wouldn't it be better to camp over there?' she pointed in the opposite direction.
'Well, sure,' Rel shrugged, 'I was just gonna...um...see if I could find us some dinner.'
'Weak excuse,' the Harlot scolded herself, 'she's suspicious...'
But Xena merely nodded and followed Gabrielle towards a stand of trees.
The Amazon breathed a sigh of relief and stealthily bounded into the forest.
She wasn't sure what she was expecting, why the wolf pursued them, but she felt it best to satisfy her curiosity. She slowed to a halt after a few minutes of hunting his being, and listened. She focused all concentration on her trademark skills, her heightened knowledge of nature, and remained motionless while waiting for him to appear.
Silence stretched itself across time. The canopy of wavering fingers left the forest dimmed in an amber haze, tattooing it with tiger-stripes, yet denying it the full glory of the beast.
Every Amazon is taught that a pack of wolves was one of the most organised units in the realm of animals, using teamwork and strategic plots to separate their prey from its kind while moving in for the kill, but they also learned of the wisdom of the wolf. It is, indeed, a creature of mystery and charm; awingly-feared by all who witness its magic.
And suddenly, she felt it.
There was no sound, no sight, it eluded every perception of awareness she was granted with, save her instinct. She rebelled against her nerves, for the wolf would certainly sense her emotion and see it as a warning.
'Just keep breathing evenly...' she ordered herself, and slowly turned round.
Two sets of green eyes locked.
For a moment Rel thought it would pounce, attack her in the way which drove man to dread their howl, but it made no attempt to move.
'As long as an animal has space, a route of escape, it will not harm you,' Rel recited what she had been taught, 'if you intrude on that space, or cut off its escape, it will see you as a threat.'
Both sides stood their ground.
'Artemis,' the Amazon prayed, 'you are wise in the ways of the forest, what warning does this creature bare? Why have you sent a guardian to us?'
When she opened her eyes, the wolf had gone. His absence was strangely disturbing, and Rel continued to stare at the dark cosmos he left behind. The shadows loomed, and she made her way dispiritedly back to camp.
In the Amazon tribe, all was an anarchy of commotion. Miaska, younger sister of Ephiny - though only by a year, dumped her basket of berries on one of the feast-tables and rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand.
'At this rate everyone's gonna be dead from exhaustion before the festival can start.' she wined, inspecting one of the red fruits thoroughly before allowing herself the pleasure of chewing it in contempt.
'I hope that's coming off your share of the feast.' remarked a teasing utterance from behind.
She whirled round, recognising her friend's voice, 'Rel! You're back!'
The older Amazon outstretched her arms and was about to hug the younger blonde, when she noticed her accompaniment.
Her actions were swiftly changed into a courteous bow, 'Princess, please excuse my conduct, I didn't see - '
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, there were three things which most annoyed her in life: hunger, Xena's persistent mothering, and this whole 'we worship you, Princess' deal.
She smiled, 'Oh, uh...you're forgiven,' she joked.
The Amazon bowed again in thanks.
'These people need a holiday,' the bard thought.
Miaska moved to hug her friend, 'I was getting worried...'
'Worried? About me?'
Miaska poked her friend in the ribs, 'Ha, don't flatter yourself. In case you've forgotten the Vindasha is in three days...and there was no way I wanted to be the one to tell Queen Melosa you'd failed. She'd probably kick you out of the tribe...'
'So you were worried!'
The Amazon found herself cornered, she shrugged with a grin, '...maybe just a little...'
The group turned to see Ephiny striding towards them.
Drum beats pounded in the background as a dozen warriors began the celebrations early, dancing simultaneously to the rhythm as a huge bonfire was lit.
'It's good to be back,' thought the bard and Rel coincidentally, 'it's definitely good to be back.'
Gabrielle stretched her arms to the high sun and yawned, she could certainly get used to this life...
She wandered through the village, watching scores of warriors practising various fighting techniques and smiling at those who turned to bow.
'If one more person does that...' she muttered through a false grin, 'I'll - '
'Gabrielle, you're up.'
The bard turned to see Miaska lowering her bow and letting her quiver drop to the ground.
'Hey, where is everyone?' the Princess asked, looking round.
'Rel's gone out into the forest, Xena and Ephiny are talking with Melosa - two more villages were attacked last night.'
'Not by the Raiders, not the same ones we fought...?'
The Amazon shook her head, 'I'm not sure. All I know is that both settlements were destroyed and that not a soul survived.'
The horror of the woman's words crushed Gabrielle's good temperament like a Titan stepping on an egg.
'Where - '
Miaska pointed towards Melosa's hut before the Princess could ask, and bent to retrieve her quiver - acknowledging the conversation was over.
Gabrielle walked through the hut door and found herself feeling uneasily embarrassed as she interrupted a heated argument between the women. All went silent and they held each other with cold stares as she entered.
'Uh...Miaska said there were more raids last night...' she mumbled, trying to swing a metaphoric sword at the sheet of ice between them.
Ephiny took the liberty of answering, 'Yeah, Dias and Valgarita were both looted and torched.'
'...by the Raiders,' Xena added apathetically.
Melosa stood up from her chair and sighed, 'By the Raiders.'
'They seem to be moving closer to Amazon territory, which makes them a threat.'
Xena was speaking to the Queen, and from her expression it was clear that their argument had revolved around whether the Harlots should get involved in the situation or not.
'We don't know that they have any intention of crossing our borders, there's a lot of difference between fighting peasants and fighting an Amazon army - '
Xena interrupted Melosa, a dangerous act in itself, 'And there's a lot of difference between defending yourself and defending others.'
The Queen let a long moment pass as Xena's words sank in.
Ephiny, like Gabrielle, seemed to be but an innocent fly caught in their web, but the Amazon now turned to them.
'What is your opinion on the subject?' she looked at Ephiny, 'Are we strong enough to fight them?'
Ephiny nodded without hesitation, 'There were about eighty of them, organised into two groups. Each attacked a different village last night...if we can keep them from merging their strength, we could easily defeat them.'
Melosa nodded slowly.
'Do we know where they'll strike next?' she asked.
'If they follow the pattern west as they have been, Orphido is the only definite target in their line of fire.'
Gabrielle grimaced at the Amazon's choice of words.
'Begin planning a defence,' the Queen ordered her comrade, 'and warn the villagers. We'll concentrate all our warriors on that one position, we'll crush their attack there - that should be enough to show we don't intend to sit around and wait until they try to cross Amazon land...'
Ephiny exited the tent hurriedly, and Xena passed a slight smile of thanks to the Queen.
'Let's just hope we have something to celebrate at the Vindasha.'
Rel tugged angrily at her cloak as it caught on the edge of one of the market stalls. Xena cast her a humoured glance from under her hood, and resumed watch.
Seven warriors, including herself and the Warrior Princess, were positioned at crucial points throughout the taut village. Their task was simply to aid the peasants when the Raiders came, while the majority of Amazons cut off their escape.
It had taken a lot of persuasive actions by Gabrielle to convince the villagers to stay within Orphido's walls. A few children had been evacuated, but it had taken all day - and a few stray threats by the Amazons - to finally get them to agree to their plan. Almost every villager had something to defend themselves with, most had to improvise or accept spare Harlot weapons (the chobos excluded, the peasants seemed to prefer sticks).
They had no idea of when the attack would come, and Rel was getting impatient. Her feelings were intensified by her natural dislike of the weak, her scorn of the defenceless. This village should have been grateful they lived so close to Amazon ground, for they would surely all perish from their meek existence had her kind not felt foreshadowed by the Raiders.
A flurry of doves, all with red-painted wings, abruptly darted across the sky: the sign. They had been released by the hidden Harlots which camouflaged themselves expertly around the perimeter of the village.
The Raiders were advancing.
The young warrior shook herself mentally and prepared for the impending taunt with Fate.
'You ready to prove who has valid claim to the Rights of this land?' Xena inquired lightly.
'Wars aren't fought to decide who's right,' Rel replied, twisting the warrior's words, 'only who's left.'
Xena raised an eyebrow, 'I'll have to remember that one.'
The rumble of horses grew louder in Rel's ears, and everything seemed to go into slow-motion as she watched Raiders pour through the village gates. The hooves began to beat like the Amazon drums, the yell of numerous battle cries reverberated like Amazon hoots, while torches burned like Amazon bonfires.
Rel let her cloak fall from her shoulders - setting her free to begin the dance. She went into automatic mode as the Harlots closed in behind the last of the Raiders, swarming over the terror-stricken men. She drew her sword and parried her partner.
They circled each other, stepping in time and performing mirrored movements of counter-attack. The tempo increased and their motions became detached, staccatos of music on a page of slurs. The dance grew more intricate, those who couldn't keep step were replaced, and each began to improvise more arduous manoeuvres into the production, forcing the other to rely on innovation and skill to preserve a balanced presentation while keeping it well co-ordinated.
The gods were the only spectators, yet the show was amusing for them to behold. Aries seemed possess a knack for supplying entertainment.
Rel's competitor suddenly lost his rhythm, losing pace with the tempo. Before he could recover, she span forwards - sword clasped as she detected victory. She twirled it professionally and thrust it deep into his abdomen, relishing the scream of pain as an applause.
She yelped with exultation while pirouetting, looking for an encore. To her disappointment all the men were spoken for, some with several eager partners.
And still the drums beat faster, louder - the dance quickening with every step.
She watched impertinently as Xena fairly flew across the stage, her mastery claiming her supreme victor. Suddenly, a flash of recognition, of déjà vu, flooded over her. It wasn't from their first meeting two days earlier, for that was, in fact, simply a re-encounter of souls.
The village around her faded and was replaced with a province she had long tried to forget.
'No...' she murmured, 'please, no...'
But the Memory wouldn't be re-chained. It refused to be locked up in the dungeons of her mind any longer, and had grown in strength since its last brief rendition of freedom.
Suddenly she was a child again, a child of seven years and two months. She clasped not a sword, but a small boy's hand, tightly in her own. His eyes sparkled like dew drops on grass-blades, with coiled curls of hair which lived him to his name as Jason's 'Golden Fleece.'
The temple they were cowering in erupted with death as the doors gave way to insistent ramming. The Argonauts were trapped between the Sympleglades, the "crashing rocks," as men from the most feared army ever to fight sucked them down into the swirling whirlpool of blood. People tried to flee, tried to escape the callous swords and beckon of Hades, but their pleas of mercy meant as much to the warriors as they would have done to a Hydra.
Rel and Jason showed no dire fright, the girl was, in all honesty, overwhelmed with wonder and veneration at one particular warrior. It was a woman. She fought with such immortal passion that Rel was hypnotised by the mesmerising gleam of her sword - being brought from her trance only by the boy's frantic shaking as two men menaced disdainfully over them.
'We'll be okay,' he whispered, 'as long as we stay together, we'll be okay...'
Rel clung to him and buried her face, repeating his words in the mantra they shared through life, but had never spoken with such desire.
The main battle had leaked outside as villagers were hounded in their desperate flight, the two men didn't follow. The sneered in their approach, nudging one another and ridiculing the pathetic children.
'Hey look Torse, rodents!'
'Ooh, vermin scum! Where's the cat?'
They looked at each other and laughed, '...why, that would be us now wouldn't it...?!'
Swords were raised.
'As long as we stay together...' came the murmurs.
'You take the girl, my treat.'
'Thanks, I owe ya.'
One tried to grab Jason, but Rel refused to be parted.
'We'll be okay...'
There was a sudden flash of silver, Jason screamed, Rel pulled back, the men were laughing, neither had swung, what was happening?
He dropped to the ground, still crying in agony, and the young girl gasped as the woman-warrior stood behind him, sword coated in blood.
Rel fell to her knees, too shocked to let tears flow and too scared to keep on her feet, as Jason was beclouded in silence.
The wound in his back revolted her, disgusted her with its malice and horror.
'Jason....no, Jason...' she sobbed.
The warrior stared unemotionally, and prepared to repeat her last action.
The girl tilted her head slowly, '...we must stay together...' she whimpered.
'And so you shall.' came the reply.
Rel understood, many children wouldn't have, but she did. She grasped Jason's limp hand once more, and turned to the warrior. Xena was taken aback - the girl wanted to die? She had fought both as the defender and attacker in her time, but never had she faced one who willed her to perform the deed of murder on themselves...
'THE EMPEROR'S SOLDIERS ARE COMING!!' a look-out bellowed.
'RETREAT!' the woman hollered, the girl forgotten. She ran to join her army, 'GRAB THE LOOT AND RETREAT!'
Rel watched through the distant open doors of the temple as horses raced by, the men calling cries of success to the all-but deserted town they left behind.
'No...' Rel called to them, running to the door, 'No! You can't leave! We have to stay together!'
But no one cared. Rel stood in their dust, the lone surviving Argonaut, yet ironically the only one who didn't want to survive.
Rel's eyes tore open. Amazons abandoned their friendly nods and words of victory, to stare at the young warrior. She glanced around, the battle had been won, and she was standing on earth soaked with spiteful blood.
The others went back to their celebrations as they called to their mounts, Rel felt a hand on her shoulder.
'Rel, what's the matter?'
She turned to stare into those eyes again, the same eyes which had guided the warrior behind them to her victims, the same eyes which had regarded the seven-year-old child with disdain all those years ago.
Rel backed away, 'Jason...you killed...' she whispered softly.
'Rel?' Xena was confused.
The young Amazon shook her head in answer to some unknown question, and fled.
'What do you mean, "they're dead?!" ' Rift bawled to the nervous Raider who bowed before him, 'There were forty attacking Orphido - forty armed men against a village of low-life peasants?!'
'The - the, uh Amazons...' the man stuttered.
'The Amazons WHAT??!'
'They...uh, joined the villagers, Sir, with the Warrior Princess. They were everywhere, out-numbered and out-skilled our men, I - I saw them on my way back from Dias.'
Rift noted his crutch, the man was obviously injured in the previous night's ambush and left behind.
'All of them?'
The man nodded without looking up.
A few days earlier, Rift would have slit the throat of the Raider who brought such news, but he couldn't afford any more loss of life amidst his army. In two days it had been more than halved, broken from a powerful force to no more than a group of worthless bandits.
'The other party went as planned though, sir, no deaths on our side and the loot - '
Rift lost patience to anger. He swung his fist expertly so that it caught the man squarely on the chin, splintering his jaw and knocking him cold.
'Get him out of my sight.' he ordered another gruffly, 'and leave us.'
He took a long gulp of port and hurled the mug in aggravation at the ground.
'That son of mine was so stupid,' he cursed angrily.
Knol watched the remainder of the fluid trickle from the cup to the ground, he knew Rift was grieving for the men as much as his son. The Second did not deny his hatred for Sallos, but this was not the way he wished him to die, they were - after all - on the same side. The defeat would bring shame to the man's memory as well as to the name of his father, Knol didn't aspire that. Once, a long time ago now, the two of them had been companions; practising their skills and competing as friendly rivals, promising each other that they would one day fight together for a common cause.
No, he hadn't wished for this to happen.
'We still have a challenge,' Knol reminded him, 'I still have to kill the Warrior Princess.'
Rift looked at him tiredly, 'Knol, what are you talking about? Sallos is dead, there is no challenge anymore, you have won - the title is yours, as it should be.'
The Lieutenant crouched down and let his fingers touch the spot where their blood had stained the ground, the spot the port now soaked.
'No,' he replied, 'now the challenge pulses stronger than ever.'
The leader looked to him questioningly.
'It was Xena's plot that killed your son,' he said calmly, 'he deserves vengeance and I will grant it him; as it should be.'
Rift smiled weakly, he was proud to have a Second who would do such a thing, '...as it should be.'
Seass' hooves spurned the ground, sending sparks of blue as they hit stones along the blurred path. He knew Rel wasn't running from danger, he had never seen her do that, he felt whatever chased her to be much worse, an enemy she couldn't - or wouldn't - defeat.
He instinctively headed back to the Amazon village, their home, where he believed she might be able to confront this fear. She didn't resist, didn't appear to notice, until they passed directly under one of the "no trespassing" signs hanging from a tall redwood. She abruptly jerked his reins, veering him to the east - away from the last shimmers of light and towards the star-less, black abyss. He knew where she now wanted to go; Artemis was the only one who could answer her questions, and the only one Rel trusted enough to ask.
They slowed to a trot while advancing on the stone statues of two frozen Pegasi - their wings outstretched and tails caught by an invisible wind. Seass hesitated as he approached, humbled by entering the shrine to the Goddess of wild animals. Rel saw his resistance, and dropped from his saddle-less back. She stroked his neck reassuringly and left his side to walk through the guarding statues.
She spent much of her time here - as most Amazons did - for it was a place of peace, of thought, of prayer; all of which she needed in the task of trying pull her spirit back together.
She knelt in front of the desolate idol, the magnificent statue of Artemis.
'Goddess,' she whispered, 'grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.'
Rel had never felt as alone as she did at that moment. All this time she had tried to avoid the pain which tormented her. She had attempted to deny its existence and continue with life, but things were never that easy. It had remained with her - entangled with the Memory - and only now was she beginning to see that it would never leave.
'I cannot change how Jason died,' she continued in prayer, 'but nor can I accept it. I do not possess the courage to do anything, nor do I know how I would, even if I did. I have not gained the wisdom to know which path to tread, and so I turn to you, Goddess, for guidance. Show me how I must defeat this hatred which burns within me, show me how to conquer it.'
She waited for something to happen, miracles of the gods were so often told, and now - more than ever - a miracle was what she needed.
She raised her head slowly, begging for a sign, but was faced with the cold stone of reality. Nothing more was seen. The Goddess continued to stare blankly ahead of her, unmoving and indifferent to the words.
The hours passed as she remained, simply watching and waiting at the shrine. Her belief in Artemis so strong, and the acknowledgement of it being the only hope she owned, making her cling to it as gravely as she had done to the boy in her past.
Dawn was beginning to break anxiously across the unattainable horizon, and still she sat. Through the long night she had watched as Amazon torches buzzed like fireflies down in the valley, and had even had to hide behind Artemis while a few of them searched the shrine for her. Their endeavours had been half-hearted, evidently angry that they were traipsing the forest instead of preparing for the festival. Rel had sunk down behind the statue and listened sadly to their complaints, wishing Xena had simply taken a moment of time to end her life while it still had meaning.
She stood up now, her body ached with discontentment, but she ignored it. Artemis obviously cared for her as much as the rest of the world did, as much as she cared for herself.
'I don't blame you,' she said, bowing her head one final time before heading towards the Pegasi gates, 'I really don't blame you.'
Her path was suddenly blocked. Her hand flew to her sword, drawing it as she assumed her fighting stance.
The wolf was not impressed.
An hour ago she would have dropped her blade and thought it sent by the Goddess, but that was then.
'Why do you insist on following me?' she questioned rhetorically, 'I know Artemis hasn't sent you, she doesn't care whether I live or die, forgive or murder...and neither do you.'
It backed away a pace and bared its teeth momentarily at her "threatening" posture.
'Yeah, not so angelic now are we? Not so divine...? Good. Well what say I did take my revenge on our dear Warrior Princess - she killed Jason, you know - I can't honestly see those teeth stopping me...'
A growl raptured from the creature's throat.
'Oh, a growl! How bone-trembling!' her sarcasm drooled, '...now get the Hades outta here before I skin you and present your hide as a doormat to Artemis.'
Her sword suddenly flashed red, not with blood - but heat. It burned her hand intensely, scalding the skin and causing her to drop it instantly. She cried out in pain and shock, the wolf vanished.
Rel blinked, squeezing her injured hand in an attempt to dull the pain, while also trying to come to terms with whatever had just happened.
'This isn't happening,' she announced, retrieving her chilled blade and flexing her burnt fingers, 'I can't explain it right now, but it isn't happening.'
'If you're referring to the fact that you just dropped your sword, then I'm afraid to say that it is.'
The voice from behind twisted her round, forcing her into the Amazon stance once more as she faced Knol.
'I know you!' she hissed, 'You were one who attacked the village two days ago - you're a Raider...'
He remained standing, arms folded across his chest, as she edged closer.
'And you were one of the ones who slew three quarters of my men in "that village" - a Harlot, but do you see me bear a grudge?'
He motioned for her to lower her sword, she lifted it higher.
'What do you want? You're trespassing on Amazon ground, the sacred shrine of Artemis, I should kill you right now.'
'Then by all means continue,' he replied, raising his hands in surrender, 'but I believe you would be making a mistake.'
Rel didn't like his impertinence, but her curiosity got the better of her; she trusted herself to be able to out-fight him should the need arise.
He grinned, seeing her interest, 'Well, the way I see it, we both have a common desire, a shared goal, if you will...and I think working together would make it a lot more attainable.'
Rel was doubtful, 'Ha, what could you and I possibly have in common?'
She felt uneasy as Artemis' eyes bore into her back accusingly.
He stepped nearer, 'Why - in your own words - our wish for "revenge on the dear Warrior Princess..."'
Copyright Trey 1998
See Part I for full disclaimers
Miaska paced back and forth within the hut. Gabrielle watched her, having abandoned all attempts at calming the woman after the first few hours. It amazed her how concerned the Amazon was for her younger companion, how close they seemed despite their age difference. Had she not been told, she would have thought them sisters, for though they were very different in appearance - their hearts were bonded in a way she couldn't explain, but understood.
She turned to look at Xena. Her best friend had been silent ever since the fight in Orphido - at which she had only played a minor role due to the warrior's insistence that she hang back in the safety of the other Amazons. If only she had protested jubilantly she may have had a chance to see whatever had caused Rel to disappear, whatever now tormented her friend.
Xena herself sat, disconnectedly, on a chair in a dark corner. She was still running through the past days in her mind, something wasn't fitting with all that had happened, it was like one of her bard's tales with the ending missing - it left questions, left the listener in an inescapable maze. She had been spiralling through its passages all night, becoming more despondent with each dead-end she ran into, more tortured with every choice of path, and more discouraged as she ended back in the same place each time.
Something about the girl seemed disturbingly familiar, like a vague recognition that refused to be identified.
'Jason...you killed...' Rel's words span through her head as time burned down the candles. Who was Jason? She had killed many people that day, but knew none by name...and surely Rel didn't know any of the Raiders, did she?
She seemed so sure. In the short time the warriors had known each other, Xena had grown fond of the strong-minded blonde. Ever since that first morning of their meeting, that time - seemingly long ago - when their blades had battled so valiantly, so heroically. She was young, and yet she didn't appear to have any fears, almost inviting death.
Another pang of recollection convulsed through her, but the arrival of Ephiny prevented her from probing it further.
The blast of first-light blinded the three women from their individual thoughts.
Miaska greeted her sister Amazon with a searching expression, 'Any news? Has Rel come back yet?'
Ephiny lowered her eyes and shook her head while Gabrielle moved over as the Harlot's shoulders dropped in disappointment.
'I don't get it, where is she?' Miaska was close to tears, 'Why did she run off like that?'
'She's going to be fine,' the bard assured her, 'she can look after herself.'
'And how would you know?!'
Even Xena was stunned by this outburst, as the Amazon pulled sharply from Gabrielle and distanced herself.
'You don't know her, don't know what she's like at all...' the woman's sobs meant no one saw a shadow standing in the doorway.
'...but you do.'
All eyes re-focused on the figure.
The young Harlot let herself be engulfed by her friend's mothering hugs, 'Rel, where were you? What happened...?'
The others closed in, just as eager to hear the reply.
'It was nothing, really. In the battle, all that blood, I...I just freaked out. I had to get away...'
She wouldn't look at any of the expectant faces.
'All night? You had the whole tribe out after - ' Ephiny broke off from her scold, realising this wasn't the time.
'I'm sorry,' was all the apology Rel offered, turning to walk away from her closest friends, 'it won't happen again.'
Rel sat huddled in the stable. She was trying to hide, not only from the likes of her over-sympathetic friends and hushed whispers of the other tribe members, but also from part of herself. She couldn't conceive what she was about to do, tried to reason it out, yet each time there was the simple choice: either she killed Xena, or she didn't.
As an Amazon she had earned the right to take revenge against the murderer of Jason...but how could she kill Xena? The woman she knew now was a changed person from the one who had invaded her home town, it was a long time ago and the warrior had swapped sides. 'That doesn't excuse her,' part of her argued, 'she murdered the one person you had left, destroyed the one thing you cared about, and you're going to let her walk away without punishment?'
She squirmed, trying to come up with a reply, but couldn't. Her clenched fist opened to reveal the thin vial, no bigger than a butterfly cocoon. Inside swirled the dark liquid, the patient insect, given to her by Knol. It was the colour of the sky after the sun has long-since set but before the boundless night has taken hold, a royal blue toned with streaks of black, misted by fog and clouds which shrouded the moon. She was mesmerised by its innocence, by its beauty, as it tried to break loose of its restraint.
'It wants to fly,' she thought, seeing the creature held captive, 'it wants to be free.'
She could relate to that. Over the past night her emotions had been shredded so viciously - the weight of Choice bearing its teeth just as the wolf had at her weak spirit.
'I will release you,' she whispered, standing decisively, 'and Jason will rejoice at your freedom, as much as I.'
There was a snort from behind, alarming her so much so that she almost dropped the bottle.
'Seass,' she rebuked affectionately, slipping the cocoon into a pouch by her scabbard and rubbing his nose. He wined softly, his mane falling over one eye as he receded away from her touch, withdrawing to the back of his stall.
'He knows,' she thought dejectedly.
The horse refused to look at her as she stared for several long minutes. He had always obeyed her before, always done as she commanded without question, but this was different. This had to be done on her own and he would have no part in it.
'Perhaps its for the best,' she said to him, 'I guess I'm alone in this one, huh?'
He dropped his head lower as she left, 'this wasn't suppose to happen...'
For the rest of the morning Rel tried to act "normal". She had a long, in-depth conversation with Miaska, fortifying her earlier claim that she had simply "freaked out" the previous evening, and reaffirming their friendship. Though she did, unavoidably, withhold information from the older woman, she shunned lying. She told of her flash-backs and of the wolf - for Miaska was her best friend, the one she trusted - but the part about Xena and the poison Knol had conspired to her, she understandably left out.
She spoke, also, to Gabrielle and Ephiny as they sat making decorations for the Vindasha. They too were told only half the story, but in slightly less detail.
It was only Xena she couldn't bring her being to face. She didn't trust herself to be within an arrow's flight of the woman at that point, for fear of either being possessed with hate, or collapsing under the pressure of her charm. She knew that her conscience, given half the chance, would reveal her vengeful plot, try to lift the guilt from itself, and she was adamant not to let that happen.
As the day progressed, though, avoidance was becoming increasingly harder.
At noon she sat, as she always did, with the two sisters while they ate - finding she could relax easier in the warmth of the day, accompanied by their sibling witticisms and friendly gibes. Things had almost returned to their usual cycle, almost as if the past days hadn't existed. Almost. She glanced down at the pouch, seeing the leer of the bottle protruding through its cloth.
'If I do this,' she thought, 'if I go through with the plan, things might never return to their old ways...would Miaska and Ephiny forgive me?'
Her conscience continued its trickery.
'They will, 'the other side argued, 'I am merely fulfilling my Right, Jason's Right...'
She panicked inwardly as Ephiny waved a small group of Amazons to join them - Xena and Gabrielle inclusive - but saw no escape. She scrutinised her food, wishing fervently that she was one of the fried Millani bugs she now crunched upon.
No one noticed as Xena and Rel both sat, opposite each other, and ate without a word. Each was consumed with their own thoughts while concurrently trying to guess the others.
Rel became abruptly hindered from this as her name was caught in the drift of conversation.
'...what?' she looked questioningly.
'The drinks...' Ephiny repeated, gesturing to a few empty mugs, 'you're the youngest, you have more energy than us.'
'Geez, and I thought Amazons were against slave labour.' she mumbled humorously, rising from her seat, 'I tried to be born earlier, you know, but the gods just couldn't fit me in...'
A slight smile twitched Xena's mouth as the young warrior reached to take her mug, 'Your ego was probably too big,' she quipped, and for a moment a smile passed between them, before each averted their gaze sharply.
Rel headed for one of the long tables lavished in autumn fruits and Amazon dishes. She clanked the cups down by a large bowl of punch, the sudden awareness that this was her one chance to execute the concocted strategy.
She glanced briefly behind, seeing that Xena's back was turned and that the others were lost in a sea of festive talk.
'One chance,' she thought.
Knol had told her that the bottle contained enough venom for three attempts, should she fail in the first two, but Rel knew she would never have the courage to risk more than one.
'Just a third of the bottle,' they had agreed. This would kill the Warrior quickly and painlessly, but would lie dormant in her soul, waiting innocuously for a sudden eruption of glory. There was no exact time this would occur, anywhere between one day and two.
'A long 48 hours,' she thought, lifting the vial and pulling the stopper out.
She let Time corkscrew around her as she stared deeply into the liquid. She remembered the first moment she had encountered its power, at a time when everything seemed perfect. Back then, her life had been whole, her and Jason never being parted, like one soul with two minds. But that was then. She remembered the village Elder had shown them the fluid, saying that it would pass his old horse to the next life with the dignity he deserved. Jason had nodded understandingly, pulling her out of the stable and trying to change the subject - but Rel was hexed by the image of the liquid, and had stayed to watch the creature's final battle.
Her mind refused to picture Xena going through the same spasms of distress as the horse, refused to let another suffer the same confusion.
'How does anyone know it's painless?' she questioned, 'They've never experienced it, how can they know?'
Her hand had dropped down as she lapsed into seething anger which randomly hurled itself through the confinements of her body. It shot through her nerves, clamping every muscle and plucking at their strained composure.
A hand locked round her taut shoulder, jerking her so violently that the bottle slipped from her grasp and fell with a soft plunk into Xena's mug. Naikari, an Amazon only a few years older than she, grinned at her - not noticing the anger or shock pass over her comrade.
'Hey, we're dying of thirst over there...don't tell me you get "freaked out" by punch now too?'
It was a joke - a meaningless tease - but it choked Rel like a noose, the older Harlot kicking the step from under her feet and laughing at the crack of the blonde's neck. Was that what all the Amazons thought - that she was scared of killing people now? That she was weak? That she was nothing but a cowardice?
'Here, let me take some of these,' Naikari reached out to pick up Xena's mug.
Rel grabbed it from her, spilling a little but keeping her glare firmly on the other woman.
'I - I was just trying to help....wow, Rel, what's wrong with you?'
With a last disgusted look, Niakari retreated back to the table. Rel stared enviously after her and watched as she sank back into the rippling waters of chatter.
'I'll show her,' she spat, 'I'll show them all, for by the time the Vindasha comes - Xena will be no more than a bad memory...'
Her eyes lit up as the butterfly began to break open the cocoon, feeling freedom was close. She smiled corruptly and walked over to the table, setting the punch down and nodding in reply to the thanks.
Xena took her mug and regarded the young warrior with suspicion, something was different about her. Before she had been quiet, nervously picking at her food while remaining low in her seat as if trying to hide, but now she sat almost challengingly, daringly, as she heartily munched at the meal. The dark warrior took a long gulp of her drink, and turned her eyes.
Gabrielle awoke that night to cries of alarm and torches dancing past the window of their hut. She glanced at the other side of the bed, to where Xena should have been, but was confronted by the empty sheets. She rose and swung open the wooden door, staring for a few moments as Amazons swarmed to the centre of the village, before grabbing her staff and following.
'What's happened? Where's Xena?' she asked the first Harlot she reached.
'Murder!' was all the reply she got, 'Murder!'
She pushed through the crowds, and gasped as she saw Melosa standing over a body.
The body of Niakari.
Xena was crouched over her, but Gabrielle could see from her face that the girl was already dead. She stepped over and touched her friend.
Xena stood up, 'It looks like she was poisoned. Probably with Carell or Black's Venom.'
'Snake venom,' Xena translated, 'but there are no bite marks, so if it was...someone should be asking how it got there.'
'...but who'd - '
The surrounding Amazons hushed as their Queen raised her hands. Two stepped forward and covered the body, another - possibly a sister - sobbed openly. Melosa tried to comfort her, but the other woman twisted away, rage flushing her face as she pointed accusingly at a figure lurking at the back of the crowd. Amazons parted, and Rel's shadowed contours were left alone.
'HER!' the grieving Harlot denounced, 'SHE'S the one! Her name was the last thing Niakari said, she's the murderer!'
Rel tried to struggle free as several Amazons grabbed her arms and others closed in. Melosa called the restraints off and stepped into the circle, trying to look into the girl's eyes, but her gaze wouldn't be met.
She turned to the accuser, 'A name is not proof enough to condemn, there will be - '
'Then what about this?!' the Harlot thrust the empty vial at the Queen, 'My sister found it in the bottom of her mug after lunch, and if you remember it was Rel who - '
'Why would Rel want to kill Niakari?! If you're looking for someone to blame, fine, but find the guilty person, don't just execute the first person to...to...' Miaska trailed off, her sudden burst into the ring startling the prosecutor.
Rel herself stood quietly as the arguments clashed around her. How could this have happened? She had kept her eyes fixed on the contaminated punch, and remembered setting it down directly in front of Xena, she even saw her drink it down - how could this have happened?
The voices around her rose, but to screeches of inaudible intellect. Her glances darted fervently as the looks of hatred burned into her, glares of loathing empowering angry allegations which span and dazzled; the sight of Niakari's blanketed form branding itself in her vision.
All the anger which had been barricaded within her - the Memory, Jason, Xena, Artemis, Knol, Seass - all of the emotions she had ran so recklessly from, now caught up with her in one concussion of pain.
She lashed out at the nearest people, Miaska and Gabrielle. Both fell from view as she ripped her way through the tribe - the flames burning more energy, more force, into each blow. Within moments she was streaking through the trees, hearing cries of 'after her!' and 'Rel's the murderer!' as hooves pounded behind her.
She became aware of where she was headed: the shrine.
'What are you doing?!' she screamed to herself, she had turned from Artemis now, Artemis had turned from her...
She adjusted her course, her only other escape route being eastwards, out of the valley.
But the Harlots were gaining. The further Rel ran, the sparser the trees became, and the faster the riders began to close in.
She was almost in open ground now, she had to think of something fast. Her legs ached with effort as she saw two peasant travellers moving along the road ahead. She strived against the pain, forcing herself to go faster.
One of the peasants turned, hearing her approach, but saw only a blur of movement as her fist hurtled to his head. His companion only had time to gasp before the action was repeated. Rel paused only to look at the rising dust of Amazons before jumping the startled brown horse and spurring him to full gallop. This was more like it. But although the animal was, undoubtedly, trying its best to respond to her urges of speed, it simply wasn't used to running flat-out. She turned him parallel to the river and tried to find a suitable crossing point at full-pelt. Her concentration was so that she didn't see the golden mare angle itself to ram them.
Xena's battle cry turned her head just before the impact knocked her from her mount and crashed them both into the icy water.
Rel attempted to counter the woman's weight above her, trying to use the current to sweep her away, but Xena's hand forced her head under. She fought harder, this time in sheer desperation, as the water buffeted around her. What was Xena doing?! She wouldn't kill her, surely...
Rel's questions were replaced with fear as her lungs screamed for air, she tried to kick her legs against the river bed, but they were met with jagged stones which cut deep into her skin. The blood churned around her, she tried to recoil from its stain, but it was too angry. Her throat rasped, her eyes stung, her knees burned, her head pounded, and she opened her mouth to wail for mercy.
Instead, she was met with a rush of cold liquid. The foul taste made her gag as she realised she was sucking in her own blood, but this only made more flood down into her throat.
Maybe this was as it should have been, Xena was destined to kill her, she was simply fulfilling Rel's request from the past.
Her will died, black and red gyrated her vision. She went limp.
A sudden flash of realisation hit Xena as the girl's resistance evaporated. She dragged Rel up from the depths by her hair, stunned to see her tinged in red, surely she hadn't killed her...? The anger of Rel's injury to Gabrielle had caused her a lust for reprisal, but she hadn't meant to -
Amazons skidded to a halt and waded out to them, an edge of anticipation creeping into their surprise as the yielding form of the criminal Harlot was held in Xena's arms and carried to the bank.
Under the crimson smears was pale bluish grey skin and impassive eyes.
'She's dead.' someone stated.
Xena was too stunned to respond. She had once told her brother that murder was pure evil, there hadn't been any need to kill the girl, it wasn't in self-defence or battle, they weren't enemies...
'We must stay together...'
The words were spoken by memory, but to whom they belonged or why they glided like phantoms through her mind, she couldn't figure.
A sudden splutter of the "dead" awakening incinerated all thought.
The Amazon lapsed into fits of coughs, vomiting up the water and blood which infected her lungs. Her body began to shake intensely - the cold shock pulling her muscles into juddering contortions. Xena snatched the saddle blanket from one of the Harlots and moved closer to her.
As the dark warrior towered over, Rel suddenly became a wild animal. Her space trespassed on and her escape cut off, threatened was one of the many feelings which hurricaned over her. One quivering hand clenched itself round the hilt of her sword, she drew it and slashed the descending material.
Instantly there were thirty steady blades ringing a crown of silver thorns around her.
Xena watched as Ephiny shook her head sadly and ordered Rel to be bound. The older Amazon turned and mounted her horse without looking at her sister's best friend, and the dark warrior swore she almost caught the gleam of a tear.
Gabrielle sat with one hand keeping the pressure on her forehead where Rel had assaulted her earlier.
'I think I need a helmet...' she ruminated.
Miaska had refused the aid of either her or the tribe's healer, pouting that she was fine, though the gash down her right cheek suggested otherwise.
The turbulence of voices and hooves announced the return of the hunt, and the dazed Amazon followed the bard outside.
Melosa and the remainder of the tribe gathered to greet the offender.
They were surprised to see her bedraggled appearance, but the Queen stepped forwards as the blonde was shoved roughly towards her.
'You cannot out-run your crime, Rel,' she reprimanded, 'I take it from your actions that you are guilty...?'
Rel skirmished, but then looked up. Every pair of eyes was transfixed on her, accusing her. It wouldn't matter if she denied the charge, they were already convinced differently - she could see it in their stares. Maybe she had never truly belonged here after all, maybe it had taken murder for her to realise that she didn't fit.
'But it was an accident...' she replied, bewildered as the words forced themselves free and were spoken out loud before she could protest.
'So you do confess to killing Niakari?' Melosa kept her tone calm, yet her glare was that of stone.
Rel couldn't see any way out, 'I was following Amazon law.'
'And which law would that be?!' the deceased's sister cut in, 'Which "law" states that you can murder?'
Another tried to restrain the grieved woman, but she relented, 'No! She's not even a real Amazon, how can she - '
Melosa's order silenced all.
She turned, 'Rel?'
Rel dragged the moment, trying to compose an explanation worthy of forgiveness.
'I had no choice...it - it was an accident.....Jason...'
Forgiveness? How could they forgive what they didn't understand?
But to someone, or rather someone's dark sub-conscience, it vibrated with deeply clouded clarity. Jason? The same person Rel had accused her of killing? The same one which had "freaked" the girl into hiding in the forest all night? Questions sprinted through Xena's mind like Olympic finalists.
'Rel...' Ephiny dismounted and drew closer to her friend, 'what happened to your brother was a long time ago. We're sorry that it did, but you've got to stop living in the past - I thought you'd moved on, I thought you were happy...'
'How can you say that?!!' Rel erupted while Xena stood in vacant mystification, '...what am I suppose to do, just forget him? How can I be "happy" when his murderer - the one that ripped us apart and made our home as dead as Tartarius - how can I be happy when she stands among us and calls herself my friend??!'
Looks of revelation and wonderment passed through the tribe as they speculated who was being referred to. Only one conceived it, Xena. She was, after all, the only one which had a history of creating hell on earth, but she still didn't understand it completely - Rel had tried to kill her?
The Amazon - not a "real" Amazon? - stepped closer to Xena. She seemed to notice the dark warrior's confusion, and looked slightly offended.
'Who are you?' came the Warrior Princess' words. It was the question which had won the laurel wreath, the right to be asked.
'Who am I?' Rel repeated scornfully, 'Why, I'm the one person who wanted - no, begged - for your terror to prove itself. I'm the one who wished for you to take one moment out of your life to end mine - we had to stay - '
'- together.' Xena finished.
Gabrielle was as confused as the others, more-so in fact, but she observed the scene without comment.
'Are you saying it was Xena who attacked your town?' Melosa questioned.
The bard felt like she had joined a conversation mid-haul, as though everyone else knew something she didn't. Rel lived here, this was her home - not some town - what was everyone talking about? And Xena - what did this all have to do with her? Why had Niakari been killed?
The Queen appeared to consider all the available information, as every leader should, carefully.
'Your act of Vengeance is not acceptable,' she finally stated.
Rel gasped, '"Not acceptable?!" But she - '
'She killed your brother, yes, but he was no Amazon, and at the time neither were you. Our oaths and laws do not apply to those outside our society.'
'So I'm an "Outsider" now?'
'Your blood is not Amazon.' Niakari's sister intermitted.
'And yours isn't that of Aries, but you still manage to -'
'Rel! Toak!' Melosa was losing her patience. She turned to the former, 'Rel, your heart is as pure as any of our kind. You fight with pride and courage, and you have grown accustom to our ways. In all respects you are as much an Amazon as any of us.'
'But..?' Rel replied, there had to be one.
'But you have committed one of the highest crimes of our society: you killed another Amazon. It wasn't in a challenge, it was conspired without her knowledge, and is therefore treated as a case of murder.'
Continued...Part IV, V & VI
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