PROTECTOR OF NATIONS

by PruferBlue

 

PruferBlue@aol.com

ęCopyright 1998

Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and characters are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction. 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.

Warning: Some violence, but that's part of the Xena scene. Subtext? About the same as the TV shows: Two strong women who care deeply for each other.

Author's note: This story is set in early Xena time, after The Quest. This is my first attempt at writing fan fiction, and I would greatly appreciate critiques, comments, or why you did or didn't like it. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises. My e-mail address is PruferBlue@aol.com

 

 

 PROTECTOR OF NATIONS

by PruferBlue

 

Chapter 1

A pleasant smell of damp, fertile earth filled the air as Argo's slowly moving hooves disturbed the soil beneath the overhanging trees. Xena's beautifully sculpted face seemed serene and her long, bronzed body, clad in warrior's leathers and armor, rested nonchalantly astride the big palomino. The tranquility of her remarkable, cobalt-blue eyes gave no hint that the dark-haired Warrior Princess meticulously interpreted every sound, every movement in the surrounding woods.

A few yards ahead of the silent rider walked a young woman exhibiting a completely different appearance and temperament. Brimming over with exuberance, the smaller woman, Gabrielle, was fair of face with lively green-mist eyes and strawberry-blonde hair. Clothed in Amazon dress, and using her Amazon staff as a walking stick, she paced steadily along the forest trail.

Gabrielle chattered pleasantly, as bards often do, about whatever came to mind. Engrossed in her latest tale, she didn't see the subtle change that came over Xena as they approached the crest of a small hill, or notice that Argo had been brought to a quiet halt.

Gabrielle crossed over the hill's peak and proceeded down its sloping side, still relating her story. Suddenly, a masked Amazon dropped out of a tree and landed directly in front of her, startling her into silence. Realizing that the Amazon was not making any hostile moves, the bard rapidly recovered her composure. She leaned her staff against her body and raised both hands, clasped in the Amazon salute.

Dappled sunlight sifted through the leaves and bathed the intruder in a shimmering light. The Amazon pushed back her mask and dropped on one knee in front of Gabrielle, bowing her head. "Hail, my Queen," she proclaimed respectfully.

"Solari!" replied Gabrielle. "Arise and let me greet you."

The Amazon arose and her Queen, delighted to see her, gave her a quick hug. Solari was dark: dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin. A little taller than Gabrielle and well muscled, her deferential tone softened her somewhat daunting appearance.

Gabrielle turned around to indicate Xena's presence, but Xena wasn't there. Assuming her friend had stayed on the other side of the hill until she learned the intent of the abrupt confrontation, Gabrielle called out, "It's OK, Xena. It's Solari."

Unexpectedly, Xena dropped down almost on top of them from the same tree Solari had been occupying. Solari instinctively jumped back, Damn! She probably was in that tree even before I left it! How does she do that? A rueful grin twitched around Solari's mouth, but she wasn't sure how it would be received. All the Amazons, in awe of the ex-warlord's superb fighting skills, were extremely wary of angering her.

But Gabrielle laughed at the look on Solari's face, "It's all right, Solari. Nothing much gets ahead of Xena." Praise the gods, Gabrielle mused. "She always catches Ephiny trying to surprise us, too."

Xena quirked up one side of her mouth in a half smile and reached out to Solari. Solari let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding and the two warrior women clasped arms.

"Solari," said the bard. "We're on our way to Amphipolis to visit Xena's family. Are you on a special mission? You're a little far out from Amazon territory."

"Yes, I am, my Queen. Ephiny sent several of our tribe out in a large semicircle to watch for a warlord who's been raiding villages in the vicinity of our land." Solari reported. "He's been subduing them all, large and small. Only one more village stands between us and him, the village of Ellaria, and we think he's coming after it, too," she scowled.

"Who's the warlord?" came the husky drawl from the Queen's armored companion.

"His name is Mictinos and he's got about 300 soldiers with him," Solari answered.

"I know of him," Xena declared. "He's more like a warlord wannabe. Not enough discipline to be a good general. Probably hasn't been getting much resistance." Xena nodded for Solari to continue, "Go ahead."

"The Amazon Council is considering helping the Ellarians defend their town, if he comes their way, but some members don't want to give up our neutrality. They think the warlord will bypass us, as long as we mind our own business," Solari scoffed. "If you could change your plans and come with me now, you'll arrive at a perfect time to lead our council. This is an important decision and I know Ephiny would welcome your presence."

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows ever so slightly and looked toward Xena. Though there was no detectable change in her friend's habitually stoic expression, Gabrielle gave a slight nod, acknowledging that a message of acquiesence had been received. I guess she's willing to let Solari think that the Amazon Queen made this decision, Gabrielle speculated.

"Very well, Solari, we'll come with you. Let's get moving," the bard agreed.

Xena softly whistled for Argo. The golden warhorse trotted over the hill to join them and the warrior handed the reins to Gabrielle. With Xena and Solari scouting ahead, the three women moved swiftly, but carefully, through the hushed forest, slowing down only to pass out food to each other from Argo's saddlebags. They encountered no resistance and finally entered Amazon country as the late afternoon sun filtered through the leafy canopy and cast a golden glow on all it touched.

Soon aware that they were being watched by Amazon guards, all three women stopped and raised clasped hands above their heads, to signify their peaceful disposition.

After allowing an instant for them to be recognized, Solari called one of the guards down from the trees. "Quickly, go to Ephiny. Tell her Queen Gabrielle has arrived and Xena, Warrior Princess, is with her."

As the trio continued on toward the Amazon village, Xena surreptitiously glanced at her friend. She took note of the perceptible transformation that occurred in the little bard every time they entered Amazon territory. She stood a little taller; her voice became a little firmer; she radiated confidence. Gabrielle became a leader.

It made Xena proud to see her friend rise so well to the Amazons' expectations of her as Queen. When they entered Amazon territory, attention focused on Gabrielle, and for once the bard got the respect she deserved.

In the rest of the world, Xena drew the majority of the attention, good and bad alike. Here, as the Amazon Queen, Gabrielle was the important one. The Warrior Princess was just her companion and protector and Xena was happy to stay in the background ...in fact, it was a welcome change.

Ahead of them loomed a large clearing, encircled by huts and various enclosures. Many more huts were placed strategically throughout the surrounding forest, some constructed cleverly within the branches of the largest trees. A number of women could be seen moving about the area, engaged in various duties. Most of them stopped to watch with curiosity as their Queen arrived, but, one by one, their eyes turned, as though drawn by a magnet, to the tall, dark Warrior Princess who strode with supple smoothness beside Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, well aware of the stunning effect Xena was having on them, smiled to herself, Yeah, I may be their Queen, but having the Warrior Princess with me sure bolsters their interest. And my credibility.

As the travelers reached the central area of the compound, a blonde, curly-haired warrior approached them. Ephiny, the Queen's regent, had prepared an honor guard of warriors to receive their leader. "Queen Gabrielle, welcome," hailed Ephiny as all knelt before the bard.

"Rise, Amazons, I salute you!" answered Gabrielle as she pulled her friend Ephiny up and gave her a big hug. The other Amazons rose and stayed back to allow the regent the opportunity to greet their Queen and her companion.

"Queen Gabrielle, we are honored that you have come," Ephiny declared with a big smile.

Wishing also to welcome the warrior who had delivered her son, Ephiny turned to look up at Xena and was momentarily tongue-tied by the nearness of the blue-eyed warrior's intense gaze. "I... er... uh... welcome... to uh... our village, Xena," she stammered. Whew... I forgot about those breathtaking eyes. They could jolt a boulder. And I'm not made of stone...

Hearing Ephiny's hesitation, but not realizing the cause of it, Xena assumed that Ephiny was disturbed by her presence. Guess they wish the Queen would drop me off somewhere else before she comes here, she thought regretfully. I should be used to that by now. The Warrior Princess gave a slight nod and cooly accepted the arm that the Amazon regent offered to her. "Ephiny."

A bit chagrined by her own reaction, Ephiny turned quickly back toward Gabrielle. Calm down, Eph, she chided herself, behind those beautiful baby blues beats a heart of barely controlled fury... and don't you forget it. The Queen's the only one who can cope with that.

Gabrielle threw her arm over Ephiny's shoulders and gave her another quick hug. "It's so good to see you, Ephiny. Give us a chance to wash up and then I want to hear everything you know of this warlord that Solari has been telling us about." The bard then spoke softly to Ephiny in a hushed voice, "And... uh... you can drop the Queen bit, it's just plain Gabrielle, OK?"

Ephiny, warmed by the hug from her friend, smiled and nodded. "The Queen's hut has been prepared for you, with plenty of bathing water and some refreshments, in case you're hungry. Where would you like us to put Xena?" Out of the corner of her eye, Ephiny saw the imposing warrior grow suddenly taller and a menacing look descend on her carved features. Xena scowled. PUT me? What do they think I am? Some kind of pet animal?

Ephiny, realizing at once that she had thoughtlessly insulted a very dangerous woman, quickly reworded her query, "Er... I mean, which hut would *you* like to have, Xena? We have several available."

Gabrielle lightly touched Xena's arm and glanced at her beseechingly to quiet any wayward impulses. "Just put an extra cot in my hut, Eph," Gabrielle said. "Xena goes where I go."

Unconsciously taking a step back from Xena, an uneasy Ephiny glanced toward Solari, who nodded and left quietly.

The warrior still stood ram-rod straight but the bard's touch seemed to calm her and the menacing look slowly dissipated from her face. Whew, thanks Gabrielle, thought Ephiny, I sure don't want to make *her* mad! Ephiny had seen Xena in action and knew that no one in camp was a match for her. No *one*! Who am I kidding? No *ten* are a match for her! I sure hope she'll join us if we decide to go against this warlord.

"After you've cleaned up, we can meet in the tribal hall. Please bring... I mean..." Ephiny reached inside herself for some Amazon courage and fortitude, and looked the Warrior Princess in the eye, "Xena... would you please come to the meeting also? If we're going to talk war, we sure could use your insights. You've had a lot more experience than most of us have."

The Warrior Princess pursed her lips and gave a short nod. Oh well, I hoped I could stay in the background. But not this time around, I guess. Xena started to rethink Ephiny's earlier reaction. I thought she didn't want me here... must have been something else bothering her.

"Thank you," Ephiny acknowledged. Looks like our Queen's influence hasn't loosened Xena's tongue any. But I sure hope she will agree to help us. The way she fights, I don't care if she never talks!

********************

Xena and Gabrielle entered the Queen's hut and proceeded to wash up and enjoy some of the welcome food. An extra cot had already been placed in the hut for Xena. Gabrielle smiled to herself, Aha, so that's where Solari went. My friend's threatening looks make even the Amazons move quickly.

"Xena?" The bard asked around a mouthful of bread and cheese. Gabrielle was seated on a rush-bottomed chair next to the serving table. As close to the food as possible, mused Xena.

"If the Amazons decide to help the Ellarians, will you be willing to help, too? Would you fight alongside the Amazons if you weren't in charge?" Gabrielle understood that the ex-warlord was used to being the one who made the decisions.

Feeling totally refreshed, Xena sat sideways on her cot with her back against the wall and her legs propped up on the crossbeam of the serving table. When she finished downing her mug of wine, she took a deep breath. "Gabrielle, I honestly can't commit to following a leader if I think her strategy is wrong. But I think Ephiny and I could work together on a plan that we would both find acceptable. Ephiny's an excellent fighter and she would make a great warlord. Even though she sometimes tends to be a little intimidated... at least by me," the dark-haired woman finished with a shrug.

Gabrielle snorted, "A lot of people are intimidated by you, my friend, including some warlords I could mention. When you get one of those "warrior looks" on your face... everybody pays attention, even me. Frankly, I'm always glad we're both on the same side!"

With a soft laugh, Xena lowered her feet to the floor, reached forward and set the empty mug on the table.

"C'mon." The bard jumped up, grabbed her friend's hand and pulled hard to help her up off the cot. Xena didn't budge. "C'mon," Gabrielle laughed, "you could at least *pretend* that I'm helping you up! Let's go hear what everybody has to say."

Xena's mouth twisted up in a sardonic grin as she let the next pull lift her from the cot. "Just don't want you getting the idea that a 'Queen' can push a 'Princess' around."

"No danger of my ever going there," Gabrielle vowed. I thought that 'Where do you want to PUT Xena,' stung her feelings. What can I say to make it up to her?

"Seriously, 'Princess,' if I'm ever foolhardy enough to treat you like one of my subjects, just give me a look like you gave Ephiny today, and I'll shut right up. I can cringe with the best of them!"

The tall woman, appeased, laid a long arm past the bard's shoulder and patted her on the back as her silky voice threatened melodramatically, "I'll remember that, m'dear."

Gabrielle, relieved that the warrior was now in a better mood, reached her arm around Xena's waist and gave her a quick, answering squeeze as the two friends walked out the door.

 

Chapter 2

In the tribal hut, ten Amazons, plus Ephiny, the Queen's regent, were seated at a long table. Gabrielle crossed the room and took the Queen's chair, next to Ephiny. Xena remained standing by the door, near the foot of the table. She leaned negligently against the wall, where she could observe without drawing unwanted attention.

"All right, Ephiny, fill us in on the situation," the Queen directed.

Ephiny rose and began to speak, "A warlord named Mictinos has destroyed every village near here, both large and small. Now, there is only one left between him and us, the village of Ellaria, and our scouts report he is about two days' march away from it. Mictinos' army is large, about 200 soldiers. Ellaria, even if prepared to fight him, doesn't have the strength to win. If we add our number and experience to their side, the village stands a chance to survive." Those present were listening carefully to every word.

"We could combine our fighters, move their women and children here, out of danger, and engage the army either outside or inside their town. That would give the village a chance to win, but there are no guarantees. If we should lose that battle, no doubt Mictinos would next move into Amazon territory. We would most likely be wiped out, too." Ephiny stopped a moment to let that sink in.

"Some of our people want to stay neutral," she resumed, "thinking if Mictinos gets resupplied from Ellaria, he'll honor our neutrality and bypass us. After all, most armies hesitate to stir up the Amazon warriors."

"What's your opinion about that, Ephiny?" Gabrielle interjected.

"I think we don't dare assume that Mictinos will bypass us. If he doesn't, we will have lost the opportunity to add the Ellarian people to our number, and we don't have time to send for assistance from any other Amazon tribes. He would have a good chance to defeat us," Ephiny stated. A stir ran through the group and some of the Amazons nodded their heads in agreement.

Another Amazon, Peraka, jumped up and spoke out, vehemently, "I don't agree, Ephiny. Lately, no other warlord has attempted to interfere with our neutrality. I say we should keep to ourselves and let the villagers worry about their own. If he does come our way, we can just take what's on our backs and disappear into the forest until he leaves. Then we can return and rebuild, if we have to, with no loss of life." There was a murmur as a few Amazons seemed to agree with Peraka.

Gabrielle noticed that as Peraka was speaking, Xena moved away from the wall and stood up straight, her arms crossed and her jaw set. I do believe she actually wants to speak to the group, the Queen marvelled.

"Thank you, Ephiny, Peraka. Does anyone else wish to speak before we have a general discussion? No? In that case, to those of you who don't already know her, I want to introduce my friend, Xena, called the Warrior Princess.

"Many of you know that Xena is a former warlord who has changed her path. Since she has had experience in situations such as ours, especially from a warlord's point of view, I'd like to ask her to give us her opinion, and how she thinks Mictinos might react. Are there any objections?" Gabrielle waited for a moment, then nodded to her friend, "Go ahead, Xena."

Xena stepped forward... Dark brown leathers covered with armor, arm bracers, knee boots, chakram at her hip and sheathed sword along her back. Truly a warrior, with a warrior's somber expression.

Tall and imposing, Xena's dark hair framed a face striking in its power and beauty. Two blue bolts swept the room, crackling into eye contact with every single listener. Shifting chairs scraped and creaked as each Amazon pulled in closer to the table and sat up a little straighter.

Her low-pitched, but distinct, voice forced them to concentrate to hear every word. "I speak to you with no bias, other than experience. Gabrielle is right. I have been in Mictinos' shoes many times. So, I know exactly how he thinks, and what he plans." The blue daggers stabbed around the room as she spoke.

"He has taken every single village in a fifty mile area... even the small ones that are usually more trouble than they are worth. That tells me that he is looking to set up a base camp here, maybe a winter camp. If that proves to be the case, your territory is not safe. He won't want an Amazon village near his base."

The warrior paused for a moment to let her listeners grasp that idea, then continued, "But, let's assume for the sake of argument that a strategic base is not in his plans. Will he or won't he come after the Amazons? First, let's look more closely at the possibilities."

Blue eyes sparked and the voice grew a little stronger; one finger flung out from a balled fist, raised chest high. "Number one: Mictinos destroys the village of Ellaria, and bypasses the Amazon territory. You will be safe. But you will be hated forevermore by the Ellarians for your refusal to help, when help was desperately needed." A pregnant pause...

Blue eyes ignited and the voice became stronger yet; a second finger snapped out. "Number two: Mictinos destroys the village of Ellaria, and doesn't bypass you. You'll be hated for not helping the Ellarians, and your territory most probably will be destroyed. And," electric blue eyes sizzled directly into Peraka's shocked brown ones, "if you run this time, you will be forced to run by every warlord who has an eye on your territory... forever. And who can say for sure that you'll ever get it back?" Another short pause...

Blue eyes flamed and the voice gained force; a third finger jolted out to join the other two. "Number three: You help Ellaria. You gain favor with the Ellarians, and you preserve your territory. And, you send a message to any present, and future, warlords who may crave your territory that the Amazons will FIGHT to hold onto and protect what is rightfully theirs!

Xena took a deep breath, leaned forward and placed both powerful hands flat on the table, long fingers splayed. The passion-driven voice pitched low again. "Let me also tell you this." The Warrior Princess lowered her head slightly, and her gleaming eyes narrowed to ice-blue slits. Her voice strengthened and hardened and her lip curled. The rhythm of her speech slowed to a compelling, almost hypnotic beat: "Make... no... mistake.... NO... warlord... will bypass... what he thinks... is easy pickings.... His greed... won't let him do it, his pride... won't let him do it, and his lust for power... won't let him do it."

Removing her strong hands from the table, the Warrior Princess rose to her full height, tall and majestic. The dark-haired head thrust back and the chin came up, jutting out in challenge. Once smoldering blue-flamed eyes now blazed out, cauterizing the room, purging any hesitancy that remained. As the flames leapt from the commander's eyes, they ignited an answering fire in each one of her troops...a fire that wordlessly forged an unbreakable warrior bond.

The Warrior Princess paused ominously. Then, an iron fist was raised. Xena's lips pulled back against her teeth in a feral rictus and her voice thundered, "I... say... FIGHT!" The fist crashed down against the table; tumultuous waves of vibrations clamored down its length and stormed into the bones and heart of each Amazon. There was a stunned silence...

The ex-warlord reached up and violently jerked her sword from its sheath on her back. In the silence, the hiss and snick it made sounded as deadly as a snake. In one motion, she twirled the blade and raised it on high. Her thundering voice came again...this time with the words punctuated by thrusts of the sword skyward, "And I... will fight... too!"

Xena sheathed her sword with a crash, and her passion was sheathed along with it. She stalked over to the near wall and stood against it, her arms folded across her chest and her impassive warrior look set in concrete on her face. There was not a sound in the hut for ten heartbeats. Then the whole room burst into cheers with the Amazons thumping the table and chanting, "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!"

While Xena had been spurring the Amazons on, Gabrielle could feel chills running up and down her body and fine hairs rising on the back of her neck. She was dumbstruck with wonder. What a magnificent performance! And I've always thought Xena had trouble putting words together. I see now she only needs the right subject!

Another thought struck Gabrielle and chilled her heart, I've just experienced firsthand how the Warrior Princess urged her troops into battle. Gods, she even makes *me* want to run out of here with a sword in my hand, skewering every enemy in sight. No wonder she conquered half of Greece.

After allowing the women a few moments to demonstrate their feelings, and her own heart to stop thumping, Gabrielle got them quieted down. "To make this legal for our Nation, we have to vote," the Queen reminded them. "Each of you has one black pebble and one white pebble. Black is fight; white is no fight. Drop your choice in the pot."

Ephiny held out the pot to one Amazon after another until all had dropped a pebble in it. She then handed the pot to Gabrielle. The bard dumped the pot's contents onto the table in full view of all those present. All the pebbles were black. The Amazons cheered again.

"Well, that's settled. We fight," breathed Gabrielle, shushing them again. Ephiny was poking the bard in the side with her elbow. "Ephiny, you have a question?"

Ephiny waited for silence, then said, "Two questions, my Queen. First, would you be willing to ask the Warrior Princess to lead us into battle? And second, would she be willing to do it?" Ephiny turned to look at Xena who still leaned almost idly against the wall, her eyes hooded.

Gabrielle responded, "Suppose we let Xena answer for herself. Certainly if she would agree to lead us, I would be foolish to refuse her help." Gabrielle turned toward her friend, too. Look at her! I know she'd give her eye teeth to lead this battle, but she won't say another word until we ask her. She looks like she could care less! "Xena, will you take command of the Amazons?"

There was an instant metamorphosis. Xena uncrossed her arms, straightened up, threw her shoulders back and strode rapidly to the head of the table. The warlord had reappeared. The air of command that now emanated from her was unmistakable. "Yes, I will. We'll have to hurry. It looks like we'll have only the rest of today, all day tomorrow, and maybe part of tomorrow night to prepare. Ephiny, where are your maps?" The warrior quickly began issuing orders, already focused on preparing for battle.

"Solari, go to the village. Tell them we will join their fight but if they want our help they must get their elders out here at once, tonight. And their militia leaders. We need their information. Also a count on their horses. And tell them to prepare to evacuate the whole village and bring them here as soon as possible. Also, we'll need someone from the village to assist us in providing and preparing food for that many people while they are here. Tell them there's no time to lose." Solari was moving through the door even as Xena spoke.

"Eponin, you will be second in command to Ephiny. Give me a count on your horses, your warriors, what arms and arrows you have. Send word to the outlying scouts of our decision to fight, and tell them to fall back as Mictinos approaches and keep in constant touch with us."

The commander-in-chief turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, we'll need medical supplies, a treatment area, and healers near the battlefield. Appoint someone here as liaison with the Ellarians. They'll need to figure out where to quarter all the villagers... and have them check the foodstuffs."

Beckoning Ephiny to her side, she continued, "Ephiny, I'll lead the villagers and some of the Amazons and you'll be in charge of the rest of the Amazon forces. Let's get to work on strategy. Here's what I have in mind..."

 

Chapter 3

The village of Ellaria lay peacefully in a depression in the mountain. It was bordered on both the left and the right by thick trees and brambles. The Amazon territory lay off some miles to the left, through heavy forest. In back of the village was bare ground leading to a sheer eighty-foot drop into a boulder-strewn ravine. Along the rim of the ravine could be seen empty posts where a fence had existed prior to today. The only clear path to the village lay along the open road which passed through the meadows and fields that the Ellarians farmed.

Mictinos had enjoyed huge success as he pillaged and plundered through the surrounding countryside. His army had met with little or no resistance throughout the campaign. Both Mictinos and his army had gotten overconfident and sloppy. The warlord had not even thought out a strategy for taking the next village. His lone idea was, "Wipe out Ellaria and then on to Amazon territory!"

The outlaw figured Ellaria could be destroyed in two days at most; let the army take a couple days' rest then mount a forest campaign to get rid of the Amazons once and for all. That way he could turn this whole countryside into a winter staging area for all the rest of his campaigns.

The army had camped overnight about two candlemarks' march from Ellaria. A pre-dawn start had them passing along the road into the village by early morning. As the first brigands entered the village, they encountered a few villagers on the streets, but no one offered resistance... they ran as soon as they saw the army closing in. Of course, this didn't slow the marauders down one bit. They just kept moving through the town, plundering goods from homes and shops, happy to be unopposed.

Mictinos might have suspected something was wrong if he had entered the village at the head of his army. But he and his generals were lollygagging in the rear, nursing hangovers from a celebration the night before. He didn't know Ellaria was empty until he rode into it himself, at the very end of the column. His ineptitude sealed the fate of his army.

By the time the warlord had an inkling that a trap might have been set, it was too late. YiYiYiYiYiYi.....rocketed across the flatland as an armor-clad woman, astride a palomino warhorse and swinging a huge sword, led a mixture of villagers and Amazons in a charge toward the army. Half on horseback and half on foot, they poured out from among the trees where they had been concealed on each side of the entrance to the village.

They proceeded to close on the rear of Mictinos' men. The woman warrior fought incessantly, first from horseback and then on foot, urging her untried troops on by her own brilliance in battle. Those who fought nearest her were amazed at her strength, agility, and sheer endurance. The few who were close enough to catch a clear look at her face saw it lit with a savage light and a feral smile. One who got an up close and personal look at it was Mictinos himself. Xena had fought fiercely through numerous soldiers, four generals and two aides to get to him. Now they lay dead, dying or wounded before him.

Mictinos had heard unbelievable tales of the Warrior Princess' prowess in battle, legends that he had scoffed at. As the fighting progressed and she drew ever nearer, he witnessed that she was even more astonishing than they proclaimed. Wielding a mighty sword, she fought with fists, feet, knees, forearms, elbows, and head... slicing, thrusting, pounding, kicking, butting... whatever would do the job. Her smooth, efficient motions would have been beautiful to watch had she not been doing a dance of death. Too soon, they were face to face. A low growl issued from her twisted lips, "Hello, Mictinos, meet your fate."

Fear sent icicles down Mictinos' spine. As he swung his weapon in desperation, the Warrior Princess parried, jumped over or ducked under every attempted blow. Mictinos couldn't lay a sword on her. Then she went on the attack, slowly but inexorably forcing him backwards until he was separated from the main body of the fighting. Once Xena had him in the clear, she suddenly somersaulted over his head, let out a battle cry, landed behind him and thrust her sword through him as he turned, too late, to face her. With a curl of her lip, she placed a foot on his dying body and yanked her sword out of his chest.

Then, without a breath of hesitation, the woman warrior flipped back to the head of the crowd that was slowly forcing the warlord's army backward through the town. Her presence reignited their spirits and urged them on to even more valiant efforts. Her seemingly unlimited surge of energy electrified farmers, tradesmen and Amazons, alike.

As the soldiers were pushed deeper and deeper into the village, they were assailed with arrows from the nearby trees. Even more Amazons, including their Queen, dropped from the trees along either side of the village and attacked anyone near them. The army was caught in a three-sided vise that was squeezing them through the streets, toward the lip of the ravine.

Gabrielle could see Xena fighting off to her right and slowly edged her way toward her friend. The bard fought through the brigands with her staff, first sweeping her assailants off their feet and then rendering them unconscious with sturdy blows to the head or the midsection.

Two enemy soldiers dropping from a rooftop managed to stomp on Xena's back and knock the breath out of her as they all three smashed to the ground. Two other soldiers dropped on either side of her. One pinned her sword hand with a foot, and they both poised to strike her with their weapons. Xena, almost paralyzed from loss of air, knew she couldn't avoid both thrusts. With a monumental effort, she threw her opposite arm and shoulder into the free leg of the soldier who was standing on her sword hand, upsetting his balance and toppling him away from her.

Even as she moved, the Warrior Princess mentally deadened her senses, expecting a hit from the other soldier. Instead, she felt a crash next to her and heard a hard thump. Lifting her sword, twisting around and gasping to recover her wind, Xena looked up into menacing green eyes that softened as they met her startled blue ones. The bard had taken down and deactivated the threatening soldier with some expert swipes of her staff.

"Gabrielle," Xena croaked, "thanks!" As the armor-clad woman scrambled up, she looked past Gabrielle and caught the eye of Solari who had been discreetly protecting her Queen's back. Xena gave a slight nod of acknowledgement, then she and Gabrielle rejoined the battle, now fighting side by side.

During a momentary lull in their fighting, the warrior turned to her friend and, frowning, growled, "I thought you were with the healers."

"I know that's where you wanted me to be, Xena, but I'm the Amazon Queen. We don't send our warriors into a battle and then sit it out ourselves! Besides," Gabrielle turned one of Xena's own "looks" toward her. Lifting an eyebrow and quirking her lips, she smirked, "It's lucky for you I was here."

The deep ocean-blue eyes got even deeper. Xena's left hand clamped down on the bard's shoulder and shook her lightly. "You got that right!" The two friends grinned at each other and went back to the fray.

The fighting continued fast and furious. The Amazons on the flanks, led by Ephiny on the left and Eponin on the right, fought like wildcats, refusing to let anybody escape into the trees. The other Amazons and villagers, with Xena and Gabrielle leading them, kept pressuring the army toward the ravine, never giving them a chance to regroup or mount a counterstrike.

Those plunderers who weren't killed or maimed by the onslaught were forced over the edge of the horrifying drop and either died outright or succumbed to the severe injuries they suffered in the fall. By midday, the army was totally destroyed. The battle was over.

A number of Amazons and villagers also fell in the fighting. Some were injured; some were killed. But everyone recognized that Xena's leadership and her sheer force of will had kept the losses to a minimum.

As word went back to the Amazon territory that the fighting was finished, the women, children, and old folks from Ellaria returned to their homes.

All the wounded were taken to tents that were erected near a healer's home in the village. Xena and Gabrielle and the Amazon healer went to the tents to offer their services. All were welcomed and put to work.

Xena's knowledge of pinch points to stop pain proved to be invaluable where bones needed to be set or wounds sutured. And, of course, after using the pinch points, Xena was the one who set the bones and sutured the wounds. Gabrielle stayed by Xena's side to assist her and was fascinated, as always, that this fierce warrior displayed such a gentle touch with her patients. She doesn't say much, but she sure does convey something to them. You can see a change for the better the moment she touches them. And I thought it was just me she had that comforting effect on!

Finally, they had worked their way through all those who needed their skills. Xena looked over at the bard whose eyes were getting droopy, and reflected, She looks like she'll sleep soundly tonight. Well, that means at least one of us will.

Finished with cleaning the last patient, the bard sighed and lifted her soft green eyes to meet her friend's striking blue ones. "What do you say, Xena? We've done a good day's work. Let's go home and get some rest."

The two friends promised to come back the next day and help the Ellarians clean up their town. Xena, Gabrielle, and the Amazon healer returned to the Amazon settlement.

 

Chapter 4

As they entered the enclave, they discovered that Ephiny had ordered a small feast prepared to celebrate the day's victory. Gabrielle laughed, "Believe it or not, I didn't know I was hungry until I saw all this food. Thanks, Ephiny. That was a perfect idea." Ephiny beamed at this welcome praise from her friend and Queen.

While they feasted, a delegation of village elders from Ellaria arrived. Their spokesman said, "We certainly expect to show our appreciation for your assistance in a larger way in the future. But, for today, we just want to thank all you Amazons and your Queen and your Warrior Princess for helping to save our town." Gabrielle graciously accepted their thanks and invited them to join the feast.

Meanwhile, Ephiny, seated next to Gabrielle, had taken a large mouthful of wine just as the delegate was finishing his speech. She desperately covered her lips to smother the panicky snort that threatened to explode. Our Warrior Princess? Bet Xena loves that! She glanced quickly across the room at the proud warrior standing near the door. Xena's eyes caught and bored into Ephiny's. Dark eyebrows slammed down and her eyes narrowed to slits. That look nearly knocked the breath right out of Ephiny, but as her eyes remained locked on those impossibly blue ones, the ex-warlord's expressive eyebrows changed direction. They lifted high behind the raven bangs and the now twinkling eyes opened wide and rolled in merriment.

Ephiny lost it. She spewed the wine out through her fingers and caught most of it on herself. Coughing uncontrollably, she made motions to excuse herself from the table and ran outside. Smack into Xena, who had preceded her. The taller, darker woman thumped the tall, blonde one on the back until the coughing stopped. "Xena," gasped Ephiny, red liquid dripping down her chin and her body, "You're going to pay for this."

"What you gonna do, Eph?" the warrior princess drawled, "Drown me with wine?" Both women burst into giggles. No one, but no one would believe this, marvelled Ephiny, the most ferocious fighter in today's battle standing here giggling! I can hardly believe it myself. Well, Gabrielle did try to tell us that Xena has a human side, too. Wait till I tell Eponin and Solari about this.

Xena had grabbed a piece of cloth on the way outside and, still laughing, handed it to Ephiny to wipe some of the wine off herself. Ephiny finally managed to regain some control and remarked soberly, "You know, Xena, all kidding aside, I want to personally thank you for leading us in the battle, today. Things could have turned out differently if we hadn't had you on our side. You are one incredible warrior. If we ever need help again, I know who I want to ask first."

Amusement still lingered in those cerulean eyes. "Ephiny, as long as Gabrielle is your Queen, I will be ready and willing to help. Just as she said our first day here, where she goes, I go. And where I go, she goes. That's what friends do, stand up for each other.

Ephiny grinned slyly, "Well then, I guess as long as Gabrielle is Queen, you WILL be our Warrior Princess."

Xena tilted her chin down and gave Ephiny another "look." Ephiny froze. A long, bronzed hand reached out and, as Ephiny blinked, cuffed her playfully on the shoulder. "You're getting as sassy as the bard," Xena growled. Then she smiled and Ephiny relaxed for the moment, thinking, How can Gabrielle ever really feel comfortable around someone as dangerous as Xena? I'd be uneasy. I am uneasy! Ephiny sighed. But she really is a remarkable warrior. And those eyes!

Xena sensed Ephiny's trepidation. In fact, that was what had tempted her to tease Ephiny with some of her warrior looks. But now Xena took pity on the likeable Amazon, and decided to give her an honest appraisal of the battle.

"You and Eponin and your Amazons fought well today, Ephiny. If you hadn't contained those flanks, the army could have gotten behind us. That would have been the end of all of us. And I want to thank you for having Solari watch out for Gabrielle. I know you did that because she's your Queen, but I'm grateful because you protected my friend. I'll fight alongside you any day." The Warrior Princess reached out to Ephiny and the two women smiled and locked arms in the warrior handshake.

 

Chapter 5

The next morning, Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and some of the other Amazons returned to Ellaria to help bury the dead marauders that had been left lying where they had fallen. The Ellarians dug a huge pit on the outskirts of the village and Gabrielle and Ephiny waited at the pit to arrange the bodies as Xena and the others gathered them from throughout the village.

Depressed by the carnage, and reflecting that even these criminals probably had families, the bard fumed to Ephiny, "This is the part that those power-hungry warlords never see. I wonder if they ever give any thought to the terrible results of their rampaging? They destroy families and sometimes even whole villages in pursuit of their "'glory.'" As she reached up to receive another body from Xena, she caught her breath as she saw a ripple of torment pass over the stony impassivity of Xena's face. Ooooh, no. That had to hurt, Gabrielle berated herself.

Throughout the clean up, Xena's face had been frozen in what the bard referred to as her "warrior mode." Shutting everything out was her way of coping with the terrible task of gathering the dead. But now, as Gabrielle looked up at Xena, a flash of soul-searing pain shot out like blue thunderbolts from those agonized eyes.

"Xena," Gabrielle groaned through her suddenly tight throat, "please, don't. Don't let what I've thoughtlessly said in anger make this any worse for you than it already is. You did nothing wrong here. You are trying to help now. Keep in mind that, because of you, the monster who did this will never commit another atrocity against innocent people. Please, I beg you, remember the GOOD you are doing."

The intensity of that anguished stare bored a hole through Gabrielle's heart. The warrior stood quietly for a long moment then wrenched her eyes away from the bard's and slowly walked away, shoulders slightly drooping, in search of the next body.

Here I go again. Xena is the last person on this earth I would ever want to see get hurt, and I go and do it myself with my heedless words. I don't liken her to these murdering warlords, but she does. I have to remember that! Gabrielle moved a hand up to brush away the tears that threatened to overflow onto her cheeks.

Ephiny reached over and put her hand on the bard's shoulder. "Xena has demons only she can get rid of, Gabrielle. But she cares deeply for you. If she will let you get past that formidable armor she wears to protect her soul, perhaps you can help her learn to forgive herself."

"I hope that I can, Ephiny. And thank you," the bard softly murmured. But I think that's going to be a neverending quest.

 

Chapter 6

Their horrifying task completed, Xena and Gabrielle took leave of the Amazons and resumed their interrupted journey toward Amphipolis. Throughout the day, the bard observed that the warrior hardly uttered a sound. Not that she's ever long-winded. But this is a different kind of silence. She's still beating herself up over those stupid remarks I made. Only an occasional word or grunt greeted Gabrielle's attempts to engage Xena in conversation.

Eventually, they made camp for the evening near the shore of a small lake. After everything was set up, Xena walked down to the lake's edge. Gabrielle supposed she intended to catch some fish for their supper. But when the bard next looked up, she noticed that her friend wasn't fishing...

Xena stood ramrod-stiff at the shore, gazing with unseeing steel-blue eyes toward the horizon. Her countenance was still hardened into the harsh, unyielding warrior visage she had once been infamous for. No hint showed on her face of the guilt-ridden accusations that had been clanging against her skull all day, dredging up the self-hate that she constantly battled.

Gabrielle is right. I laid waste to towns and villages time after time with little or no thought to the agonizing aftermath of destruction. How could anyone forgive me for all the devastation I caused? How can I ever forgive myself? How can I ever make amends? Will doing good now ever erase these horrible memories?

"Xena."

Xena's arm jerked away from the unexpected touch, as her tense body nearly struck out at the *attacker.* Just as quickly, she realized it was Gabrielle, not an enemy, and her friend was spared retaliation. Why didn't I feel her approach? Was I too absorbed in recriminations? Get a grip, here, Xena.

Gods, thought Gabrielle, when will I learn not to touch her until after I speak? From the look on her face, I'm lucky to still be standing. But, I know she's hurting and I need to help her. She looks so alone.

"Xena, I just want you to know I'm here for you," Gabrielle murmured as she reached again for her friend. "No matter what you did in the past, please remember you are a good person now and I love you." Taking Xena's left hand in hers, she looked up at the warrior with mist-green eyes full of tender concern.

Xena's hand felt like a lump of ice. Gabrielle willed the warmth from her own body to flow into Xena's -- to warm her body, her heart, her soul. For a few long moments, nothing changed. Then... yes!... a miniscule melting slowly began to defrost the frozen features. The strong hand that could easily snuff out a life closed gently on the smaller one within it. "Why... do you keep coming back, Gabrielle? I... don't deserve you," the low, vibrant voice managed to work its way haltingly past Xena's tightly reined emotions.

Whoa, thought the bard, let me try a little humor--maybe I can break her completely out of this funk. I want to help her get past the pain, but she scares me when she gets like this. As much as I love her, I'm never 100 percent sure that she won't thump me instead of thanking me!

Gabrielle tugged on Xena's hand, arched her eyebrows and grinned wickedly. "You know, Xena, maybe you do deserve me. How do you know I'm not part of your punishment?"

Startled blue eyes slewed down at impish green ones. For several heartbeats, both women just looked at each other. Then the taller one's eyebrow went up and the edge of her mouth slowly turned up in a one-sided grin. She let go of the hand that was enclosed in hers and reached out with both strong arms, pulling her friend into a close embrace. "Oh, Gabrielle," came the throaty confession, "if you're part of the punishment, I hope I have to make amends forever."

 

Epilogue

Stories were told and re-told for years about the Battle of Ellaria and the destruction of Mictinos' army. Accolades were poured on the awe-inspiring Warrior Princess who had formed the Amazons and villagers into one potent force, and led them to victory. Around Ellaria and in the Amazon territory, Xena no longer was referred to as a Destroyer of Nations. Her new title was... Protector of Nations.

 

The End.

 

Hope you enjoyed the story. Please comment to PruferBlue@aol.com

 


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