Xena: Warrior Princess
A Gift of Life
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, and the usual suspect Amazons belong to Renaissance/MCA/Universal, and are being burrowed and exercised without the R/M/U folks permission. The Celtic myth stuff is real, though altered somewhat for the tales being told, and Aidan is my creation, the Rangers are a combination of the real world special forces types and Tolkien styled guardians.
If other bards want to borrow Aidan, the Rangers and Children of Danu, please make sure you get them home in time for bed. Eponin dislikes her mate wandering too far, for too long.
Love/Sex Warning: This, and the following tales, show X&G and the other female characters in loving, sexual relationships. If you are too young, shoo for now and celebrate being young. If this is illegal where you live, please do not read until you have moved to a more enlightenment dwelling place.
In this tale, and Dark Hunter, the crime of rape is part of the story.
Violence: Ahuh, this is a Xena tale. Xena carries sharp thingies, has a fondest to kicking evil's butt and watching bad things run for the hills.
Timeline warning: I have departed from the show in many ways, since I will not be having Xena kill the Gods and Goddesses, so there will be no Eve. Elli will appear, but the story line will not have the heaven/hell arch. I will use the shows that fit my version of the Xena universe where our leather clad babe and her cute warrior-bard with Aidan and the others want to go.
Elli's such a nice boy; he is settling down to good and will help many. He's too nice a boy to kill, and he tells me he's a catch for the right gal.
Xena stretched her lower back, thinking about the sweet loving she and Gabrielle had shared last night. She glanced toward the lake where her beloved bard and some other Amazons were bathing. Xena turned her attention back to Joxxer, the Mighty, gnawing on a leg of mutton with relish. Hercules and Ioalus were drilling with the balance of the Amazon contingent.
Three hundred Amazons drilling in unison was a stirring sight to behold. Xena had been given command of the combined force of Amazons and Centaurs that had rallied against the most dangerous warlord since Xena herself. Bedir had raised a formidable army of well trained veterans of the Roman legion like himself.
He had proved a cunning opponent, and the three engagements the two armies had fought ended in stalemates. Bedir had been a Roman legionnaire, and trained his men and women in the methods utilized by the Roman Army. He had been methodically attacking villages, towns and cities within a twenty day ride of his fortified stronghold in Thessaly.
He had razed dozens of villages and towns, slaughtering those he could not sell to slave traders. Ares' newest protˇgˇ had proven himself worthy of the mantle Xena had once proudly worn. Bedir had spilled the blood of hundreds in the name of the God of War, vowing to crush all that had opposed his master. He had attacked both the Amazons and the Centaurs, destroying two of their towns.
Xena sighed. Bedir's army outnumbered her force's four to one, but the Amazons and Centaurs under her banner were great fighters. Four hundred warriors against sixteen hundred were not the best odds, but Ephiny and Solari were raising more troops. Athens and Sparta were convinced they were not in direct danger, and had not sent forces. Sentries watched the encampment's perimeter, and more Rangers arrived each day to help Aidan and Harmon scout for Xena.
Harmon lounged next a very handsome healer named Phineas, talking softly. The dark haired, blue-eyed Ranger had taken an arrow meant for the Amazon Queen the last time the two armies had fought. Xena had been too far away, and her chakrum had embedded itself in a dead soldier. The Ranger had hurtled forward before the elite Royal Guard could react. It had pierced his shoulder rather than Gabrielle's breast.
Aidan had spotted the Scythian archer concealed on a bluff high above the battle field. She had sighted and released two arrows in the space of a heartbeat. The Royal Guard formed a shield wall around their queen and the wounded Ranger as the battle continued.
Harmon let his lover examine his healed limb, teasing the blonde haired, grey eyed healer affectionately. Phineas pronounced the Ranger well enough to resume his duties as a scout. Xena needed the skills the Rangers possessed for intelligence. Aidan and Harmon had learned about the alliance forged between Bedir and Darius of Persia. The great-grandson of the famous monarch, the young prince wished to win himself a reputation.
Bedir and Darius intended to conquer the Greece and the Greek Islands. Darius's army was on the move, having landed six days ago. He brought five hundred soldiers, half of them Calvary troops. Aidan had overheard the prince had brought his kinsmen. A sorcerer named Modred. Ephiny and Solari would bring another four hundred Amazon warriors, and another two hundred Centaurs would be accompanying the Amazons.
If they arrived in time. Xena shook her head. This valley was remote enough to prevent the loss of innocent lives, should they fail.
Rome had been embroiled in dark intrigues of late, her attention focused on hunting down the assassins of Julius Ceaser. Battles within the elite circle of Rome society had kept August busy. Movements of such large numbers of soldiers could not go unnoticed for much longer. She needed to end this thing before Rome became involved.
Gabrielle, Eponin and Dara entered the main encampment, discussing the current troop strength issue. Centaurs' sentries acknowledged the three Amazons with formal bows, more than one of them watched the group with appreciative eyes. Bonds of friendship had been forged between the Amazons and Centaurs due to the work of the Regent.
Hercules discovered that many of the Amazon warriors were interested in mating with him. The demigod understood their rationale: his bloodline would grant the Amazons strong daughters and sons.
Male children would be given to trusted allies to raise, an ancient Amazon custom. The girls would be raised in the traditions of their mothers' mothers. Hercules had politely, but firmly declined the requests for his stud services. If she or Gabrielle asked, he would not decline.
She and Gabrielle had discussed the idea of having a family soon. They were not the only ones discussing the matter. Ephiny, Solari, Aidan and Eponin were thinking about having children too. Xena shook her head, noting the irony of how seeing death and carnage made life sweeter.
Aidan emerged from the walled tent she and Eponin shared, settling her sword sheath's baldric across her chest. Xena frowned. The Ranger never slept late, and it was well past dawn. Joxxer offered Aidan a bite of the mutton. Aidan's skin tone almost matched the evergreen color of her leather jerkin when she spun away, and emptied the contents of her stomach violently.
Harmon and Phineas broke from their impassioned embrace and trotted toward the stricken woman. Joxxer crinkled his nose, and surmised Aidan was not feeling very hungry. Joxxer smacked his lips, and tore off another hunk of greasy meat. Aidan groaned, and threw up again.
Xena gently urged the good-natured man away, and touched Aidan's quivering shoulders. "How long have you been sick?"
A guilty look flickered across the Ranger's face when she was asked the question. She gratefully accepted the water skin Phineas handed her, rinsing her mouth out. "About twelve days now..just happens in the mornings."
Xena's eyebrows arched, and Phineas met her eyes. Harmon seemed puzzled by the significance of the reply, worried his friend had become ill. Eponin came running forward, having heard Aidan was ill. Gabrielle and Dara were fast on the arm's master's heels.
Aidan rarely caught colds, and never suffered stomach ailments due to the training she had undergone. Aidan could eat almost anything without becoming ill, though Joxxer's cooking could make Dahok himself beg for forgiveness.
"Aidan?" Eponin glanced down at the mess. She tenderly swept a stray locket of chestnut hair out of the Ranger's stormy gray eyes. "What's wrong with her? This is the third morning she's been sick like this."
"It's twelve days now, according to Aidan," Joxxer supplied, rejoining the group. He popped another hunk of meat into his mouth, and gobbled it down. "You know, this meat could use some gravy."
Aidan covered her mouth, turning aside to be sick again. She barely missed Xena's booted feet. Xena hitched a thumb at Joxxer, "Dara, get him out of here."
Gabrielle had had her breakfast, but the sick Ranger looked like she might have company soon. Gabrielle could take grisly wounds, blood and infection, but vomit still made the young Queen green. Xena sighed, shaking her head.
"Aidan, when did you have your moon flow?" Phineas asked delicately, very aware of the Amazonian culture.
Aidan look confused, letting Eponin's strong hands caress her tense shoulders. She accepted more water, and narrowed her eyes in concentration. "Over a month and a half ago," Aidan replied. "But my moon flow is never regular when I am on patrol. Niclo says it's due to the amount of exercise I get."
Xena knew the others had not realized what she and Phineas had. The Warrior Princess cleared her throat, and phrased her question with care. "Aidan, have you lain with anyone other than Eponin?"
"Xena!" Eponin snapped, dismayed by the question. There had been times the couple had enjoyed the company of the Regent and her consort. It had been months since they had last celebrated life in such a manner.
It was not an uncommon practice within Amazon culture, and Xena and Gabrielle had been part of such joining on several occasions. Eponin did not mind discussing such matters with her sisters, but in front of men.
Aidan sipped the warm water gratefully, rinsing her mouth several times. She shook her head. "No; we have been fighting alongside you these last six weeks. I have lain with no one other than Ep."
Dara had overheard the tale end of the conversation as the Queen confined Aidan to the encampment for the day. Xena crossed looks with her lover, and knew she had figured out what Aidan and Eponin had not.
"Aidan, can I examine you?" Xena asked softly.
"What' the matter with her, Xena?" Eponin's voice had risen an octave from her normally husky tones.
"Ah, Eponin, can I talk with you?" Gabrielle requested, noticing how fast Phineas hauled his beloved behind him. Harmon kept asking what was wrong with Aidan.
Dara told the Royal Guard the Queen and the Arm's master, and cleared her throat. "You and Aidan have been discussing having children, right?"
Eponin's cobalt-blue eyes softened, and she grinned bashfully. Gabrielle smiled back, recalling how harsh and demanding the warrior had been when they first met. Eponin was a stern teacher, a disciplined warrior whose fierceness in battle matched Xena's own. She was a fine commander, too. But Eponin possessed a very gentle and loving nature she shared with her friends and mate. "Yes; we have been discussing it."
Xena heard Eponin's reaction to the news Gabrielle was giving her. Xena had confirmed her suspicions: Aidan was pregnant. Eponin came dashing inside the tent where Aidan sat, absorbing the news.
"Aidan?" Eponin hesitated, uncertain what to say.
"I can't explain it . . . " Aidan whispered, resting a hand over her still flat, toned belly. "I have lain with no one but you, love."
Eponin nodded, trusting her mate's word. Recalling her Queen's experience Eponin slid her arms around Aidan. A giggle announced the presence of the Goddess of Love moments before she and Artemis appeared inside the tent.
"Hi, Girls. Don't you just love it?" Aphrodite laughed, clapping her hands in merriment.
Artemis cast her sideways glance that spoke volumes about the Goddess of the Hunt's tolerance for her giddy sibling. Right now, it was low. "What Aphrodite means is we have you and Eponin a daughter. Danu, Athena, Britomartis and myself, for your faithful service."
Aidan blinked, and glanced toward Eponin. She turned a furious shade of crimson when Aphrodite blurted, "You know, it happened when you two were playing mare and stallion. Nice harness and phallus set up, by the way, Eponin."
Eponin's eyes widen, recalling the night of heated passion. It had been six weeks ago, following the first engagement against Bedir's army. They had fought against overwhelming odds, watched sisters and Centaurs fall during the bloody battle that had last hours. Aidan and Eponin had needed to affirm life, and they had spent the night making love. It had been a night of raw passion, and Eponin had donned their favorite toy.
There had been a moment when she had felt strangely different, and the sensations of her groin different somehow. Both she and Aidan had been in the throes of orgasm, so the woman thought nothing of it. It had been a brief moment in a night of heated moments.
"Ah, you figured it out! Just took a little Goddess magic to make things different at the right moment, and BANG. Baby on board!" Aphrodite concluded.
Artemis' grip tightened around her bow, and Xena thought the Goddess of the Hunt might sight on the other Goddess. "Enjoy, my daughters."
The two Goddesses vanished, leaving the stunned women behind. Eponin glanced down between her muscular thighs in mild alarm. Xena doubted the couple would use their plaything for a few days.
"A baby..." Aidan whispered, envisioning their baby. She rubbed her abdomen, and felt Eponin's bigger hands cover hers. A slow grin spread across the Amazon's visage, and she claimed Aidan's lips.
"A child of both of our bloodlines," Eponin added when they separated. Pride swelled inside the Amazon's heart, and hooted. "A girl."
Aphrodite reappeared, winking. "Artemis and Britomartis have a similar toy."
"APHRODITE!" boomed the disembodied voice of the Huntress. Aphrodite rolled her blue eyes and shook her head. "Gotta go. Think I'll visit Herc."
Eponin laughed softly, then nuzzled her chin into Aidan's soft hair. Aidan curled into the Amazon's warmth. Xena and Gabrielle left the lovers alone, granting them privacy. Eponin gently lowered her beloved down, running her fingers through Aidan's hair.
Eponin hummed under her breath, and Aidan sighed. Aidan's eyes slid shut, and sleep claimed the Ranger. Eponin day dreamed about a laughing little girl that would look like them both.
Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Ioalus, Dara, Eponin, Aidan, Selene, Harmon, Quirinal and Titus hunkered around the map table, discussing possible attack routes. A cold breeze blew across the valley where their forces had set up a fortified position. The two Centaurs leaders stomped their hooves when the chill rain began pelting them.
Joxxer came bounding into the walled tent, announcing the Regent and her consort were arriving with reinforcements. The Centaurs regarded with mild annoyance. They were wary of him, having seen him fight. They respected his courage, but felt he was dangerous.
Xena tried to keep him away from the front lines, fearing he would get himself killed. When he had heard that Xena and Herc were readying for battle, he had left Meg's arms to fight beside his friends. They respected his courage, but felt he was a danger to himself and others.
"Xena, Ephiny says Bedir and Darius are headed this way," Joxxer's unusually solemn bearing preceded the arrival of the Regent and her consort.
Ephiny and Solari strode into the tent, drenched and muddy. Ephiny's hazel eyes were blazing, "Bedir's army leveled two Amazon villages. He killed everyone, and had their remains hung on crosses lining the road."
Stunned silence greeted the horrific news. Ephiny brushed Solari's hand before continuing. "There's evidence the killings were done for ritual purposes."
Xena scanned the somber group, and hoped they could win. If not, Greece and the world might fall under the darkness touching the land.
Xena held Gabrielle close, pressing kisses along the column of the young woman's neck. The Rangers reported that Bedir's army was approximately two days march form their encampment. Gabrielle stirred, resting a possessive hand on the warrior's lower belly.
"Xena, if we fail, Greece will be lost.." Gabrielle murmured, sea-green eyes misting. "And the Amazon Nation."
"We will win, Gabrielle."
"How do you know, Xena? Solari's lost her mother and sisters when Bedir destroyed their village. Ephiny says Solari didn't weep when she lay her mother on the pyre..."
Xena rolled onto her side, raising the young woman's chin. "We will win because we must. There's nothing the Amazons won't do for you and Ephiny."
Gabrielle blinked back tears, and whispered, "Make love to me again, Xena."
"Your wish, is my command," Xena said. She leaned down, stroking Gabrielle's downy mound. Gabrielle moaned, raising her hips to grant access to her warrior.
Positioning her hand, Xena thrust three fingers deep inside Gabrielle's slick passage as her thumb rubbed the woman's clitoris. She leaned down, suckling Gabrielle's erect nipples until the woman began writhing. Using her teeth, lips and tongue, the raven haired warrior worshipped her Queen.
Eponin traced idle patterns on Aidan's flat belly, grinning softly when the other woman laughed. "A dinar for your thoughts, love," Eponin murmured. Aidan peeled open one eye, and sighed. "I was envisioning a daughter tall and strong like you. I hope she looks like you..."
Eponin chuckled, shaking her head in negation. "No...she should look like you."
The muscular warrior ran her tongue tip around Aidan's belly button in a fluttering pattern. Aidan curled up, protesting that it tickled. Eponin playfully pounced and tackled Aidan down, kissing her mate passionately.
Aidan returned the kiss, sliding her arms around the towering woman's neck. "Hmmm...I like your kissing."
"Just my kissing?" Eponin smoothed her hands up and down Aidan's sleek frame.
"Remind me what else you can do, warrior," Aidan challenged, stormy grey eyes flashing with desire.
Growling, the Amazon leaned down, nuzzling the Ranger's throat, inching down the woman's sweat slicked length. She hungrily claimed Aidan's nipples, alternately suckling and licking the fleshy nubs into full erection. Her hands roved lower, teasing the whimpering woman until Aidan begged for release.
Eponin slid down until she rested between Aidan's spread thighs. Cobalt-blue eyes half lidded, Eponin began feasting on her favorite nectar.
Throughout the encampment, lovers not standing watch shared what might be their last night together. And certain demi-god wisely kept himself hidden, since there were Amazons eager to replenish their numbers seeking him out.
"We must stand our ground, and keep the fight here..otherwise innocents will suffer. If we loss this battle, Greece will lay open to Ares' new army," Xena addressed her gathered troops four days later.
Last night the Rangers had reported Bedir and his allies were readying for battle. Aidan had gone back on patrol, morning sickness controlled by a vile potion Xena had developed when carrying Solon. A sip each night prevented the illness that had plagued the woman, though Eponin worried it would harm their child.
Xena promised it was safe, though it did taste foul, and Aidan trusted the Warrior Princess. Twenty Rangers had been summoned, the largest gathering of their secretive number known. Should they fall, the Rangers would be hard pressed to recuperate. Selene would remain with the main body of Xena's troops, while the others worked with the hidden Amazons and Centaurs.
Diana had sent a hundred of her own soldiers to help the Warrior Princess, a dangerous maneuver should Xena fail. They had arrived two nights before Bedir, under the command of Philemon himself. The blonde monarch had exchanged bitter-sweet greetings with his friends, and gave his wife's message of support.
Eponin, Dara, and Brina were given command over the troops Xena had concealed high above the valley. Eponin had been less than pleased that Aidan would be infiltrating the enemy lines with her fellows to create confusion. It was a risky ploy, but the Rangers were trained for such actions.
The Rangers had left the encampment under cover of darkness two nights ago, and Xena hoped her trap would work. Eponin and the others had left the same night, riding under the moon less night to the high ground Xena had selected. Hidden high above the wild valley, the Amazons and Centaurs would await the Warrior Princess's command.
"For our fallen sisters and brothers," Gabrielle said simply, sitting astride the bay charger she had been given. Attired in her formal regalia the young monarch raised her right fist overhead. The Amazons cheered, slapping their shields with their spears, and the Centaurs gave forth a great battle-cry.
Horns blared, announcing the enemy had begun moving. Xena urged Argo around, and stared across the battle field. Bedir's Calvary numbered six hundred, and a thirteen hundred foot soldiers; the Rangers had sent word more had flocked to Bedir's banner. Minor warlords and their troops fearing not doing so would make them targets.
The warlords had been executed, and their men and women absorbed with the knowledge they would be killed if they did not join him. Hercules and Ioalus were silently awaiting Xena's command, holding their war steeds back. A giant sword hung across Hercules' back, and he held a massive club with ease.
The demigod hating killing, but this time he knew there was scant choice. Ioalus said something softly, and Hercules nodded grimly. Ephiny and Solari were on either side of their Queen, determined no harm would come to Gabrielle. Twenty-six of the elite Royal Guard surrounded the three women, expressions grim.
Bedir's Calvary trotted forward, and Xena spotted Ares' newest pet project. A cruelly handsome, jet black haired and jade green eyed man wearing a silver and gold breast plate, a Roman style crested helmet, silver greaves, and the purple cape. Xena quirked an eyebrow, understanding what his intentions were: he would be the new Ceaser. Augustus would not be pleased to learn a common foot soldier fancied himself Emperor...
Bedir raised his right hand, and the pace of his Calvary picked up. Another gesture sent them riding hard toward Xena's waiting Calvary of Amazons and Centaurs. Xena gave a mighty battle cry, and sent Argo bolting forward.
Xena's Calvary met Bedir's in a deafening clash of metal, wood, and flesh, the cries of the wounded and dying lost in the cacophony. The first fallen were a powerful Centaur whose sword had hewn a path of destruction in the last two engagements, and a Persian Calvary man. His short spear pierced the Centaurs' chest, and the Centaur Takis spat up blood. Staggering, the mortally wounded Centaur swang his sword with desperate strength.
The Persian's bronze scaled armor was no match for the power of the Centaur's final blow. Almost cut in the half, the Persian tumbled out of his saddle, and fell beneath the collapsing Centaur.
Smoke rose, Scythian archers raining flaming arrows down on Xena's army from a safe distance. Gabrielle shouted, her Amazonian archers returned fire. The first charge had Xena's falling back, and Bedir gave out a cry of warning. Two hundred of the Calvary did not hear his command, nor the blasting horns, too eager for the spoils of war.
It seemed the Warrior Princess and her Calvary were overwhelmed, and breaking for high ground. They did not pay attention to how the fleeing Calvary pulled back, and urged their mounts forward. Xena's forces rode around the lethal trenches the Amazons had dug, concealed expertly by the Rangers. What seemed to be solid ground gave way beneath riders and horses alike, tumbling the heedless riders onto the sharpened punji sticks twelve feet below.
Horses and men alike screamed, finding themselves pierced by the sharpen sticks, and crushed from above. Amazon and Centaur archers set the oil filled pits aflame, and the fire screen gave Xena's army cover. Cut off from the main body of their army the remaining one hundred and twenty men and women found themselves trapped between the roaring, flaming pits and Xena's army.
Xena's Calvary wheeled around in unison, and charged the disorganized riders. Sword flashing, Xena became an engine of death and destruction as she rode through the disorganized enemy ranks. She caught a glimpse of Hercules wielding his massive club, bludgeoning those unfortunate enough to be in his path.
Ioalus dropped his share of enemies, leaping off his mortally wounded horse onto the back of a Persian rider. In a quick move, the curly blonde man snapped the neck of the rider, and accepted the weapon Solari tossed him. Solari and Ephiny fought beside each other like a well oiled unit, separating only to pursue fleeing riders.
Centaurs yanked riders off their mounts, and stomped them beneath hooves while urging the horse away from the flames. Philemon had become a very good warrior, and saved Joxxer from losing his head to a sword swipe. Amazon and Centaur archers pelted Bedir's trapped Calvary members whenever possible, and soon the last had fallen.
Two hundred of Bedir's best had fallen, and only twenty defenders had died. A cry of alarm rose and Xena turned to see the Amazon Queen being helped off her mount. Xena sent Argo springing forward, and saw the war arrow piercing the Queen's side. An arrow whizzed by, and Xena caught it. She whirled and released it with lethal accuracy.
The Scythian archer that had thought himself safe staggered, one hand clamped over his ruined right eye. Ten Amazon archers sent him to Hades. "Get her back to the Healer's tent," Xena shouted, knowing the wound would be painful, but not fatal.
Ephiny and Solari were livid, and the Royal Guard ashamed that they had not seen the man. Xena tore her gaze away, and shot Bedir's forces a hateful look. Hercules and Ioalus rallied the Centaurs, and Ephiny the Amazons.
"Get the Ballistas and Onagers ready, when Bedir rides in, we'll hit hard..." Xena snapped, and four Amazon scouts raced to carry word to the hidden war engine operators.
It had been hard, concealing the war engines that Xena had left hidden years ago. She had intended to destroy them, but had never done so. Along with several hidden caches of weapons she had planted years ago, the war engines would give her another edge. Bedir was very, very good..better than Ceaser. But Xena was better.
Dark smoke billowed out of the burning pits where eighty had met their end. Xena's eyes narrowed when she saw a charred hand groping the ground. A still burning form hauled itself out of the flaming pit, followed by two dozen other corpses. Human torches, the figures shambled forward, wielding burning swords, that sliced into those unfortunate enough to be close enough.
"Blood magic..." Merlin gasped, waving his hand. The figures exploded, but the damage had been done. Twelve Amazon lay dead, and sixteen of Philemon's men. "Very powerful blood magic."
Black clouds scuttled against the wind, sweeping towards the Amazon and Centaur army. Lightning bolts danced between the midnight black clouds, then streaked earthward. Four jagged bolts hit in different areas, and Xena heard Ephiny scream Solari's name in horror.
Xena covered her eyes reflectively, and blinked. Solari had been riding back toward the Regent when the bolt had hit a Centaur's iron spear. She had been splashed by the impressive bolt of raw power, the Centaur reduced to ashes. Ephiny rode past Xena, and jumped off her mount to gather up the sprawled warrior.
Solari's tangle of brown curls had been burnt away, and the right side of her face redden as though sun burnt. Blood trickled out of her nose, mouth and ears, a bad sign. Ephiny held her beloved close, relaxing when she felt a pulse. "Get her to the Healers," Ephiny growled when Joxxer came rushing forward.
Bleeding, the man nodded, and gently gathered the wounded Amazon with surprising tenderness and strength. He had fought well, and Xena watched him with pride.
Ephiny vaulted back up onto her mount, and trotted toward Xena. More bolts fell, and more defenders dropped. "Merlin, can you do nothing?" Hercules shouted above the wind, drenched by the leaden rain pounding them.
"I am trying, friend..." Merlin shut his eyes, and made several intricate gestures. The dark clouds broke, momentarily, and they saw a brightly clad form sitting on an elephant. A swarthy skinned man with silver streaked black hair whose domain was blood magics, Modred of Sarder.
Xena had heard shadowy rumors of the man and his kindred, servants of all forms of darkness. He gestured, and the clouds gathered once more despite Merlin's efforts. Xena sensed she would be his next target and felt the fine hairs on the nape of her neck prickling.
The storm clouds vanished, and the wind ceased howling as the wizard clamped his hands around his throat. It had sprouted an arrow. Two more sent his lifeless body toppling off the elephant, and Bedir wheeled his mount around. He would not find the killer of the fallen wizard; Aidan had fired from a distance.
Xena knew only one archer so accurate and fast, grinned. Aidan and the Rangers began harassing the now confused army, having infiltrated their ranks successfully. Fires broke out behind enemy lines, and Xena knew the Rangers had done it.
The fires were Bedir's own war engines, and supplies. Xena gave the first signal, and her own war engines began firing on the disordered army.
Bedir had learned a harsh lesson: never accept unknown elements into your army before a major battle. The Rangers had 'joined' the army when three now deceased warlords decided to join forces with the man. Xena hoped they would disengage and seek shelter in the woodlands, now that they had done what they had been assigned.
Xena watched Bedir's once proud army cracking apart when the war engines began taking their toll. Bedir became frenzied, and horns blared three times. His army rallied, and began marching and riding forward.
Xena let him get half way towards her position, knowing he had thought his superior numbers could overwhelm hers. Her army of four hundred began a rehearsed withdrawal, and Bedir bought it. He and his army closed for what they thought would be the kill.
Xena gave the second signal, and six hundred mounted troops came charging out of hiding. The ambush worked. Encircled, Bedir's once mighty army began falling apart underneath the brilliant strategy of the Warrior Princess.
The fighting would rage late into the night.
Xena drank the strong tea, and considered the events of last two days. She bore half a dozen wounds, and her muscles ached from the prolonged battle. Most of Bedir's army had fallen, or surrendered. The battlefield had not been cleared of the hundreds of dead bodies, and carrion birds were becoming a problem.
They had won, though Bedir and two hundred of his best trained troops had managed to escape. Darius had fallen, and most of Bedir's commanders were dead or prisoners of war. The Amazons had lost one hundred and twenty of their sisters, and the Centaurs sixty of their number. Philemon had lost twenty men, and had been wounded during the last minutes of the battle.
Hercules, Ioalus and Merlin had left when the flame haired Guardian of Justice had arrived bearing ill tidings: Dahok's minions were gathering in Erin. Xena had been concerned about Hercules going, but he said he had some friends that could help. Two gods, both enemies of Dahok.
Grave details were separating the fallen Amazons and Centaurs from Bedir's army. The Amazons and Centaurs would burn their dead, and the survivors of Bedir's army would bury their dead. Philemon and Karus of the Centaurs would oversee the enemy grave detail of sixty.
They had been coolly informed any attempts at escape or grabbing a weapon would be their last act on this earth.
Once verdant ground had been stained red, and the stench of death saturated the air. Xena ran a gore stained hand through her dirty hair, grimacing at her own ripe scent. The battle had lasted most of the day and part of the night, with brief eruptions for hours afterwards. Bedir and his original troops fled under the cover of darkness, leaving his Persian allies fighting.
Xena pinched the bridge of her nose, and sighed. They had won, but it had cost them dearly. Beside those known to have fallen, there were the wounded: Gabrielle, Solari, Brina, Selene and Joxxer. Brina's legs had been broken when her mount had be cut out from under her during the charge, but she would heal. It would take time, but the warrior would walk and fight again,
Gabrielle was still very weak, but she would recover, too. Selene had been stabbed during the final moments of the fray, and would never fight again. Her right arm had been too badly cut. Niclo, himself, tended his beloved mate. Solari had not regained consciousness, and may never. Her burns were not bad, but the trauma she had suffered had been great.
Joxxer had taken an arrow through his sword arm defending two fallen Amazons, and had kept several very serious warriors at bay until help arrived. Eponin and forty-five other Amazons remained unaccounted for, though Xena knew many would be found in the carnage.
The Rangers reported that Bedir was bound his fortified citadel outside of Ambracia. The town had a strong Roman garrison, but Xena sensed they would not opposed Bedir. Many of his loyal soldiers were deserters from the Roman Army, and Bedir had been trained by Ceaser himself. A veteran, he had sworn himself a defender of Ceaser, and had never failed his sworn master.
Ceaser's death had freed him to shape his own destiny, and he had sworn the enemies of Ceaser would pay. Bedir hoped to rule Rome, replacing Augustus as Emperor. He and Marc Anthony had been friends, so the lack of Rome's actions might be linked to the friendship.
Xena sighed. She needed to clean up, organize her strike force, and besiege the citadel. There would be no peace until Bedir lay dead; he could not be allowed to regroup. Xena laid aside her wooden camp mug, and strode towards the baths the Amazons had set up three hundred yards from the lake.
Keeping the river fed lake clean had been one of Xena's and the Amazon's top priorities, since it was their main source of water. Sentries had kept it secure during the water, and the Healer's huts were located another hundred yards beyond the rough hewn bathhouses. Xena stripped off her grim coated leathers, thankful the Amazons had made her another set sometime ago. She would leave the dark brown leathers behind to be cleaned and mended, wearing the new leathers when she rode out.
Though they had wanted to make them more Amazon like, they had crafted the leather's to Xena's liking. Golden thread had been carefully stitched into intricate patterns, declaring Xena the Champion, and consort of, Queen Gabrielle. Gabrielle loved the new leathers, but Xena had never worn them..expect for her Queen's pleasure.
Ephiny was washing off the filth of battle when Xena entered. The regent's hazel eyes were anguished, but strong. She looked up when Xena entered the freshly filled waxed leather and wooden tub, and inclined her head gravely. "Xena," the woman's eyes tracked the blue-black bruises covering the proud warrior, and the stitched wounds.
Ephiny bore similar wounds, and the two friends stared at each other. They were alone inside the hut, a rare thing. "How is Solari?"
"Not good..." Ephiny's brave front collapsed, and Xena offered her arms. It was a very rare gesture shared between the two powerful women. "Althea and Phineas say if she does not regain consciousness soon, she never will. She breaths, her blood pumps, but she hears nothing..."
Xena held Ephiny close, imaging how she would feel if it were Gabrielle. "You must not give up hope. Talk to her, touch her, make her respond to you, Eph. Solari's tough, and she loves you very much."
Ephiny nodded, sniffling. The two women separated, and locked eyes. "I must get the Queen home, and make sure Amazon lands are safe. Dara and two hundred of our best warriors shall accompany you, and sixty Centaurs. Philemon has offered his services, too."
Xena nodded, knowing this was the Regent speaking, not Ephiny. Ephiny would want to ride alongside Xena, to avenge her fallen sisters. But the Regent was bound by duty; she could not permit personal desires to cloud her judgment.
They shared a smile, washing each other's back and thinking about their respective mates. Dara came inside, carrying her lioness helmet beneath her right arm. "We have found some of the missing..another twenty of our sisters have crossed to forests and steppes. Eponin and twenty-four others are no were to be found, though we found Ep's war staff shattered, and her xippos nearby her staff.
There was a blood trail indicating she had been wounded, and dragged along. Similar trails have been found, indicating our missing sisters have most likely been taken hostage.
Coral of the Rangers has reported there are hostages..mainly Amazons, though two Centaurs and two Rangers were captured, too. Four of the Rangers have been found dead, and Coral reports three are badly wounded."
Coral entered the hut, a small, delicate woman with dark hair and liquid brown eyes. She had been weeping; her beloved had been one of the Rangers killed, a jolly, laughing man called Evan. But she had done her duty, delivering Aidan's message. The Rangers had been unable to learn the identified of the captured Amazons since they were inside caged wagons, and dared not harass the enemy for fear of retribution.
Aidan...Xena shut her eyes, thankful they could not identify the captured Amazons. Aidan would risk her life and soul to save the Arm's mistress. "Dara, gather those assigned to Xena. You will ride out as soon as possible."
Xena rinsed one final time, and rose. Dara handed her a towel, a glint of admiration shining behind her eyes. The blonde haired warrior's grey eyes met the Regent's, and she bowed low. Eponin was a kinswoman; she would make sure the bastard's paid.
Ephiny sighed, and left the tub, too. There was much to be done, and little time to do it.
Aidan hunkered low, watching the remnants of the shattered army entering the ancient citadel. It had been built, according to local legends, overnight by the Titans. The walls rose sixty feet above the hilltop it dominated. Sentries guarded the six towers of the walls, and the main gate was rose.
The bronze encased door was raised by massive pulleys inside the fortress that Bedir had claimed. Inside a standing guards of one hundred loyal soldiers awaited Bedir's commands; Aidan knew there were enough supplies to last several months. She had listen to two of the sentries discussing their preparations last night.
She shifted beneath the dappled grey-green cloak she used to conceal herself for the entire night and day. Using the cover of darkness she scuttled down into the ditch she had used for approach the citadel. From there she made her way back toward the woods, and found a place where she could tend nature's bidding. She sighed, thinking how pregnancy altered her abilities to delay certain needs. Using leaves to clean herself, she buried the waste, and stretched her stiff muscles.
It had been sixteen hours since she had last eaten, and she felt faint with hunger. She silently jogged back the observation post she had set up, and fished inside her backpack. Chewing the hard bars of meat and fruit, she pondered her next move. Each Ranger had taken up points through out the area, observing both the Roman garrison, and the citadel.
Ten Rangers, three hundred, if not more, of Bedir's forces, and a garrison of four hundred Roman soldiers. Aidan had heard there were many speaking of joining Bedir...
A blow to the back of Aidan's head sent her sprawling. Aidan found herself being forced onto her back, and calloused hands clamped around her throat. The hands squeezed, and her vision became dim. A drunken male voice pronounced his good fortune in having found a female companion for the night. Aidan played dead, and the man snickered. He leaned back, and the Ranger kicked out with a booted foot. The soldier fell backwards, clutching he crushed testicles as Aidan sprang onto his chest.
Using her left hand to prevent his screams, she drove her dagger through his throat. She flinched when he bit a section of flesh out of her hand, but she knew she had be fortunate. She was more exhausted than she cared to admit. She shook her head, hauling his body into the woods, where she would bury it.
Searching his body, she found a set of keys that told her he was one of the guards. Disposing of the man's body, she slipped back into the dark night. Xena and the Amazons should be arriving soon...
Eponin groaned, regaining consciousness inside a dank, dark cell sprawled on her back. She sat up, grunting when her bruised body protested movement. Her ribs ached where one of Bedir's soldiers had kicked her before she dispatched him with a lethal head blow. She had barely avoided having her head taken off when another dismounted soldier charged her. She used her war staff to block the mighty axe blow, though it cost her staff.
Using her shattered war staff's end as chobbras, she beat the man back, gaining time to draw her sword. She finished him, then felt a brutal impact hit her head....
Her vision was clear, and though her head hurt, she knew she was fine. Her friends had always said she was hard headed. Eponin shook her head, scanning her immediate surroundings. The dungeon had six cells, and large room separating the cells where two Centaurs were bound by heavy chains and ropes.
Rising, the Arm mistress counted how many of her sisters had been captured. Twenty-five including herself had been captured during the final moments of the battle; two Rangers and two Centaurs. Her heart lurched when she spotted the unmoving chestnut haired female Ranger whose breathing indicated death's steady approach.
"Aidan..." Eponin cried out, and Harmon rose, shaking his head.
"Peace; it's not Aidan, Eponin. It's Freya..one of our Germanic members. She is passing over into the hands of the Goddesses," Harmon sighed. "Go easy, friend...you have honored the Mothers and their Daughters well."
The Amazons and Centaurs silently watched the badly beaten male Ranger tenderly hold his friend. Harmon hummed between his breath through swollen lips, pressing kisses against her forehead. With supreme effort the dying woman touched her friend's cheek, a final gesture of love. Her hand fell away, and Harmon lowered his head.
He pressed his lips against her temple and lowered her to the floor.
Eponin noticed a very young warrior, a mere slip of a girl who had proven herself worthy of being called warrior. The young warrior was trying very hard not to be frightened; Eponin rose, and crossed the cage to sit beside the warrior. She had come from one of the Eastern tribes, and wore the leather trousers and tunics of her tribes.
"You fought well.." Eponin murmured, offering her right hand. "I am Eponin, of the Hawk Clan."
Liquid brown eyes rose to met the steady cobalt-blue ones of the older warrior. "I am Kamila of the Wolf Clan; this is my first season as a warrior..."
Eponin nodded, listening as the sixteen year old related tales of tribe. Of her mothers, of the village... A black haired, grey eyed warrior sat down on the other side of Kamila. "We have company..."
Eponin followed Dorian's gaze, and saw six guards wearing dark armor and leather enter. Flanking them was a tall, powerfully knit man with cold jade-green eyes and black hair. He surveyed the silent prisoners for several minutes, eyes narrowing when he saw the dead female Ranger. "What happened?"
"She was brought in by the Persians...they had had their way with her, and beaten her."
"The ones that rode with us here?"
The guards nodded, nervously. Bedir exhaled slowly, and said, "Execute them...I gave clear orders no one was to harm the Rangers."
"They serve the Lady Zel, sir," one of the guards politely informed him.
Bedir's eyes narrowed when the aforementioned the woman entered the cellblock. The Lady Zel was of medium height, a slender, swarthy beauty whose black eyes and sable hair shone with energy. Her bruised lips were still full, and Bedir grinned wolfishly. The two lovers' embraced, sharing a very heated kiss that left the Warlord erect.
"Hmmm,I love a man with iron where it counts," purred the woman, gaze resting on the very obvious sign of Bedir's arousal. "I heard your wishes, love...and you may have them. She is not the one that killed my brother Modred. There is nothing about this one that speaks of power."
Bedir waved, and one of the guards ran out to carry out his commands. The lovers' regarded the Amazons and Centaurs. Zel reached out and touched the handsome, young Centaur's roan flanks. "I hear you couple with Amazons..." Zel murmured, tracing the well defined muscles of Dinos' chest.
The green eyed Centaur watched the woman with leery eyes, especially when she began caressing him in earnest. Dinos's closed his eyes, fighting back the response of his body. Zel laughed, and glanced towards the fascinated Warlord.
The guards shifted uncomfortably, apparently having seen this behavior before. Zel began a very deliberate seduction of the bound Centaur, and soon Dinos could not deny his body's wants. The aroused Centaur's eyes glinted angrily, but hungrily. Zel kissed the Centaur passionately, and Dinos gave a bellow of rage when she stepped away.
She had bitten his tongue hard, slicing off a piece. Dinos' hooves clattered when he tried freeing himself, and Zel laughed. She spat out the piece of his tongue, and turned towards her lover. Bedir drew the woman close, claiming her bloody lips. "Enough...there is a pressing matter that must be attended to," Bedir announced, grinning. "No food or water tonight...and have that one's remains are hung over the walls."
Harmon tried to keep his friend's body safe, but the guards overpowered him. Dinos fought down the fire ignited in his blood, and lowered his head. Andonios, the other Centaur, spoke gently to Dinos.
Aidan watched the column of warriors following Xena, Dara and Philemon. The other Rangers had already rejoined the column when it rode past their positions; Aidan rose and stepped forward. The column would use the forest shrouded clearing she had selected for the night.
In the morning, they would besieged the citadel where three hundred highly trained soldiers awaited them. Aidan had discerned the citadel had enough resources to last a prolonged siege, and Xena's war engines would have a hard time damaging the stout walls. Aidan finished the last of the herbal tea Xena had made for her morning sickness, and inclined her head.
Xena's smile faded when she glimpsed the Ranger. Blue-black bruises marred the tanned flesh of her slender throat, and the bandage wrapping her hand bitten off by the guard. Aidan had lost weight,too. Dara and Philemon exchanged anxious glances, both knowing the Ranger carried a child.
"What happened?" Xena swung off Argo.
"A drunken prison guard surprised me..." Aidan heard how raw her voice sounded after being throttled. Xena closed the distance between them in a single stride.
"Dara, Philemon, get the camp set up. Phineas, help me with Aidan," Xena called out when the healer rode forward.
"I am fine...just a little bruised and tired," Aidan groused, flinching when Xena unwrapped her wounded hand. Xena grimaced at the smell of infection.
"Aidan, you are not fine. From the sound of your voice, your windpipe was very nearly crushed, and this wound is infected. Not to mention you have lost ten pounds...something an expectant mother can not afford," Xena lifted her friends chin. Aidan's eyes were blurred with exhaustion, something the Warrior Princess had never seen before in the woman.
Aidan's attention flickered back to the arriving column with expectation. Phineas already had a cheery little fire burning inside the pit Aidan had made, and hung a metal pot over the flames. He was crumbling leaves and petals into the water, creating a brew.
It would take about forty minutes for the entire column to finish entering the area Aidan had selected.
"Bedir has about three hundred soldiers inside the citadel, though I would not be surprised if there were more. The citadel has enough supplies, not to mention fresh, flowing water from an underground river to last for several months.
The garrison of Roman legionnaires are very pro Bedir, meaning we may have an army to our backs..." Aidan gasped when Xena began scrubbing out the wound with a foul smelling, burning potion the Warrior Princess kept inside a corked vial.
Heating her breast dagger over the flames, Xena probed the pussing wound. Aidan stiffened, but did not cry out. Xena made a face when she extracted a section of rotten tooth. Aidan winced, dismayed she had not realized it had been embedded in her flesh. "What news of the others..." Aidan inquired, sipping the tea Phineas offered her.
It tasted wonderful, a minty flavor that soothed the Ranger. She drank it down, and felt herself becoming more tired. Her eyes lids fluttered shut mere moments after she had finished the sleeping potion.
Xena lowered the Ranger down onto the ground, propping her head up on a bedroll offered by an Amazon. "Thanks; Petra. Can you and Penda have my tent set up first? I want to get her inside shelter..she's exhausted."
Petra's dark brown eyes met the Warrior Princess', and the Amazon bowed slightly. She turned towards the flame haired, green eyed female Centaur warrior. Penda sleekly muscled human and equine body turned smartly, as she hauled her lover up onto her back. Penda trotted back towards the supply train.
"Phineas, how long will she be out for?"
"Most of the remaining day and all night. It should allow me time to attend to the infection, and give time for her to heal. What will you tell her about Eponin and Harmon?"
"The truth..." Xena left Aidan in the care of the Healers, determined to learn what she could.
"Ep..." a black haired, grey eyed warrior murmured, nodding towards the door. The three guards rotated with another three, one muttering about one of their number that had gone missing..again.
"If Bedir learns Aldo has the other set of keys, he will punish us all.." a heavy set, bearded guard snapped, shaking his head. "The drunken fool will have all our heads hanging off the walls."
Eponin and Dorian locked eyes. A missing guard carrying keys would be a bad thing for the guards. Eponin smiled thinly; she sensed this time the drunken guard would not return to his fellows.
"Bedir says water only, no food.." a guard announced, grinning coldly towards his captives. "One cup of water for each prisoner to be given in the afternoon..."
The two Centaurs exchanged worried looks. Centaurs required several gallons of water daily to keep healthy.
Dorian sighed, holding her broken right arm close against herself. Her broken sword arm had been placed inside a makeshift sling made of six Amazon halter tops and belts. Though everyone had been roughed up, hers was the worse wound in their number. The guards appreciated the bare breasted warriors' effort to help their sister.
Each of them had been carefully checked for weapons and tools before being placed inside the cages where they had been kept for almost a week. Food had been denied them the entire week, and each day their were permitted water. As much water as they needed, but no food.
Except for the one day when Bedir and Zel had visited, nothing had happened. He did not want to damage what might his only leverage against the Warrior Princess and her allies. Eponin and the other Amazons had tried finding a way out, but none seemed to exist, though there was a river that ran beneath their cells.
Xena watched Aidan stir inside the camp cot, watching the woman grimace when her belly protested the movement. Xena held out a fresh cup of the special tea, and Aidan instinctively took it. She drained the cup, stretching. "How are you feeling?"
"Better...though it was a dirty trick, Xena." Aidan rose, seeking out the chamber pot that Xena pointed towards. The Warrior Princess politely averted her eyes as the Ranger tended nature's bidding.
"Came off the man that tried to rape me..." Aidan answered, rising. She fastened her leather breeches, and met the Warrior Princess' worried eyes. "He did not accomplish his task."
Xena relaxed; she nodded. "Then he was some type of prison guard.."
Aidan nodded, stretching out her lithe frame until satisfied that the muscles were warmed up. She scanned the tent, knowing Xena had slept on the tent floor beside her. "Where's everyone?"
Xena sighed, clearing her throat. "Hercules, Ioalus and Merlin went to Eire with the Guardian of Justice. Gabrielle has been wounded, but she will recover. Selene's right arm was shattered..she will no longer be able to fight; Niclo is with her.." Aidan paled, but nodded. Selene had been like a mother to the much younger Ranger, and they loved each other dearly. "Joxxer has been sent back to Meg to recuperate.
Solari is very badly wounded..Modred's lightning bolt damaged her. She may never awaken again.."
"She is bearing it as well as she can...she is the Regent, and must act while Gabrielle recovers. They have gone back to Amazon lands..."
Aidan's stormy grey eyes narrowed, and she rose. "Where is Ep?"
"She is among the missing..twenty-five Amazons were taken hostage..we think she is one of them."
Aidan dropped the empty mug, cursing. "Damnit, Xena! We have to get inside the citadel..Bedir will kill them all, one by one, and hang their bodies and heads off his walls."
Xena shut her eyes, recalling the sight of the walls adorned with dozens of rotting corpses on the outermost walls. Even the most hardened of warriors had been horrified at the sight of those helpless souls. Crosses were bad enough, but six guards had been impaled on sharpen stakes driven into the earth.
The men were still alive..until Xena ended their torment with her chakrum. It had been an act of mercy, and a warning that she had arrived. The sentries had doubled on the walls, and Xena wondered how they dealt with odor.
Bedir had used crosses, but this level of depravity had exceeded anything she had witnessed. This was not the handiwork of Bedir, but of his lady love, Zel. Zel and Modred had joined the Royal Court of Persia, convincing Darius to join Bedir's banner.
Darius had told the Warrior Princess how his own father and mother had disliked the nomadic stRangers that had come out of the wilderness of Anatolia. But the young man decide to follow his distant cousin to war, hoping to bring back the Empire of his great-great-great grand sires.
Zel had gained Bedir's bed and heart, and was a warrior and sorceress. They was something about the description of the black haired, black eyed woman that made Xena's skin crawl. Alti had had lover that fit the description, a dark beauty that even the power shaman feared.
Breaking the Amazons of the steppes had been very important to the woman....and Alti had been happy to do her bidding. Ares' had been behind Bedir, but not this woman Zel. Ares' loved warriors, not things like Alti and Zel, since they were evil incarnate. Ares' was a God of War, but he was not totally evil. Xena's gut instinct told her Ares' was not happy with his boy right now.
The two Amazon villages that had been destroyed had been done for reasons other than the glory of Ares', and two survivors spoke of a swarthy woman and man killing their sisters. Old and infants alike had been sacrificed in a dark ritual.
Xena shook her head, and returned her attention to the pacing Ranger.
"Aidan, we need to figure out how to hit him without bringing the garrison down on our necks.." Xena held the shorter woman's shoulders firmly. "We have to set up a siege.."
Aidan broke Xena's grip angrily. "Setting up a siege can take months..Eponin and the others will become targets for his anger!" Aidan knew his style too well. He would torture and kill each of them one by one, displaying their broken remains like gruesome trophies. "We must act!"
Dara and Philemon entered the tent for their morning meeting with Xena, and found themselves watching the unfolding drama. Aidan had the look of a trapped animal, fear for her beloved mate and friends replacing her usually calm demeanor.
"Xena, they have hung out another body...a female Ranger named Freya..." Philemon announced softly.
Aidan stiffened, and her eyes flashed with rage. She snatched up her baldric and the scabbard, frowning when she saw her sword and bow were missing.
Dara blocked the exit when Xena motion towards her. Philemon knew how frightening it was to have a loved one held prisoner. He stationed himself beside the Amazon.
"Where are my weapons..." Aidan hissed.
"Aidan, you are not thinking straight..you can not permit your emotions to overwhelm your common sense. Eponin would not want you to needlessly imperil your child."
"And if it were Gaberielle held prisoner, you would remain out here? Safe? I think not, Xena. Let me go."
"No.." Xena shook her head.
Aidan started forward, and found her head spinning. She shot Xena a cross look: her tea had been doused. She tried fighting potion's effects, but found herself falling onto her knees. Xena and Dara gently lifted her up, laying her on the cot once more as she drifted into a drugged sleep.
Philemon shook his head, "You can't keep her sedated forever, Xena."
"I know, Philemon. She's a danger to herself and to all of us like this... Dara, get some leather ropes."
Dara knew it was the only way they could keep Aidan inside the camp. Sentries posted themselves around the tent, knowing the Ranger would not be pleased when she awoke. Xena, Dara, and Philemon began pondering their opinions once the Ranger had been secured.
Eponin marked the wall again with the small, sharp piece of stone she had pried off the crumbling wall. Twelve marks had been made on the small section of wall where she had kept count of the days. They had been given a watery broth last night, but it had only made the situation worse: they had grown used to not having food. Now hungry gnawed at their guts.
Both Centaurs were becoming gaunt and weary looking, and had stopped trying to talk. Harmon sat silently in his cell, having endured several attempts to break him. He did not look well.
"Harmon?" Eponin murmured.
The Ranger stirred, and met the big Amazon's eyes wearily. He smiled thinly, and knew how ghastly he looked. The Amazons had come to respect the man's courage under torture: he had not broken, yet.
"Yes, Eponin.." Harmon coughed.
"What do you think is happening?"
"I think Bedir has realized he is up against the best there is: Xena. With the help of your people and Centaurs, he will not win..we may not live to see it, but he will fail."
Eponin studied the battered man's swollen face, knowing he was near the end of his strength. She reached through the bars and offered her arm in a warrior's clasp. Harmon smiled, and grasped her forearm. Booted feet announced the arrival of the morning shift, and the black clad master of torture.
"Tell Phineas I loved him well, Eponin," Harmon whispered, releasing her arm and rising to face the guards.
Eponin knew what he was about to do. She watched him permit the guards to lead him out, pretending to be disoriented and weak. He had struggled and fought mightily the other times, and the guards became lax. She saw the Ranger deftly pluck a dagger out of the belt sheath of a guard hauling him forward.
In an explosion of movement, the Ranger sliced the throat of the guard with his own dagger, then plunged it deep inside his own chest. The guards shouted in confusion as the guard clamped his hands over his throat, gurgling.
Already dead, Harmon's lifeless body fell facing the Amazons: he had killed himself rather than risk breaking. Ignoring their dying companion, the panicked guards tried rousing the dead man. A hush fell over the room when the tall, black haired figure strode into the dungeon. Bedir knew the man had been ready to break, and had believed he would learn the secrets of the Rangers.
Now, both the Rangers were dead. His cold jade-green eyes flickered on the dagger worn by the guard, and he raised his eyes. "I told you not to wear weapons he could use! Rangers are trained to strike faster than most vipers, and you all wore your daggers.."
"But, sir, how could we know he would..." the heavy set man never completed the protest. He moaned when his own dagger had been snatched out of his sheath, and used to disembowel him. Bedir wiped the dagger clean on the dying man's tunic.
Bedir studied the remaining guards with icy eyes, and said, "Have his remains displayed next to the female Ranger...it should give pause to his companions. And dispose of these pieces of trash."
"You, Amazon. You shall tell me what I need to know, or I shall flay the Centaurs and fed their flesh to my war hounds. Have you seen what war dogs do to Centaurs? It quiet amazing, actually." he studied Eponin.
Andonios and Dinos shouted out she should tell him nothing. Bedir sighed, and pointed toward the graying Centaur. Andonios stared coolly at the guards surrounding him. He tried lashing out, but his legs were to well hobbled.
He lost his footing, and fell onto his side. Dinos cried out his friend's name, "Andonios!" Helpless, the younger Centaur watched his friend being forced totally onto his side, the heavy chains being secured to heavy rings embedded in the floor.
"Castrate him," Bedir ordered.
Andonios' eyes widen in horror when his captors descended, and began performing the grisly task. His screams became low, frightful moans, and the copious amount of blood washing across the floor made Eponin shiver.
"Now, make sure he does not bleed to death." Bedir said in a conversational tone. The entire time his cold eyes never left Eponin's. "Your young friend seems very frightened..a good thing, really, since she should be. I expect answers, Amazon. Guards, when you are done with the Centaur, do be good enough to bring me an Amazon. I think a demonstration of my methods will be most persuasive. The black haired, gray eyed one with the broken arm will do."
Eponin shot a look toward Dorian. They had been childhood friends, lovers' when they were very young warriors-in-training until Dorian met a very gentle healer named Loris. Loris had joined the other healers that accompanied the army.
Dorian squared her jaw, and stepped forward. There were now twenty guards, two guards held sharp swords against the Centaurs' throats. Eponin locked gazes with her friend. Dorian shook her head slightly, and the Arm's mistress stood down.
Too many of their sisters were wounded, and the confines of the room would place them at a disadvantage. Dorian said nothing as she was lashed to the X-shaped cross, Harmon's blood, and countless other victims, stained an unnatural shade of red. Dorian gasped, and bit her lower lip when the men began shackling her to the cross.
Her broken arm had been yanked out of it's sling, and pinned against the wood. Her ankles were similarly bound. Her leather skirt and halter were cut away, leaving the proud figure nude. Bedir smiled in approval. He walked around the spread-eagle woman, grinning wickedly. "Very nice..you Amazons are works of art. Art should be hung and mounted."
Dorian began a silent chant to Artemis and Athena that she would die with honor.
Aidan stared past Dara's shoulder as the woman attempted feeding the silent Ranger. Dara sighed, shaking her head in frustration. "Aidan, you must eat..." Dara pleaded.
Aidan ignored her friend's appeal, though her stomach rumbled it's protest. Xena entered the tent where Aidan had been held bound for two days. The raven haired warrior noticed the full bowl of stew that had not been touched. Aidan had taken no food, or water, for two days, nor had she spoken to them.
"Xena, she'll get ill if this keeps up," Dara complained, casting the leather and bronze clad woman an anxious glance.
"Let me try.." Xena sighed, sitting beside the silent woman.
Aidan's gaze did not waver when Xena took the camp stool beside her friend. None of the Rangers had had any luck either, and word had spread that the woman was ill. Xena pressed the spoon against Aidan's lips, saying, "If you do not eat, Aidan, the baby growing inside your womb will die. I do not believe the Goddesses' or Eponin would like that. Your actions affect not only you, but the life inside you!"
Aidan did not respond. Xena laid aside the bowl, and gripped Aidan's shoulders' firmly. "Damnit, Aidan, stop being such a coward!"
Aidan's face colored, and her eyes flashed moon silver in anger. She squared her jaw, and said, "I am not the one being a coward, Xena... We sit out here, safe, while our sisters and others are tortured! If it were Gaberielle inside there, you would be tearing apart the walls with you bare hands!"
Xena's sapphire-blue eyes flashed dangerously, and for a moment her right hand formed a fist. Aidan's eyes flickered between the fist and her friend's pale face. "Go ahead...you seem to prefer me unconscious and bound of late, Xena!"
Xena shut her eyes, understanding how grief-stricken the woman was. She instead held Aidan close, pressing a kiss to her temple. "Aidan, please, for Eponin, for the baby, eat and drink."
"I have to urinate..badly." Aidan whispered.
Dara brought the ceramic chamber pot, and Aidan permitted Xena to help her. The two women turned their backs as the Ranger tended nature, neither having noticed that Aidan palmed the small, sharp belt knife of Dara's.
She had been able to reach it as she squatted over the chamber pot, lifting it from the camp table. Xena turned when she no longer heard the sounds of water being released, and helped Aidan up.
"I'm sorry about the bonds, but it's necessary, Aidan. I will have a tub brought here, but you will have to be bathed with your hands bound."
Aidan said nothing. She ate the stew, and drank the tepid water Xena offered her. It would take time to get the tub erected, and the water heated. Xena and Dara left the tent to check on the progress of the siege.
Aidan carefully began sawing through the leather bonds holding her wrists together, gratefully for the very intense training of her childhood and youth. She kept a neutral expression whenever one of the Royal Guards peered inside the commander's tent.
Outside the encampment, silvery forms glided, watching and waiting for their summons.
Dorian had lasted four days...crying out her beloved name when the guards decided they would have some fun. Bedir had wanted the woman made an example of, and what better example they had thought than rape. It had been three of the guards, and Eponin vowed she would avenge her friend.
Sixteen days, and still no sign of rescue. Eponin paced the cage like a caged beast, cobalt-blue eyes red rimmed and weary. Dorian listened to her sisters telling her stories, keeping her flagging spirits buoyed with their love and respect. The Centaurs', too, did their best to help the woman.
"Ep?" Dorian's voice had become nothing more than a raspy whisper.
Eponin gripped the bars and stared at the shattered ruin of the once proud warrior. "Yes, Dor..."
"Tell Loris I love her..and not to mourn me very much.." Dorian smiled through torn lips, once straight, white teeth broken. "I hear the voice of my mothers' calling me home, friend.."
Eponin shut her eyes against the tears that burned there. She would not let her friend remember her crying. "I shall, Dorian."
The guards returned, and studied the broken woman. "She will make a fine addition to the growing garden of the Lady Zel..." one of the guards laughed,
The prisoners knew what the garden was. Most had seen it when they were brought inside the citadel: a forest of stakes. Impaled on the stakes were men, women and children, sacrificed to the Lady's dark gods.
Dorian could only pray her death would come quickly.
Eponin screamed curses, promising she would cut off each of the guards manhood's, and fed it to them. The guards ignored her screams as they hauled Dorian out.
Aidan felt the leather bonds fall free, and she grimaced when she moved her stiff arms. She heard a commotion outside the tent, angry voices demanding that something be done, and Xena sounding strained. Aidan shook feeling back into her hands, and slipped out the rear of the tent where an Amazon had been stationed.
The guard had joined her sisters in demanding that the Warrior Princess end someone's torment. Aidan used the distraction to sneak into Dara's tent. Her weapons had been stored inside the woman's tent; she donned her baldric and slid her sword home. Snatching up the quiver holding her arrows and bow, Aidan edged cautiously towards the woods, wearing Dara's hooded cloak.
She had not gotten more than twenty yards when she found a leather and bronze clad form blocking her path. Xena shoved back Aidan's hood, furious that the woman had escaped. For a moment the two women stared at each other, then the Warrior Princess pointed towards the Northern field.
Aidan followed the warrior's pointed finger, and gasped. Dorian writhed on a stake, having been impaled. The distance was too great for Xena's chakrum to span and return, and within bow range of Bedir's archers.
Dara came up behind Aidan, and several of the guards. Aidan shut her eyes, knowing what they wanted to know. She turned, and walked through the encampment, and studied the distance.
"It's impossible," one Centaur muttered, seeing Aidan's grey eyes calculating the distance, angles and wind. "We tried, and missed."
Aidan saw several arrows peppering the ground several yards in front of the writhing Amazon warrior. Aidan closed her eyes, then notched an arrow and aimed. She focused her entire being on guiding the arrow, and released.
The sentries perched atop the walls laughed, thinking the archer mad, since not even the Scythian archers could hit a target from such a distance. All eyes followed the flight of the single arrow high above the earth. It descended unerringly to it's target: Dorian's breast. The woman stiffened, then slumped.
Aidan lowered her bow, and closed her eyes. Jaw muscles bunching, she slid her bow back inside the quiver, and wondered how she could face Loris. A soft hand rested on her tense shoulders, and Aidan found herself meeting the teary brown eyes of the woman.
"Thank you, Aidan," Loris whispered, knowing her beloved had passed into the arms of the Goddesses.
Loris turned, and walked through the respectful gathering of Amazons and Centaurs. She would grieve her loss privately. Aidan watched the woman walk away, and shut her eyes again.
"But she killed Dorian..." a young Amazon warrior shouted furiously.
Aidan cast the young woman a cold look, and Xena said, "What she did was an act of mercy, Tassos. Dorian would have lingered for days on that thing, the vultures and the sun eating away at her. It was an act of love."
"And Loris has thanked Aidan for freeing her mate," Dara interjected.
The blonde, green eyed young warrior realized the entire camp was watching her. She lowered her eyes, flushing. "I'm sorry, Aidan."
Aidan inclined her head, backing up when Xena stepped forward. Howls rent the air, and the pack came charging through the camp, causing a commotion. Horses reared, throwing riders and baggage alike, and the soldiers scurried to contain the corralled mounts. Aidan grabbed the mane of one frightened animal, hauling herself onto it's back before the Warrior Princess could act.
Aidan used her knees to guide the gelding towards the forest, the wolves following her. Xena whistled for Argo, and the golden mare charged through the camp. Xena vaulted onto Argo's back, and followed the trail left by the Ranger.
Penda and Petra gave pursuit, too, but it was too late. Aidan had reached the safety of the forest. Xena cursed, and lowered her eyes.
No one dared approach the furious warrior when she returned to the camp. The guard that had abandoned her post found herself no longer one of the Royal Guard, even though she had only left her post for several minutes.
Bedir watched Zel stalk through the tower chamber they shared, sparks literally flying off her finger tips. They had seen the arrow hit home, and Zel knew the killer of her brother lived.
"I want that bitch's blood on the alter! Her life-blood will make the ancient ones' very happy.." Zel grinned, touching the man's chest.
Bedir smiled. Ares' had been useful, but he had seen the power of Zel's gods. They were stronger, darker, but stronger than the God of War. He knew the Amazon called Eponin was the key. Somehow, she was the key to luring the archer here.
Zel had been casting spells of summoning that the Ranger could not ignore. He had learned himself how powerful those spells were...he had been summoned, too. He slid behind the woman, cupping her full breasts and nipping her throat.
She had become his universe, his home.
Zel's smiled, eyes flickering with dark desires and hatred for all humankind. She had been sent by her mistress to help this pathetic God of War and his newest Warlord defeat Xena. Xena's blood, and that of her mistress' mother would flow, too.
Twenty-six days had passed since their capture, and two other Amazons had been placed on the cross and broken. They, too, hung outside the walls of the cursed fortress. The Centaurs had been taken two days ago, and what had happened to them they dared not guess.
Save for an occasional bowls of watery stew, the Amazons had been receiving water and no food. Most had become too weak to stand, and the constant noise created by the guards had made sleep all but impossible. Had Xena and their Nation forgotten them?
Or had Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Aidan, Dara and Brina fallen? What if they were all dead, rotting on the walls? Eponin rose from the small hole used for waste, and rejoined her sisters. She shut her eyes, envisioning herself and Aidan.
Aidan...Eponin wept. How much she had come to love her mate! She made herself recall what Aidan looked like, felt like. It was becoming harder to recall her mate's features, her feel.
Xena slammed her balled fist into the camp table, and glared at Dara and Philemon. "There must be a way inside! We must not give up on our sisters..."
"Xena, we have been here over a month, and nothing has breached the walls! Either we storm the walls, and die trying, or we must treaty with him," Philemon shouted.
"Never," Xena growled.
Philemon sighed, holding up the missive. "He will release them if we break the siege."
"Bedir is a liar and killer; he has no honor. You can not trust him, Philemon," Xena knew the strain of the war was being to tear apart her army.
Thirty-four days, and no sign of damage to the walls. Not to mention the walls being too high to scale without becoming targets for the archers and sling wielders. Xena knew the man missed his family and kingdom, but honor held him fast.
The Centaurs were debating leaving, horrified when their missing members were found outside the walls. Things had been done to them that made even her blood run cold. Ares' might be a God of War, but he did stoop this low. All but two Rangers had been called away to attend Council business, and there had been no sign of Aidan.
Was the woman even alive?
Xena hung her head, thinking about the time she had once almost become Bedir. She had never been this evil; he had done things she had never conceived of, nor would have.
An alarm rose, and the three exchange worried glances. They stepped outside, and found Aidan standing between two very powerfully built Royal Guards. Aidan's normally tanned skin had become pale, but she stood proudly.
Torn between wanting to beat the woman senseless and hug her, Xena stepped forward. "Where have you been?"
Aidan shook her wild mane of chestnut hair out of her eyes, and grinned, "Come and see where I have been, Xena..."
Xena shut her eyes, thinking the Ranger insane. She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Where are her weapons?"
"She had none on her..."
Aidan sighed, shaking her head. "Xena, if you have ever trusted me, trust me now..I found a way inside the citadel."
Murmurs raced through the gathered forces, and Xena met Aidan's eyes. She nodded her head, "Show me..."
Aidan smiled, and the Warrior Princess motioned for a hand selected squad of Amazons to follow her. Dara and Philemon would remain behind in case it was a trap.
They wound their way through the woodlands, and Xena began doubting the wisdom of trusting Aidan. They stood outside a cave entrance where several wolves lounged, and Xena knew the woman had not gone hungry. No wonder no one had found her. The Amazons had spotted the cave, but thought it was a wolf den, and nothing more.
"Aidan, tell me what we are here for.."
"Xena, just follow me..."
"No. Not till you tell me what it is your were doing all this time." Xena demanded, awarding the woman an icy look.
Aidan met her friend's eyes with her own anger. "Damnit, Xena, listen to me! What if it were Gabrielle sitting inside that hellhole? Would you have sat on your ass, or found a way inside, no matter what? Or is it that you are getting off on having an army again?"
Xena snarled, snatching Aidan's leather jerkin and tunic with one hand while the other cocked back. Aidan's level eyes held hers', and Xena blinked. She realized her grasp, turning to her left. "Ares'.."
The black leather clad God of War appeared, clapping his hands and strode toward the two women. He laid a hand on Aidan's slightly swollen belly, and grinned. Xena smacked his hand away, and faced him. "I should have recognized your stench sooner.."
"Ah, Xena, I love you, too," Ares' wagged an admonishing finger beneath Aidan's nose. "And you, young lady, have been disturbing the balance of late. Who knows, maybe that little brat growing inside you will follow me. Afterall, the Amazons were once my girls."
"For a brief time we followed your path rather than that of Athena and Artemis," Petra interjected, arms folded across her chest. "But we returned to the ways of our Goddesses."
"My point exactly! The Amazon Nation has been in decline since those glorious days! Think how great you could be again, if Xena raised her banner once again! Amazons and Centaurs could rule the world under her leadership! Rome will fall.."
"The Rangers would stand against them..but it will not be necessary, they will not follow you."
Ares became cross, and pointed a warning finger toward the Ranger. "My Father may like you, Aidan of the Rangers, but you are dealing with God of War."
"And you are dealing with me," a stately, silver haired form declared, forming out of the air. Silvery-grey eyes met the uncertain God of War. "Ares', your Father is very annoyed with you for having sided with Dahok. Not to mention your most current mistake! Do you recall what he told you about Aidan and her friends?"
Ares' glanced nervously towards the darkening skies, and the rumbling thunder.
Danu smiled thinly, and silvery-grey eyes flashing dangerously. A mere flick of a finger sent the God of War reeling. Ares' yelped, recognizing she was far more powerful than he was. When he landed he found himself surrounded by very vexed Goddesses.
Artemis, Britomartis and Athena were very clearly not in the mood for his explanations. From the flushed appearance of the two Goddess of the Hunt, Xena guessed Athena's summons had broken up a private moment.
Danu joined the other Goddesses, and Ares' smiled feebly. "Now, Ladies, can we talk about this?"
In a flash of divine light, the five divine beings had vanished, and Xena knew Bedir would be receiving no further help from Ares'. Aidan exhaled, shaking her head, "Come on.."
Xena knew whatever had gripped Aidan had lost it's hold: she had been freed of it. Aidan took the warrior's bigger hand and tugged her along. The wolves rose, and faded into the woods where they would stand watch. Penda hoped they did not like Centaur flesh as she and Petra guarded the entrance.
The cave was deceptive: it opened into a vaulted celling high above Xena's head. Torches flickered along the wall, a rope handle wound it's way down through the tunnel they entered. More torches illuminated the way to the sound of rushing water. They emerged inside another cavern, this one illuminated by sunlight streaming down through the crystal shards lining the cavern.
It was a wondrous site. Xena whistled. Aidan had been busy, very, very busy. The Ranger began removing her leathers, and glanced at Xena. "Coming?"
"Maybe twenty yards," Aidan hunkered beside the Warrior Princess.
"You swam it?" Xena studied the woman.
"Six times so far," Aidan replied. Xena shut her eyes, envisioning what would have happened if the Ranger's guess had been wrong. "It's easier to swim without your garments.."
Xena studied the nude Ranger, then followed her example. "What about weapons?"
"Ah, there's a small cache already there..." Aidan grinned.
Xena covered her eyes: several swords, spears and bows had vanished in the last few days. Not to mention rope, torches and the like. "Are you related to Autolycus?"
"The King of Thieves?" Aidan grinned, watching Xena strip out of her dark brown leathers and bronze breast plate.
Aidan slipped into the water, and waited. Xena slid in, and gasped. The river was cold, but not dangerously so. Takin several deep breaths, the two women dove beneath the surface and began swimming. Aidan had managed to secure a stout guide rope along the underwater tunnel, using iron rings. This had once been a corridor, Xena realized when they emerged inside another cavern like space.
Aidan hauled herself up onto a ledge, and motioned Xena forward. Xena followed Aidan up slick path, shaking her head at the supplies Aidan had gathered. There were swords, spears, torches, rope and several fine bows that told Xena the woman had found another source of weapons.
"Bedir's not the only warlord that used this place...I found an armorer. The weapons are very well made..." Aidan tossed Xena knee length tunic.
She donned one herself. "The clothes came from the camp..sorry.."
Xena shook her head, grinning. They wound their way up the abandoned section of citadel. Aidan moved swiftly, surely. Xena trusted her friend, noting another rope railing. They had traveled underground for a good distance when Aidan held up a hand, signaling for silence. Aidan crept forward and pushed upwards on an old iron grating, blocking it in place before slithering underneath it.
Xena followed suit, and flanked Aidan down the forgotten section of tunnel. The stones had been fire scorched, and shattered wooden beams told of a terrible battle.
Aidan gestured, indicating the four paths the tunnel traveled, and then motioned her forward. She pointed towards an old grating wide enough for three warriors to pass through. On the other side was the inner bailey, and the main gate.
Aidan tapped Xena's forearm, and the Warrior Princess followed her friend again. Another opened outside the dungeon, and the other the Great Hall. Aidan had found the way inside...
Xena and Aidan shared cold smiles, and began planning their attack.
Bedir watched the army outside his walls building more siege engines, amused by their pointless efforts. He laughed, knowing no weapon existing could harm the wall built by the Titans. Zel had sacrificed the Centaurs five days ago, and she promised soon they would become demi-gods themselves.
Bedir believed it. He pictured himself showing Xena what type of man he was. Zel lay slumbering on their bed. He smiled, turning his attention back to the woman he loved.
Tonight, they would sacrifice the Amazon prisoners remaining, and give Dahok the blood he needed.
Eponin jerked awake when she heard Chloe shout a warning. The brown haired, black eyed Amazon found the guards passing her by, and reaching for Eponin. Eponin tried struggling, but the combination of exhaustion and lack of food had weakened her too much. Her leathers hung off her hips, and she felt embarrassed when her bladder gave way.
The guards sniggered, thinking it was out of fear, not her condition. Eponin felt herself placed against the still damp wooden cross, and whispered a silent pray. Her leathers were discarded, and the guards leered at their next victim. So long as she lived, they could do what they wanted with her.
Eponin met the eyes of each man, knowing they would rape and torture her. She would try not to cry out. One of the guards had decided he would have his fun first, and had begun undoing his breeches. Eponin shivered, shaking her head in mounting horror.
She wept, knowing she would never see her daughter born. Never hold Aidan again, never feel the sunshine on her face again. She grasped the rings securing her chains, and fought for self-control.
She was an Amazon warrior, she reminded herself. She would die with honor.. The guards watched their companion approaching the Amazon warrior, shouting encouragement.
He never reached Eponin. The man fell backwards, an arrow spouting out of his forehead. Four other arrows hit the men before they could react, and Eponin's eyes flickered towards the doorway. Aidan stood framed inside the doorway, and the sounds of battle raged behind her.
Lowering her recurved bow, Aidan dashed inside, five Amazon warriors on her heels. Aidan tossed Petra the keys once she had freed her beloved. "Eponin..."
"Aidan," the way Eponin's pronounced her name was like a benediction. Aidan held her lover close, weeping when she saw how thin the woman had become. Aidan kissed her beloved, promising she would be back.
Loris, Phineas and Dora entered the dungeon, carrying medical supplies. A group of twelve warriors would remain behind to defend the prisoners until they could move them safely.
Eponin grabbed Aidan's ankle, and the Ranger turned back to the woman. "Give me your dagger, love."
Aidan frowned, but did what Eponin asked. Eponin hauled herself forward with grim determination, and did as she had vowed. Aidan shut her eyes, knowing whatever had engendered such an action must be terrible. Several other Amazons joined in the action, and Althea whispered a pray to Artemis and Athena.
"Keep them safe," Aidan ordered hoarsely. Her leathers were damp from being hauled behind her. They had spent last night getting into position. Sixty of the best Amazon warriors, and twenty of Philemon's most trusted soldiers.
Eponin relinquished the dagger to Althea's gentle touch. Eponin shut her eyes, and gave herself to oblivion, knowing she was safe.
Aidan ran down the corridors leading into the great hall, finding most of the soldiers dead. The Amazons had been ruthless, and the gates opened. The defenders found themselves pinned down, and the entering army had gotten re-inforcements when the Regent arrived. Another hundred and twenty Amazons eager for battle, determined Bedir would fall.
Gabrielle had recovered enough to release the Regent with reinforcements. Bedir's army was falling under the resolute attack, finding they had become lax. Xena and Bedir were engaged in a deadly battle, the Warrior Princess wielding two swords. Bedir was having a hard time matching her fierceness. Aidan drew her sword, and joined the fray. She had dropped five soldiers when a black leather clad form whirled towards her, cutting down two Amazons.
Aidan barely blocked the wicked, black recurved blade the woman wielded. A booted foot kicked the Ranger's belly hard, and Aidan found herself thrown violently against the wall. Her vision dimmed, and Aidan barely avoided getting disemboweled. She rolled out of the path of the warrior's blade, and came up in a defensive crouch.
"You slew my brother, Modred," Zel shouted. Her right hand gestured, and Aidan gasped when her heart spasmed. Zel's black eyes shone with demonic glee. "Can you feel my hand squeezing your heart, Ranger."
Aidan tried rising, but her legs would not respond. Her sword slid out of nerveless hands. She could not breath, could not call out for help. Her world began dimming.
Zel grinned, closing the distance between herself and the stricken Ranger.
Xena chased Bedir up the spiral stairwell, knowing he was seeking escape. Bedir's bravery lasted only when he had superior numbers, and those numbers were swiftly dwindling. He found his egress blocked by two very large, very angry Centaurs, and a very determined Warrior Princess behind him.
"I am Ares' Chosen One!"
"Then where is he? Haven't you noticed his has not been around?" Xena questioned, knowing he did. "Dahok promises lots of stuff, but usually does not deliver."
"Liar.." Bedir gathered himself, and attacked. The mortal enemies exchanged a series of blows to fast for most to follow, and Xena bled where blows grazed her.
Bedir sprang forward when Xena slipped on her own blood, thinking he had her. Down on one knee, the Warrior Princess brought her swords up, and caught his sword. Before he could leap back, the Warrior Princess drove her both her swords through him.
Bedir staggered backwards, eyes wide in disbelief when he saw the swords protruding out his chest and belly. Xena yanked her sword out, leaving the Roman short sword buried inside the dying man.
Xena's heard Ephiny shout out her name. Xena whirled to see Aidan being held above the blood soaked floor by an invisible force. The Ranger was writhing, and desperate Amazons found themselves repelled.
Xena jumped down, and charged across the great hall's length towards the pair. She snatched her chakrum out of the pillar it had become lodged in. Xena threw her chakrum at the infamous Lady Zel's head. The chakrum bounced off the invisible wall, and Xena cursed.
She snatched the chakrum out of the air, and watched helplessly.
Zel threw her hands down, and Aidan hit the ground hard. The Ranger's head hung low, and the woman circled her seemingly helpless victim. She could not be harmed by those outside the shield she had erected; the blood of the Ranger would make her mistress very happy.
"You are very beautiful, Aidan, too bad you and I did not meet on better terms. I think it would have been very fun," Zel fingered Aidan's glossy mane. "But such is not to be."
She raised Aidan's chin, and stepped back in shock. Aidan eyes were moon-silver and full of ancient knowledge that the sorceress had not expected. Aidan snatched up her sword, and struck out. Zel never had a change to scream: her head flew out of the collapsing field of power.
Aidan sank wearily to her knees, sword clattering out of her hands. Xena and Ephiny rushed forward, and knelt beside the woman. "Aidan?"
"Did we win?" Aidan wheezed, leaning against the Regent.
"Yes.." Xena stroked the woman's temple.
Ephiny grinned. "She regain consciousness sometime ago..the healers say she will be fine. It will take time, but she will recover. And the Queen sent us."
"Good..if you two don't mind very much, I think I'll faint.." Aidan whispered, eyes closing.
Xena relaxed when she felt the steady pulse beneath her fingers. Aidan would be fine...they all would.
Solari sat beside Ephiny, enjoying the Winter Solstice dinner. It had taken almost eight months for the woman to recuperate, but she had healed fully. The Regent and her consort had gone through hard times during those trying months, but their love and friendship had sustained them.
So many warriors had fallen during the costly war, but their names would be honored by generations of Amazons. The Amazon nation would survive, though it might be in a different form than their mother's mother's knew.
The Queen rose, slightly tipsy from the wine that had flowed freely during the feast. Raising her tankard high, Gabrielle scanned the assembled representatives of the tribes that had fought alongside Ephiny's tribe. A sense of unity lost generations ago had been forged, and the negotiations had been going well. Gabrielle and Ephiny made a very persuasive team, earning the respect and loyalty of the distant tribes.
"My sisters, on this, the most auspicious of night's for making new beginnings, let us praise our fallen sisters with love and honor. We must never forget them, so let us raise our voices in gratitude and remembrance. To our fallen sisters," Gabrielle declared.
Cheers rose, and the names of the fallen warriors were read by members of the tribes that had lost them. So many names, so many lovers and bonded partners lost, but hope sprang eternal. Gabrielle spoke about how they were watching their loved ones with love and affection, having entered the paradise of the Amazons. Xena shut her eyes, recalling one Amazon Queen she had sent to the chill embrace of death.
Cyane. What if things had been different? She and Cyane might well have become lovers, there was a definite attraction between them.
Alti had been vanquished, and the slain and dead Amazons had been able to enter their paradise. Cyane no doubt greeted the fallen ones with open arms, and did all the Amazon Queens.
The current Amazon Queen encouraged the living to celebrate life, having done the solemn reading of names ceremony. Cheers rose, and bonds of new friendship had been forged. New couples had formed, and more than a few Amazons were pregnant. Many would name their daughters after fallen friends and family, honoring the dead.
Eponin and Aidan, seated at the Queen's table where talking softly. Aidan fairly glowed with health, sipping a spiced herbal tea laden with honey. She had forgone all alcoholic beverages as did all Amazon women during pregnancy and nursing. Eponin hovered attentively beside her beloved, one hand pressed against Aidan's swollen belly.
Sipping her mulled wine, Eponin and Solari were speaking softly, the two women seated on either side of the Ranger. Aidan glanced around the mess hall, smiling when she saw the women and children enjoying the night. She shifted, trying to get comfortable. She was happy they would have a child soon, but she looked forward to giving birth.
She missed seeing her toes, missed being able to touch her toes, and not to have pee every five minutes, she mused. Eponin loved what was happening inside her beloved, and seemed endless fascinated with the changes. Worse, Xena had been rubbing her belly whenever possible, saying it was good luck.
Aidan blushed when she felt water gush down her muscular thighs. Mortified, she raised her eyes and the women fell silent. Both Eponin and Solari found their feet wet, and Aidan fought back tears of embarrassment. Another thing she would not miss, the mood swings, she thought.
"Damnit.." Aidan sighed, shaking her head. Her bladder control had become uncertain of late.
Eponin hugged her mate, and said, "Hush, love. Accidents happen when a woman is pregnant. I am sure more than one of our sisters would tell you so."
"Ouch.." Aidan flinched at the strange cramping that she had been experiencing the last few hours. "Cramps, now this."
Xena's head snapped up. She and the others had been giving the couple of moment of privacy, to let Aidan muster her dignity. In three strides she had rounded the Royal table, and hunkered beside the Ranger. "How far apart have the cramps become?"
Aidan frowned, thinking. "About every...ouch..few minutes,"
Xena cleared her throat, and turned towards Eponin. "I think your one's coming. Aidan, Eponin, I need to see how far apart your walls are."
Eponin nodded. She and Solari carefully turned the bench they had been sharing. Xena hunkered low, and washing her hands in wine. She raised Aidan's drenched leather skirt, and carefully examined the woman.
Silence had fallen over the hundred Amazons gathered inside the tightly packed mess hall. They expected to hear that the Ranger had begun labor, not what the Warrior Princess announced next, "Aidan, you're giving birth."
"We should get her to the Healer's," Eponin stammered, pallid and blinking. She bolted half way across the hall, sliding to halt when she realized she had left Aidan behind.
Eponin darted back, trembling with anticipation and consternation. Xena had the table cleared, and had Amazons scrambling for clean linens, bowls of clean hot water, and olive oil. She and Ephiny were helping Aidan recline on the table while Gabrielle had the Royal Guards keep the curious back.
"But the Healers'..."
"No time for it, Ep. Your daughter's coming..get me so olive oil..and lots of it. It'll keep her from tearing, if possible."
Dara bore a huge jar of olive oil that she set down beside Xena. She poured it into a clean bowl, and Xena cut away Aidan's leather skirt. "Eponin, climb up behind Aidan to keep her in a seated position, it will make giving birth easier on her."
Solari nudged the stunned woman forward, "Aidan needs you, Ep."
Eponin carefully climbed up behind the Ranger, and held her close against herself. Aidan raised her face, eyes frightened but excited. Eponin gave her lover a tremulous smile, kissing Aidan's temple.
Xena carefully smeared Aidan's exposed mound with olive oil, her fingers moving expertly inside Aidan's birth canal. Aidan gripped the edges of the table when Xena announced the baby was coming. Aidan grunted, sweat drenched.
A reverent hush descended as two lovers struggled to bring a new life into the world. Eponin whispered endearments, relaxing when she understood Aidan would live. Gabrielle helped Xena, the warrior and the monarch worked together in perfect harmony. Ephiny and Solari held each other, grinning.
Dara and Brina held up their little daughter, Berek, to watch the miracle unfolding before their eyes.
Aidan cried out when she felt the baby begin it's fitful journey toward life. Xena smiled, and began giving clear commands, and Aidan did her best to comply. Eponin whispered endearments, pressing her lips against Aidan's sweat drenched hair. "Goddess, this hurts..." Aidan grunted.
"It's the only pain worth it," Xena murmured, watching. She beamed, "I see the head."
"And I feel it," Aidan panted, hands clutching the edge of the table again. Several agonizing minutes paused before the head of the child emerged. Aidan moaned, leaning against Eponin.
"We're almost there," Xena enthused, thinking how she had borne her lost son alone. Ah, Solon, how I miss you, she thought. "Now, push."
Aidan pushed, screaming when she felt the small life squeezing itself out into the world. Xena laughed, gathering the tiny form that had slid free. Aidan collapsed against Eponin, panting as Xena cleaned the squalling newborn. "You have a daughter, Aidan, Eponin. A perfect, lovely little daughter," Xena swaddled the tiny form inside a soft, white linen offered by one of the Eastern Amazons.
Xena gently laid the tiny form inside Aidan's arms, smiling at the wispy blonde hair and silvery blue eyes. Aidan beamed, crying when she looked into the child's eyes. Eponin held her small family close, weeping and laughing at the same time. "She's a glory," Eponin said thickly, recalling how long it had taken for the physical and mental wounds of her captivity to heal.
Aidan smiled. "Ailsa..we shall call her Ailsa, it means glory," Aidan whispered, wearily resting against Eponin. Xena gently lifted up the newborn child, and turned towards the Queen and the Regent. "Here's the meaning of Solstice Night...and a new member of the Amazon Nation."
Cheers and hoots rose as the assembly welcomed their newest member, born on the night of hope and peace. Xena found Althea and Dora standing behind her with the necessary items to tend mother and child. Placing Ailsa inside the shelter of Eponin's arms, the Warrior Princess and Healers began tending their patient.
High above the celebrating village a bright star shone, and four Goddesses smiled.
Return to The Bard's Corner