Xena: Warrior Princess
Travelers and the towns inhabitants huddled inside the very large, prosperous taverns stout walls, riding out the wild storm lashing the coast. Protected by the Chalicidice peninsula, the town occupied an idle spot for trade inland where two important rivers where located.
Therme was a growing group of independent towns and villages that everyone sensed would one day become a very important city. A good number of those gathered inside the Wild Boar were merchants seeking opportunity in the growing town, the others were a mixed lot. Fisherman, sailors, farmers, craftsmen, and a group warriors made up the rest.
Fourteen warriors seated in the back of the tavern were given wide berth by the rest of the taverns population, especially since ten were very clearly Thassaly Amazons. The Amazons kept a leery eye on the less desirable men that might want to make unwelcome sexual advances, a feat not even the most drunken of men would make. The two other women were not Amazons, but they were equally daunting in bearing.
One was a raven haired beauty with piercing sapphire-blue eyes that missed nothing, wearing a dark brown leather battle dress with bronze armor. A well kept, jeweled sword rode behind her left shoulder, and a circular ring glinting with jewels hung off her left hip.
The other woman wore clean, though travel worn evergreen and brown leathers, and bore a finely crafted sword and finely crafted bow of wood and bone. Her eyes were what caught the attention of those gathered in the taverns cavernous common room. Silvery-grey eyes hinted toward ancient powers marking this one, and infinite sadness. Her mane of rich chestnut hair bore silver streaks that framed her tanned visage dramatically, and more than a few patrons wondered about her sexual leanings.
The last two were men, one a tall, handsome and muscular man with sun streaked golden brown hair and keen hazel eyes. He wore brown leather trousers and sleeveless yellow tunic. Unarmed, he seemed unconcerned about not having a weapon readily available, unlike the shorter male.
Wild, curly blonde hair cascaded down the short mans shoulders, framing a very friendly and happy face. He bore a sword and bow, and wore black leather trousers and a blue tunic. The men were clearly close friends with the women, since their bearing indicated they were used to the fierce womens company.
Barkeep, another round of ales, Hercules called out, beaming toward the very sweet, very pretty barmaid that had been tending their table. The delicate, rosy cheek young woman with doe brown eyes and dark brown hair found herself treated with utmost courtesy and kindness.
Bearing the drink laden platter over to the warriors table, the young barmaid blushed when a very young Amazon warrior with tawny haired and stormy grey eyes rose to help. The Amazon gave her a smile of reassurance as she helped lay out the fresh tankards of spiced ale.
The barmaid noticed how the youngest Amazon bore a striking resemblance to one of the older Amazon warriors and the fey woman. The young woman possessed the build and coloring of the towering Amazon, though she had stormy grey eyes. Thank you, the barmaid said, smiling.
You are welcome, the young Amazon answered, returning the smile. Her clear tone indicated she had not consumed as much ale as her elders, and the barmaid approved.
When the barmaid left, Xena shook her head. Silver had begun threading its way through her once raven locks, making her appear more august. Or so her beloved mate proclaimed. Gabrielle reached out, touching her warriors right hand. They would be returning to the lands of the Thessaly Amazons to settle down, to watch their daughters complete their Amazon training.
Adara was almost twelve, and Kara eight. Knowing it was safer for their children to remain with the Amazons, the couple had limited their wandering ways. Xenas mother had died two winters ago when she had gone a lung fever, and the proud warrior and her small family had been with Cyrene.
Adara had been a gift of Artemis and Britomartis, the two Goddesses of the Hunt wishing to reward the faithful lovers. Kara had been the result of Gabrielle and Autolycus during a very interesting harvest festival. The couple had wanted another child, and Autolycus had been the one they agreed on.
Autolycus had been very happy to provide the necessary services, though he had been uncertain whether or not Xena would pound him later on. Kara had Gabrielles sunny, warm nature and her fathers deft fingers and sense of humor. Her antics had earned her a reputation amongst her Amazonian sisters for being at the center of any disturbance.
Adara possessed Xenas self-possession and steely resolve, though she smiled readily and laughed often. Xena was very proud of her family, and loved them dearly. Gabrielles family had come around the last few years, no doubt softened by the love of their grandchildren, and visited whenever possible.
Lila had met and married a very good man, a farmer whose love of the land and his family had made him a favorite of Xena. Elijah and Lila had raised a boisterous brood of young ones that were fun and loving.
Minya and Hower had finally married, and lived beside Lila and Elijah, making trips to Poteida interesting. With the children of the three couples running loose, not warlord or demon god would be silly enough to venture forth.
Xena studied the amazing group of friends she and Gabrielle had created over the years. Ephiny and Solari had raised three daughters of their own as well. The years had run by like a swift moving river, sweeping aside the debris of life to leave the best behind.
Ailsa had grown into a fine, towering young woman whose keen mind and eyes foretold of great things. Eponins hair bore silvery streaks, but the Amazon Arms mistress could still flatten most opponents with ease. Fine lines had formed around her eyes from years of being outdoors, and frequent laughter.
They had all aged...or most of them had. Aidan seemed untouched by the passage of years, though she had become more introspective over the last thirteen years. The Ranger seemed attuned to things the others could not sense, and oftentimes would gaze into middle space. There was a feyness around Aidan that disturbed those that did not know her.
Mother... Ailsa had inherited Aidans feyness, though not as strongly.
Aidans silvery-grey eyes rested on her beautiful daughter, and a smile touched her thin lips. Yes, Ailsa?
Ailsa shifted, tongue tip wetting her lips and began phrasing her question with care. Theron said you were offered a seat on the Council of Rangers. Is it true?
Eponin lowered her wooden tankard, cobalt-blue eyes locking with her mates. Xena knew there would be a private discussion why Aidan had not told Eponin about the offer. Eponins eyes narrowed as she awaited her mates answer.
Everyone awaited Aidans response: Aidan would be the youngest member of the revered council that oversaw the Rangers. It was a high honor, and a demanding job. Never had anyone turned down the offer, so great was the honor.
Yes; it is true. But I declined the offer, Aidan answered, glancing towards the doorway again.
Shock raced through the assembled group: Aidan had become the most famous and respected of the Rangers, and declining the offer was strange. Ailsa and Eponin exchanged worried glances, uncertain what ramifications would result from the unheard of action.
There are others more suited to the posting than I am, Aidan finished, noticing the incredulous attitude of her friends and family.
But no one has turned down a position before.. Ailsa stammered.
Aidan smiled thinly, knowing the others would have stated it more bluntly. Ephiny seemed less than pleased, no doubt feeling Aidan was being irresponsible. The Regent had spent her entire life handling obligations that kept the Amazon Nation alive, so the actions of her life-long friend no doubt made Ephiny doubtful about Aidans reasons.
But, Mother, the council needs you!
Eponin shot her daughter a silencing look, torn between relief and consternation. Aidan had been strangely withdrawn these last two weeks. It had become harder each year to watch her mate leave for patrols that took her far from home, from her arms. Aidans duties kept her away for two months or more three times a year, and there was always the chance Aidan would not return.
Coral, Theron and Aidan had been caught in an avalanche in the mountains, protecting a village against wild tribes. Coral had been killed, Therons legs had been broken, and Aidan battered. Torn and bloody, Aidan had held the pass against impossible odds. Had Xena, Gabrielle and Amarice not arrived in time, Aidan would have died there.
With the help of the towns people, the Warrior Princess repelled the invaders, and won the day. But it had been Aidan that had given them the time necessary. Amarice had grieved losing the young Ranger she had called friend, and had been frightened by Aidan.
Aidan had been literally surrounded by a moonsilver aura of power that had brought wild things to help her. There had been a marked otherness about the Ranger, and Xena had worried what price Aidan had paid for defending the village.
It had taken Xena almost a full candlemark to convince Aidan the danger had past Blood soaked, battered the Ranger had blinked, and lowered her glowing sword. She had pointed toward a snow bank where she had dug a cave, and concealed Theron. Aidan had enough time to dig the cave, splint his legs and wrap him inside her own cloak.
Aidan had silently left, mounting a roaming stallion and ridden down into the valley below. Xena had found her four days later, camping beside a sheltered lake and hot spring. Years ago Aidan had shown Xena her favorite campground in this area of Greece, a place Aidan used when things became too much.
Having entrusted Theron to Amarices care, the lovers had given Corals remains to the flames. They had found Aidan sitting beside the steaming hot spring, the gore of battle washed away, but not the trauma.
Xena understood what had happened: battle fatigue. Gabrielle went to set up a campsite, leaving the Warrior Princess to help the Ranger. Aidan had been mending her leathers, and had not immediately acknowledged the towering warriors presence. Xena sat down beside the chestnut haired woman, noting how Aidans hands trembled.
Xena had offered her arms, and Aidan had accepted them. Her tears had flowed for a very long time, and Xena held the Ranger close. When they rejoined Amarice six days later Aidan had been interested in nothing more than returning home.
Aidan pinched the bridge of her nose, and sighed. It had been five months since she had last seen her family, and the issue of the Councils needs had not been what Aidan had wanted raised. But being very young, and full of romantic notions, Ailsa could not comprehend her mothers reluctance. Ailsa, I declined it. My reasons are my own. It is not a matter I wish to discuss, or debate any further.
Abashed, Ailsa blinked. Eponins gaze drifted between her her mate and her daughter, uncertain what to make of Aidans odd behavior. Aidan did not met Eponins searching eyes, and Xena wondered what was bothering the woman.
It had puzzled Xena and Gabrielle how Aidan had found them so easily, since the negotiations were kept hush-hush. The Thracian Amazons had been very pleased when Aidan had appeared, and Queen Xanthippe had greeted the Ranger with a smile and embrace. Aidan and the Rangers had been well known to the Thracian Amazons for generations, and Kalliopes mother had been one of them.
Before Aidan had met Eponin, she had had other lovers, and the bond of affection between the monarch and the Ranger was clear. Eponin had noticed it. When asked Aidan had told her mate that she and Xanthippe had been lovers a long time ago. They had both been very, very young, and Xanthippe not yet Queen.
Both women now had mates and children they cherished. Eponin had been reassured, but had realized there was much she did not known about Aidan. Aidan had been very weary looking when she had arrived, but would not speak of where she had been. Bearing wounds that had been freshly bandaged, the Ranger had been not very forth coming about how she had gotten them.
Xena herself had asked where Aidan had been, since the womans usually tanned skin had lost some of its golden hue. The linens wrapping Aidans wounds were not of materials found in Greece or the surrounding areas. Xenas keen nose and eyes had determined the bandages had been made in the wild lands of the Erie.
Nor would she discuss what had happened to the bow Artemis had given her. Though the bow she carried now was of fine quality, it was not the god forged one that Aidan had carried for years.
Aidan had wanted nothing more than to hold her mate and child, to be with her loved ones. Eponin had not questioned her mate further, sensing Aidan had been worn by events of late. Five months of having not seen her beloved mate had made Eponin understandably eager for sexual union.
The first night they were back together Aidan had been too exhausted, and Eponin had contented herself with holding the woman. Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Ailsa and the Royal Guard members had been surprised when Aidan had emerged from the tent. They had expected sounds of wild passion, not Eponins grousing. The Amazons moon cycle had come, and she was not feeling very well.
Aidan had tended her mate, giving her back rubs and herbal teas that soothed the pain. Eponin was one of those unfortunates that had bad moon flows with heavy bleeding and very bad pain. It frustrated the Arms mistress, but she had learned to live with it.
The next week they were on the road, traveling back to Thessaly. There was no time for making love on the road, since there had been threats against the Queen. Aidan and Eponin had been given different watches, and the couples passion had been laid aside for duty.
Having secured two rooms, Xena fully expected Aidan and Eponin would make good use of the pallets up-stairs. Goddess knew she and Gabrielle would, and did whenever possible. Eponins body language told how much passion had built inside her soul, and the desire she felt.
Aidan, how about we go to bed? the Amazons voice was husky with need.
Aidan shut her eyes, then shook her head in negation. Eponin jaw dropped, and she flushed with mortification. Being rebuffed publicly made the Amazon both confused and angry, and a shocked silence had descended over the group.
Eponin fought to regain her composure, and offered her right hand. Aidan did not accept her mates extended hand, and Eponins cobalt-blue eyes darkened. Aidan, Eponin said softly.
Aidans silvery-grey eyes met her mates, and she shook her head. Her gaze focused once more on the doorway; she had been watching it since they had sat down hours ago, Xena realized.
Damnit, Aidan! What in the name of Hades is wrong with you? It has been five months since we were last together ! Is it too much to ask you to spend a night with me? Or have I suddenly become repulsive to you? Or are you regretting you chose me over Xanthippe? An arms mistress versus an Amazon Queen?
Hurt raced across Aidans face, and tears shimmered behind those soulful eyes. Never have I regretted my choice,but I can not do what you ask me, Eponin.
Eponins indignation, fueled by rejection and a fair amount of ale, exploded. She slammed her right fist down on the table top and shouted, Fine ! Maybe I should see if there are more willing bed partners!
Cursing, Eponin stalked off. A few very wise men scrambled out of harms way as the towering, muscular Amazon whose lover had rejected her. Gabrielle and Solari instantly flanked the furious woman, leaving the others to absorb what had transpired. During all the years of their union, Aidan and Eponin had been famous for their passionate reunions.
Days passed before the lovers would emerge only because the need for food, water and bathing had become important. Once those had been secured, they would vanish for days again.
Ailsas stormy grey eyes flickered between Eponins vanishing figure, and Aidan. Hercules and Ioalus knew this was time for them to bid goodnight, and head for their own room to let the other women handle this matter of the heart.
Mother? Ailsa implored with anguish of someone seeing their world fall apart. Ailsas touched her mothers shoulder and drew back, trembling. Moon silver eyes flickered toward the young Amazon, all traces of humanity gone, and the Amazons fell silent.
Whatever had summoned the womans ancient bloodline lay on the other side of the doorway. Too late Xena and Ephiny realized Aidan had not touched her food or drink during the course of the evening. A tell-tale moonsilver light shimmered around Aidan, warning of the danger approaching.
The door flew open, and a tall, sleekly muscular form wearing a flowing grey cloak entered the tavern. A grey gauntlet clad hand pushed back the deep cowl, and a very handsome, silver haired, grey eyed male inclined his head. Aidan rose like one spell bound, infinite sadness crossing her visage. It is time, Aidan of the Rangers.
Aidan, what is going?
Do not interfere, Warrior Princess. Aidan has been condemned by her own kindred, the Tuatha De Dannan, for the murder of our High King and Queen.
Aidan shut her eyes, the moonsilver aura fading as she turned wearily toward the group. Leave it alone, Xena, Aidan sighed, removing her baldric and sheathed sword. She removed her bow and quiver, too.
Aidan pressed her lips against her daughters forehead, laying the weapon on the table in front of Ailsa. Tell Eponin I love her very, very much. With all my heart and soul. But she would have wanted to come with me. I could not permit that.
Tears trekked down Aidans visage as she stepped back. You have been the most wondrous gift, my sweet one. You and Ep are my soul. No regrets, ever. Know I love you both with all that I am.
Aidan, there is no time! The Wild Hunt approaches, and tarrying needlessly endangers the innocent. Would you shed more innocent blood?
Never, Aidan husked, paling at the words.
Aidan pivoted on her right heel and strode toward the violent tempest raging outside the tavern. She paused for a heartbeat, and studied her loved ones one final time. Steeling herself, she stepped out into the maelstrom that was the Wild Hunt.
The stunned women tried moving, but found themselves bond by invisible forces. Whatever held them lost its grip once the Hunter had stepped outside. Xena, Ephiny and Ailsa reached the doorway when Aidan rise above the rain sodden earth as swirling clouds became hounds.
They watched the moon silver hounds spring toward their quarry. Aidans chestnut and silver streaked hair streamed wildly around her face as she began running. The Master of the Hunt blew his horn three times, and the baying of the hounds became the lament of lost.
The tempest shook the very pillars of the world for a terrible instant, as though protesting what was happening. The hunt rose high above the streets of the large town, vanishing in the twinkling of an eye. Stormwinds stilled, and the black rain clouds parted to reveal a luminous moon. Ailsa dropped to her knees, throwing back her head in impotent rage as she shouted out a challenge to Huntsman.
Eponin spanned the distance separating herself and her daughter, and dropped beside her screaming child. She wrapped her brawny arms around her daughter, watching the unfolding drama with anguish. Gabrielle had made her listen to reason, and she had come back to learn what had her mate so lost.
She had witnessed the entire horror, understanding why Aidan had been acting so distant. She had been protecting her loved ones, knowing she was a hunted woman. Her blazing eyes met Xenas.
Aidan had not wanted her beloved mate and child risking themselves for her. Nor her friends.
Hercules, what does Morgan know about the Tuatha De Dannan?
Hercules glanced toward Xena, and shrugged his massive shoulders, I am not sure, but I have a feeling we are going to find out.
This is Amazon business, a stunned Royal Guard snapped.
Aidan is a friend of mine; this is the business of her friends and family, Hercules responded without ire. Ill see about ships bound for Eire.
All eyes focused on two amber haired figures gazing westward.
The merchant ship plowed through the pea-green waters that had been lead gray the day before. Xena sighed, pacing the length of the vessel they had hired. The last few weeks had been hard ones, especially for Ailsa and Eponin. Mother and daughter stood side-by-side, cobalt and stormy grey eyes focused on the horizon where the land of Aidans mothers mother lay.
Neither had spoke much during the voyage, each lost in her own thoughts. The Council of Rangers had been dismayed, especially Selene and Niclo. Theron had not yet fully recovered from the injuries of that terrible winter could not make the journey. He had sent word once he was able, he would follow. His lover Phineas had not had the heart to tell his beloved that it would be months more before he could resume his duties.
Gabrielle would represent the Amazon Nation in pleading Aidans case, also representing the will of Artemis. Priestess throughout the Amazon Nation reported the displeasure of the golden haired huntress and her black haired consort: Aidan had served them well.
Ephiny had been obligated to remain behind to rule in the absence of the Queen, though Solari would accompany the group. Seven of their best warriors would accompany the group to protect their monarch, and fight should it be necessary. Xanthippe had sent word she would support the younger Queens decree once she had made her case.
Xena knew there would be others willing to fight for Aidan. There were hundreds whose lives Aidan had touched, many humble folks, but many were very powerful people. If diplomacy did not work, then Xena would do whatever necessary to free her friend.
A low groan announced that a certain consort might be regretting the haste of volunteering for a sea journey. Xena saw Solari draped over the railing, heaving violently once more. For some reason the wrist pressure point did not work well with Solari, and the woman had spent the balance of the voyage feeding fish.
Gabrielle held the dark haired womans hair back, murmuring words of comfort. Solari straightened, accepting the tepid water the Queen offered her. She was not the only Amazon suffering sea sickness, but the others had overcome the worse of it. How much longer? Solari groused, dark brown eyes weary.
Another three or four days, if the wind stays with us, Xena answered.
Artemis preserve me, Solari moaned.
Hey, look how many fish are following the ship, Ioalus enthused, pointing toward the darting forms beneath the waves. Hey, Solari, I think they like you...you have been feeding them since we left.
Solari clamped a hand over her mouth, spinning around in time to feed the fish again. Hercules shook his head in admonishment, fighting down a grin. Thats mean, Ioalus.
But its true. The fishing has been great this entire voyage! I mean, last night no one was complaining when we had that tuna.
Several of the Amazon warriors pondered this juicy piece of information, and realized what the tuna had been feeding on. Solari soon had four companions sharing her railing. Ioalus frowned, not in the lest bit revolted. Hey, most birds fed their young ones with food their parent eats first...
Even Gabrielle paled at that information as the scent of the sea lost to the scent of sea sickness. The Queen began jabbing her wrist had, glaring at the laughing hunter. Hercules cleared his throat, a bit green himself when he considered last nights meal. You know, Ioalus, I am not sure revealing why your fishing has been so great was a good idea...
Hey, Herc, you could call it the secret sauce, Ioalus laughed, and Hercules joined the Amazons. Oh well, more fish for me.
Eponin peered over her shoulder, eyes full of questions that she forgot when her daughter laid her head on her right shoulder. Holding her child close, Eponin shut her eyes and envisioned her mate.
Aidan hunkered beside the dark pool of water, cautiously sipping the tepid waters of the Lake of Sorrows. She grimaced, but swallowed the bitter tasting waters that would keep her alive. Her evergreen and brown leathers were tattered and filthy, and her mane of once lustrous hair had become a tangled mess. She gnawed the section of deer meat left behind by the hounds.
She hung her head low, recalling the life she had enjoyed only a month ago. If she had made love with Eponin, she would not have been able to keep the truth from her mate. Eponin would have insisted on accompanying her, not caring what the cost. Aidan loved her wife too much to condemn her to this nightmarish existence.
Images flashed through her minds eye of awakening on the battlefield where she had fought beside the Tuatha De Dannan. Her kindred had summoned her, knowing she would honor their request out of respect. They were fighting an ancient enemy called the Formorii. When the Goddess Danu had sent her spawn to fight the dark armies of Dahok, she had opened gateway on this world. Eire had been a mystical land uninhabited by human or the De Dannan, so she had made it their seat of power.
Her waters had blessed the parched earth, and De Dannan spell casters, weavers and singer brought forth life. What had been a barren landscape became an emerald-green isle of beauty inhabited by magical beings of the world the goddess had come from. The work of Danu had not gone unnoticed, and the Formorii had sent vessels out with settlers.
The De Dannan welcomed the comely race, calling them friends, not knowing the deceit their kept hidden. For a time there was peace between the two races, then the Formorii decided they wished to own Eire. They slew many of the De Dannan during a single bloody night of betrayal, and Danu had cast them out.
Marked by their evil deeds, most were misshapen beings whose ancestors had once been called friend. Some were roughly human-like with fur or single eyes, and sometimes only one leg and arm as well. Others were more bestial, shambling horrors bent on avenging what had been done to them.
Aidan had been horrified during the three days and night of the battle fought on a plain called Magh Tuireadh. The High King and the High Queen had insisted she fight beside them, and Aidan had deferred to their wishes. What little she knew of Nuada and his wife, Macha, she had liked: they were good rulers, and balanced each other.
Macha was a fierce warrior, and a passionate lover whose devotion to her husband had been questioned. Nuada had not cared what rumors were saying: he trusted his wife, though some said she had slept with another. Nuada had given Aidan a quiver of unending arrows that she had used to kill countless Formorrii. Aidan had lost count how many arrows she had loosened, but her muscles had been quaking in the final hours.
The others were full blooded De Dannan, immortals and demigods, she had been the lone mortal fighting there. Even the Guardian of Justice and her daughter were demigods, and Aidan had forced herself beyond endurance. She had finally sank onto her knees, losing consciousness out of sheer exhaustion as Nuada shouted her name.
When she had awoken hours later, she was the sole survivor of the group she had been fighting with. Her arrows had been buried deep inside the others, and the De Dannan had been outraged... Beaten, she had been thrown into tiny, black hole without ventilation and scare room to move.
She had heard some De Dannan demanding her death, some her exile, others cautioned they should take care and not rush to judgment. Denied food and water, her wounds festering, Aidan could recall nothing. Sick with fever, she had shut her eyes and wept.
How long was it before she had regained awareness? Her wounds had been tended, her leathers replaced, and she had been set outside a familiar forest. Her grand sire sat atop his midnight stallion, stormy grey eyes forlorn when he said he would conceal her trail for as long as possible.
She had not needed to ask what he was hiding her from: she knew it. He told her about the treaty, and Aidan had been grateful for the chance to say good-bye. She never doubted the Wild Hunt would find it...it was only a matter of time.
Aidan saw the faces of her family and friends reflected in the Lake of Sorrows, and she touched the image. The baying of the hounds announced they had found her trail once again, and Aidan rose. She raced across the blighted landscape, hoping to lose them again.
Eponin blinked. She heard Ailsa and Xena calling her voice as though from a great distance, and a shiver raced down her spine. It took her several seconds to comprehend what had happened. Sweet Artemis..
Mother? Ailsa touched the towering womans right side.
Ep? Xena guided the stunned woman to the water barrel lashed to the main sail behind her. Whats wrong?
Aidan...I saw through her eyes, felt what she was feeling.. Xena, Ailsa, she is so tired. She thinks about us. The hounds are chasing her again.
Xena did not question how the womans assertion about the Ranger. The couple had forged a soul deep bond of love that had sustained them through numerous challenges. Solari and the others forgot their sea-sickness, listening to the womans soft words.
We have to find out why she was accused of the murder of the High King and Queen of the De Dannnan. If theres one thing I know, its that Aidan is no murderer. She kills only when she has no choice, Gabrielle heaved a weary sigh, the wind ruffling her short cropped hair.
She had worn it short since the time back in India, when they were fighting Alti. It looked very fetching, and was easy for the Queen to maintain. Xena had almost considered cropping her own, but Gabrielles pleading eyes had prevented it.
Xena imagined herself in Eponins position, and her blood cooled. They would free Aidan, or die trying. Golden hair illuminated by the setting sun, Xena could not help but think how lovely her wife looked.
Ailsa shifted, her right hand unsheathing her mothers sword in a smooth motion that sent the merchant mans sailors scrambling, no doubt fearing the Amazon wanted blood. A moonsilver shimmer ran the entire length of the magical sword, and Ailsa shot her mother a glance. Its moonsilver glow indicated when the blades owner was near, or something of great power. One of the sailors uttered a pray, pointing towards the shimmering sea with horror.
Exclamations of dread and fascination rose when phantom images of sleek, wolfish hounds chased their condemned quarry through the translucent green waves. Eponin cried out when she spotted Aidans lithe form being pursued by the baying pack. It took the combined might of Hercules, Xena and Ailsa to keep the screaming woman aboard the ship.
The phantom hunt burst out of the cold sea waters and raced high above the ships mast. Aidan seemed unaware of the bearing mute witness to the spectral drama unfolding around, beneath and above them. Eponin roared out a curse against those responsible for the plight of her mate, knees giving way when she watched the hunt continue.
A rider less black stallion thundered out of the surf, passing through the vessel itself and Xena. Xena shuddered, feeling the icy cold grip of the loose stallion, and she knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Where was the Master of the Hunt?
Not a clue, Xena. I spent time with the Druids, but never with the De Dannan. They are a very reclusive, powerful race of immortals and Gods. How could they do this to Aidan? I cant believe she would murder anyone, let alone kindred, Hercules shook his head.
Solari watched the others, especially Ailsa. Ailsa had the build and coloring of the Arms mistress, including her great physical strength, but the girl had Aidans bloodline showed, too. Her eyes were the same stormy grey the womans had once been, and those eyes missed nothing. She had the same gift with wild things, and the mark of feyness that Aidan bore. She was a very handsome young woman, poised and graceful.
More than a few Amazons had their sights set on the coltish young woman, not to mention most males. Solaris own daughter, Pelgia, believed she would become Ailsas sworn mate despite the five years separating them.
Berek joked her friend wold become the most pursued Amazon in their tribe, and more than a few women of other tribes had shown interest. Ailsa was no innocent. She had learned the arts of love with several young Amazons, and knew what pleased her her, and how to please a lover.
Ephinys son had an eye for the young woman, but knew she liked mares rather than stallions. Xenon had grown up into a very exceptional young man, fiercely loyal to his mother and her people as much as he was his sires. Now, watching the young Amazon standing utterly still, Solari could see the Rangers bloodlines clearly.
Ephinys daughter had finished her warrior training, and joined the Rangers. Clio had fallen in love with a very handsome young man whose father Joxxer, the Mighty, not follow the way of war. Joxxer and Meg had settled down, raising a very nice family on their farm. Joxxer had given up the sword ten years ago, and found making musical instruments much more to his liking.
The couple owned a very, very prosperous tavern where the best bards and singer performed, and heroes gathered. Joxxer laughed about his quest, and worried his eldest might learn the harsh lessons of following the warrior way. But Jax had inherited the warrior mantle his father never had been meant top wear.
It still amazed Solari and Ephiny that the soft-spoken, gentle man was the son of Joxxer. But Joxxer had become the man the Fates meant him to be, and showed a depth none thought possible. Jax and Clio were completing their Ranger training.
So many changes. Ephiny and she had spoken one night about how pleased they were with the world they were helping build. The Romans had never again attacked the Amazon Nation, since the senate had accepted the treaty Gabrielle and Xena had brought them.
Had Amarice and Eli not gone back, the lovers would have died on the crosses. So close were they to death that the gentle healer feared they were too late. Brutus had arrived around the same time Eli and Amarice had, and he had been furious.
The soldiers responsible for harming the Amazon Queen and her consort were arrested while the soldiers accompanying Brutus helped remove the lovers. Inside the most spacious chamber the lovers were healed, and Brutus vowed he would make sure the treaty was accepted.
Both Xena and Gabrielle had been convinced the Regent and her consort had been slain during the battle against Brutuss body guard. It had been a case of mistaken identity: Pompey had taken an out lying Amazon village, killing those he could not sell. Ephiny and Solari had been on patrol when word of the outrage reached their patrol.
When they had spotted Brutus, some of the younger Amazons attacked before Ephiny and Solari could stop them. Amarice had been one of the hot-heads determined to avenge their sisters, and the patrol had become split up. Solari had been stabbed, and left for dead by a Roman soldier, and Ephiny had found her mate laying unmoving on the ground.
Outraged, and heart-broken, she sent the balance of the patrol under Chilapa to attack the Romans flanks. In an attempt to defend Amarice, Ephiny ended up crossing blades with Brutus. He had driven his sword into her breast, a mortal wound that had the Regent collapsing.
Chilapas anguished cry joined Amarice as they engaged the well armored Romans. Both Ephiny and Solari awoke hours later inside a crystal cave, their wounds being tended by silent, robe clad forms. Aidan had knelt beside the lovers, and whispered the Amazon Nation thought they were dead.
Aidan had explained she had arrived to find them almost dead, and had begged a favor of her Grandmother. Danu had granted her request, and the two lovers were being nursed back to health by the healers of De Dannan. Another Amazon lay being tended, the tawny haired Arms mistress, Eponin.
She had been badly wounded in the battle, too. Solari remembered watching Aidan turn away to join the battle to save the Amazons. She would not tell anyone they lived until the danger was past.
Aidan never got to tell Xena and Gabrielle the three women were alive, because she stumbled across another patrol being harassed. Marc Anthony had become separated from his friend, Brutus, and heard the Amazons had captured him. Thinking him dead, the fierce soldier had pinned down another Amazon villages patrol.
Forced back toward their village, the Amazons were desperately trying to keep the Romans out. They did not want their children and mothers mothers slaughtered, as had happened in the other village. Aidan arrived when the battle was going badly, and began directing the fight.
Knowing they were outnumbered, and fearing the damage that would be done, Aidan unleashed her full powers. Solari had spoken with the warriors of the village Aidan saved. They said the Romans froze when Aidan became encased in a moon silver aura of power. Each arrow she loosen pierced both armor and flesh with ease, and wolves came out of the woods.
Each Roman she hit fell dead despite their armor and shields. The wolves began harassing the disbelieving men, and the sight of the lumbering she-bear charging them broke their resolve. When moon silver hounds appeared out of thin air, the Romans broke and ran.
Aidan spoke words of power, and Marc Anthony found himself being surrounded by the wolves. Aidan walked forward, dispatching anyone foolish enough to oppose her as she closed the distance. Whatever she said made Marc Anthony pale, and he mounted his horse and rode away.
His frightened men followed him, convinced they had angered a demigoddess. The Amazons had cowered when Aidan turned back towards them, unnerved by the power she had displayed. Aidan ignored their fear, and began helping restore order so the wounded could be tended.
By the time Aidan had finished, Xena and Gabrielle had been placed on the crosses. The Amazon Nation mourned the loss of so many brave women, but the return of the Regent, her consort and their best Arms mistress had made it easier.
It was two months later that they learned Xena and Gabrielle were alive, having been rescued. They had all survived, but they had changed, too.
Aidan had been the most obviously changed. Many of their sisters believed she had been marked by the Goddesses, for what reasons they could not guess. Eponins love and affection never altered: she loved her mate.
Eponins anguish made Solari forget her own discomfort, and she rose to join the woman. She laid a hand on her childhood friends muscular shoulder and joined her gazing toward the horizon.
The merchant ships sailors could not wait to leave the strange group on the small cove they had found. A sheltered, half moon shaped beach where the band of friends gathered their equipment. The captain had given them their money back, fearing they were accursed souls.
It was bad luck to keep money from damned ones, and the sailors wanted to leave this strange land. They watched the merchant ship plying its way out of the sheltered waters, and wished them a safe journey home.
Xena scanned the rock strewn beach with worried eyes. Hercules and the Royal Guard were busy preparing their campsite, leaving Ioalus in charge of finding them game. The Warrior Princess smiled when she watched Solari rejoice in solid land, and noticed Gabrielle gathering firewood.
Ailsa was helping her Queen, leaving her mother to brood. Eponin paced the length of the beach, weeks of frustration finally exploding. Where is this Guardian of Justice you mentioned, Hercules?
Right behind you, lyrical voice announced.
Hercules beamed, and opened his arms wide for an enthusiastic embrace. Laughing, the pair shared a loving kiss that told of their deep bond. Hercules set Morgan down with a grin. Everyone, met Morgan..
Keeping one arm firmly wrapped around Hercules waist, Morgan cleared her throat. Tonight, we shall remain here...its safer.
Then, first light, we shall head for the court of De Dannan. Be warned, they are a just, passionate folk possessing great magic and weapons skills. Aidan has been accused of murdering their High King and High Queen, a most grievous offense.
Eponins eyes blazed and the Guardian of Justice raised her hands, I am certain she is not a murderer, Eponin.
How did you know my name?
I have met Aidan. She is a noble warrior, and very proud of her family. She loves you with all her heart and soul, Eponin of the Hawk Tribe.
Eponin studied the woman, knowing she spoke the truth. Morgan met the troubled eyes of the Amazon, and extended her hand. We shall learn why she has been accused, and amend things in the name of Justice.
Eponin clasped the womans forearm, measuring the woman. Morgan turned her attention to the young woman whose lineage was clearly marked. Morgan studied the weapons the young one carried, noting how the girl touched the hilt of the sword.
It was not a gesture of aggression, but one of seeking comfort. Morgan cleared her throat, and said, You must be Ailsa.
Ailsa narrowed her stormy grey eyes, and cocked her head sideways, How do you know my name?
Your mother spoke often of you, and Theron has spoken about you and your mother. He came to Erie to help us against Dahok five years ago. He has a great deal of love and affection for you family, Morgan said, surprised the man was not here.
Theron was badly injured last winter when he and Coral were caught in a landslide; his legs were broken, and Coral was killed. Aidan had been covering their ranges as well as her own, Xena informed the Guardian of Justice.
Not to mention fighting beside her kindred fight the invasion of the Fomorii. Aidan had been summoned by the royal court; she fought bravely... Morgan informed the stunned group. We did not have time to talk, but I saw her fight. She shone brighter than those of pure bloodlines...the battle last four days and night without rest.
I heard the alarm rise when the Tuatha De Dannan found Nuada and Macha were dead, as were several others of the high court members. Aidan alone survived, and her arrows had been found in the bodies of the fallen monarchs. Her grandfather knew his kin would punish Aidan, so he spirited her away.
Aidan did not mention she had been in a war, Eponin murmured, recalling how spent Aidan had appeared. No wonder she had been acting so strange, knowing she would be found sooner or later. I will not let them take my mate away from me; Aidan is no murderer.
The most important thing is finding a way into their realm, then discerning whose hands are marked with the blood of Nuada and Macha, Morgan spoke carefully.
Then I suggest we get some sleep, Xena suggested, Gabrielle and I will take first watch. Ioalus and Solari second watch, and you and Ailsa the last watch, Xena knew Hercules and Morgan had things they needed to discuss.
Aidan clambered up the craggy, twisted tree where she would spend the night. The hounds were chasing other damned ones, and Aidan knew the respite would be brief. She shivered against the cold breeze, wishing she had her heavy woolen, fur lined cloak. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it.
She had lost weight, her entire body bore nicks, cuts and livid bruises, and she laughed. She looked more like the banshee than a banshee did. Aidan closed her weary eyes, envisioning her loved ones.
Again, she dreamed of the final moments of the battle. She had taken a flanking position, firing arrow after arrow. Nuada had given her a quiver that never ran out of arrows, and Aidan had rained death down on the misshaped, evil Fomorii. They had been surrounded, but they were holding they ground against the one legged, one armed warriors under the direction of their ruler, Balor.
Nuada and Macha fought well together, their movements a lethal ballet. Passionate lovers, fierce warriors and good leaders, the royal couple had been fascinated by Aidan. They had befriended the Ranger, pleased that she was fighting with them.
Aidan saw herself again turning her back to the couple, raising her bow to hold back several Fomorii warriors about to breech their line. Then the world went dark.
Aidan could remember nothing, other than searing pain that had stolen consciousness. She had awaken beside the dead couple, her arrows embedded in their bodies, surrounded by the armored knights of the court. She had been taken prisoner, accused of murder, and judged within mere hours. Her fate had been declared: the Wild Hunt take her.
Aidan tried to remember more, but she could not remember what had happened during those last frantic moments of battle. Her eyes slid shut, and sleep claimed her despite her best efforts.
Eponin did not question where the shaggy horses they rode had come from. Morgan had said they knew they were needed, and simply come to offer their services. Erie was an emerald isle of mystic powers that defied logic; Eponin found herself understanding her beloveds feyness.
Xena guided her mount alongside the pensive woman, riding in companionable silence. Eponin blinked back the tears she had been fighting to keep in check. What if they dont release her?
Sapphire-blue eyes glinting dangerously, Xena smiled thinly. It was a silent pledge shared between warriors: Aidan would be freed, or they would die trying.
Ailsa joined the two women, riding on the other side of her mother. Ailsa seemed entranced by the rolling green hills shrouded in great forests. Occasional dwellings lined the road. Morgan and Hercules were talking softly, discussing Brigid. Morgans daughter would be joining them outside the hill that marked the entrance of the Tuatha De Dannans realm.
Gabrielle and Solari were talking about the treaty between the tribes. Ioalus listened, asking pointed questions concerning certain terms of the treaty. The women answered his questions, and gained insights they had not thought of.
Xena scanned the seemingly serene countryside, instinct telling her they were not alone. Eponins cobalt-blue eyes narrowed as she scanned the hills. Xena..
I know; we are being followed..have been for the last few miles, Xena rode forward, and murmured what she had sensed. Both Hercules and Morgan were aware of their hidden watchers.
Eponin had warned the others, and the group rode silently for several miles. Morgan inclined her head, There...
A golden haired young woman with cornflower blue eyes wearing a flowing white gown. Hercules beamed, Brigid.
Aye; Brigid, love, how are you?
Good, mother, Brigid smiled when her mother dismounted and embraced the lovely young woman.
The others followed Morgans example, and dismounted. The shaggy ponies turned and meandered out into the green grass. Brigid turned her attention toward the rest of the group, exchanging brief greetings. The young womans eyes focused on the sword riding behind Ailsas left shoulder with fascination. She walked forward, reaching for the weapons hilt when she stopped herself.
Blushing, she smiled, and asked, May I see the blade?
Ailsa beamed, and unsheathed the broad sword that she held out towards the golden haired vision. The pearly blade began glowing, and runes of power appeared on the length of it. Brigid examined the blade with keen interest. Amazing..this is the Moonfire. It had been thought lost for generations. Its a most wondrous blade.
It is my mothers, Ailsa whispered.
Brigid raised her eyes, and the two young women regarded each with understanding. We shall win her freedom.
Ailsa nodded, sheathing the blade. How do we get inside?
That is not the hard part, Morgan said, clearing her throat. It is getting out that might be the problem.
Enough talk; Aidan needs us, Eponin folded her muscular arms across her bosom.
Morgan inclined her head, turned toward the towering hillside. Clearing her throat, she announced, In the name of Justice and Healing we seek entry.
A tall, fair haired woman wearing silvery mail appeared in the middle of the hill. Stepping out of the mystical entrance the Tuatha De Dannan considered the assembly. Morgan, you and Brigid are well known, and loved, but these are outsiders' the womans amethyst eyes narrowed when she beheld Ailsa. You are the daughter of Aidan.
Yes, Ailsa noticed how the womans eyes shone with other worldly knowledge. I have come to free my mother.
A bold statement for one so young, but what else should a daughter say? You must be the mate of Aidan, the woman remarked, studying Eponin. She spoke fondly about both of you. Morgan, I can grant you access, but may not be permitted to let you return.
You will do what you must, Fiona, and I shall do what I must.
The fey woman smiled, and stood aside, Enter, then, old friend.
The hillside shimmered, and a gateway formed to grant access to the realm of the Tuatha De Dannan. The arched stone gateway would have permitted mounted riders to ride three abreast, should it be necessary. Where Erie had had overcast skies, this land was blessed with golden sunlight, sprawling forests and rich pastures where gold, brown and white cattle grazed.
Smooth dirt roads wound throughout the beautiful landscape with vast mountains in the distance. Morgan grinned, enjoying the reaction of the stunned Greeks to the hidden world of the Tuatha De Dannan. Its is an amazing land...there are wild coasts strewn with the most wondrous rocks and shells, and other coasts with strange trees and golden sands. There, the water is warm enough to swim in for hours.
I have spent weeks exploring this realm. There are islands where unicorns frolic.. Morgan sighed. But try getting a straight answer out of the Tuatha De Dannan, and they change the subject.
It seems endless, Gabrielle whispered, watching the flight of mated eagles.
It is; the best I can figure, this is another world. They once ruled Erie, but when humans settled the lands they had tamed, they gave it to us. They had been living between the two worlds..they still ride the lands, but only rarely now.
They came to fight for us when the Formorrii invaded, but not just for reasons of virtue: there are dozens of Gateways in Erie to their realm. Other lands have some entries, but most are on Erie.
Xena studied the flower strewn fields with narrowed eyes. Is it real?
Aye; very real. It is a land of light, Brigid informed them, her flowing golden hair almost shining. Both she and Morgan had taken on a more supernatural cast here, being demi-goddess of the land of Erie.
Ailsa and Hercules, too, shone brightly here. Ailsas stormy eyes flickered with arcane powers that this natal land had awakened inside her. Eponin cast her daughter a worried look, and Ailsa squeezed her mothers hand. I am Amazon, mother. This may be part of my heritage, but it is not who I am.
Eponin released her breath, and scanned the marvelous land. In the distance there were buildings where she sensed her quest would begin. Eponin estimated it would take two days of travel to reach the jewel like city.
Come on, it will take us two days as it is to reach the royal court.. Morgan informed her companions, leading the way.
Aidan ran hard, the hounds baying angrily. She had not seen the Wild Hunt leader for several days, and the hounds were furious. Sprinting up hill, she felt the teeth of a hound pierce her right calf. White hot agony seared through her leg, and she fell hard onto her left knee.
Aidan grabbed up a fist sized rock and smashed the hounds muzzle hard. The wolf like hound released its hold, yelping in anguish. The hounds drew back, uncertain. They were not used to their quarry fighting back, and the lead hounds bloody muzzle made them reconsider this one.
Keeping in a low defensive crouch, Aidan watched the hounds cautiously withdrawing. She did not move until the last hound had gone back down the hill, and across the rolling grass of the moor land. Aidan lowered her rock, and rose.
Her right leg collapsed, and she fell face forward. She fought back a wave of disorientation, and examined the limb. Her stomach twisted: she could see bone. The muscles and tendons had been totally torn off the bone in one section.
Feeling faint, she tore off a filthy rag and wrapped it around her leg. She laid back, mustering her will and courage. She forced herself up onto her feet, and limped up the steep hill. For days, maybe weeks, she had been drawn to this desolate hill, and she would not be denied it.
She scanned the rubble covered ground and spotted a stout stick. She lifted it, and began the arduous ascent toward the mist shrouded peak. The hounds bayed, but did not follow.
Eponin awoke, clutching her right calf in agony. The dream faded, and she shut her eyes. Her cries had roused the camp, and Xena lowered her sword. The raven haired warrior had been on first watch with Ioalus, and both warriors were ready for battle.
Its Aidan...shes hurt. A hound tore open her right calf; its a terrible wound, Eponin had expected to find her own leg equally ravaged.
Its the bond you share, Brigid murmured. Ailsas pallid face indicated she, too, had been sharing the images haunting Eponin.
Where is she? Morgan asked sharply.
On a misted shrouded hill that the hounds will not climb... Ailsa whispered.
She must not reach the summit, Morgan whispered.
It is the hill of the Dead...if she reaches the top, she shall be cast into the darkest realm of the god Don. Only the most damned of souls can cross the boundary, Morgan said.
Aidan is not a damned soul! She is an honorable warrior whose only fault is loyalty to those that are not so loyal! Eponin snarled, lunging toward the Guardian of Justice.
Peace, Eponin. I am not saying she is damned; just that something strange has happened. I heard her sentence, and it was not that. Aidan is not an evil soul, but what has dropped the barrier?
There is one thing that could do it, Mother, Brigid announced. The Master of the Hunt can open and close it whenever he wants..his horn is the key.
Aidans grandfather is no longer the Master of the Hunt...
Each Tuatha De Dannan serves a time as the Master of the Hunt; Aidan had been replaced by Niall. Niall is a just Master of the Hunt, too.
Whatevers happening, we must find a way to stop Aidan from reaching the top, Xena swore. Eponin, Ailsa, do you two think you can reach Aidan, with a little help?
Mother and daughter pondered the question, and the tawny maned women nodded. Brigid smiled, and began gently instructing mother and daughter how to reach their loved one. The others could only hope whatever spell the young golden haired woman wove would work.
Morgan called the magic form Wicca, and explained it was White Magic. Using various herbs and sea salt Brigid sang a summoning song, while she had Eponin and Ailsa sitting cross legged inside a circle she etched on the ground with an ash rod.
The two women sat facing each other, knees touching as they clasped each others hands. The lyrical words were in tongue none of the Greeks understood, but they could feel its power. Electric blue streaks of light swirled around the mother and daughter as they called out in one voice, reaching for the other part of their souls.
Aidan had almost reached the summit when the wind began beating her back. Cursing, she lowered herself onto her knees and began hauling herself up on her belly. Only a few more yards, and she would be there.
AIDAN!! the wind cried, and the Ranger froze. She raised her face toward the warmth of sunlight, and heard the voice of her mate and child.
Eponin, Ailsa? she coughed, shivering.
Do not climb further...if you do, you will never be restored to us, the one voice that was two cried out, and Aidan shuddered. She felt the compulsion draining out of her, and she beheld the mountain she had climb.
A thread of horror ran through her mind, body, and soul: she had been climbing a mountain of skulls and bones. It was the mountain of the Damned Souls she had been clambering up! Aidan recoiled, and found herself tumbling downwards.
How long she tumbled for she could not say, but the bony fingers of the eternally damned plucked at her living flesh. She found herself sprawled at the bottom of the hill, and watched a huge, bloated spider quivering at the summit.
Aidan felt her stomach heave. A few more feet, and she would have been taken deep inside its burrow. It began scuttling down the mountain of bones and skulls, and Aidan found she had no strength left.
She could watch only in horror, helpless before the hellish thing. Then silvery forms surrounded her. The hounds bayed, and several grabbed her tattered clothing and began hauling her backwards. Aidan pushed with her legs, helping the hounds draw her away.
She and the hounds barely escaped what seemed to be the limit of the things range, and Aidan relaxed. The hound she had struck had been healed, and regarded her with intelligent eyes. It had not been trying to kill her, but save her.
The pack turned, and vanished. Aidan hauled herself a good distance, and collapsed. She would not awaken for days.
Eponin and Ailsa both jerked when the connection had been broken; they had seen, and felt Aidans rough descent. Had seen the hounds save the Ranger, and felt Aidan loss consciousness.
Her journey up the mountain of damned ones had drained her almost to death. Brigid, too, had been there. It had been her warmth that had carried the spirits of the two women.
She is safe for now. Don will restore order to the accursed place, I felt him coming when Aidan lost consciousness.
And that spider?
It is not a creature of Dons: it is a manifestation of the darkness touching the worlds.
Dakoh.. Xena sighed.
Yes; even when he is not striking out, his taint has polluted many planes of existence. But it does not explain what happened to the Master of the Hunt, Morgan stated, shaking her head. I do not like it. Niall is a good man.
Then something must have happened to him, Xena recalled the handsome man whose compassion and concern had been evident. He had not relished making Aidan part of the Wild Hunt: he had done what he had to. Break camp. Aidan needs us.
The others scrambled, sensing time was a luxury none of them could afford.
Aidan woke beneath warm pelt, nude and clean. She was inside a small wood and stone cabin where a slender form moved in the flickering hearth light. She winced when she tried to sit-up, and found strong hands holding her back down.
Rest, sweet one, a familiar bass voice murmured.
Aidan blinked, and found Kalliope smiling down at her beloved daughter. The tall, powerfully built Amazon swept a stray chestnut locket out of Aidans eyes, sitting on the edge of the pallet. Tears of joy streaked Aidans face as she reached up and touched the handsome womans face,
Dont cry, Aidan, Kalliope soothed, distressed by the womans tears.
How? Aidan whispered thickly.
I am not sure. love. You appeared here..bloody and near death, Kalliopes dark brown eyes eyes flashed dangerously. Cyane found you.
Queen Cyane? Aidans blood ran cold.
Yes... Kalliope stroked Aidans forehead. But you are not dead, if that is what you think.
I am not sure, but you are here, a slender, silver haired, sea-green eyed woman announced. Thalia smiled when her daughter met her eyes. You are very weak...
Aidan rose, and embraced her parents, not caring how she had gotten here. They held her close, offering the shelter of their arms and hearts. Outside, discussion raged concerning the Rangers mysterious arrival in the paradise of the Amazons. A council meeting of the Amazon Queens addressed the issue of the Rangers crossing, uncertain what it meant.
It was a dangerous thing when the living walked the land of the dead.
The golden white marble walls rose high above the lush fields where cattle grazed, and golden crops grew. A variety of fruit and nut bearing trees lined the road in marvelous grooves, and horses raced across open pastures. Xena paused, appreciating the incredible mares and stallions that ranged themselves along the roadside. Moon silver, golden, roan and midnight-black pelts glistened with great health and vigor, and alert eyes told of marked intelligence.
One moon silver stallion boldly approached the warrior, and softly nibbled the womans hand out of curiosity. Xena beamed, delighted. If she had had him when Argo had been alive, she could have bred great warhorses. Here, fed him this, Brigid said, fishing inside the small pouch she wore around her trim waist.
Xena accepted the apple, wondering how it fit in the small pouch. The stallion gave a equine sound of delight, and ate the proffered golden apple with relish. Xena laughed, missing Argo. Eponins cleared her throat, impatient to reach the court. The fate of her beloved hung in the balance, and she had little patience for simple indulgences.
Xena patted the finely arched neck, and turned her attention back towards the city. Twin gates of burnished oak opened, and the small party knew they were being acknowledged. Morgan and Brigid led the way into the royal city where the Tuatha De Dannans high court awaited them.
As the small group passed through the gateway, Xena counted six archers watching their progress, and knew there were more carefully concealed. On the other side of the gate lay the outermost bailey where nut and apple trees grew. Emerald-green grass covered with wildflowers lined the cobble stone paths, and more than a two dozen of the fair race watched the humans with appraising eyes.
Taller than most humans, the Tuatha De Dannan were the most beautiful beings Xena had ever glimpsed. Most of the women were close to Xenas own height, though they were not so obviously muscular. The males were taller, and well built, and wore light silvery chain mail.
Several of the females were dressed like the male knights, and those wearing brightly hued garments held instruments. Gabrielles eyes shone when she saw the green clad bards amidst the ranks of those gathered, especially one handsome, golden maned male with soulful emerald-green eyes.
We have come to see the High Council about the matter of Aidan of the Rangers, Morgan stated formally,
The matter has been resolved: Aidan has been punished for her crimes, announced one of the assembled group, a silvery haired, icy-blue eyes male wearing burnished armor.
Xena noticed how the others seemed uncertain of the sentiment, and knew there was more to the story than was being told. There was none of the light of the Tuatha De Dannan, and Xena sensed he was not one of them.
Another figure stepped forward, a golden haired, sea-green eyed male wearing finely wrought armor burnished like the other males. Ah, cousin, no one is certain of anything in these perilous times! Morgan and Brigid know me; I am Lugh, and the dour fellow is my cousin, Ferris, Lugh informed the others, radiating genuine warmth and compassion.
Is it true you have been chosen as the new king? Morgan inquired.
Yes, old friend, though I do not think I shall the mantel as well as Nuada did. He and Macha ruled wisely together; their deaths have been a blow...
Xena noticed the fine, almost invisible golden circlet surrounding the mans brow, and inclined her head. His golden curls almost concealed the emblem of his office, and the warrior noticed how his cousins covetous eyes rested on it. She was not certain if the others had noticed it, but Morgan and Brigid not doubt had noticed, too.
Hercules watched Ferris with decidedly cool eyes, and she knew he sensed the darkness inside the male. Why, then, did it seem the Tuatha De Dannan were unaware of what human senses had picked up?
Slung over Ferriss back was a moon silver bow very similar to Aidans, and the quiver held arrows fletched in the same pattern as the Rangers. Nice arrows.... Xena murmured, deciding a bit of fishing was in order.
There should be: I took them from that treacherous bitch, Aidan. Half-bred mongrels should not be given weapons of such fine make, Ferriss eyes rested significantly on the chakrum Xena bore.
Eponin snarled out a very explicit Amazonian oath pertaining to the males dubious lineage, and sprang forward. Xena and Hercules caught her before she could land a punch. The Tuatha De Dannan observed the display with questioning eyes, and some displeasure. The displeasure was not directed at the Amazon, but their companion.
Ferris, Aidans punishment is being questioned by most of the Tuatha De Danna, especially since we found Niall..
What happened to Niall? Xena asked.
He was found dead, though he bore no wounds, and the Wild hunt horn is missing. Even if we found Aidan innocent, it is impossible for us to release her without the horn, Lugh said, shaking his head sadly.
Xena sensed Ferris knew where the horn was, and what had happened to the leader of the Hunt. Is she all right?
Lugh glanced toward his companions, and sighed, To be honest, we can not say. She has vanished. Those condemned to the the Wild hunt are accounted for, save for Aidan. We have a special pond that permits us to monitor the realms we guard, and Aidan is in none of them.
It is a if she has simply ceased to be...
Eponin gave out a bellow of rage and anguish, knees giving out when she understood what it could mean. Ailsa staggered, too. Morgan and Brigid exchanged worried glances, fearing what it meant to the world.
If something other than the Tuatha De Dannan had learned mastery of the portals they commanded, what of the mortals they guarded? What of the world?
Milord, a mounted knight shouted, riding into the outermost bailey on a weary moon silver stallion whose flanks quivered with exhaustion. The Formorriian have entered this realm!
Impossible, cried the bard, rising.
Lugh pinched the bridge of his nose, and gathered himself. He turned toward the assembled court members. Have the warriors summoned; its seems what has been deemed impossible has become very possible. Whoever is behind this has the horn; the Formorrii can not travel between the worlds like we can without such a talisman! To arms, brothers and sisters, Lugh called.
How long do we have? Xena demanded, tensing for battle.
Not very long, the mounted warrior announced, painfully lowering himself to the ground. His once finely wrought silver chain mail had been rent by fearsome weapons, and the flesh torn. He removed his helmet, and Xena found herself arrested by the most beautiful grey-green eyes. You are the one they call Xena...I am Aidans brother, Midir.
Rich chestnut hair threaded with gold framed a perfect face, and Xena found herself responding to his masculinity. She shook her head, disconcerted by her out of place response. Gabrielle blushed furiously when the Tuatha De Dannans eyes met hers. The handsomest of a handsome people, the warrior exuded sensuality without meaning to.
A lovely female approached him at a run, shouting his name. Midir smiled, and opened his well muscled arms wide for the flame haired, emerald-green eyed beauty that settled closed the distance. Wearing the white and gold threaded robes of a Tuatha De Dannan mage, the woman touched his bloody cheek with tender fingers.
Ah,Fuamnanch, hush. It is nothing to fret about, my heart, Midir kissed the creamy white hand, and glanced toward Morgan and Brigid. Morgan, we can use your blade.
It is yours to command, my lord, Morgan bowed her head toward the august male. Brigid indicated she shared her mothers loyalty to this warrior. Hercules..son of Zeus, its an honor to met you! Morgan has told us much about you. I assume the roguish fellow risking censure of his bold wife is Ioalus, Midir laughed, flashing his prefect white teeth.
Hercules stepped forward and offered his forearm, surprised by the strength of the Tuatha De Dannans grip. Ioalus knew better than to protest his innocence regarding appreciating the beautiful women of the Tuatha De Dannan.
Midirs gaze rested on Gabrielle, Solari, Eponin and Ailsa with keen regret and respect. Queen Gabrielle, you and your Amazons honor us. The Dagada and Danu are trapped in the mortal plain, unable to help us in this battle. So is my younger brother, Aidan. He left us when his granddaughter was given to the Wild Hunt.
Gabrielle graciously accepted the warriors clasp he offered her, and knew he was one of the monarchs of the Tuatha De Dannan. They were several minor kings and queens, and the High King and High Queen of the Court. He wore a silver circlet around his smooth, sun kissed brow, and smiled when arched an eyebrow.
You are my kinswoman, Ailsa, Midir murmured, offering his hands.
Ailsa cautiously accepted his hands, and managed a nervous smile. This is my mother, Eponin...
Midir nodded, exchanging greetings with the towering Amazon. His wifes eyes held questions that would wait until latter, as battle horns sounded.
Xena raced up to the walkways of the stout walls and held her breath. Thousands of misshapen forms moved toward the royal city, foul beings whose very essence corrupted the land they touched. Lugh joined the Warrior Princess and Midir at the top of the walls, sword drawn.
We must not permit them to take Tara...should they gain control of it, they will control all the worlds! Midir, see to the defenses here. Xena, your skills in combat are legendary even amongst our kind; would you ride alongside me?
It will be an honor, Xena turned, and flanked the High King of Tara down the stairs. Already assembled knights were simply appearing within the walls of the city. Mounted, the warriors of the Tuatha De Dannan bore expressions of grim resolve.
Gabrielle would remain behind the walls, helping the healers, while her Amazons rode forth. Hercules and Morgan were already mounted, and ready. Ioalus and Brigid would remain behind to help defend the walls.
Xena mounted the midnight charger she had met early, determined that the Fomorii would not win. Ferris remained behind, the captain of the city guard that would defend the walls. Xena noticed Midirs eyes tracked the ice blue eyed warrior with a combination of doubt and anger.
Raising his gleaming sword high over head, Lugh gave the command and a thousand mounted knight rode forth. Xena hoped they would take the day...
Cyane heard the almost silent tread of soft booted feet passing her position. The blonde Queen dropped out of the tree top and landed beside Aidan. The Ranger jumped, startled that she had been heard. Cyane quirked a smile, and folded her arms across her bosom. Dressed in the full leathers and furs of the Eastern steppes Amazons, Cyane blocked the womans path.
Where do you think you are going?
I have to find a way back... Aidan protested, leaning on the branch she used a walking stick.
In the condition you are in? Child, you can barely stand, let alone walk or fight! You are more dead than you alive, Ranger.
Aidan smiled thinly, shivering. She tried straightening to her full height, but found she could not. Her entire body ached, and she felt her knees give way. Cyane easily caught the thin woman, shaking her head. You are too thin, too.
Thanks.. Aidan muttered, knowing she must have looked like death itself. Cyane removed her fur lined cloak and slid it around Aidans shoulders.
Aidan! Kalliope shouted, tone indicating how frighten the warrior had become. Aidan wearily raised her eyes, and her mothers anger faded. Thank you, Queen Cyane.
No thanks needed; shes a fine warrior, Kalliope. Stupid, but brave.
Aidan raised her flashing silvery-grey eyes, and the Amazon Queen smiled. She reached out and moved a stray curl aside. Rest, warrior. Your sisters will let no harm come to you here.
It is not me that I am worried about... Aidan groused, coughing. Her normally sun kissed skin bore an unhealthy pallor that made the two other women nervous. What happened when a the living died in the land of the Dead?
How had she been brought here, and why? Kalliope gathered Aidan up inside her powerful arms. Aidan found she had no energy to protest, and let her head rest against her mothers chest. Kalliope pressed her lips into the sweat soaked hair, weeping silently.
It must be hard, watching a loved one suffer like this, Cyane sighed, shaking her head. Melosa...
Melosa emerged from the forest, bearing a golden stag whose heart she had offered to Artemis. She lowered the beautiful animals remains to the ground, and clasped the forearm of her fellow monarch. Cyane, Kalliope. I have spoken with Artemis...
Both Amazons listened intently. Their patron Goddess had been silent since Aidans appearance: none of the priestess had been able to raise the Goddess. Shes the reason Aidan is here; she and Britomartis brought her here, to keep her safe.
They would not say; she is one of their favorites, Melosa sighed. But she can not remain here too long...the living can not dwell in the land of the dead. Its killing her.
Kalliope held Aidan closer, shaking her head. It is not her time...
I know, cousin, Melosa touched the face of her cousins child, frightened. Aidan had met her elder cousin only a few times before the woman met her death. Aidan had visited Amazon lands whenever she could, and Melosa had enjoyed the young womans company.
That Aidan had found love and a life with her own tribe had brought Melosa joy. Eponin had been one of Melosas most stalwart warriors, a steady presence that had backed the Queen and the Regent. It pleased her that the Arms mistress had won Aidans heart, mind and soul; she had watched their relationship unfolding with pride.
Gabrielle, Xena, Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, and Aidan had made their fallen sisters very proud, bringing honor to the Amazon Nation. Berek, Ailsa and the other young Amazons showed great promise, too.
Come; she needs nourishment, and warmth. Artemis led me to this stag; it should help her.
The women head back to the valley, each woman thinking her own thoughts.
The Fomorii were the most hideous beings Xena had ever beheld. Some were single limbed creatures with one eye, others vaguely human shaped and sized, but covered with warty skin or black, foul smelling pelts. Xena barely ducked beneath a towering, one legged, one armed Formoriis man sized spiked club, using her sword to gut the warrior.
Greenish bile splatter both her and her mount, and the Fomorii wobbled backwards. The stench of the thing almost overwhelmed her iron clad control of her stomach, and the stallion protested the foul smell. Pawing the blood drenched earth, the stallion launched himself forward, engaging another enemy.
Xena found herself not needing to guide the stallion, and grinned. Argo could not have done better. She glimpsed Morgan and Hercules fighting side-by-side, craving a swathe through the dense ranks of the Formorii.
Eponin vented her fury on those foolish enough to come within range of the Amazon. Her war staff sang out a song of death that sent yet another Fomorii to whatever place they went in death. Ailsa fired arrow after arrow, showing she had inherited her mothers speed and accuracy with a bow.
The Tuatha De Dannan were showing their skills, though several had fallen. Solari shouted out a warning, and Xena glanced over her shoulder. Ailsa fell, having been stabbed in the back by a Formorrii. Xena snarled, throwing her chakrum with a battle cry. The fur covered Formoriis head tumbled off his body while Xenas chakrum took out four more as it returned to its master.
Solari rode forward, and drew the seemingly lifeless young woman up onto her horse. Eponin provided cover, uncertain whether or not her daughter lived. Aidans sword had fallen out of its scabbard, and Eponin used her war staff to flip Aidans sword up. Eponin snatched it out of the air, bringing it around in a powerful arch.
The Formorii coming up behind her fell over backwards, cut in half at the waist.
Xena closed ranks with Eponin. They covered Solaris ride back toward Tara. Eponin would not met Xenas eyes as they rode behind Solari, keeping the Formorii back. Only when they saw Solari bore her unmoving burden inside the relative safety of the gate did the two rejoin the battle.
Morgan had been wounded, but she still fought valiantly. Hercules had five nasty looking cuts along his right cheek where a Formorii had raked its talons across it. A stooped, infirm form was guided forward, and the blotched skinned, one eyed Formoriis massive eyelid was carefully raised by several of his followers. The baleful orb touched upon a group of twenty De Dannan riding towards him, swords drawn, calling out the names of their fallen.
Xena watched both riders and mounts collapse, and realized the aged Formoriis grim talent. She shouted out warning, Avoid his gaze...it is deadly!
Lugh had appeared beside her Eponin, shouting out warnings himself. Another forty De Dannan fell under the gaze of the Formorii Lugh called Balor.
How do you know his name? Xena shouted, slicing into another of the Formorii.
He is my grandfather...my mother is part De Dannan, part Formorii. Not all the Formorii resemble these you see..most were very comely, until they tried to kill the De Dannan. My mother was one of the ones not corrupted with evil, and thus she kept her comely appearance. There was a prophecy that the son of Ethlinn would kill him in battle.. Lugh dispatched two of his kinsmen, whirling his sword in one hand. But how I am supposed to do it is a mystery. No weapon of our can harm him.
Eponin cast a sideways glance toward the two warriors fighting beside her, snarling, Aidan did not kill your king and queen...that thing you call a grandfather did. She was blamed, and sentenced, because someone in your ranks is a traitor!
Lugh eyes flickered back to the walls were his cousin Ferris strode, loosening silver arrows. It was apparent he had long ago discerned how the arrows had been fired, but not the why. My foster father, Lir, told me that sometimes it takes the tears of Goddesses to cleanse the darkness.
More De Dannan fell under the eye of Balor, though each time it took more effort of the ancient one to muster his power. Xena pondered the puzzle of the tears until she recalled something: she held up her chakrum. The vivid blue sapphires that had been forged into the circular weapon were called the tears of the Goddesses.
Lugh, I think I have the weapon you have been seeking, but the question is how to use it.
Lughs emerald-green eyes widened when Xena held up her chakrum, just as the ancient one called Balor retreated from the field of battle. Though almost two hundred De Dannan had fallen, seven hundred of the Formorii littered the field, and another two hundred were wounded.
The sun was setting when the Formorii decided to retreat to their encampment. There was no doubt dawn would bring them back again. Lugh asked permission to touch Xenas fabled weapon, and asked, Where did you get this from?
I found when I was a warlord in Chin. It had been taken from a temple of Hephaestus by another warlord five generations before my birth. She was an Amazon Queen, during the time when the Amazon Nation was most powerful. She and her consort died fighting back the powers of darkness with several of ancient Chin mages. Or so the legend says, Xena had never told anyone other than Gabrielle the full story behind the weapon.
Eponin blinked, hearing the tale recalled ancient legends she had almost forgotten herself. She searched the ground, finding Aidans bow and quiver. The De Dannan began the painful process of searching for the wounded amidst the sea of death.
Those Formorii found still alive were dispatched, though not with glee. The De Dannan killed only when necessary, and Xena heard one mortally wounded Formorii thank his killer. Lugh, Eponin and she returned to Tara were they would seek the answers that would stop the killing.
Dozens of wounded were being tended inside Taras walls, and it took Eponin a good candle mark to find where Ailsa had been taken. Following the directions given her, she made her way toward the structure indicated, and entered the graceful tower. A green robed De Dannan gave her another set of directions that lead her up a flight of winding steps.
On the third level of the square tower she headed for the last door, and stepped inside the room. Brigid and a very handsome, golden haired, blue eyed male were finishing tending Ailsas wounds. Thank you, Cian. Her wounds shall heal fully because of your herbal magics.
It is the lest I can do for my kinswomans daughter; there is much of both Aidans in this one, Cian announced, glancing toward the silent Amazon. As much as your bloodlines, Amazons. I am Cian; Aidan is mothers brothers granddaughter. You are no doubt Eponin.
Eponin inclined her head, somberly studying her daughter laying on the feather mattress bed, and raised a questioning eyebrow. Cian smiled, and said, Ailsa shall recover..the dagger did not hit bone or organs, though she did loss a great of blood. Given a few days, she should be fine. A hard lesson, but a necessary one in the warriors trade: the dead are not always dead.
Eponin was told about what Solari had seen: a stunned Formorriian rising, and stabbing Ailsa in the back. Brigid had gathered clean water and supplies, and began treating Eponins hurts without asking. Cian excused himself, knowing the Amazon would not want him seeing her bare-breasted to have a nasty cut tended.
Theres another bed in here..and theres a bath down the hall were you can wash up. I shall have food and drink brought here, so you can stay with her. But first, you must wash. When you come back, I shall apply necessary potions to your wounds.
But nothing; you are covered with gore. The Formorii shall not attack for several days; they lost too many to risk another battle immediately, and Balor requires rest. Leave your leathers inside one of the baskets: you will find them clean and mended when you need them.
Brigids tone indicated she would brook no resistance, and Eponin complied. She found the baths were not empty. A half a dozen very, very alluring De Dannan females were washing off the filth of battle, discussing the events. They welcomed Eponin, and the Amazon relaxed: these were warriors, not delicate maidens.
Though not brawny like herself, they possessed the same lithe strength Aidan did. Aidan...she shut her eyes, and envisioned her beloved mate.
Aidan stirred wearily, sipping the rich broth Kalliope raised to her parched lips. Kalliope smoothed her hand across Aidans brow, whispering words of love and affection. Color returned to the womans ashes features as the broth gave her necessary nourishment. Thalia...
Thalia squeezed her mates shoulder, and peered down into her daughters drawn face. Aidan sniffed the air when the chestnut haired healer sat down beside the bed. Roasted meat had been cut into bit sized pieces, and Aidan managed a chuckle.
Yes; just like when you were a young one! Smells good, huh?
Hmmm..you used those herbs you did when I was a little one, Aidan said, fondly recalling the innocence of youth. Kalliope grinned, remembering the bundle of energy that had been Aidan. Loving, bright and happy, she had made Kalliope laugh often.
Here..try this, Thalia picked up a juicy morsel and popped it inside Aidans mouth. Aidan obediently chewed the tasty piece of meat, grinning. Tastes great...
Good; you need nourishment. Eat it all...
And maybe youll let me go out and play? Aidan teased.
Thalia shook her head, and handed her daughter a fork. Aidan accepted it, and began eating. Thalia considered her daughter, noting the subtle changes wrought by time. The few scars Aidan bore told of terrible pain borne proudly, of the risks she had taken to save others.
Aidan swallowed the piece of meat, and raised an eyebrow. Thalia smiled, noticing the depths of her daughters amazing eyes. Shifted, uncertainly, then mustered her courage, Your eyes..
Changed following my entering the rift of time and space..
What about your gifts? Kalliope hunkered beside the bed, envisioning her daughter with the she-bear and cub.
They have become much stronger...more apparent, Aidan sighed. I do not pretend to fully understand much of what has happened to me. When the Goddesses used me a a vessel against Dahok, they altered me somehow.
Thalia and Kalliope crossed glances, and Aidan knew they had not know everything about her. She lowered her eyes, seeking the words to explain what had happened. Even though she and Theron were friends now, there had been time she would have killed him for what he had done.
Laying aside her food, Aidan related the tale, telling the whole story. Horror, anger and amazement flashed across the faces of her mothers, and they held her close.
Aidan, we both were Rangers, but never have times been so perilous. You have endured things we can not imagine. You have made us very proud, daughter.
Not as proud as I am of you, and my family, Aidan whispered, returning the hug. She sat back, and began to tell how proud she was of Ailsa when there was a noise. It sounded like cloth ripping, and her vision dimmed.
The last thing she heard was her name being screamed out by her mothers.
Kalliope and Thalias screams brought the Amazons running into their hut. The mates were frantically reaching towards a rapidly closing hole, shouting the name of their daughter. There was no sign of Aidan, though blood splattered the sheets were she had been laying.
Melosa and Cyane shared a worried look: this was not the work of Artemis. The Goddess of the Hunt would not be pleased that one of her favorites had been stolen out of the heart of the Amazon Paradise. Black storm clouds scuttled across the usually sunny skies, and the Amazons knew Artemis had learned what had happened.
What it meant they could not say, but they could see what it cost. Kalliope held her wife close, eyes murderous. If the Amazon could, she would have slain the person or deity responsible for harming her family.
Eponin jerked awake beside Ailsa bed, and knew something had happened to Aidan. She closed her eyes, trying to reach her mate, and got the impression of icy cold terror. Staggering to her feet, she blindly yanked open the door and shouted for Xena.
The Formorii had Aidan.
Aidan found herself bound with crude, but strong leather straps to man sized disc. Her vision not yet fully restored, she found herself being pawed by filthy hands. Her Amazon leathers were gone, and she was nude.
Fear made her stomach clench, and emptied her bladder. She could not take another rape. Not again. The hands were drawn back when a blindfolded Formorii entered the chamber. No one touches her! If anyone rapes her, you and your families shall be killed! She is very important to my plans!
Aidan blinked her eyes, trying to make them focus. A tall, lithe figure moved beside the misshapen one of the Formorii. She shook her head, and focused her eyes. Ferris smiled coldly at the stunned woman. Why?
Power: pure and simple. Balor has offered me power, if I helped him bring you here. You have certain gifts, Aidan. Ones even you are not yet aware of. Powers that will be used to take this realm, reshape it so we Formorii can rule it.
Aidan gasped when Ferris laughed, Not all Formorii are like my grandfather! I have De Dannan blood, too. But I am Formorii! His sister is my mother; she had lain with a sweet tongue De Dannan bard.
Ferris held up Aidans arrows, grinning. It was so easy...you were unconscious, so I used your arrows, then blamed you for the murders. Of course, Balors gaze finished Nuada and Macha...you were merely stunned. Had you been facing Balor, you would have been dead.
Ferris chuckled, walking around the wheel. When this war is won, I shall ask my uncle for you. You are a woman that can set a mans blood on fire, Aidan!
Aidan bit back her reply, knowing it would only give him satisfaction. Her gaze settled on the ancient Formorii called Balor of the Evil Eye. He was a wizen creature, stinking of corruption and hatred. He sat down on rough hewn throne of human skulls and laughed, Let me tell you the true history of the Formorii and Erie.....
Aidan pretended to listen while flexing and relaxing her muscles to loosen her bonds. It would take her hours, but she would be free.
Lugh, Midir, Grian, Falon, Xena, Gabrielle, Solari, Hercules, Morgan and Brigid listened to Eponins tale with grim expressions. They did not doubt her assertion that the Formorii had Aidan, nor that the traitor was within their own court.
It is clear why Aidan had been accused: she walked pathways of powers even the Gods and Goddesses tread upon with care! She has many gifts, but none of us suspected she could be used for opening gateways... Ah, Nuada and Macha had seen what we did not: Aidan has one of the rarest gifts! She has inherited the gift of opening portals... It very rare, and no doubt brought about by her battles against Dahok. It explains why the Goddesses used her as a vessel for their essences, Lugh sighed.
We must get her back, Midir the Proud asserted, squaring his shoulders, Or we must make sure they can not use her as a weapon against us.
Eponins cobalt-blue eyes darken with outrage at what he meant. She met Midirs eyes and said, Aidan is my mate; harm her, and it will the last thing you do. You brought her into this war, knowing she could not deny her kin help, then you condemned her for murders she did not commit. Now, again, you blame her for your own faults!
The De Dannan listened, recognizing the truth of the furious Amazons words. Morgan inclined her head in agreement, and they accepted the Guardian of Justices decree. Aidan would be rescued, no matter what the cost, since they were the ones that had gotten her into trouble.
Xena had been listening, formulating a plan inside her mind while monitoring what was happening around her. Gabrielle laid her right hand Xenas, sea-green eyes questioning. It would not be easy, saving Aidan, but they would.
Eponin hunkered low, glancing towards Xena. It was strange to see Xena without her chakrum, but the fabled weapon was the key to defeating the enemy. The magics of the De Dannan had found a way to remove one of the sapphires without harming the weapon, but Xena had feared using it without the gem.
It would alter the flight of the lethal metal disc, and a mistake could cost the warrior a hand, or her life. Xena glanced towards Eponin, nodding. Under cover the darkness, they approached the encampment where the Formorii held Aidan.
In less than a half candle mark the De Dannan would attack the campsite where the Formorii thought themselves safe. Having discerned Balors strange power, the De Dannan had taken special precautions. If it worked, the small force of elite knight would send the Formorii running.
Covered with a camouflage netting the two warriors silently awaited their chance. In the center of the camp, Aidan had been mounted on wheel inside a crude wagon. Eponin had been forced to bury her face in the dirt, fighting the urge to call out her beloveds name, to rush to her side. Aidan had become almost gaunt, and both warriors fumed at the sight of the exhausted woman.
Ferris strode around the wagon, snatches of his taunts blown by the wind towards the two women. Eponins cobalt-blue eyes darken, and Xena knew the half bred male would regret his words. Aidans suffering would be repaid, and repaid in blood. Xena touched her friends elbow, and inclined her head towards the rising sun.
A horn blast shattered the mornings relative quiet, and Formorii warriors tumbled out their hide shelters, not believing the De Dannan were attacking them. Panic raced through the encampment, and the ancient leader of the foul race emerged from his tent.
Balor untied the blindfold that covered his single, huge eye, and called to his attendants. The three warriors began rigging the special ropes that would permit them to raise his eyelid, without glimpsing his eye themselves. Special, dulled hooks were placed beneath the heavy lid, and the three warriors retreated behind their king.
Ferris and the other warrior knew to keep their backs turned to the aging monarch, lest they be struck dead, and waited. Hooves pounded the blighted earth, and the De Dannan rode over the hill crest. Wearing polished, moon silver suits of gleaming armor that encased their bodies, the male and female knights rode forward.
Riders and knights wore specially designed eye protectors that would prevent direct eye contact with Balors eye. The Formorii had not yet comprehended the reason behind the special helmets and blinds, and hauled Balors eyelid up. When the charge of the De Dannan remained unaffected, the Formorii began murmuring anxiously.
Its their armor! They are using special helms and blinds, shouted one of the officers, understanding the reason for the special armor. A hail of arrows rained down out of the skies behind the riding knights, fired by De Dannan archers.
Dozens of the Formorii fell beneath the barrage of arrows, but the De Dannan and their mounts were protected by their heavy armor plating. Xena and Eponin were not armor clad, and more than one arrow fell uncomfortably close.
De Dannan mages and spell singers began unleashing their powers, and more of the Formorii army fell. A golden and silver armored figure rode unerringly toward the stunned Balor. Lugh shouted out, Grandfather, for the murder of my mother, for all the innocents you have slain, I strike you down!
Foolish boy, no weapon of man or the De Dannan can harm me! I shall your soul to the darkest pits.. Balor focused his eye on the noble figure of Lugh.
Lugh had begun shimmering with a golden aura of arcane power, and Balor found himself unable to harm the approaching rider. Lugh rode using his legs only, having removed a sling and placing a glowing sapphire inside its pouch. Never slowing, the radiant king rode forward, his right arm whipping back in a powerful arch.
Balors eyelid began sliding shut, trying to protect the orb, but not fast enough. The gemstone pierced Balors eye, and Formorii cried out in anguish. His eye destroyed, Balor clawed at the burning stone that buried inside the gory mess.
Falling, Balors death sent a shock through the huge army. There were but twenty six knights, and two thousand Formorii bent on avenging their fallen king. Having eliminated the greatest threat, the De Dannan knights threw off their helmets, and yanked the mirrored blinds off their mounts.
It seemed a suicidal gesture when the Formorii swept forward, and the De Dannan turned and rode away. Ferris and Balors attendants checked the fallen monarch before crying out for revenge. Several of their number turned toward the Ranger, weapons ready dispatch of her.
NO! Eponin snarled, leaping forward with a mighty sweep of her war staff. It connected with the forehead of one of the warriors, shattering his skull wide open.
Xena sprang up, sword disemboweling the Formorii coming up behind Eponin. Cut her loose, Xena shouted, spring up and behind the startled Formorii.
Eponin used her war staff to vault up onto the wagon, and drew her dagger to cut her leather bonds. Aidans pain fogged eyes fluttered open, and she blinked. Ep?
Yes, love. Its me, Eponin pronounced, wanting nothing more than to kiss and hold her mate. But there was no time for rejoicing.
Eponin cut away the leather bonds, and caught her weakened mate. It frightened her how light Aidan felt inside the shelter of her arms. Aidan wearily rested her head against her mates breast, eyes closing.
Put her down, Amazon... Ferris demanded. She belongs to me now. I intend to make her my wife, to have her bear my children..
Eponin carefully laid Aidan down on the ground, and drew Aidans sword. She studied the handsome man with utter contempt. Over my dead body, Ferris. Aidan is my mate; she is my heart and my soul.
It will be a pleasure, Amazon. You are not worthy of her love and affection!
Epinon knew Xena would make sure no one interfered in this battle. Ferris had been responsible for all of their suffering, and Eponin would avenge her family. The two warriors circled each other, testing the others defenses for strengths and weaknesses. Ferris had the advantage of several inches of additional reach, and outweighed Eponin by a good twenty pounds.
Ageless like all his kind, he moved with the grace of a very well seasoned warrior, and Eponin knew they were a match. Ferris sprang forward, sword slashing out. Eponin smoothly counted the blow meant to behead her. Sparks showered them as they exchanged strikes, the dance of death leaving both of them bloodied and panting.
How long it lasted Eponin could not guess, but it seemed an eternity. Battle raged around them, Xena hard pressed to defend them. Eponin heard the familiar war cry of the Amazons rising above the din before the Formorii could surround them.
Dozens of Amazons of different tribes engaged the Formorii soldiers under the guidance of two leaders: Melosa of the Hawk tribe, and Cyane of the Wolf Tribe. Eponin ducked beneath Ferriss blade, kicking out with her right leg at the same time.
Ferris fell backwards, shoulder rolling onto his feet as Eponin regained her own. A tall, muscular Amazon warrior alighted beside the stunned male. Eponin saw the womans eyes rest upon the semi-conscious Ranger. Aidan...
Mother? Aidan stammered.
Yes; Artemis sent us. It seems we can walk in this world, and fight, Kalliope informed Aidan. Ferris groped around his belt, seeking the horn of the Wild Hunt.
Kalliope flipped backwards, landing lightly beside her daughter as she held up the horn. I believe this is what you are looking for.
Ferris paled. Without the horn, he could not control the gateways between dimensions and worlds. Including the paradise of the Amazons where he had found Aidan, and brought her back here. He had created a gateway, and the Amazon Goddess had found it. Her Amazons had chosen to battle for their sister, and Artemis gave her blessing and permission.
Eponin closed again, using the males distraction against him. Ferris discovered the Amazon was a better warrior than he had thought, and found himself staggering. His dreams of power evaporating, Ferris screamed when Moonfire pierced his breast.
Kalliope had gathered up her daughter, jaw muscles working hard when she saw how weak Aidan had become. Eponin jogged over to her mates side, hesitant until the fallen warrior gently laid Aidan inside her arms. She is your mate, Eponin. Take her to safety; we shall make sure these creatures never harm her again.
Kalliope leaned down, pressing her lips against Aidans temple. Turning, the woman gave forth a mighty battle cry before rejoining the fray. Eponin bore Aidan towards the stallion Xena had captured. Xena took Aidan while Eponin mounted the stallion, then accepted her the unmoving form.
Xena obtained another lose mount, and together they rode out of the battle toward Tara. Hercules, Morgan and Solari were fighting hard alongside the De Dannan and Amazons. Solaris dark brown eyes shone with tears, for fighting beside her were her mothers and sisters, killed years ago.
It was a bitter-sweet reunion between the warrior and her lost loved ones; Xena paused when Cyanes eyes met hers. Cyane had forgiven her when she had freed those Amazons held by Alti. Cyane inclined her head before rejoining the furious battle.
Not a single Formorii warrior would survive the final battle that they had sought. Their leaders having fallen early, the Formorii learned how costly their mistake would be. Dozens of De Dannan had fallen, but not a single Amazon warrior had died. Many would bear wounds that would heal, and would have tales to tell when the dead fought beside the living.
The sun would set and rise again before the battle ended, and the survivors had time to breathe. The Amazons held aloft their blood slicked swords and double axes to give praise to Artemis. The Goddess of the Hunt stood atop one of the rolling hills beside Danu, surveying the carnage.
The river rose, sweeping away the remains of the Formorii army, and leaving behind the restored De Dannnan. The two Goddesses would grant the victors time to celebrate this fleeting victory against the darkness, knowing the battle would continue.
Five days had passed, and the wounded had been healed. The land had been cleansed the blight brought by the Formorii, and the gateways restored. A sense of hopefulness swelled, and the celebration would be grand indeed.
Amazons wearing the garments of their tribes mingled with the brightly clad De Dannan. Bards and singers entertained the warriors whose courage had won the day, and Hercules found himself pursued by randy De Dannan females. Morgan finally rescued the blushing demi-god, laying clear claim to him.
Solari spent her time with her lost family, speaking of her mate and child. Her mothers and sisters were proud of Regents consort, and praised her efforts.
Ailsa sat between Kalliope, Thalia and Melosa, learning stories about both her mothers. Cyane and Xena watched Gabrielle earn the rapt attention of the De Dannan with her tales, and the fallen Queen smiled. She will be one of the greatest Amazon Queens.
She already is, Xena murmured, smiling toward the blonde monarch she had slain. Cyane smiled, knowing much of the change in the brooding woman had been wrought by the golden woman. What of Aidan?
Eponin has gone to get her... Xena answered, thinking of the Ranger. Aidan had been almost dead, drained by the blood magics that had permitted the Formorii to tap her gift. The healers were reluctant to release her.
No wonder; she was more dead than alive: a few days longer, and she would have been no more, Cyane shook her head, recalling how Kalliope and Thalia had held vigil over Aidan.
It would take months for Aidan to regain her lost strength, but she would recuperate.
Brigid convinced Cian and the other healers that the best medicine for Aidan would be a celebration of life. Eponins presence made them realize the Amazon would let nothing harm the woman, and they had relented.
Aidan wore very short, emerald-green chiton fastened with a delicate gold leaf belt that had been made for her by a De Dannan gold-smith. Eponin held her breath when she beheld her mate. The richly hued garment made Aidans chestnut and silver streaked hair look more dramatic.
Aidan looked beautiful. Her skin had lost its pallor, and her hair gleamed. She smiled softly, knowing her Amazon loved what she saw. Do you like it?
Like it? Love, you are the most beautiful woman in the entire world, Eponin whispered thickly, wanting nothing more than to make love.
Eponin touched the finely made linen with gentle fingers. She brushed her finger tips across Aidans breasts, teasing the nipples. Leaning down, she nuzzled Aidans bared shoulder with a playful growl.
Goddess...I just want to hold, love you... Eponin inhaled the scent of a very warm musk perfume used to anoint Aidan.
And theres nothing more I would rather do, Aidan admitted, enjoying the feel of her mates hands on her body. But we are expected.
Eponin sighed, understanding their presence was expected by three Amazon Queens and hundreds of their sisters. Not to mention the De Dannan themselves. Tonight...
Aidan beamed, and rose. Eponin scooped up her beloved mate, beaming when Aidan began protesting she could walk. You shall need your strength for tonight, love. I intend to make you scream my name out often tonight, and to have you do the same to me.
Aidan flushed, and laid her head against her mates sun bronzed chest. Eponin shut her eyes when Aidan slid a hand beneath her leather halter. Aidan...
Aidan sighed, looking mildly guilty as she removed her questing fingers. Pressing her lips against Eponins breasts, she smiled softly. Eponin chuckled, glad to have her mate back.
Ep...I was so afraid I would never see you and Ailsa again... Aidan whispered, shivering.
Eponin blinked back her own tears when Aidan confessed her fears, and pressed her lips into the womans soft hair. So were we... Aidan, you are my heart and soul.
Aidan hugged her hard, and snuggled deeper inside the shielding arms bearing her. It took them half a candlemark to join the celebration that would last through the night and into the next day. Aidan stepped forward, his flowing silver hair and silvery-grey eyes gentle and affectionate.
Granddaughter, Aidan raised his granddaughters chin, the youthful looking warrior smiled. I am very glad you are feeling better. You and your family are very dear to me.
Aidan blushed when her Grandfather pressed a chaste kiss on her forehead, and gave Eponins arm a squeeze. Aidan had shared the bedside vigil with the Amazons. And you have given me a truly wondrous Great Granddaughter, not to mention a fine daughter-in-law.
Eponin blushed slightly. She liked the male, and found him good company when Aidan slept. He had lost the woman he had loved dearly, and understood the anguish Eponin had endured. He had found love again, a lovely De Dannan spell weaver whose delicate build concealed a fierce spirit.
Lugh waved to the couple, and raised a golden goblet high overhead. May the Great Mother bless you and yours, Aidan of the Rangers.
Those gathered raised their voices in a cheer, and Aidan turned a pretty shade of pink. Laughing, the Arms mistress proudly carried her love toward the cheering Amazons. The three Queens greeted the lovers with loving embraces and words of praise.
Ailsa kissed her mothers, and patted the blanket that had been laid down. Eponin laid Aidan down, ignoring the Rangers protests about being treated like an invalid. Love, you are very weak....
Aidan sighed, shaking her head, I will be fine....
Mother, you will have to accept that we love you too much to risk harming you. Now, what would you like to eat?
Im not really hungry.
Twelve pairs of eyes focused on the thin woman, and Xena cleared her throat. Gabrielle, could you help me prepare a proper platter?
Gabrielle grinned, having already consumed two very large platters worth of food herself. Cyane had observed young monarch in pure astonishment, and Xena had laughed. Having her tales about the young womans appetite, she had been amazed what Gabrielle could consume without being overweight.
Aidan settled herself against Eponins warmth, craving the contact she never thought she would enjoy again. Kalliope and Thalia lounged in a similar fashion while Melosa and Cyane answered Ailsas questions about Amazon history.
Gabrielle and Xena returned with food laden platters and wine and ale. Gabrielle personally arranged a selection of fruits, cheeses and meats for Aidan to eat. Eat, Gabrielle ordered.
Thalia gave her daughter a level look while Eponin raised an apple to her lovers lips. Aidan took a bit of the sweet apple, and sighed. She discovered she was suddenly hungry, especially when her mate helped her.
Aidan finished the sweet apple, then let her mate fed her some grapes, cheese and bread. Meat, Aidan insisted, would not sit well in her current condition. Eponin ate only what Aidan did, sharing a goblet of rich red wine that only increased the towering womans growing need for more than mere food. Tents had been set-up on the wildflower adorned field, many were occupied by those reaffirming the sweetness of life.
My Queen... Eponin cleared her throat, I think Aidan and I would like to take time apart from this celebration.
Ofcourse, Gabrielle was wondering when it would occur to the Amazon arms mistress the tents were available. She and Xena would soon be using one of the tents, too. Many of the Amazons were already using the tents, and Ailsa had caught the eye of a very attractive De Dannan knight.
The female knight had brought over a cup of spiced mead to share, and Ailsa had accepted the drink. Morgan chuckled, leading Hercules away. Xena watched Eponin lift up her mate and head for one of the tents where they would share the simple joys of life.
Tomorrow, we all must return to where we belong, Cyane observed, taking her leave of the pensive Warrior Princess. Though for some of us, dwelling in two worlds is our fate.
Xena glanced towards the tent where Eponin and Aidan were. She knew, as did they all, Aidan would walk a different path when her time came. She was becoming what she was destined to be. But that was for another time. Her Queen required her attention, and Xena would prove how very attentive she could be.
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