That Road Once Trodden
by Karen Surtees
The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and the Amazons are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The story however is mine and there are scenes of violence, and though not graphic in nature may upset those with a sensitive nature.
all comments are welcome to SURTEES1@AOL.COM
The crisp cool air settled over the athletic body of the raven haired warrior as she climbed from her sleeping fur in the predawn darkness. The dancing flames of the previous nights fire had been reduced to sunset glowing embers which gave off little heat into the neatly set-up camp. The warrior stretched chasing the sleep out of her aching body and, glanced at her companion still soundly asleep, snuggled beneath her furs. Smiling softly she grabbed her own roll from the ground and tucked it around the recumbent girl. Turning back to the fire she added some kindling and blew the embers back to life. Once it had caught she added wood until the flames were once again warming the camp. They had settled late last night just off of the Amphipolis road in a small glade that Xena had known of. The road boarded one side of the camp, whilst the dense forest and a stream boarded the others. Argo Xenas golden palomino was standing asleep her hind leg balanced on her hoof near to the stream. Satisfied that nothing was amiss Xena silently slipped into the trees. She took a deep breath of chilled dawn air as the atmosphere closed in around her. Her acute hearing picked up the rustling in the matted undergrowth as the night creatures returned to their lairs, the tunes of morningsong beginning in the distance, as the first rays of dawn broached the sky. Her eyes sought out the details of the dense forest, searching for the small almost undetectable game trails and pin-pointing the hazards and dangers that would prevent her swift return if she was needed. Confident that nothing nearby would present her with a problem she moved off hunting for breakfast.
The dawn chorus was in full song and, the sun had partially risen when Xena returned to the camp; pausing on the threshold of the forest to let her senses check that nothing untoward had happened in her absence. Reassured that all was well, she walked into the camp with two field dressed rabbits dangling from her hand. After quickly checking on the sleeping bard, she deposited the rabbits next to the fire and collected the water-skins for refilling at the stream. Argo was now awake and happily chomping at the grass. "Morning girl." Greeted Xena as she sauntered past giving the loyal horse a pat. Returning to the fire she added some more wood, filled a pot with water and set it to warming on a flat stone within the fire. Sitting back crossed legged she separated herbs for tea and watched the sleeping bard. She smiled at the peaceful form before her, the mornings hunt had gone well and, Xena felt more relaxed than she had in many a week. maybe it was because they were in familiar territory, or because they - she - had decided to take a break; whatever the reason, Xena decided a late start was in order and she would let Gabrielle wake when she was ready too. It was the smell of food that eventually roused the young bard from her contented slumber. Cracking open her eye, she noticed that it was fully daylight and, bolted upright. Her heart rate climbing in panic, then settling down as she saw Xena grooming Argo. "Bout time you were awake." drawled her friend without looking over her shoulder at the disheveled bard, who was wiping the sleep from her eyes.
"What time is it?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.
"Not long till midday." came the reply.
"Midday? You let me sleep in?"
"Yes, I let you sleep in, and, before you ask why and a million other questions. Because I thought we could both use a lazy day." Xena turned giving Argo one last stroke and, walked back over to the fire, "Tea?" she asked the stunned bard, reaching down to the steaming pot and then handing her a mug. "Sorry..." stuttered Gabrielle, "..and forgive me if Ive missed something important here, but is this the same Xena who was so eager to keep moving that we didnt even stop yesterday after dispatching that band of thieves?" "Changed my mind" she said absentmindedly, desperately trying to keep the amusement from her voice by concentrating on turning the cooking rabbits on the spit.
"Yep!" she smiled "I changed my mind." Gabrielle sat stunned staring at her friend who was obviously enjoying this conversation. She always does this to me. Just when I think Ive figured her out, she does a complete about turn. After traveling with the Warrior Princess for so long, the bard knew her just about as well as anybody could claim too. Theyd been through life and, death, together and yet her friend was still able to surprise her. Yesterday for instance, had been a gloriously sunny day, much like today, yet the dark haired warrior had been in a foul mood; barely saying a word allday. Even when theyd been attacked shed only inquired into the bards well-being and, then said that theyd be traveling late. Theyd not made camp until well after dark and Gabrielle had been sure she was in for an early start.
"Lunch will be ready soon" said the warrior, startling the bard from her thoughts, sprawling back against her pack with a grin on her face. "Lunch?. . . " she really is enjoying this isnt she? thought Gabrielle trying to catch up with the conversation. "Well it was supposed to be breakfast but since you didnt seem inclined to get up, it turned into lunch." "Oh" replied Gabrielle looking across at her partner. Gods what a change in mood.
"Theres a small pool a minute or so downstream, if you want to bathe." Xena smiled again. She liked this, after two years of constant travel together, she still managed to catch her out on occasion.
"Right, a bath,.....yeah, okay. Back in a minute then." the bard wandered off with a puzzled expression on her face.
It was early afternoon by the time they started out. The two friends walked side by side along the dappled shadowed road, the early afternoon sun pouring through the leaves. Xena lead Argo by the bridle, Gabrielle walked with her staff in hand having now recovered from the shock of being allowed to sleep late. "So" said the bard watching Xenas face "Care to tell me about this sudden everythings okay with the world attitude?" Xena looked at Gabrielle and grinned, those clear blue eyes that could freeze an enemy to the spot flooded with warmth and humor as she shrugged. Gabrielle laughed. "Well its nice to have you back." She raised her head looking along the road." When do you think well reach Amphipolis?"
"Well, if I can tempt you into riding, we might get in late tonight, just think, warm soft bed, mothers cooking. Otherwise lunch tomorrow." Gabrielle heard the wishful anticipation in Xenas voice. Zeus, shes actually looking forward to going home. Last time xena had seen her mother she hadnt exactly been in her right mind, in fact she had, had the dilemma over whether or not to revenge her fathers murder on her and kill her. In the end, as with most of their adventures Xena had come up with a solution to the problem, without resorting to murdering her mother. The experience had been difficult for them both but, Gabrielle had seen the bridges crossing the wide gulf between mother and daughter start to rebuild. Her friend needed her mother even if she was unwilling to admit it. Cyrenes reaction to her when she had first returned home had been devastating to the warrior, and even though they had parted on better terms, after Xena had defeated Draco, things hadnt been good. Gabrielle knew what it was like to come from a close family and, after seeing Cyrene and her daughter she realized how close they must have been. Xena loved her family very much, the death of her younger brother Lyceus whilst fighting the war-lord Cortese, had driven a wedge between them, that only grew as Xenas lust for vengeance and violence escalated. Cyrene found it impossible to reconcile the young innocent girl she called daughter with the bloody souled war-lord known as the Destroyer of Nations. But, things were on the mend and at least Cyrene had now seen up close the battle her daughter was having with the darkness within. Maybe this visit was exactly what Xena needed. Gabrielle looked intently at her friend, reached out and touched her arm.
"For your mothers cooking Id ride Argo by myself." Xena laughed and vaulted into the saddle, reaching down she hauled her partner up behind her. " Hold on tight then." she urged the golden horse into a long ground eating canter.
Xena was right as usual and, they rode into Amphipolis after dark. The village was quiet, few lights could be seen, but, in the center the inn shone, a beacon in the night. Xena halted Argo just outside and they both slid off the horse. "ouch, I hurt in places I didnt know I had" moaned Gabrielle as her feet touched the ground. Xena could see the exhaustion in her face. "You go in and let mother know were here and, Ill go get Argo bedded down for the night."
Gabrielle pushed open the inns wooden door and walked in. Across the table cluttered room Gabrielle could see the plump middle aged woman whose raven hair was matched only by her daughters, clearing up behind the bar. " Im afraid were close...." The woman turned to see Gabrielle standing by the door, "Gabrielle," she said moving from behind the bar, " is that you? Wheres....?" Gabrielle heard the concern rising in Cyrenes voice and quickly waved towards the stables.
" Dont worry Miss I cant wait to get home so well ride allday, is in the stables putting Argo to bed." Cyrenes face lit up as she realized there was nothing wrong and, laughed at the expression on the bards face. "Oh, love. You must be sore. Come on in and sit down. Ill get you some food and drink. Doubt she stopped for lunch." She turned and headed off to the bar, as Gabrielle hobbled to the table she had indicated.
"Well actually lunch wasnt the problem. It was the eight hours or so after that." "Eight hours?" Cyrene placed a trencher of bread and cheese, along with a draught of ale in front of the bard, who immediately tucked in. " Hades bells, that daughter of mine, sometimes she just doesnt think. Ive a good mind...." "No, Cyrene. Dont" Gabrielle grabbed the innkeepers arm "The last few weeks have been pretty rough on her. I was kinda getting worried. She doesnt seem to be shaking it off like she usually does." Gabrielle released her arm and carried on munching," Anyway, she decided she wanted to visit home, so off we go. Then today she woke up in such a good mood she let me sleep til late morning. So Im sorry mum, but your going to have to let me suffer. I agreed to this one. Beside" she said around a mouthful of bread and cheese, " it was worth it just to see a smile on her face, and of course your cooking was a pretty big incentive." Cyrene let out a chuckle at the munching bard. " Ill get you both some warm broth to go with that." and she disappeared into the kitchen. Gabrielle leaned back in the chair stretching her legs out and taking a long drink of the ale, remembering at the last minute to take it slowly. Cyrenes ale was potent, as far as she could remember from her last visit. Relaxing now that the ache was starting to ease off she studied the room, and marveled at the inn. Unlike other inns that were frequented by the two travelers, this one was relatively unscathed, the tables and benches were in good repair, the windows didnt have holes. Then again Cyrene did have one small advantage over the rest of the world, whether she used it or whether the local population informed visitors of who her daughter was it seemed to work. Cyrene was just bustling in from the kitchen when the outer door opened and Xena strode in laden down with all of their kit. Cyrene put a large pot of broth on the table and handed Gabrielle a bowl while she watched her daughter unload herself. She noticed again how much the warriors armor and leathers accentuated her muscular form saw again the faint scars that marked the body. The long midnight hair had fallen over her shoulder and, as she stood it fell away revealing her piercing blue eyes.
"Mother." Xena said crossing to the table, Cyrene smiled a warm greeting and was enveloped as her daughter lifted her off the ground in a bearhug. "Hello, my little one." She whispered gazing into her daughters face. " Sit down and eat, Ill get you a drink." Having seen her daughter up close, she could tell that Gabrielle had been right. She could feel the tense knots in her stance, and exhaustion lurked within those crystal blue eyes. Her daughter needed a rest, so did Gabrielle. They both needed looking after for a while. Cyrene returned to the table and placed a mug full of warm milk in front of her daughter. Xena grinned wrapping her hands around the mug absorbing its warmth and lifting it to her face so that she could inhale its sweet aroma "Hey." mumbled Gabrielle still eating, "Thats not ale." "Milk and honey," said Cyrene squeezing her daughters shoulder and gazing down, "an old favorite."
"Well I can certainly see how ordering that in any other inn would send that tough warrior Princess myth down the drain." Xena scowled at her friend but carried on drinking.
"Ive pulled the covers down in the two rooms out back, finish off here and get yourself to bed. Ill interrogate you both tomorrow after youve slept." Cyrene leaned down to her daughter and kissed her forehead whispering "Its good to see you, get some rest."
"I will," promised Xena, holding her mothers hand as she turned to go, "and mother." Cyrene looked back." Thanks." Cyrene smiled again. "Goodnight you two. Get some sleep, Ill see you in the morning." She left the inn knowing that Xena would lock up. Xena, turned back to the table and helped herself to bread, cheese and broth, until she saw Gabrielle watching her. "What?" She paused ladling broth into her bowl.
"Milk and honey?" laughed the bard," Im sorry," she spluttered trying desperately to smother her giggles behind her hand, "but that really does put a dent in that tough exterior."
"Gabrielle," purred Xena leaning toward her in a menacing tone, the bard finally managed to get her giggles under control. " I like milk and honey." She sat back and winked at the bard, which only sent the girl into another giggling fit." Knew, I shouldnt have brought you." sniffed Xena seeing the tears running down the bards face. " Finish your food."
A short while later Xena locked the door and put out the last of the lamps, sending the bar into darkness, a warm glow from the back rooms guided her. "Room, okay?" she asked as she pushed open Gabrielles door.
"Perfect." replied her friend, slipping a night shift over her head.
"You all right?" seeing the slump to the warriors shoulders. "Yeah, tired, is all. Looking forward to a comfortable nights sleep. see you in the morning."
Xena left pulling the door closed behind her. Her mother had lit the fire in the room next door, and a warmer had been put into the bed. no doubt Gabrielle had received the same treatment. Sighing she sat down and removed her armor laying it gently under the bed, her chakram and sword she placed on the bedside table. Standing she removed her leathers lying them next to the fire to keep warm for the morning, leaving her stood in her white cotton undergarment. Stretching the kinks out from the long ride, a soft smile grew on her face, it was good to be home.
Several minutes later Gabrielle peaked around the door. Seeing her friend sprawled across the bed sound asleep. Tiptoeing quietly in she gently pulled the covers up over the warrior. Marveling once again at how peaceful and untormented the warrior could look when the night terrors that frequently haunted her could be kept at bay. "Maybe I ought to try serving you milk and honey once and a while." softly she brushed Xenas dark hair from her face and kissed her cheek. "Sleep well." she whispered and left.
For the second morning in succession Gabrielle woke to the smell of cooking. She stretched and lay looking at the ceiling for several minutes, before deciding to get out of bed. Sitting up she noticed the fire was burning and a large bowl of water was warming nearby, with a note Breakfast is ready when you are. Gabrielle walked into the bar awhile later seeing Cyrene busy behind it. "Goodmorning, Gabrielle, did you sleep well?" the bard nodded as she sat on one of the bar stools. "Would you like some breakfast? I have some fresh bread and fruit in the kitchen?"
"Yes, please....Xena out?" she asked as Cyrene came back carrying bread, fruit and a mug of tea.
"You could say that," she replied handing Gabrielle the tea and putting the bread and fruit in front of her. " Shes still asleep." Gabrielle choked on the tea and slammed the mug onto the bar coughing. Cyrene wiped up the spilt tea. "Is she all right?" spluttered the bard between coughing fits.
"Shes fine. I just thought the sleep would do her good."
"You put something in her drink last night." murmured Gabrielle in astonishment.
"Good idea. Unfortunately I dont think Id get away with it." "Probably not, but she did look exhausted." "She is, heck we both are. It will be good to stay put for a few days, without worrying about whos doing what to whom, or to us for that matter. But I dont think youll get away with spiking her drink twice."
"No. She wont" growled Xena walking in.
"Well, its nice to see you..." started Gabrielle and turning to smile at her friend, then wishing she hadnt the change in mood was immediately apparent. "Ill be back later" came the warriors gruff voice and with that she left the inn. Gabrielles sadden eye following her. Sighing the bard squeezed Cyrenes hand "Dont worry. this is normal or at least it has been for the last few weeks. Somethings bugging her." she looked at the innkeep. "It wasnt anything you did."
"Are you sure?" the worried look on Cyrenes face touched the bards heart. "Positive." Gabrielle pulled Cyrene onto the stool next to her and studied her face. "These mood swings.., well.. Look, some days Im lucky if she speaks to me. Then the next day shes the total opposite. Somethings bugging her, shell tell me what it is eventually."
"How do you put up with it?" Cyrene watched the bards emerald eyes until she hung her head and shrugged. Taking a deep breath she looked up into Cyrenes eyes. The innkeep almost rocked back from the torrent of love that poured from those green wells.
"People rarely see Xena as I do." came the quiet voice." They look and all they see is this tall, strong, beautiful woman, who can lead armies, solve impossible problems, overcome the invincible odds she pits herself against, with apparent ease. They believe the Legend, they dont see what it costs her to do it. I do. Even though shes on their side these days, most of them are absolutely terrified of her. Thats one of the reasons we never stay in any one place for long, as she would say she makes people nervous: Ive seen people run in terror from her and, its not even that which gets to her. its the fact that she knows theyve got good cause to run." Gabrielle stood and began pacing.
" I love her. Shes my best friend and, Ive had to learn the hard way sometimes, that having her as a friend I have to love the whole. I cant choose to love the side of her that stands up to the tyrant that she once was, or the side that allows her to show such tenderness to the sick and injured. I have to love the side that can turn from laughing and playing with me, to brutally attacking or even killing those that she believes pose a danger to us even if I dont. I have to love the dark side as well because thats who she is, what she is." She pause staring at Cyrene, who could see the frustration in the bards face. " When shes like this I just have to accept shes not going to be laughing and joking, or that whatever she might say to me, most of the time its not me shes mad at. Shell snap out of it in a few hours, maybe even days, shell apologize. If Im lucky shell get around to telling me what the problem was or is, most times though she keeps it all locked up inside. "Gabrielle saw the concern on Cyrenes face, squeezing her hand she gave a small smile. "Your daughter is a wonderful woman, with a horrifying past that comes back to haunt her time and time again. Ares blessing lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for that one slip of control that lets it loose. Every now and then it happens, Ive seen it and it pushes her like nothing else Ive ever seen. It allows her to do so much, but it also frightens her, it can take control and she worries over what she might do if she cant keep that tight rein on it. No one can punish Xena for the things shes done, anymore than she punishes herself. Youve only seen the smallest glimpse of what shes capable of. When these black moods take her its best to let it run its course. Shell most probably be out there practicing her drills until shes exhausted, or hunting, or something until she knows, she can control it and wont lash out at people." Gabrielle patted Cyrenes hand. " Dont worry shell be all right."
"Oh, Gabrielle sometimes I get so frightened for her." tears fell from the innkeepers eyes, the bard wiped them gently away with her thumbs and drew the older woman into a hug.
"I know." she whispered, holding tight. "So do I."
Xena jogged up the hill to the south of Amphipolis and into the trees. She couldnt put her finger on what it was that was troubling her, but this morning she had woken with a quiet rage burning within the pit of her stomach, and knew that if she stayed in the village or in company, it would only get worse until she said or did something shed regret. Better she thought not to be where she could hurt anybody but herself. Her feet took her of their own accord to the woodland clearing, that as children Lyceus and her would practice mock battles in. Stepping into the open space that looked so much smaller that she remembered, she drew her sword and began to loosen up. In a natural progression that was ingrained into her mind and body, the sword flashed through intricate patterns, her body moved in a murderous dance as she fought her invisible foe. Thrusting against this unseen defense, parrying his invisible attacks. An onlooker would have seen a blinding display of sword handling and acrobatic skills. As Xenas imaginary fighter increased his skill level, so would Xena increase heres, the sword becoming a silvery blur. She began to introduce backflips and kicks into the display, exercising every skill her body knew. So deeply involved in her practice, she could almost hear and feel the clash of steel. It took her several seconds to realize that the clash of steel was not imaginary, she could hear it.
Gabrielle had stayed at the inn instead of going to look for her partner, because she could sense Cyrenes growing unease at her daughters sudden change in mood, which only grew when she didnt return for lunch. She had entertained the lunchtime customers with a few stories, then helped Cyrene clear up and prepare for the evening rush. At first Gabrielle thought it was thunder that she could hear, but then felt the tremble beneath her feet. "Horses" she said aloud walking towards the door," coming fast as well. You expecting anybody?" she asked looking over her shoulder.
"No." came the reply.
Gabrielle opened the door and leaned out, and nearly had her head taken off as a soldier on horseback swung his sword at her. She rocked back and slammed the door shut. Seeing Cyrenes horrified face she locked the door and ran over to her grabbing her arm.
"We need a back way out!"
"Through the kitchen."
"Good, let me get my staff."
Gabrielle eased the kitchen door open just as another soldier galloped by, this time ignoring her. She could now see that the village was under attack from twenty-five or so mounted raiders, with maybe twenty or so foot troops. The Amphipolis population was running in terror and being hacked down in the process.
"This does not look good." muttered the bard to Cyrene," stay by me, well try to get to Argo, that will be our best chance for getting out of hear. " If Xena doesnt turn up first.
Xena reached the hill in time to see the mounted raiders enter her home village. That small spark of rage within her stomach ignited into a black battle fever unlike any she had felt since meeting Hercules.
Gabrielle had managed to get Cyrene and herself to the stable in one piece after dealing with a few of the ground raiders. Now however, they were stuck, the stable doors hung on their hinges and the horses had run from the fire that had been started within. She was now in a nearly indefensible position, with Cyrene and the now blazing stables behind her and four raiders armed with swords in front of her. What was it that Xena said about running ? Xena entered the village at full speed. Two mounted raiders didnt even have time to register her appearance before she launched herself from the ground and took them out with a kick. Finishing both off with her sword, she vaulted into the saddle of the nearest horse. Quickly surveying the scene, she felt a smile on her face, and let fly with her chakram taking several horsemen out before they knew what had hit them. A maniacal laugh rumbled from her throat as she caught the blood stained weapon.
Standing tall in the stirrups she bellowed her blood curdling war-cry. "YiYiYiYiYa!" Gabrielle almost fainted with relief as she heard the familiar war-cry echoing around the village. She actually managed a grin as she continued to block the sword being thrust at her. "cavalries arrived! "she shouted over her shoulder to Cyrene.
Xena rode through the village disposing of raiders with undisguised ease and pleasure, they were hardly a challenge. Standing again, she looked for Gabrielle knowing that the bard would have tried to get her mother to safety. She eventually spotted the bard, back towards the burning stables, with Cyrene behind her and four attackers in front. She laughed as Gabrielles staff dispatched one of them with a solid whack to the head, teach them to underestimate her wont it. she thought as Gabrielles staff whirled an intricate pattern mesmerizing the three left in front of her. Grinning she threw the chakram.
Gabrielle felt the rhythmic whirl of the staff as all that the Amazons and Xena taught her about the art of staff fighting flowed through her. She felt a smile cross her face as her staff connected with the head of one of the raiders. She pressed her attack as her confidence grew and her opponent fell to the ground. The weapon flowed in her hand deflecting the blows from the remaining three. Seeing an opening she reversed the staffs direction ramming the blunt end into a raiders midriff. She whipped the staff around to block the other two raiders, to find them dead at her feet with wounds shed only ever seen inflicted by her friends chakram.
Xena turned her attention back to the fighting, now that the bard and her mother were out of immediate danger. The raiders had recognized her as a threat and were focusing their attention on her. Laughing Xena urged the horse into the middle of them, killing or maiming all that got in her way. Slowly she started to draw them out of the village. Most of the foot raiders were dead or dying by the time the fight had reached the edge of the village. Xena had taken several injuries, but she allowed nothing to slow her down. Now that the invaders were for the most part ignoring everyone but Xena, the villagers were emerging from their hiding places to watch the warrior against the decimated force. Seeing the last horsemen and foot raiders standing against her, Xena laughed the incredible energy produced by the battle fever pushing her along. "Still wanna play boys?" she laughed dismounting. "one at a time or all at once?" her blood covered sword at the ready she slowly advanced. "Come on! What are you waiting for?" she taunted "Scared of a woman?" The raiders eased backwards staying just out of reach, strangely unwilling to attack or retreat. A horn blew in the distance and as one the fighters turned and fled from the village and the demoness who protected it.
Xena watched the retreat for a few seconds, then turned and made her way back toward the village, stopping only to wipe her sword on the tunic of one of the dead.
Gabrielle and Cyrene stepped from behind the village hut theyd sheltered behind to watch the last minutes of the battle. Cyrene absorbed the scene before her in silent horror. Her daughter was covered in blood from top to toe, most of it from those shed killed but a significant amount was her own from several wicked gashes that littered her body. The peculiar expression on her face was made all the more frightening by the smile that kept flitting across it, her eyes sparkled with a murderous terrifying intensity. It scared Cyrene, she now truly saw the darkness that had created the legendary Destroyer of nations and, yet it was still her daughter. Cyrene saw those chilling eyes ignite, and looked beyond Xenas shoulder to find out what had caused the battle fever to burn anew. Gabrielle saw the horsemen reappear as she waited for Xena to approach. She saw the change in tactics, the leader of this band of raiders had obviously figured out that they were not going to be able to take Xena down at close quarters, and archers were now riding at the forefront of the returning band. A short distance behind the main group rode a lone horseman dressed in ornate black armor that absorbed the afternoon sunlight. Gabrielle felt Cyrene shudder, and looked again at the horseman. Not so scary, well not after seeing some of Xenas friends. The alteration in formation had registered in the warriors mind as soon as she turned. It was a good one, they had a better chance of getting past her with archers, but Xena was in no mood to play games. Several solutions to the new tactics were quickly considered and disregarded by her battle fevered mind. Finally she settled on one that seemed most likely to be effective. She pulled the chakram from her side and waited until the archers were in range, the chakram was tossed out at incredible speed, only three archers managed to fire their bolts before it was among them. Xena caught two of the bolts as they zeroed in on her, she barely tracked the third when she realized where it was heading.
Gabrielle watched in silent awe with the rest of the village, as her friends chakram cut through the ranks of archers. Xenas quick hands pulled the arrows that had been fired out of the air except one, which the warrior hadnt seemed to have noticed. Suddenly Xena launched herself from the ground into a backflip, landing directly between here mother and the deadly projectile. Xena felt the thudding impact of the arrow in her left shoulder, an inferno of pain radiated out from the wound. She didnt have time to worry about the pain, so she just locked it away to deal with later. She chanced a quick look down at the injury, seeing that the arrowhead had gone straight through. Reaching up she snapped the feathered flight off of the quarrel and pulled the bolt out of her shoulder. Running forward, she bounced on the balls of her feet launching herself into the midst of the remaining attackers, her sword flashing in intricate dances as she disposed of all that opposed her, aware of nothing except the battle.
Gabrielle had her arm around the innkeeper supporting her, Cyrenes face was dripping with her daughters blood, the arrow had come that close to killing her. She was in shock, the bard could tell from the trembling that shook the womans frame and deathly pale face, but, she didnt what to leave until she was sure it was safe, that meant waiting for Xena to clear up those raiders that were left. Looking around she saw a place to sit Cyrene, she lead the innkeeper over and gently pushed her down. Movement caught her eye. Several of the village men had taken up pitch forks and axes, and were heading towards the fight. "Wait." yelled Gabrielle running over to them." Stop." The men looked at her in confusion. "Anybody gets passed her their yours, but you go charging in there with weapons, shes not gonna realize until to late that your the good guys, and youll end up as dead as them." She looked over her shoulder. There were several horsemen left, Gabrielle could see the telltale signs of exhaustion creeping into the warriors frame. She turned back to the men. "Think you could take some of them out with bows?" The men grinned, two running off and quickly returning with bows and fully stocked quivers.
Xena was tiring and she knew it. The wound in her shoulder was bleeding badly, she also had several other injuries that were causing her pain. Her mind just locked it all away, and automatically adjusted her techniques to take into account her new limitations. The raider she was fighting fell from the horse, a quarrel sticking out from his neck. She twisted avoiding a downswinging blade and threw a punch into the horsemans stomach that lifted him from the saddle and sent him crashing to the ground. She deflected another attack and kicked back at the downed horseman snapping his neck.
Soon there were only two fighters left alive on the battlefield, Xena and the black armored raider. Xenas face broke into a feral smile as she saluted him her sword dripping the blood of his raiders. The dark swordsman dismounted, and drew his sword striding through the carnage towards the warrior princess, and raised his sword in reply to hers.
"So," came his smooth silky voice as their swords clashed in front of them for the first time, "tell me, who do I have the pleasure of killing today?" The two fighters broke apart, Xena could just make out the smoldering brown eyes beneath the black helm. She took a deep breath settling her labored breathing from the long battle and grinned.
"People, around these parts call me Xena." their blades clashing together overhead. She chuckled at him as shock flickered through his eyes. "See you heard of me then." parting, the dark swordsman pressed his attack. Xena blocked the down swinging blade with her own, ducking behind him and sending him to his knees with a thump.
"Pity." he said blocking Xenas sword and kicking her right leg from beneath her, sending her crashing to the ground. "If Id known you were here I may have left this village alone." His sword hit empty ground as Xena had already rolled away and was back on her feet. She jumped and hit his head with a fully weighted round-house kick that sent him sprawling again.
"Oh, youd have seen me eventually whether Id been here or not." she let the warrior get unsteadily to his feet, "See this is my home! Nobody and I mean nobody touches it." with that she launched a blinding attack of thrusts and slashes which ended up with what was left of his body impale up to the hilt on her sword.
Gabrielle stood with the villagers mainly to stop anybody getting in Xenas way. The men had done well with their bows and had dealt with three of the attackers for her partner. Cyrene had joined them, somewhat recovered from her close call with death. She had cleaned the worst of Xenas blood from her face, though a few smears still remained. They stood side by side watching in silence. Gabrielle gazed fascinated, wondering again where her partners strength came from as she fought the dark warrior. She felt Cyrenes hand clutch her arm as her daughter crashed to the ground, then relax as she bounded back to her feet. It would be over soon, Gabrielle knew as the black warriors sword thrust into nothing, even as tired as Xena obviously was, she was toying with him. The black warrior was already dead he just didnt know it yet. Xena pushed the dead raider from her sword, before what was left of his body could fall to the ground she swung her sword decapitating him. The warrior dropped to her knees, sweat and blood dripping profusely from her body. Using the sword as a rest she leant her head against her hands and tried to steady her breathing which was now coming in great gulps as her oxygen starved system screamed for replenishment. Her mind was still crystal clear and senses hyper alert but she knew that wouldnt last more that a few minutes with the amount of damage her body had taken.
Cyrene was on the move before the black warriors head had hit he floor. She caught the bard totally off guard with sudden run towards her daughter. Gabrielle sprinted after her panic stricken knowing she should have kept a closer eye on Xenas mother. If Cyrene made the wrong move now she would end up dead before Xena had even realized who it was.
The trembling started in her legs, spreading quickly to the rest of her body. Having managed to get her breathing under control, Xena took one last deep breath and pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the tunneling of her vision. She stumbled forwards and rocked backward before finally balancing herself. A hand grabbed her arm, her body reacted to the threat, throwing the sword arm up and around she knocked her attacker away.
Gabrielles worries exploded into terror as Cyrene grabbed Xenas arm, the warrior spun round throwing her mother to the floor, raising her sword. "No! Xena!" cried the bard with a burst of speed she flung herself the small distance separating her from the felled innkeeper, putting herself between Xenas stricken mother and the striking warrior. She lifted her staff into the high guard and deflected the down crushing blow of Xenas blade. "Xena!" she pleaded desperately seeing no trace of humanity in her friends piercing eyes. The warrior now stood poised to strike again at the two women sprawled at her feet. The bard saw the blood pouring from Xenas wounds, bone showed through the gapping hole the arrow had left in her shoulder. She could see the muscles trembling with fatigue and exhaustion. "Xena!" she yelled in a stronger voice, trying to get through to her partner before she killed them. "Xena, put down the sword. Xena, come on you recognize my voice. Nobody here is trying to hurt you. So come on put down the sword." Gazing into the warriors blue eyes she could see reason slowly returning too them. " thats right, nobody heres a threat. Thats it put down the sword." Xena lowered the sword to her side taking a step backward. Gabrielle slowly got to her feet, keeping eye contact with the warrior, so the dawning horror at what shed almost done to her best friend and mother was immediately apparent to her, as was the panic building within them as her sword dropped from nerveless fingers.
"Oh, no.." a look of anguish covered Xenas face as she began to backup quickly, scanning around seeing the villagers terrified faces, until she saw the golden palomino among the loosened horses. She whistled to the horse and returned her agonized look to her mother and best friend.
"Sorry" she whispered tears falling from her eyes to mingle with the blood splattered across her face. Argo arrived by her side, she grabbed her mane and pulled herself onto the saddless back.
"Xena, wait" Gabrielle moved forward reaching out to her friend. But Argo turned at a command from her mistress and galloped away, Xenas blood already staining her flanks.
A stunned silence enveloped the village, then slowly people started to clear up. Cyrene pushed herself to her feet and went to the bards side. " Gabrielle?" she asked softly, seeing the tears on the young girls face. "Have to go after her, she wont get far in the condition shes in. Lost to much blood." The bard turned towards the innkeeper searching her face. " It wasnt you she was hitting out at, you know that dont you?" "I honestly thought she was going to kill me, Gabrielle, I could see my death in those eyes."
"You startled her, she was still in a battle fever and hurt, her body just reacted as its trained to do. You saw what happened when her mind caught up. Its gonna take me a long time to convince her that this wasnt her fault," Gabrielle saw the wince in Cyrenes eye. "It wasnt anyones fault." She rested her hand on Cyrenes shoulder. "But shell convince herself she could have prevented this somehow. Im going to bring her home Cyrene, but youve got to know if you flinch or react in any way. Shell go, shell loose her reason for fighting that darkness, if she already believes shes lost you. Who knows where that road once trodden will take her."
"I want to come with you Gabrielle, " she replied clasping the bards hand, "No fear, I promise."
Argo galloped through the trees without command until she reached the small river that ran a few miles to the west of the village, there the horse paused waiting for instruction from her rider, when none was forthcoming, she turned and headed downstream at a slow walk.
Xena sat upon Argo letting the horse go where she willed. She had come so close to killing her mother and Gabrielle, that nothing else really mattered. The look of horror on her mothers face and desperation on Gabrielles face as she pleaded with her, were to much to bare. Today the darkest side of her had taken over and nearly killed, the only two people in this world she loved. She would not let it happen again, ever, and if the only way to ensure that they were safe was to leave, that was what shed do one way or the other. She looked down at her blood soaked leathers and hands clasping Argos golden mane. She was still bleeding, and exhaustion had hit her full on, she knew that she ought to stop and try to get the bleeding stopped. Then suddenly she knew she wasnt going to rest up and heal from this one. For so long she had been trying to make up for her past, today she proved that nothing had changed in her and never would. She had once asked Gabrielle to bring her home if anything ever happened to her, well she was already home and there was only one place she wanted to go. It had taken surprisingly little time to get things together at the inn. Gabrielle had collected everything they needed from Xenas kit, Cyrene had seen to the provisions. It was only getting the horses that took time. The two women left the village just as the sun was setting.
"Do you know where shell head to Gabrielle?"
"Yeah," replied the bard quietly. "Ive a good idea where shell head to."
"Shes always told me that there has always been one person she could talk to, even during the worse times, she knew he would always listen, thats where shell head to."
"You mean shell go to Lyceus?"
"Yeah, thats where Id put bets on her going."
Dusk was deepening into night when they arrived at Lyceus resting place. Gabrielle and Cyrene both felt the release of tension neither had been aware of until they saw the blood stained Argo standing outside. The palomino wickerd gently as Gabrielle approached on foot.
"Hello girl," she let the horse nuzzle her outstretched hand, "Is mum inside?" Argo snorted hot air into her hand in reply. The bard spoke to Cyrene without taking her eyes off of the entrance to the tomb. "Im pretty sure shes inside, do you....?"
"No Ill come with you." Cyrene slid from the back of the black war-horse, and the two companions entered the tomb together. It was obvious that Xena had been here, a trail of blood lead from the entrance, stopping where the now flickering torches lit the way, then moving on into the crypt. Gabrielle took a deep breath before turning the corner unsure as to what she would find. She quickly scanned the vault until she found the huddled form of her friend. Cyrene stepped around the corner with Gabrielle, immediately seeing the blood splattered tomb of her youngest son, her daughters bloody handprints marred the otherwise pristine crypt. Across Lyceus sword lay Xenas chakram, her armor lay at his feet. On the ground next to the tomb lay the curled form of her daughter. This time Cyrene didnt dash across the floor to her but waited for the bard to approach. "Xena?" came Gabrielles sweet voice, as she neared the prone body. The young girl didnt even flinched as she knelt in the pool of blood that surrounded her friend. Gently shaking her friends shoulder she got no response. "Shes out cold, well need a fire and some hot water." rolling her slowly onto her back. "Zeus, what a mess, if you could get started.." Gabrielle looked around to see Cyrene had already started on getting a fire going," on the fire. Ill try and stop this bleeding." Taking the clean cloths from her pack, she packed the shoulder wound stanching the flow of blood and then attended to the various other wounds. Ten minutes later Cyrene had a good fire going and water on to warm, Gabrielle glanced at her as she wandered over.
"How is she?" Gabrielle sighed
"Shes lost a lot of blood Cyrene. These wounds are deep, especially the shoulder, theyve been left so infection might get a hold, though those that were still bleeding might not be so bad with that. But to be honest I dont know, shes the expert on these things. Give me a hand to get her nearer the fire, then I can clean and try to close those gashes." Together they gently pulled the unconscious warrior over onto the sleeping fur that Cyrene had laid out. Gabrielle got to work cleaning the wounds properly, the shoulder was the worst of many, but two other gashes gave the bard cause for concern, one large gash on her right thigh was almost to the bone and very dirty, and one below her ribs on the left waist.
It was several hours later when Gabrielle finished satisfied that no more could be done for her friend. Several times Cyrene had, had to hold the restless warrior down, whilst the bard had scrubbed and stitched the wounds, but now it was done the warrior rested somewhat fitfully.
Cyrene sat near Gabrielle and her sleeping daughter, marveling at the young bard. The girl showed no fear. When the raiders had attacked she kept her head about her, didnt panic and came up with a way out. She had stood unafraid of the madness within her daughter and defended her. Then shed hunted that wounded animal down and tended to its wounds.
"Tell me about her?" asked Cyrene leaning across to brush Xenas black hair from her damp face, sensing Gabrielles questioning gazed. "I dont really know her except from the stories, I havent known her since she was a young girl. Whats she like?" The bards face lit with a smile as she spoke of her favorite subject. " I remember when I first saw her. Dracos men had rounded up the village and wanted to take us girls to sell to the slavers. I remember standing before my sister telling them to take me and leave the rest. Zeus, what a stupid idea that was, even when I was young I used to dream up stories to tell, where a hero would coming riding into save us at the last minute; and I honestly believed someone would come." Staring into the distance remembering the scene Gabrielle chuckled. "I was just about to get my hide whipped off, when there she was in her cotton undershift, minutes later the whole of Dracos raiding party was on the run. The elders of the village were quaking in their boots when they found out whod saved them. All I could think of was how great she was, and what it would be like to travel with her. When I asked her to take me with her, she refused saying I was better off where I was, but the romantic dream of being an adventurer got the better of me and I followed her here." she sighed looking down at her friend. " Those first few months I was with her were really difficult. I must have driven her crazy with all my chatter, but it was so hard to get a conversation out of her. She never told where we were going, or what she was planning. I thought it was because Id just sort of attached myself to her, and because I really didnt have a clue about life on the road. She had to do nearly everything for me at first. Then I realized it had nothing to do with any of that, it was just that she didnt know how to act around me. For so long shed lived with the knowledge that one slip and any one of her soldiers or enemies would kill her, the knowledge that the mear mention of her name would send people running in fear. She didnt understand that I wouldnt. She didnt understand that a friend didnt expect anything from her." Cyrene watched silently while the bard wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her head on them, never moving from her daughters side. "She was lonely, scared-though she would never admit it. She was battling against every instinct to just beat the living daylights out of anybody that stood in her way. After awhile I think it finally got through to her that I knew her, I knew what she had been and done, but that I understood that she was trying to change, I desperately wanted to help her with that. When she realized that I wasnt running away every time we got into trouble and, that I really cared about what happened to her, those well constructed barriers slowly started to come down." she paused picking up a water-skin and drinking deeply. The emerald eyes sparkled with intensity when they looked back at Cyrene. "Shes so loyal. Though that the wrong word to use, but I cant think of one that defines it better. The amount of times shes put herself at risk to get me out of trouble are to many to mention. Oh, but shes really frustrating aswell, her communication skills are virtually non-existent, she blames herself if anything goes wrong, or if anyone gets hurt. You know it was months before I realized anybody could actually hurt her, because she wont tell you shes hurt or in pain. I almost have to sit on her to get her to slow down. Its this legendary war-lord routine that does it. Oh, but that single-mindedness never lets her give up. There have been times when I just know that were gonna get ourselves killed, times when Ive been so sure that its taken me days to realize Im actually still alive. Like today shes always found a way through." "Dont you ever just want to give up and go home?" Cyrene asked. Gabrielle giggled those green wells shimmering with mischief. "Been there, done that, didnt work. My village was being terrorized by some raiders. I ended up using all my skills - learnt of course from your daughter,- to help save it. I understood then just how much Id changed, grown up really. I didnt belong there anymore. So I went searching for Xena, got myself into troubles usual. This time though I managed to get myself out of it, only of course to find myself in deeper trouble. Guess who appeared." Her adoring gaze dropped to the sleeping warrior, worry flitted across her face, as her hand rested against her friends head. " Shes taken a fever." fear colored her voice. " I know." The innkeeper wrapped her arm around the bards shoulders. "You really do love her dont you?" The bard raised her head and looked at Xenas mother giving a shy smile. Cyrene saw all she needed to know in that young beautiful face, those Forrest green eyes expressed more than the bard would ever know. "Yeah, I do." The whispered voice caught, Cyrene hugged her harder. "Does she know?" Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face and sniffed "I guess so. I mean Ive never come right out and said it, well not like that anyway. But yeah, I think she knows."
"You should tell her. It might make her.."
"No," interrupted Gabrielle, " I couldnt do that to her. She has enough worries on her plate, she doesnt need me adding to them."
"I think your wrong Gabrielle. I think it would help her to know someone cared for her like that, rather than hinder her."
"Yeah, well, maybe one day." The bard sighed reaching out to her friend, as the warrior began to stir. "Xena? Xena?.. Come on. Wake up." She gently stroked the sweat soaked face as those piercing eyes fluttered open. Gabrielle could see confusion, fear and pain battle on her face, as a grip hardly weakened by fever or wounds took hold of her arm and pulled it away from her face. "What are you doing here?" croaked the warriors voice.
"Chasing after you as usual. Here, let me get you some water." Gabrielle tried to reach for the water-skin but Xenas grip tightened on her arm. "Go away." The despair in that voice and in those eyes shook the bard to the core. "You shouldnt have followed. It could.." her voice trembled as fevered chills wracked her body, "..it could have been.."
"Look well discuss this later. Right now youve got a fever from your wounds. You need to drink." The warriors strength again prevented her from reaching the water-skin. Gabrielles mouth opened but before she could say anything a hand gently squeezed her shoulder.
"Xena. Do as Gabrielle asks." Shock hit the warriors face, which became even paler than it was before, as Cyrene moved into the flickering firelight and, Xena realized that the bard had not come alone.
"Mother?" the whispered voice cracked with emotion. The grip loosened on Gabrielles arm and the bard gently pried it away from the warrior. "What are?.. How could you?" Xenas eyes closed as tears fell down her face. Cyrene reached out and brushed them away withdrawing a little as Xena flinched away from her touch. "Dont, both of you. Go away, just leave me alone!" "Sorry, I cant do that anymore." Cyrenes voice held a trace of anger. "I dont know you that well. I havent had the chance to in a long time. Ive not known how to be your mother, I do now and I wont let this chance go." "Do you have any idea how close I came to killing you? Do you realize that if Gabrielle hadnt managed to block that sword youd both be dead." Spat Xena her voice filled with self-hate and frustration as Cyrene sat calmly by her stroking her arm. "Yes, I do. I also know if you hadnt battled those raiders and stopped that arrow Id also be dead, so lets call it quits." Xena sighed her eyes closed unwilling to make eye contact with her mother, "Its not the same." " I saw a monster today Xena. For the first time, I actually saw the legendary Destroyer Of Nations." She gripped her daughters shoulder hard until her eyes opened. "Yes, a monster, who took joy and pleasure in killing. Ive always known who and what you are Xena, and today I saw it. But you know for the first time, I didnt care about any of that. Your my daughter, you were hurt and in pain, and I forgot. All I wanted to do was hold you and make it all go away. When you threw me off I knew the mistake Id made." Cyrene took a breath and gazed deeply into those ice blue eyes, willing her daughter to listen. " It wasnt fear of you, that you saw in my eyes. It was fear for you. I knew what my mistake was going to do to you."
"I wish I could believe that." came the agonized reply. Gabrielle sat back letting Cyrene get close to her daughter, as she tried to convince her that she had nothing to be ashamed of. But she saw the chills shuddering through her friends body, the exhaustion that even this small talk had caused. Time to quieten her down a bit.
"Xena, I want you to drink this now. No arguing." said the bard as the fevered warrior shook her head in protest. "We can sort this out later when you havent got a fever." Gabrielle lifted the warriors head and shoulders onto her lap. "Now drink!" her voice brooked no argument. "Good, now I want you to get some rest." the bard held the warrior close until her eyes closed and her tense frame relaxed.
" Thank you, Cyrene." Gabrielle didnt look up from her friends face.
"For saying that. I think she needed to hear you say it." "I know" Cyrene said quietly, closing her eyes, "more surprising to me is that after so long a time distrusting her, I meant every word of it. This afternoon made me think for the first time since she left, about her. You know, " she said now gazing at her daughter. "She was still a child when she left. In many ways she still is. She still needs her mothers love and approval. I guess youve made me see that everything isnt black and white; but shades of gray." Her eyes turned upwards to the bard. " This afternoon was my fault. I should have known better, especially after living with her father. I should have understood, that no matter how she changes, her essence is still that of a warrior. Capable of good and evil." She took a deep breath and searched Gabrielles face seeing encouragement behind those eyes. "You know, I expected her to save the village. Me. Us. I didnt know how. After all shes only one woman, despite all the stories, but, I expected her to do it and she did. I should have known she would use everything in her power to save the village and us along with it, she did the same when she was just a child after all. I.., then, oh..I dont know Gabrielle. When I realized what she had to become to do it, I blamed her for what she was. But I expected her to become that monster to save us all. I think I was more horrified at myself, than I was at her. I dont have the right to judge her. I shouldnt try to change who or what she is. I should just accept her as my daughter." Gabrielle sat for a while saying nothing and then smiled. "Im glad you think that Cyrene. Because its going to take us both to convince her of that. Look,.." she said glancing down at the restless warrior, "its going to be along night, she normally gets worse before she gets better. Why dont you get some sleep?" "Thank you, but no." Cyrene had seen the tired slump of the bards shoulders. "You had a long day yesterday. A battle today, as well as looking after me and my daughter. Its time you rested. I can look after her, at least for awhile."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, now settle down and get some sleep." Gabrielle decided not to argue, she was tired and this afternoons fight had left her aching, never mind the horse ride. Gently moving Xenas head from her lap, she moved to the otherside of the fire and crawled into the well used sleeping roll that Cyrene had laid out earlier. "Wake me in a few hours and Ill take over." "I will," Cyrene said watching the bards eyes close as she slipped into sleep, knowing that she had no intention of waking her.
Cyrene made good use of her time while the bard slept. She cleaned Lyceuss tomb, taking down her daughters weapon and armor, washing her blood from the stone. Occasionally Xena would become restless and Cyrene would stop to tend her. Now though she was stood next to her son wiping the dust from his face. "Well, my son, shes home. Though Zeus knows for how long. You were right you know, when you said she didnt just fight, she danced with her blade. Oh, and did she dance today, never have I seen the like of such a warrior as she. And her friend, her friend has a devotion for her unlike any Ive seen before. Today when she put herself between me and your sister, she had no fear, as though she knew your sister would never harm her. I do confess to doubting that with anyone else, but with Gabrielle I believe this is true. She reminds me a lot of you. Young, Idealistic, a bit of a dreamer, though she is a wonderful bard, and like you she shows absolutely no doubt in your sister, believes in her unequivocally. Shes in love, her face lights with a glow whenever she looks or speaks of her. Im unsure whether your sister returns it, though she has a great fondness for her and heeds her more than anyone else. Gabrielle was right she needed a friend, and Im glad Xena found her." leaving her sons side, she sat down by her daughter and carefully brushed her damp hair from her face.
The inn was hot and smoky; the evening crowd had built to its peak and had not yet started to wane. Cyrene was winding her way through the busy throng with ease, greeting those she knew, dispensing ale and cider from the large jugs she carried without effort in her muscular arms. Stopping to refill at one table she kindly refused the offer of a seat. Leaving she pushed her way through the crowd to the door at the back of the inn, handing the ale and cider to one of the serving girls before leaving the room. The rear passage was cool and dark, the only light a small glow beneath the door at the end of passageway. Cyrene took a couple of seconds to enjoy the change in temperature and, wipe the sweat from her brow, before proceeding to the door at the end of the corridor. Gabrielle lifted her head from her hands as the door opened and managed a faint smile as Xenas mother crept into the room.
" Hows she doing?" Gabrielles tired eyes returned to the warrior and the blanket tossed cot in front of her.
"No change really. Shes woken a few times but hasnt really known where she is." Cyrene had woken the bard two nights ago in Lyceuss tomb. Xenas fever had grown; throwing the warrior into delirium induced nightmares. They had both struggled with the thrashing warrior trying to prevent her wounds from reopening. Theyd only been partially successful, Gabrielle had spent what was left of the night restitching and dressing Xenas shoulder. It was then that they decided to make a dash for Amphipolis. Between them they had managed to get the unconscious warrior onto Argo with Gabrielle sat behind holding her on. The short journey back had taken longer than expected as the warrior alternated between bouts of fevered sweating and shivering. Cyrene had ridden ahead as the village came into view. When Gabrielle arrived with her charge, several of the village men were there to carry Xena to her room, and Marris the local healer was already setting out her equipment. In the last two days Gabrielle had only left Xenas side when Cyrene had physically forced her too. Exhaustion seemed permanently etched into the young bards features as she fretted over her friend. Cyrene sat next to the bard closely watching her face. "Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"No thank you. Im afraid the legendary appetite seems to have deserted me." It was an understatement, shed hardly eaten anything since theyd returned, but she just didnt feel hungry anymore. Cyrene leaned back into the chair worriedly; the young bard was wasting away right in front of her very eyes. "Shell be all right Gabrielle, Marris said the wounds were healing and the fever has started to lessen." The bard sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Yeah, and then the hard part really begins." Her shoulders slumped forward and she returned her head to her hands. Cyrene rubbed the tired shoulders feeling the tense knots in the muscles.
"I want you to go get some sleep. The girls are seeing to the inn, so Ill watch her for a while."
" No, I want to stay. Im okay."
"You misunderstand me Gabrielle. Im not giving you a choice in the matter. Its bad enough Xena being ill, Ill not have you making yourself ill as well. Now go to bed."
"Okay, okay. You win mom." Came the exasperated reply. " You better believe it, now scat." The bard leant forward and kissed the warriors cheek, running her hand through the bedraggled ebony hair. "Ill be back soon." Sitting up she looked directly into Cyrenes eyes " Promise to wake me if theres any change."
"Only if I have to young lady. Now bed." The young girl stood and stretched slowly making her way to the door, sending a last wistful look back towards the warrior before leaving.
Xena had been here many times before. The dark foreboding rocky landscape was as familiar to her as a lovers caress. She stood silently, patiently, watching, listening, and waiting for the inevitable. The crunch of a footstep alerted her to his presence. An evil smile flashed across her face. "Ares," the dark god of war walked around her right shoulder, " I thought I smelt your stench hanging around."
" Ah, Xena, my dear warrior princess. So good of you to remember me. Not going quite as you planned is it my dear?" Xena studied the chillingly handsome God before her. "If Id known all I had to do to knock you from this road of atonement youve put yourself on, was to get you to threaten your mother and that pesky tagalong. Well..."
"Id rather die than return to you Ares, and you know that. So what do you want?"
" Yes, you have told me that on several occasions, but Id rather not see that happen, at least not when I cant take the credit for it." The God of War looked around. " I never could understand why you liked this place so much. Change of scene I think." He clicked his fingers.
Xena suddenly found herself stood in a room she had visited on numerous occasions during her time as a warlord, Slowly wandering around the room, she picked up and discarded various multicolored silks. " I see your taste hasnt changed much." She glanced over at the pillow strewn bed that Ares lounged on."
" Never where your concerned my dear."
" So," Xena slowly leant over the bed, directing her piercing gaze into the Gods eyes, " what game are we playing this time?"
"Game? Im not playing games, Princess. I wish Id thought of this one, but I really cant take the credit for somebody elses work." Xenas gaze darkened. " If not you, who else?" she asked pointedly.
"Ah, theres the rub, you see." He pushed himself up onto his elbow; his face so close Xena could feel his breath as he slowly exhaled. " Im not quite sure, but hes good. Very good in fact."
" So you know whats going on?" the warrior lowered herself onto the bed next to the God, their faces still intimate.
" I believe Ive managed to find that out yes."
" Care to share?" Ares slowly pulled away and rolled off the bed, his gazed still fixed on Xena.
" Lets say I give you a little clue," he picked up a carafe of wine, pouring two glasses, handing one to the warrior still lounged on the bed. " Unfortunately there are certain conditions. You are my chosen Xena, the best Ive ever had in fact, but you dont follow my path anymore, so Im limited in what I can do." Xena let out a short laugh " Are you sure, youre not behind this? It seems so like you." " I assure you my dear, this isnt one of mine. You do know whats happening to you, dont you?" He took a drink and sat watching the warrior as she stood and began to pace.
" Im loosing control. Even when I followed you, I could control my hate and anger. I didnt want to most of the time, but I still had the ability." "Well, I do like my chosen to have that certain edge to them. But taking away control makes you harder to influence, as you no doubt remember from our little head to head with the furies. You have an incredible capacity for destruction princess, not even I want to see it let loose to that extent, after all just where would you stop?"
" I most probably wouldnt." Xena drained her glass and sat before him. " Exactly. So either somebody wants you on the rampage, or is hoping youll bow out before you let that happen, bearing in mind your insufferable need to make up for your glorious past."
" Id rather bow out."
" So it seems, youre not doing a bad job of it either. Its been nearly a week now hasnt it. Wasting away doesnt seem your style." " Gabrielle and mother would try to stop me if I tried anything more direct.
Theyd get hurt."
" Then youve got a choice coming up Xena. I think I know which road youre going to take... When you do remember me, call my name. Ill be able to give you some semblance of control for a short time, but only for a short time. And afterwards youll owe me."
" Im not coming back to you Ares."
" Im not asking you to Xena. Youll do that all by yourself. Oh.. One more thing... we didnt have this conversation. Ive put my neck out enough as it is. You wont remember this little chat of ours. When the time comes youll remember enough. Good-bye my dear." He clicked his fingers. Cyrenes patience had worn thin, her nerves were frayed. It had now been a week since theyd brought Xena back to the inn. At first things had seemed fine. Xenas fever had broken and her wounds healed, and thats where it had ended. Shed not moved from the cot, rarely became conscious of her surroundings, only drank because she was forced and refused to eat. She was dying that much was obvious, but nobody knew why. Gabrielle had said in one of their many conversations, that Xena was able to accomplish such incredible feats merely because she believed she could, nobody ever told her daughter that she couldnt and therefore it was possible, her mind was a very powerful weapon. Now it had turned in on itself and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it. Cyrene was willing to let her daughter make that decision for herself, the problem was she was taking the bard with her and, Cyrene wasnt willing to let that happen. Walking briskly into Xenas room Cyrene went to the sleeping bard. The strawberry blonde hair lay lank on the chair, her pale face marred by the dark smudges of exhaustion beneath her eyes. Shed lost weight through worry and the fact she hardly ate the food she was given. The innkeeper was loath to wake her when at last she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but she wanted her out of the room while she talked to Xena. The warrior may have been uncommunicative but Cyrene was positive that her daughter could hear. Cyrene gently shook the bards shoulder. Gabrielle was awake in an instant, her eyes immediately going to her partner.
"Shes okay, shes still with us." Calmed Cyrene, rubbing her shoulder she continued. " Go to bed Gabrielle youll rest easier." " You always seem to be telling me to do that these days." A small tired smile graced that bards face.
" Thats because you dont have the sense to go without me telling you to. Ive left some bread and cheese in your room if youre hungry." " Thank you, I dont know what Id have done without you."
" Theres no need to thank me Gabrielle your family. I call you if she wakes." Gabrielle kissed the innkeepers cheek and left the room. Cyrene sat back her eyes on her daughter waiting for those ice blue wells to open. It was several candlemarks, later but eventually those once crystalline eyes now faded dull opened. They didnt look or focus on anything just stared. It had been happening for a few days now, but emotion still caught in Cyrenes throat. Today though she wasnt going to let it overwhelm her. Moving to the edge of her seat she took Xenas hand in her own and squeezed tightly, before she spoke. " I never thought Id see the day when the mighty warrior princess, would give up, but that day is drawing closer. I understand youve made a decision and that you have the right to do that. If death is what you want, then so be it. I dont expect you to heed my wishes, weve been strangers for so long, and I have no hold over you." Cyrene rose and shifted herself over onto the cot next to her daughter. One hand still holding her daughters tight, her other clasped Xenas jaw and turned her head until she was facing her mother. " Youve had precious few friends in your life Xena, none more precious I think than your Gabrielle." The blue eyes blinked, but opened again unlike they had so many times before. Cyrene knew she was listening. " Im willing to let you go daughter if that is truly your desire, but I will not let you take Gabrielle with you. Because that is what is happening she sits in here candlemark after candlemark, day after day. Waiting for you to snap out of this, but even she has come to the conclusion that wont happen. Shes not eating, she has horrendous nightmares when she sleeps at all." Dark pupils contracted in the ice like eyes. " You have a choice to make daughter. You can carry on the way you are at the moment and die, taking her along with you, or you can fight, you can fight for her Xena, just like she is for you. She has such a love for you, I dont think there is anything in this or the next world that she wouldnt do for you. Love can overcome impossible odds Xena; will you overcome these for her? Whatever the problem is Xena we can fix it. All we need is for you to start the fight." Xenas eyes closed, Cyrene hung her head and squeezed her daughters hand again hoping that Xena had heard her. She stood intending to go and check on Gabrielle but a painful grip closed around her hand. Her eyes went straight to her daughters face.
" You have no idea of what your asking mother." The whispered voice was horse after a week of no use. Cyrene sat by her daughter returning the powerful grip. " I think, I do Xena. But whatever it is we can work through it." Xena opened her eyes and, for the first time since the battle she saw reason in them instead of the blankness she had become use to. " Tell me Xena, tell me what is frightening you so?"
" Im not frightened mother." Whispered her voice, " Im terrified." Her eyes closed again as she looked deep inside herself not liking what she saw. " What of?" Cyrene wondered what could have her violent daughter so scared shed rather die than face it.
" Me, mother. Im terrified of me." Her eyes opened once again and Cyrene saw horror within them. " I have been fighting this rage within me for nearly three years and, Im loosing. Each time I use my sword or I fight it becomes that little bit harder to control the next time. It burns deep and fierce mother, but I have always been able to bend it to my will and use it. Now I have to fight every second of every day to keep it tethered. A few months ago if youd grabbed me after a fight I would have reacted, but Id never have gotten to a sword stroke before I knew you. Now somebody only has to look at me the wrong way and that rage almost consumes me."
"We can fight through this Xena, it may take time, but we can get through this.
You just have to believe in yourself."
" We may be able to get through this mother but how many people would get hurt or die while we try? And what would happen if it were you or Gabrielle in my way at the wrong time, do you think youd be safe?"
Gabrielle had been unable to sleep on her return to her room, at least when she was in Xenas she knew immediately of any change. Although she was deathly tired sleep in this room at least eluded her, whenever she closed her eyes, endless questions and thoughts raced through her mind battering for her attention. So instead of inflicting that torment on herself she picked up her scrolls and parchments and began to write. Gabrielle had always found solace in her ability to express herself through her stories, both written and spoken. It helped her to detach herself from the situation and, think through it from the outside. In her years with Xena she had used the technique many times to reason through the actions the warrior had taken, that she thought had been wrong or unwise. She had learned to appreciate how Xenas mind worked and this had enabled her to reason with the fighter on a few occasions. It also meant that now she knew Xena had made her mind up there would be little she could do to change it. It was sometime later that Gabrielle finished her writing, to her surprise she had eaten most of what Cyrene had left for her. Stretching form the curled position she had adopted, she left for Xenas room, stopping outside of the door when she heard voices from within.
" That wont happen Xena." Desperation was clear in her voice. " It already has mother. Gabrielle managed to stop me this time." She said in exasperation.
" You seem fine now, youre controlling yourself now." " Yes, Im controlling it now, but you have no idea how hard it is. I could crush your fingers in my hand now. You couldnt do anything to stop me. At the moment I have the strength to stop myself but it wont last. Do you think you could handle me in a rage? Could you stop me? Could you? When not even I can control myself?" Xenas eyes had started to burn. She raised her body from the cot. " Do you think this village could handle me ten times worse than what I became the first time?" Neither women heard the door open or Gabrielle enter. Cyrene stared at her daughter, feeling the pressure on her hand increase. Worry began to cloud her mind. What if Xena were right? What would happen if she lost control, nobody in the village had the power or skill to stop her. " This village couldnt," came the soft voice of the bard from the door way, ~" but the Amazons could." Xena fell back to the cot, dropping her mothers hand, as Gabrielle approached the cot.
" No they couldnt Gabrielle. They might be able to slow me down for a short while, Hades bells they might not even be able to do that." " You could though couldnt you? If this were happening to someone else, youd figure out a way to at least restrain them until we figured out a way to stop them. Right?"
"Possibly." Came the reluctant reply.
" Then teach us. Show us how to stop you." Pleaded the bard " Where would that get us Gabrielle." The bard knelt by her friend. "It would give us time Xena. Time to find out why this is happening, time to stop it." Xena rolled to face Gabrielle, seeing for the first time how gaunt shed become over the last week, how exhaustion shadowed those perfect green eyes. Xena raised a hand to her cheek " Id rather die than hurt you, you know that dont you?" Gabrielle nodded tears falling down her face. " This is a no win situation. Either way I lose you. Either to death, or to the repulsion you will feel after seeing me with out that tiny piece of control I have over myself."
"You dont know that Xena. At least give it a chance"
It had taken six days for the message Gabrielle had sent Ephiny to bear results. It had been six days that neither Cyrene nor Gabrielle would soon forget. After reluctantly agreeing to Gabrielles suggestion to ask the Amazons, Xena had turned back in on herself. She spoke rarely, and preferred her own company, just about tolerating the bards company during the evenings, when Gabrielle would sit next to the fire and recite poems and stories to the constantly pacing warrior. Sometimes the stories would work and Xena would find the simmering rage within had died enough to let her relax, but those moments were few and far between. The warrior had made her mother remove nearly all the furniture from the room and Gabrielle had taken her weapons. Occasionally Gabrielle or Cyrene would come to the door and find it barred to their entry, complete silence emanating from the room. Once Gabrielle had stood outside the door listening as Xena ripped the room apart with her bare hands, the walls of the room had shaken as she repeatedly hit them with clenched fists. When the door had eventually been unlocked she had taken in cloths and healing herbs and had silently tended the bloody hands as Xena had sat and stared into the fireplace, her body shivering every now and again with barely suppressed rage.
It was a physical relief on the sixth day when one of the village boys ran into the inn.
" What is it Tolath?" inquired Cyrene, as the young boy slid to a halt beside the bar.
" Horses Cyrene, lots of horses. Coming up the road."
Gabrielle was waiting outside the inn as the Amazons rode into the village. Ephiny the tall blonde Amazon regent gracefully dismounted her horse, greeting her Queen with a bow, before embracing her in a hug. " We came as soon as I got your message" the Amazon released the bard looking into the emerald eyes that had lost their sparkle to exhaustion. The normally mischievous bounce that invaded the bards body was missing; the tension at the inn was almost palpable. " You werent very specific, whats the problem?" a thunderous impact echoed from behind the bard and Ephiny saw the green eyes darken almost flinch at the sound.
" Xena, Ephiny. Xenas the problem."
Ephiny had always found sunset to be the most peaceful time of the day, the days work over the russet and gold blending in the skies never failed to relax her, even in times of war or tension sunset had always been her release valve. It had been two days now since she had found out this was one problem that wouldnt fade with the going down of the sun. Ephiny had sat stunned in the bar with Eponin and Solari by her side as Gabrielle had explained the problem to them. Every now and again the recital would be interrupted by a howl from the back of the inn, at one point Gabrielle and Cyrene had disappeared through the door, returning moments later looking even more worried. " Is everything okay out there?" asked Ephiny as Gabrielle seated herself at the table.
" Shes calmed down a little, give her a candlemark or so and shell have worn herself out enough to see you." The bard saw the apprehension in the regents face. " Dont worry Ephiny. Nothing will happen, besides Im sure Eponin and Solari will be stood outside the door weapons drawn when we go in. However, if were going to be able to help her we need to know how to restrain her, and she really is the only one who knows how to do that, isnt she." So the two of them had gone to Xenas room after eating the meal that Cyrene had prepared for the visiting Amazons. Ephiny noticed that not even Gabrielle strayed more than a couple of paces from the entrance to the room. The room was dark, Cyrene had not allowed a fire or lamps to be lit since the day Xena had awoken, and the only light was the pale moonlight reflected in through the window. The warrior could only be seen as a shadow, pacing feverishly along the back wall where the remains of the cot could be seen. Xena hadnt even acknowledged their arrival before she started explaining to the regent how to construct a cell that could hold the enraged warrior. The idea seemed simple enough and knowing that it would be needed as soon as they arrived at the Amazon village Ephiny had sent Solari and one of the out riders back to the village so that construction could begin immediately. To be honest though Ephiny had been more worried about how they were going to get Xena back to the village, it seemed Xena had her own concerns about that and had asked Gabrielle to leave them. She didnt begin talking until the door had closed.
"This is not going to work Ephiny. No matter what Mother and Gabrielle want to believe, your not going to be able to restrain me for long. Ive already tried to end this, but Gabrielle wouldnt let me go without her coming along and I wont be responsible for her death. So on the journey back I want you to have at least three of your out riders with arrows notched at all times and if I even look at her funny you shoot to kill, no hesitations, because that will be the only chance you get. Understand?" Ephiny looked deeply into those harrowed eyes before replying.
"I understand, we will defend her to the last, even against you. But Gabrielle will insist that you not be killed. I will only go against her orders if Im sure that is the only way to stop you."
"I guess that will have to do. I want your oath on it Ephiny." "You have my oath as the Amazon regent, and as your friend, I will not allow you to harm Gabrielle."
With the Amazon village less than a days journey away, Ephiny was more confident about reaching it without incident. Xena rode Argo as normal but had insisted that Gabrielle ride behind the regent rather than herself. Each night several of the out riders had ridden ahead to scout for a camp site, and would have the fire burning and dinner cooking by the time the main group rode in. Tonight was no different, and the weary travelers rode in just as dusk settled into night. At first Ephiny had wondered how they were going to keep watch on Xena at night when they would need to sleep, but Gabrielle had sorted that out on the first night by using a sleeping draft that Xenas mother had prepared for them. Xena had kept to herself for most of the journey only ever speaking to Gabrielle on the infrequent times she actually needed to speak, the entire Amazon group gave her plenty of space, not even looking at her if at all possible. She seemed to be handling herself better than any of them had hoped for, but every now and again she would look desperately at Gabrielle, the bard would then quietly urge Ephiny to ride alongside the warrior so that she could talk to her, telling stories and poems until she felt the tension ease in her partner. Ephinys respect for the young bard grew immensely, she no longer thought of her as the little girl from Potetdia, or as Xenas tagalong. In the last few seasons traveling with Xena she had matured and grown in many ways, and she was obviously the only one that Xena trusted and listened to. It was a quiet camp, Xena and Gabrielle sat slightly apart from the rest of them, four of the outriders constantly patroling the perimeter of the camp arrows notched as requested by Xena. Eponin sat next to Ephiny legs stretched towards the fire back propped up against her saddle. She glanced over at the regent seeing her gaze cast on the warrior and bard. "Its not going as bad as we expected it to, is it?" she asked. Ephiny removed her gaze from her queen and looked at the weapons master. "Not for us, no. I think its worse for Xena though. Did you see the way Gabrielle grabbed hold of her when Lissa took Argos reigns? I honestly thought Xena was going to tear her head off from the way she was looking at her." This time it was Eponins gaze that turned to the bard.
"Yeah, I did. Were going to have to watch that though. Xenas definitely on the edge at the moment and I know that Gabrielle seems to be the one keeping her there, but I dont want her near her when she goes." "You and me both, but you try and keep her away. Anyway....." she paused as several birds calls came in from the scouts. Activity in the camp stopped as the Amazons recognized the calls for intruders. The Amazons picked up their weapons and moved out to the perimeter as one of the scouts appeared beside Ephiny. "A group of about ten riders heading this way. All armed, and they dont look to friendly either."
"Have they seen us?"
"I dont know, but they seem to be heading straight for us." "I find it really hard to believe that this lot are going to attack an armed group of Amazons." said Eponin as she fastened her daggers into place. "Yeah, well Ive heard of stupider things, so lets prepare for the worst. Get Gabrielle away from Xena, even unarmed she wont sit this out if they attack, then make sure our four archers have the correct arrows handy just in case." Gabrielle had known something was wrong even before the Amazon birdcalls had come in. Xena always seemed to have a sixth sense where danger was concerned;
Gabrielle had seen her tense just before the first call. As soon as the Amazons had started to collect their weapons and fan out Xena had risen to her feet and scanned the area. She didnt move even when Ephiny and Eponin approached. "Whats going on?" whispered Gabrielle as Eponin took hold of her arm. "Looks like a bunch of raiders are heading our way. Though only Armetis knows how they know were here. Ephiny wants you over by the horses just in case." "In case of what?"
"In case they really are stupid enough to attack fourteen armed Amazons, with Xena traveling with them. Come on." Eponin grasp hold of her arm and steered her away from Xena in the direction of the horses. Ephiny had watched the exchange carefully and was glad when Gabrielle had left with little argument. "You gonna be okay." she inquired to the still watchful warrior. "How many are there?" Xena stepped forward and slowly began walking away from the camp. Ephiny matched her pace and walked alongside. "The scout says ten, but there may be more that we havent seen. Look Xena I know there is no point me asking you to stay out of this, but...." Xena stopped and pierced the Regent with her cold eyes. Ephiny could see no trace of the Xena she once knew, this was pure ice, the Warlord she had so hoped would never reappear.
"No Ephiny, there is no point at all. Make sure none of your warriors gets in front of me." With that she took of at a sprint into the darkness. A shiver ran down Ephinys back as she realized that she hadnt even heard her leave. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand clasped her shoulder in a tight grip. "Hey, hey, calm down. Its only me." Eponin hugged the Regent close as she felt her shivers. Turning the Regent gazed into her friends concerned face. "Pony, have you ever looked into someones face and seen death staring back at you?"
"Ive been in some pretty nasty battles and seen some fierce fighters, but no I wouldnt say Ive seen death staring back. Why?"
"Im sure that those that fought Xena before she changed saw exactly that, I just did." shaking herself to get rid of the chill that seemed to have invaded her body, she turned back towards the camp. " Make sure everybody, and I do mean everybody stays within the confines of the camp."
"But what about the raid...."
"Eponin. Ill be very surprised if anybody gets passed Xena." Xena loved the dark, when she had, had her army she would stay awake most of the night just to feel it wrapped around her. She liked to practice at night because anybody could learn to be a good fighter during the day, but at night you needed to use the other senses, rather than your eyes. You had to be able to hear your opponent approach, smell him, feel him. You had to be so at one with your surroundings that the slightest intrusion into your sphere of sense would immediately bring you to battle readiness without thought. The Warrior Princess had long ago mastered that art, she had mastered it to the extent that she could merge with her surroundings to the point that even masters of the hunt would find it impossible to see her. The raiders didnt stand a chance. The raiders galloped across the meadow enmass, on the farside just within the treeline; they could see the fire in the Amazon camp blazing. The Amazon warriors that the leader of the raiders knew would be there stayed within its autumn glow. This puzzled the raider; hed felt sure that when they attacked, the Amazons would swarm out to battle. This would allow his second team to grab the Amazon Queen that the priest had promised would be with this group. He was positive the Amazon nation would pay a fine ransom to see their Queen returned in one piece, but he couldnt see what the priest would gain from her disappearance for a few days. The failure of the Amazons to react as all the previous victims had bothered him slightly, however they still out numbered them. Afterall how much damage could a group of women do to his finely trained men? The leader looked over his shoulder satisfied that all his soldiers were keeping up and in position, he felt himself relax, a small grin appeared on his grimy weather beaten face, nothing would go wrong. Had the leader waited another heartbeat to check on his men, he would have seen one toward the rear fall from his horse, to be replaced by another shadowed form. Xena watched the raiders through battlefevered eyes; she had chosen her victim carefully. He rode just at the rear of the pack, so she could dispose of him without notice, but close enough to two of the other raiders that meant taking them out wouldnt be too much of a problem. Crouched in the tall grass she was unseen as they thundered past. As her victim neared she leapt from her hiding place onto the horse behind him, quickly snapping his neck, silencing any alarm he may have raised, before throwing his lifeless body from the horse. She settled into the saddle checking the surrounding raiders to ensure her attack had not been witnessed. Silently she maneuvered the horse amongst the raiding party and began picking them off one by one.
The first the raider leader knew of the silent erosion of his troops was when he glanced behind and saw that most of the horses that followed him were riderless. He hurriedly reigned his mount slowly to a halt with the remaining four riders that still sat atop of their horses.
Ephiny and Eponin stood in flanking positions around Gabrielle, the Amazon outriders had created an outer wall of defense, but as per the Regents orders none of them moved from the confines of the camp. The thundering beat of the approaching horses could be heard, but the covering darkness did not show them their enemy. As the beat drew closer, Ephiny was beginning to wonder whether or not she should have sent the Amazons out to attack rather than heed Xenas warning. Then the drumbeat of hooves began to falter. "Theyre pulling up." Eponin took a step forward, straining to see the attacking raiders whod stopped just beyond the throw of their firelight. She could just make out the prancing of the horses when the first blood-curdling scream ripped through the air. The sounds of battle emerged from the night but none of the Amazons moved to engage. A lone blood soaked raider staggered from the darkness towards the light of the fire; he had not made it ten paces when he was brought to his knees and then the ground, a dagger protruding from his back. Silence.
The Amazons stood unsure; Gabrielle was clutching hard on Ephinys arm, knowing that it was Xena who had stopped the raiders. Another scream ripped through the night, this one erupting from the forest close to the right of the camp, it was closely followed by an evil laugh. Yet another scream, this time cut off mid-flow.
For a candlemark nobody moved, then slowly the normal sounds of the forest night began to reappear. Carefully the Amazons began to relax their guard. Ephiny looked towards Eponin and gave a quick flick of her head towards the perimeter. "Go check, keep them alert until shes back with us, and we know shes okay." Eponin nodded and moved off. " Come on Gabrielle, lets get back to the fire and get you warm." Ephiny put her arm around the young Queens shoulders giving her a hug, knowing that her charge wouldnt settle until her partner was back safely.
It was several candlemarks later; Ephiny and Eponin were just discussing sending out a search party when Xena appeared on the opposite side of the fire. None of the Amazons still on perimeter guard had raised the alarm at her approach, because none of them had seen her enter the camp. Ephiny and Eponin knew it would be a futile act to berate the guards, even on a bad day spotting Xena if she didnt want to be seen would be almost impossible. "Xena!" a startled Gabrielle sat up reaching toward her as she lowered her self to the ground. Eponin grabbed hold of her arm stopping her from touching the still agitated warrior.
" Gently Gabrielle, gently." said the Amazon quietly as she lowered the Queens arm to her side. Gabrielles initial excitement at seeing her partner now tempered, studied the warrior noting the still glazed eyes, blood stained arms and leathers, and by her side on the ground rested an unfamiliar blood coated sword. She sat silently her knees drawn up to her chest, arms clasped tight around them staring into the fire not seeing either of the Amazons or Gabrielle. Every now and then her fists would clench tight and the muscles along her arm would bunch into tense knots. Gabrielle sank back into Ephinys welcome arm knowing it would take Xena some time to return to her completely. Time seemed to stand still in the camp, the only movement was to occasionally add more fuel to the fire, other than that everyone seemed content to sit and wait.
Eponin strolled the perimeter of the camp as the golden sunlight of dawn graced the sky, her eyes ever intent as she scanned the area. A shy smile touched her face as her gaze came to rest on the young Amazon Queen wrapped in a blanket curled up against the Regent fast asleep. Ephiny had convinced her in the early morning that she would be woken if Xena needed her. All the Amazons that had been awake at varying stages of the night had kept a watchful eye on the still tense warrior but she had not moved, she just sat staring into the flames of the fire. Just before dawn, as the dew was forming Eponin had dared to throw a blanket around her shoulders, but she hadnt appeared to notice, lost wherever her mind had taken her in that deep darkness she had buried inside her. The weapons master had also removed the bloodied sword that had returned with her. That sword had killed many last night, but dawn shed very little light on the battlefield. Several bodies could be seen but not enough to account for the number of horses that grazed in the field. Eponin made a mental note to get a couple of the outriders to round them up before they left; they might come in useful. Returning to the fire she shot a rueful smile at the Regent as she sat down next to her.
" I see our Queen is a bit of a snuggler." Ephiny smiled down at the young girl as she softly stroked her strawberry blonde hair.
" I think she needs a little reassurance, what with our friend over there not being herself. The last few weeks has taken its toll on them." "Yeah, I can see it in her eyes, shes lost weight as well. At least well reach the village today, a little more support will do her good." "Oh, I hope so Pony, cause Armetis knowss how were going to control Xena if she loses it completely."
"Something will come to mind Eph, it always does."
Solari was loath to leave the cool shade of the Temple to join the Amazon warriors gathered at the bottom of the steps, but their work there was done. When she had first heard of their Queens predicament she had been eager to help. Getting the instructions for building a cell that could hold Xena, back to the village had not been a problem. That was until she had started thinking about it. Xenas strength was legendary, she had come back from the dead, how did they expect to hold her in a cell? But she had been tasked with organising a work party to construct it, and that is what she had done. The first problem had been finding a suitable room or cave to turn into a cell. Xena had said it should have only one small entrance, preferably be made from stone, be dark and cold. They had at first considered using the storage caves, but none of them had really been suitable, and it would have taken days, which they didnt have to move the stores anyway. None of the Amazon huts were strong enough to hold the enraged Xena, and so the project had almost ground to a halt even before it had begun. Eventually the Priestess from the Temple had solved the problem by offering the use of the underground cellars. The next problem had been finding someone the same size a Xena, so that the chains and bindings that would hold her would be the right length. In the end theyd used the biggest Amazon in the camp and then guessed. The chains had been provided and fitted by the smith from the Centaur village, and two of the horsemen had managed to get into the cellars to test them. All the cell needed now was an occupant. Still Solari was unsure the cell would contain Xena for long. Stepping into the heated sunlight Solari left the shelter of the Temple and made her way to the small gathering below.
"Any sign yet?" she asked as she joined the group.
"None of the scouts have reported back. They cant be far off though if the left the day after you." Came the reply from a tall Auburn haired warrior. Kiaya was an Amazon from birth, standing just below six feet, she was a lithe muscular woman, Known for her lethal weapons skills and her arrogance. The only person she seemed to have any real respect for was Eponin and that was only because she had beaten her in combat; it was not that Eponin was any more skilful than Kiaya, just that she knew how to use it and didnt lose her temper and get careless in the middle of a fight. Kiaya had just returned from an apprenticeship with the northern clans and hadnt yet had the pleasure of meeting the new Queen or her partner. It was causing some of the more seasoned warriors some concern. Kiaya could be a little over confidant of her skill at times. Her challenge of Eponin at the age of sixteen had gone down in the history scrolls, though Kiaya had spent several weeks under the care of the healers as a result. She enjoyed challenging other warriors to sparring sessions and tag matches; she liked the fact that everybody knew she was better and more skilful than they were. The elder warriors just hoped she wouldnt take it into her head to challenge Xena, from what Solari had to say the Warrior Princess was likely to tear her limb from limb just for looking at her. "Well lets get out of this sun. Theres nothing more we can do until they arrive." The group broke up some heading for their huts, Solari and Kiaya for the dinning hut. The sound of galloping horses warned them of approaching riders before they burst into the Village Square in a cloud of dust. The two Amazon riders sat upon foam splattered horses, covered in dust and sweat from their hard ride. Solari recognised them as two of the outriders sent to protect the Queen. Grabbing hold of the reins she managed to calm the agitated horses, as the two riders slid to the ground.
"Whats wrong?" Solari knew there was trouble, the outriders would never have left the queen unless something had happened.
Continued - Part 2 (Conclusion)
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