Shalene was correct in her assumption that there would be little resistance from the caravan. Once it became clear that the attackers were only freeing prisoners and not trying to steal any of the caravan's precious cargo of goods, opposition was only token and was easily brought under control.
The other two forces saw that the rescue had been successful and turned back, too. Shalene had kept an eye on the rescuing party and had seen that Xena had fallen once as she dismounted and then had stumbled a second time during the actual rescue. Something wrong there? She looks too formidable to be clumsy. More likely something has weakened her. Maybe she's sick.
Everyone rode hard up the trail until they neared the place where two rivers came together that Shalene had designated as a rendezvous. Leaving the trail, they congregated at an open spot along one river's bank, and dismounted.
Shalene came over to Mara and Gabrielle. "Let the healer take a look at your back, Mara. And your friend's back, too." She turned to Xena who was holding Argo's reins, leaning against the golden mare and breathing deeply. "Would you like the healer to take a look at you, too?"
Xena jerked upright and stuck out her chin. "No, I'm fine." Shalene stared at her for a moment, then thought better of what she had been going to say and turned away, following Mara and Gabrielle.
Eponin, Solari and Gwynna started quickly toward Gabrielle but Xena stepped in front of them and held up her hands. "Gabrielle doesn't know any of us. She's lost her memory," she said harshly.
"What? What are you saying? She doesn't know us?" Eponin put their questions
into words. "She doesn't know you?"
"No, Pony, she doesn't know me, either," Xena's voice hardened even as she spoke to these women, her friends, who knew better than any others how much their Queen meant to the warrior. They all looked at Xena with worried frowns. Eponin and Solari exchanged concerned glances. They could see that frustration and anger were building in Xena and knew that a frustrated and angry Warrior Princess could be a dangerous development.
"But she's our Queen!" Solari protested. "What's going to happen?"
Xena turned and stared toward Gabrielle. Her arms ached with wanting to hug her friend and tell her how much she had missed her; how glad she was that she hadn't been hurt in the landslide; how happy she was to be near her. But her friend wasn't there, just a stranger. Discouragement and rage joined together into an oppressive weight that seemed to drag down her already reduced strength.
Elisa saw the bruised look in Xena's eyes and moved quickly to the warrior's side. She slipped an arm around Xena's waist and felt the trembling caused in part by her weakness and in part by her anger. That the Warrior Princess draped an arm over her shoulders for support doubled the young Amazon's concern. "Xena, we can talk about this later. Gabrielle and this woman need attention from the healer. Come on over here with me and relax for a few minutes."
The Warrior Princess knew Elisa was right, they did need attention and she needed a chance to collect herself. She dragged her eyes from Gabrielle and focused on Elisa. "Let's get away from here, Leese. I want time to think."
Elisa walked with Xena a short distance into the forest and helped her sit down on a fallen log. The will power that had sustained the warrior fell victim to the stunning revelation that her partner had forgotten her, had no memory of their past together. She sat on the log, her head in her hands, trying to pull herself together. For fifteen minutes she sat there, Elisa beside her, neither of them saying a word.
Xena was fighting the darkness that wanted to envelop her, the darkness that always lurked below the surface, the darkness that only Gabrielle had been able to help her overcome. And the anger. The anger that the gods had allowed this to happen. She needed a focus for this anger; needed to take some kind of action; needed to do something, anything, to satisfy this urge for revenge.
Xena's head snapped up. She sat up straight, took three deep breaths, and turned to Elisa. "What did you think of the beating those two women took?" her voice grated the question.
"Gabrielle's back looked bad, maybe infected. But Mara's is worse. She'll have scars like mine." Elisa's face twisted as she recalled the beating she had received with a cat-o'-nine-tails. A beating that had left her scarred for life.
"Merdios. Gabrielle said his name is Merdios." Xena's cobalt-blue eyes locked onto Elisa's smoke-gray ones. The two women who looked so much alike sat there staring at each other and, slowly, a nasty smile started in one corner of Elisa's mouth. Gradually, it grew to a full smile as she saw it echoed on Xena's lips.
"What are we waiting for?" the youngster asked.
"Only two big palominos," the Warrior Princess answered. She stood up and her body wavered a bit; then she sucked in another deep breath and walked with Elisa back to the gathering place.
Gwynna had just approached Eponin and Solari to see if Elisa had returned, when Xena and her friend emerged from the forest. Xena addressed them all. Her eyes, face and voice were flat and unemotional. "Leese and I are going back to the caravan. We're going to bring back the slimy piece of dung who beat Gabrielle and Mara and see that he gets what he deserves." Her eyes swiveled to Eponin. "If you need us, send Gwynna after us."
"Sure, Xena," Eponin agreed. With that dead look on the warrior's face, no one would have dared to disagree.
Shalene had come back across the clearing to fetch something from her horse's saddlebag. Xena and Elisa started to pass her as they were leaving and the woman stepped into their path. "Where are you off to?" she questioned irritably. "We wouldn't want anyone riding around stirring up trouble near that warlord. We're too small a party to stand up to him."
Xena straightened to her full height and looked down sternly at the weapons master. Elisa moved to her side and assumed the same look. The two women who so resembled each other made a doubly formidable combination. "Don't worry about it. The warlord will never know we are anywhere around." Xena pushed past the blonde woman, who offered no more protest. She continued to look after the two until they mounted and left. Here, we're outnumbered, warrior. When we get home, it will be a different story. Such arrogance won't sit well with Queen Fidalia.
The other five Amazons in Shalene's party had watched alertly as their leader opposed the two tall women. They muttered among themselves as they realized she had been forced by sheer numbers to back down from the confrontation.
Eponin watched this exchange with her heart in her throat, and her forehead creased into a frown. Don't tread on Xena's toes, Shalene. You don't know the risk you are taking. Then another thought occurred to the weapons master. I should warn Shalene about who she's trying to face down. Who knows what Xena's frustration might drive her to do?
Solari was more concerned with Gabrielle. "What do you think we should do, Pony? Just tell Shalene that Gabrielle is our Queen and take her home? What if she doesn't want to come with us?"
Eponin looked across the clearing to where Gabrielle and Mara were being attended to. "I'm not sure, Solari. I guess the first thing to do is let them know who Gabrielle is, then go from there. If she doesn't want to come with us, we can't force her to."
Gwynna spoke up. "We can't just leave our Queen with strangers."
"Gwynna, we're the strangers right now," Eponin pointed out. "But we're not leaving Gabrielle. If she won't come with us, we'll go with her." The weapons master stood up. "C'mon you two, let's go see where we stand." She and Solari and Gwynna walked across the clearing. Eponin strode up to Shalene who was just directing her people to put together two litters for the patients. Mara and Gabrielle were seated on some stones next to her, waiting for their transportation to be completed.
"Shalene, there's something about Gabrielle that we neglected to tell you," Eponin said.
Well, here it comes. Shalene thought. I knew seventeen warriors were way too many to send after a nobody. Hades, our Queen's sister only merited six. "She's your Queen's special friend, right?"
Eponin was taken aback for a moment then stammered, "Er ah no she IS our Queen."
Shalene's jaw dropped open and Mara gasped.
Gabrielle, shaking her head and looking even more confused, asked, "How can I be an Amazon Queen?" Then, almost to herself, "I can't even climb trees."
"It's a long story, Gabrielle. Believe me, you are our Queen. You were almost caught in a landslide and you hit your head on a rock. It made you lose your memory. We've been searching all over for you. We love and respect you and we want you to come back to our village with us," Eponin explained earnestly.
"NO!" exclaimed Mara in agitation. The Amazon shrunk from the thought of losing Gabrielle to these people and she suddenly suspected that they might have abused her. "She doesn't know any of you, she knows only me. How do we even know you are telling the truth? Look at her head; it doesn't look like she hit a rock. It looks like someone hit her. She's not going with you until she recognizes one of you!"
Eponin stepped forward to retort when Gabrielle's voice stopped her. "She's right, you know. I can't really be sure how I got this head wound. And I have no reason to take your word that I am your Queen. Even if I am, I'm no good to you like this. Mara's my friend now, and until I recognize somebody, I'd rather stay here with the one I know."
Solari touched Eponin's arm. "Pony, don't argue. We can't make her come with us. Leave it be for now."
Eponin paused for a moment, her forehead wrinkled in thought. Then she addressed Shalene. "You said your village was in danger of attack by a warlord, right?" Shalene nodded.
"We can't leave our Queen is such danger without some protection from us. How about if we go with you to your village and help you in the fight?" Eponin continued. "That will give Gabrielle protection and afford her some time to get adjusted to the idea that she IS our Queen. Maybe she will feel differently after she gets to know us."
"Sounds fair to me," Shalene answered. "And I'm pretty sure our Queen will welcome a few more fighters in our defense."
"There's something else I think we should discuss," Eponin said. "I want to talk to you about one of the women who just left camp, Gabrielle's friend, Xena."
Shalene looked startled. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? Destroyer of Nations? Is that who that warrior is?" No wonder I felt that she was the leader of this group. She certainly has the commanding presence of a warlord! But what about the story we heard last month about her part in the massacre of the northern tribe's leaders? I think I might be wise to keep quiet about that until we get back to the village.
Gabrielle looked toward Mara whose face had twisted into a hateful expression. "Who's the Warrior Princess?" the bard asked quietly.
Mara spit out the information in a lowered voice. "She's a warlord who conquered half of Greece before she lost her army. No wonder my instincts told me that she was trouble. Who knows how she has been treating you if you have been traveling with her?" The Amazon shivered. "She's infamous for her violent nature."
"Yes, she's the Warrior Princess and we're worried about her," the weapons master admitted. "Xena and Queen Gabrielle have been best friends for a long time. Xena has tried to change her life to one of doing good and Gabrielle has played a big part in Xena's reform. Her influence has helped to keep Xena on the right path." Eponin took a deep breath. She wasn't sure just how much she should tell Shalene, but the thought of the Warrior Princess losing her temper without Gabrielle here to calm her was pretty frightening and Shalene's group could be endangered if they made the wrong moves.
"Xena is Gabrielle's protector. She would go to Tartarus and back on her hands and knees if Gabrielle asked her to. But, this current situation is traumatic for her and, without Gabrielle to guide her, we're afraid her emotions might be unstable. She could get out of control if she is antagonized. You'll want Xena on your side when we meet the warlord, there's no better warrior anywhere, but we strongly suggest that you ask your scouts to steer clear of angering her, OK?" Eponin looked beseechingly at Shalene.
"I'll speak to my people. We'll stay out of Xena's way. Just make sure she stays out of ours," Shalene spoke bluntly. Maybe I was smart to back down a minute ago.
"We'll do our best," Eponin promised. "Thank you."
"How about getting your people ready? We're pulling out as soon as we get these two on their litters," Shalene nodded toward the two injured women. "We're running out of time and need to move all night."
"Right," Eponin replied. She and Solari and Gwynna returned to their group and Eponin filled the other Amazons in on what she had said to Shalene.
Eponin turned to Gwynna. "Go after Elisa and Xena. Tell them what's going on. We'll be on the road with Shalene and the others." Gwynna got Nightmare, mounted and left.
Solari was concerned about the expression on the weapons master's face. "We almost have to go with them, Pony. There wasn't much else you could do. Don't look so worried."
"Thanks, Solari, but it's not us I'm worried about," Eponin replied. "I'm worried about how the Warrior Princess is going to react to this. And there's no Gabrielle to calm her down."
The two women had stopped before reaching the caravan. Using some of their drinking water, Xena had cleaned the dried blood from her body and armor as well as she could. "Should have done this back at the river," she muttered. Then she directed Elisa to pull two blankets from her saddlebag and each woman had lightly wrapped herself in one before remounting, using the blankets to disguise their clothing.
Xena's movements were a little clumsy from fatigue and Elisa saw that her expression was getting darker by the minute. Please hold it together, Xena. If you go out of control, we're all in trouble. "Xena, Gabrielle still needs you, you know? This loss of memory could go away at any moment."
"Oh, it's Leese, the healer, now, is it?" snarled the warrior.
Elisa's mouth snapped shut. Leave her alone, Leese, the young Amazon told herself. You're no Gabrielle. You haven't the slightest idea how to handle this mood.
The caravan had stayed where it was attacked, stopping early for the night, and Elisa thought they would sneak around it, trying to find someone named Merdios. Instead, Xena rode right up and asked one of the camel drivers who the head man was. The driver answered, "Kirtis," and pointed to his tent.
"Do you know of a man named Merdios?" the warrior asked. When the man shook his head, Xena and Elisa rode on toward the tent he had pointed to.
A guard stopped them. "We came to see Kirtis," Xena said silkily.
"What's your business with Kirtis?" he asked.
"Weeellll, it's more like pleasure. You know, two for the price of one?" she suggested.
The guard guffawed and let them pass. They walked right into the tent. Kirtis looked up from some papers he was working on, by candlelight. He was surprised to see two women, but not frightened.
"What do you want, ladies?" he smirked.
"We're looking for a friend of yours, named Merdios," Xena answered. "Thought maybe you could tell us where to find him. I owe him something."
"Well, yes, I know Merdios. But why should I tell you where he is? Won't I do?" he asked with a leer.
Xena dropped the blanket from around her body and strode forward. Her burning rage overrode the weakness that she had been constantly fighting. She grabbed Kirtis by the front of his throat, lifted him out of the chair and pinned him against the tent post. She reached her other hand back and Elisa slapped a dagger in it. Holding the dagger just above Kirtis' groin, she growled, "Because, if you don't tell me where he is, you won't do for anybody, ever again!"
Xena's struggle to maintain her strength was shaking her body in a terrifying way, causing the dagger to dance erratically. Kirtis' eyes filled with fright and he almost screamed, "He's on his way back here with his gang; he promised me two more slaves by tonight."
"What trail is he coming by?" Xena shook Kirtis and his head flopped around. "The same one he used yesterday?" Kirtis nodded frantically.
Dropping the slave trader back in his chair, the Warrior Princess' trembling hand held the razor-sharp dagger to his neck. She pulled it softly against his skin, leaving a jagged red thread of blood across his throat. "If you cause us any trouble, I'll be back to finish that line," she hissed. She wiped the dagger on Kirtis' shirt, turned on her heel, handed the dagger back to Elisa and the two of them stalked out.
When they got back to the trees, Xena sank to her knees and drew great gulps of air into her lungs to revive her flagging energy. Elisa ran to get their horses and, when they had mounted, they trotted down the trail through the moonlight. After about twenty minutes, Xena threw her hand up and they stopped. They moved off of the trail and waited. In a couple of minutes, seven riders showed up. One of them, who had a splinted arm, was pulling a rope tied to two men.
Xena and Elisa pulled their horses out across the trail and the riders came to a stop. "Which one of you is Merdios?" the warrior called.
"Why do you want to know?" sneered one of the men.
"Because I want to make sure he doesn't accidentally get killed." Xena smiled a nasty smile and lifted Gabrielle's staff. Elisa drew her sword. With her other hand she threw two of her knives and cut the ropes that held the prisoners. Startled, the two men whooped with joy and disappeared.
When the man with the broken arm tried to turn his horse to give chase, Elisa threw another knife. His horse spooked, his body jerked and the knife hit him in the heart.
One of the six remaining ruffians shouted, "Get them, men!"
Xena looked at Elisa and they both muttered, "Merdios!"
The Warrior Princess lifted her chakram and tossed it against a nearby tree. It ricocheted off at an angle catching two of the hoodlums in the side of the neck and they flopped to the ground. The chakram hit another tree and bounced right back to Xena. The next hoodlum she unseated with the staff, using it like a lance to stab him in the forehead.
"Hey, save some for me!" Elisa yelled, so Xena veered off and let the youngster go by her. Elisa thrust her sword into the body of one, pulled it out and swiped it at the next one, catching him in the side.
In the meantime, Xena circled past her and stopped, face to face with the last ruffian, who also halted. "Merdios?" she questioned.
"Yeah, I'm Merdios," he sneered. "What do you want with me?"
"Oh, I just want to take you for a little ride. You've been a bad boy, and you deserve a whipping. I'm going to see that you get it!" Xena growled. Fury again lent her strength. Quick as a cat, she stood in the stirrups, raised Gabrielle's staff and swung it across the side of Merdios' head. He fell to the ground, unconscious. Elisa jumped from Viktor and tied his hands behind him. Then she heaved him onto his horse and tied him across the saddle. She delivered the reins into Xena's shaking hand, retrieved her knives, then mounted Viktor and they started back up the trail.
Xena and Elisa had barely started out with their prisoner when Gwynna showed up. She turned Nightmare in between Argo and Viktor and made her report. "Xena, we were going to start back to our village, but Gabrielle won't come with us. Apparently she's become very attached to Mara and refuses to leave her."
Gwynna's heart went out to the warrior whose face struggled with the suffering this new development caused her. The swelling and pain that had finally left Xena's arms and legs seemed to have landed in her heart.
"Shalene and her Amazons had to keep moving. They said a warlord has been raiding villages near theirs and they need to prepare to fight him," Gwynna continued. "When they were leaving, Eponin sent me to get you two. She didn't want to leave the Queen there, but she can't force her to come with us, either. So, she offered to help fight the warlord. She and our Amazons went with the others."
"That was good thinking," Xena affirmed through clenched teeth. "If Gabrielle is going to be in the middle of a fight, we need to be there to protect her. Let's hurry and catch up." Xena gestured at the prisoner behind her with her thumb. "I have a present for the Amazon who befriended her."
The women urged their horses onward, catching up to the main group in a matter of hours. Mara and Gabrielle, their backs bandaged, were being pulled on litters. Xena rode up alongside Mara's litter. The tall Amazon looked up.
"Mara, for being such a good friend to Gabrielle, and taking care of her, Elisa and I brought you a present, " Xena said, a feral grin crossing her mouth. She pulled on the reins of a horse trailing behind her and Mara could see a man was tied across the saddle.
"This is Merdios, the man who beat you two." Mara was shocked. She struggled to lift herself up.
"Shalene," she called. "Stop! Stop for a moment."
The band halted and Shalene came riding back to Mara. "What is it?"
Mara pointed to the man draped across the horse. "That's Merdios, the one who beat us. Stop here, just for a few minutes. I want a chance to give that bloodthirsty bastard a taste of his own medicine."
Shalene looked up at the moon then nodded her agreement. Elisa jumped down, untied Merdios from his horse and bound his arms around a tree. Xena slid slowly from Argo's back and unhooked her whip from the saddle.
Mara, with Shalene's help, had managed to rise from her litter and was standing, with her hand out, waiting for Xena to hand her the whip.
Gabrielle had fallen asleep and now was slowly awakening as she realized the litter had stopped moving. She kept her eyes closed and listened to the voices murmuring at a distance from her. She couldn't make out what they were saying, but was too drowsy to give it much thought.
Elisa reached up and tore Merdios' shirt from his back, exposing his bare skin.
Xena looked at Merdios, her lips twisting in distaste. Then she looked at Mara, reaching for the whip. The warrior's lips thinned against her teeth and she shook her head. "Uh-uh." Her harsh voice struggled out of a throat hoarse with anger. "The first two lashes are mine." He hit Gabrielle twice; I'll hit him twice. She drew back the whip and threw her arm toward Merdios as hard as her weakened body would permit. The lash cracked sickeningly against his skin and the kidnapper screamed as loud as he could.
Gabrielle's eyes flew open, taking in the scene: the man writhing against the tree in agony with a bleeding wound across his back; Xena slowly pulling a whip back, preparing for a second blow.
"NOOOOOOOO!" the bard yelled and jumped painfully from the litter. Her back hurt and her body felt hot, but Gabrielle stumbled over to Xena. "You can't do this. It's not right."
Xena, her lips still twisted, looked down at the bard. "He hurt you." Her voice and face were ugly with condemnation. "Whoever hurts you, hurts me and I intend to make him pay for it. He deserves to be beaten."
The golden-haired woman's mist-green eyes changed into deep, pleading pools. "Yes, he hurt me. But this man is a human being. He did wrong; but if you do the same wrong, you become just as bad as he is." Gabrielle gazed into two mesmerizing blue eyes. She could see the battle Xena's conscience was waging with her desire for vengeance.
"You know I'm right," she encouraged the warrior. With no conscious thought, she reached out and grasped Xena's arm. The tension crackling through the corded muscles shot through Gabrielle's hand like a lightning bolt and she almost jerked it back. But she held on, and something in the warrior's eyes softened. Gradually, her breathing slowed and the tension eased from her body. Her whip hand dropped.
Mara had been watching this surprising interplay and she reached over and grabbed the whip dangling from Xena's hand. "Maybe you don't want vengeance, but I sure as Hades do!" She could barely move but she forced her arm back, then forward and the whip made a loud crack against Merdios' back. He screamed again.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. "No, please! Somebody stop her!" She opened her mist-green eyes and looked directly at Xena. "Stop her, please," she implored. Why would she listen to me? Especially when she is almost exhausted? Yet somehow I know that she will.
The Warrior Princess grabbed Mara's wrist. "The Queen requests that you stop," she stated.
Mara was furious. Is she trying to make a fool out of me? She used her other hand to tear the whip from her fist and pass it to Shalene. "I'm your Queen's sister! YOU beat him," she screamed.
Shalene pulled her arm back to cock her wrist when a vise-like grip crunched her wrist bones together. Xena stepped up face to face with the alien weapons master. A line of sweat popped out on the Warrior Princess' upper lip and her breathing was heavy, but her eyes were deadly. "I do believe an Amazon Queen outranks a Queen's sister," she hissed.
Shalene swung her head around, ready to do battle, but when she looked into those murderous blue eyes she remembered Eponin's warning and changed her mind. "You're right, she does," she reluctantly agreed.
Xena put out her hand for the whip and Shalene gave it to her. A weak Mara was beating on Xena's shoulder with both fists and screaming at her. "You brought him back here for vengeance! You expected me to beat him! You even lashed him yourself! Why did you change your mind?"
Xena looked from Mara to Gabrielle who stood in front of her smiling up at her. The warrior's heart lurched at her friend's familiar smile and moisture stung her eyes as she smiled back at her. "I didn't change my mind. Gabrielle did."
The Warrior Princess looked back at Mara, put a hand against the woman's chest and slowly pushed her away. Shalene and Eponin took her arms and led her back to her litter. Worn out from her attempts at violence, the tall Amazon gave them little resistance. She was, however, seething. Make me look bad, will you? Wait till later, Xena. I'll see that you get repaid for this and for hurting Gabrielle, as well.
Solari walked over to the tree and cut through the ropes binding Merdios. He dropped in a sniveling heap at the foot of the tree.
Gabrielle waited while Xena pushed Mara away, aware that her Amazon friend was being dealt with gently. Then the crystal-blue eyes came back to meet hers. "Thank you," the bard said, still smiling. Her eyes change when she looks at me. This woman is an awesome warrior who inspires fear in others; but I see kindness there. And something more, something warming I can't quite
"You're welcome," Xena answered, smiling back and breaking Gabrielle's train of thought. "I'm sorry I caused you pain. I was so angry that he had hurt you I wasn't thinking straight. But you've always been able to get me back on the right track. So, I thank you, too."
"And, you're welcome, too," the bard answered with a tilt of her head.
"Let's get moving," Shalene hollered.
It was an effort for Gabrielle to pull her eyes away from the warrior's, but she knew they must get on their way. As she passed Mara on the way to her litter, she tried to speak with her but Mara was too angry to talk. Gabrielle got back on her litter and the Amazons resumed their trek to their village.
Xena's frustration and anger had been replaced by hope. We might have to start all over again, but the connection is still there. My Gabrielle still exists, only she doesn't know it yet. A tiny smile turned the edges of her mouth up and Eponin, Solari, Elisa, Gwynna and the rest of their Amazons breathed a sigh of relief that their Queen still had the ability to calm the heart of the Warrior Princess.
"You lost your mem'ry of me,
That we were the best of friends;
My heart still shudders with the thought
Of what that loss portends."
Shalene had sent scouts on ahead with the message for Fidalia that Mara had been rescued and that eighteen Amazons from another tribe were accompanying them and would need lodging. The party's arrival late on the second night was announced by birdcalls as they passed the perimeter of the Amazon territory. Arrangements had been made ahead of time for the movement of the eighteen into a single large dormitory hut.
Nomia, the head of the scouts, greeted the party as it arrived. She announced to the group that Queen Fidalia would meet with their leaders the next morning, after their first meal. Mara and Gabrielle were taken to the healer's hut and the rest of the new Amazons were directed to the large dormitory hut that had been set aside for them. Village Amazons took the visitors' horses to the stables and cared for them.
As Xena slid off of Argo, Elisa appeared at her side. The young Amazon smiled at her mentor and offered her a shoulder to lean on. Xena threw her long arm across Elisa's shoulder as though greeting a chum and left it there for support. "Did anyone ever tell you that you have a knack for being in the right place at the right time?" the Warrior Princess asked.
"I always try to be there for my friends," Elisa answered. "I learned that from someone close to me. Someone REALLY close to me. In fact, she's leaning on me." Xena chuckled at the little joke as she and Elisa walked together to the hut and entered it. It was wall-to-wall pallets. Xena got as far as the first one, let go of Elisa's shoulders and sank onto the pallet.
"G'night, Leese, see you in the morning--some morning. Don't know which one, yet." Xena closed her eyes and was instantly asleep. Elisa covered her with the blanket that was folded at the end of the pallet. The rest of the Amazons trooped in and settled themselves. Eponin, Solari, and Gwynna made sure that they took pallets near the Warrior Princess. Somehow, they felt safer there.
Gwynna looked at her friend, Elisa, who was sitting on the floor between Xena's pallet and the door. "Aren't you going to use a pallet? Or are you sleeping outside like you usually do?"
"I didn't like the way some of these Amazons looked at Xena, especially Mara, that one we rescued. I'm going to sleep right here on the floor."
"Yeah, she was pretty mad, wasn't she? You and Xena take all the risks and she gets ticked because Gabrielle doesn't want her to beat the guy. Does she get ticked at Gabrielle? No, she picks on Xena. Gods, does she have a lot to learn!" Gwynna started giggling. "Did you see how Xena ignored her? She was pummeling Xena's shoulder and Xena very calmly pushed her away like she was just an annoying fly!"
"I think Xena was trying to be nice to her because she had helped Gabrielle," Elisa said, then she started to giggle, too. "Otherwise we'd still be scraping her off the trees."
Eponin's dry voice cut through their sounds. "Or maybe she'd be wearing bootprints on her chest like you two did." This sent the two youngsters into greater fits of giggling.
Suddenly a growling voice came from beneath the covers of the first pallet. "If I get wakened up again, they'll have bootprints on their butts." Xena, Eponin and Solari all smiled under their covers as Elisa and Gwynna ran out the door, trying, without success, to smother their own squealing.
While the Amazons were being led to the dormitory, Fidalia had entered the healer's hut to welcome her sister back to the village. Shalene had filled her in on the story of the rescue. She also told her of Xena's presence and the several near-confrontations with her. Fidalia was glad that Eponin had warned her Amazons away from antagonizing the Warrior Princess. The Queen intended to deal with Xena later, on her own terms.
The healer had a special salve that was particularly good for numbing pain and she had just finished applying the salve to Mara's back and covering it with a clean bandage. She then moved on to tend to Gabrielle.
Fidalia walked over to her sister and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank the gods you're alive, Mara, and still with us. How did you two get kidnapped, anyway?"
"Korminy told you I stopped to help a lost Amazon, right?" Mara asked. The Queen nodded. "She's right there. Her name is Gabrielle." Fidalia looked where Mara indicated and saw the healer taking care of an attractive, golden-haired young woman with lively green eyes. "She's a really nice person, Fidalia, and I've come to like her a lot. She's an Amazon, but she doesn't climb trees; she has a fear of heights. We were walking here when we were waylaid by the kidnappers."
Mara started to get upset. "These other Amazons who showed up claim that Gabrielle is their Queen. I don't believe them. One of them is Xena!"
Fidalia nodded. "Shalene has told me all about her."
Mara continued, "She says she is Gabrielle's best friend, but Gabrielle doesn't even recognize her. Frankly, I think she's trouble. They want to take Gabrielle away from me, but she's lost her memory and I'm the only one she knows. Besides, I'm leery of what kind of treatment she might get from them. I don't want her to get hurt. Don't let them take her, Fidalia, please." Fidalia was surprised to see that tears had come to Mara's eyes. I've never seen her this disturbed by anything or anyone before. This Gabrielle must be really special to her.
"I'll see what I can do, Mara. I'm not promising anything." Fidalia patted her sister's shoulder, then walked over to Gabrielle and greeted her. "Gabrielle, I am Mara's sister, Fidalia. I am the Queen of this tribe of Amazons. I understand you and my sister have become great friends," she remarked.
"I'm happy to meet you, Fidalia. Mara has told me a lot about you. And, yes, we have become friends," Gabrielle smiled. "Mara probably saved my life and I am very grateful for that. And for the invitation to join you here. I have no memory of my past. Mara is the only person I know very much about and she has been wonderful to me. I hope it's all right with you if I make my home here."
Fidalia was charmed by Gabrielle's gentle sweetness. She was beginning to understand Mara's feelings for her. She made up her mind that no harm would come to the young woman. "I've heard that the other tribe of Amazons say you are their Queen. What about that?"
A furrow appeared in Gabrielle's forehead. "I can't figure why they would say that unless it is true. But with my loss of memory, I don't know any of them. I don't see how I can be their Queen and rule them when everything about them is foreign to me. Unless my memory returns, I think I'd rather stay here."
Fidalia stroked her chin and considered the situation. "According to Shalene, your friends have agreed to help us fight against a warlord who is threatening our village and are willing to leave any decisions about you until that has been taken care of. Perhaps by then you will feel differently, or even recover your memory. How does that sound to you?" Fidalia didn't want to seem overbearing. If this young woman really was a tribal Queen, she deserved the respect accorded to one.
Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement. "That sounds good to me."
"I am meeting with their leaders tomorrow morning. In the meantime, you and Mara get some rest. You both have had a rough time." Fidalia smiled at Gabrielle and her sister and left.
In the morning, a young woman showed up at the dormitory hut to lead the Amazons to the food center for the morning meal. She informed them that Fidalia would meet with their leaders after they had eaten and she would take them to the council room for the meeting. Eponin decided that she and Xena would head the delegation and Solari, Elisa and Gwynna would accompany them. After eating, they headed for the council room.
The Amazon contingent strode into the meeting room with Xena and Eponin in the lead. Fidalia was standing at the council table, waiting for them. As normally happened when a foreign group was being received by the Queen, the council was present and six heavily armed guards were placed about the room. Surprisingly, Mara and Gabrielle were also present.
Fidalia watched their approach, assessing them as they entered. When they had stopped in front of her, she walked to Xena, squared her shoulders and stood staring up at her eye to eye. Xena was already standing erect but she locked her knees and pulled her chin in a little, adding another inch to her height and putting her three inches above the Queen. Don't even try to intimidate an intimidator, the Warrior Princess scoffed to herself.
"Are you the head Amazon here?" Fidalia demanded. This one, of course, is Xena, no mistaking her. I'll tend to the Amazons first, then we'll take care of her!
"No, I'm not an Amazon," Xena answered. She never took her piercing blue eyes from the Queen's intense cinnamon ones. She merely tilted her head in Eponin's direction. "Eponin, the weapons master, is in charge of the Amazons."
Fidalia dragged her eyes from Xena's and swung them to Eponin. "Why have you come here?" she asked, playing dumb. "What's this about us having your Queen?"
"Queen Fidalia," Eponin bowed in respect. "The young woman who was rescued with your warrior is our Queen, Gabrielle. She was caught in a landslide and lost her memory, and she doesn't seem to recognize any of us. We were searching for her for days. We want to take her back with us to our own village."
Fidalia looked thoughtful. "Mara and the young woman have been traveling together and have become friends. She wants to stay here. At least she knows Mara. She doesn't know you anymore. And how do we know for sure that she was caught in a landslide? That wound on her head and the bruises on her body look to me like she was beaten." She addressed Gabrielle, "Do you remember anyone hitting you?"
Gabrielle frowned in concentration then said, slowly, "I sort of recall being thrown up against a boulder But I don't remember anything else."
"Gabrielle," Xena spoke to the bard. "Inside your shirt, over your heart is pinned a ring. It has two initials on it, an X and a G, intertwined with the words, Friends Forever. I have one just like it. They were made in honor of our friendship. Does that sound like I beat you?"
Gabrielle pulled the front of her shirt out enough to see that, yes, there was a ring there and it was just as Xena described. "There is a ring, but, I'm sorry, I still don't recall you."
The Queen crossed her arms. "Under the circumstances, I'm not sure allowing you to take her against her will is in her best interests."
Xena's eyes grew darker and she leaned very slightly toward Fidalia. "We've agreed to stay and help you fight your warlord. After that, Gabrielle's coming with us," she said softly.
Fidalia turned to face Xena squarely. Her eyes narrowed. Mara was right. Xena is trouble. "I thought Eponin was in charge here."
"Eponin is in charge of the Amazons, not of me," the warrior answered, still speaking softly. The Amazons, who knew how dangerous the Warrior Princess could be, were standing transfixed, disturbed by this exchange.
Elisa stepped up to the warrior's side. "Xena," she suggested, "let's talk about this, OK?"
"You are Xena?" Fidalia accused, as though she had just learned it. "The Destroyer of Nations?"
Xena's expression changed to a stone face. A very slight tremor tugged at her lips. "I've been called that," she admitted, somewhat reluctantly.
"Guards! Seize this woman. That young northern Amazon who was here last month told me that Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, was the one who had murdered the leaders of her tribe. Almost the whole tribe was wiped out because of her!" Fidalia's face was as red as her hair.
On each side of her, Xena could see shock and confusion on both Elisa's and Eponin's faces. Her heart sank, as she knew that Solari and Gwynna must look the same. Nevertheless, they quickly drew their swords and formed a protective square around the Warrior Princess. They knew and respected their friend's current history, knew she had changed. They were not ready to relinquish their Queen's protector and best friend without a fight.
The guards hesitated, waiting for further orders in the face of this opposition. Xena's commanding voice called each Amazon's name, "Eponin, Solari, Elisa, Gwynna, this is not your fight. Sheathe your swords." The women were confused, but they reluctantly did as Xena asked. The Warrior Princess stepped out from between them and was immediately surrounded by the guards who took away her sword and chakram.
"I'm not the same person I was then, Fidalia," she said, trying to reason with the Queen. "I regret my past."
"You'll do more than regret it. You'll answer for it. Throw her in the jail," the angry Queen ordered the guards. Pulling her roughly with them, the guards marched the unresisting warrior out of the meeting hall and took her to the jail hut. They opened an iron-barred door and flung her down on the dirt floor.
Xena sat up, crossed her ankles and pulled them up close to her body. She leaned her arms on her bronzed thighs and held her head in her hands, tears welling in her eyes. Her recent poisoning, and the resultant pain and weakness, had taken an enormous toll on the warrior's reserves of physical strength. And the agonizing situation with Gabrielle's amnesia, with its highs and lows, had taken its toll on her emotional reserves. Xena's whole system was at a low ebb and this latest development threatened to sweep her away.
The Warrior Princess knew that Queen Fidalia had every right to be in a rage. Her killing the Amazon leaders was one of the most heinous episodes of her past, and one she would regret to her dying breath.
She wasn't even sure her Amazon friends, given time to think about it, could forgive her for that act. Or Gabrielle. Maybe I should just hang it up, let Fidalia punish me for my sins against the Amazons. Gabrielle might be better off staying here with Mara, after all. At least Mara isn't carrying the load of baggage that comes with me. Feelings of despair battered her and her head sunk even lower.
Eponin and the other three Amazons were dumbstruck by the accusations against the Warrior Princess. The fact that Xena hadn't refuted them, and had gone with the guards without resistance, puzzled them even further. But Fidalia's heavy-handed treatment angered them.
When she had been taken away, Eponin turned to Fidalia and abruptly requested, "Would you explain this charge against Xena? We were unaware of it."
Fidalia, still agitated, indicated that the Amazons should be seated at one of the tables in the room. "About eight or nine years ago, the Amazon tribe north of us was led by a young woman named Cyane. One day, Cyane and all her tribal leaders were wiped out, killed. No one ever knew what happened because, shortly after that, the whole tribe was attacked and, without leadership, was vanquished. Only a very few survived, mostly children, and they hid themselves away from civilization."
Fidalia was striding back and forth in front of the council table. "Last month, a girl came through here, saying she, when a child, was one of the survivors. She told us of the massacre of the tribal leaders and said a woman called Xena, the Destroyer of Nations, was the one who had killed them."
"But, if she was a child at the time, she could be mistaken," Solari protested.
"She said that Xena showed up a few months ago and admitted to it," Fidalia answered, glowering. The five women at the council table nodded their heads, backing up what their Queen was saying. Gabrielle was listening, spellbound.
Mara was convinced even more that Gabrielle would be in jeopardy in the company of such a woman. "I told you this woman was dangerous! And you want us to send Gabrielle back to her? To be brutalized?"
"Did the girl say why Xena showed up?" Elisa asked, ignoring Mara and working hard to keep a snarl out of her voice.
"Apparently it had something to do with getting rid of an evil shamaness so Cyane and her tribe could enter the Elysian Fields. Xena had returned to enlist their help," the redheaded Queen sneered.
Eponin knew that Xena had done some terrible things in her past, but this was the first personal contact she'd had with it. Frankly, she was appalled. But she thought of the warrior as she was now, the many good things she had done, and she believed Xena had a right to receive credit for them. She frowned. "Doesn't that say something in her favor? That she was trying to make amends?"
Fidalia came to a quick halt and turned her glaring eyes on Eponin. "I have no interest in what amends the Destroyer of Nations was attempting. I just know she has admitted to slaughtering the leaders of my sister tribe and I intend that she should pay for it."
Elisa stood up, seething. "Queen Fidalia, may I speak on behalf of the Warrior Princess?"
Fidalia looked hard at the tall, dark-haired youngster. "Are you related to
her?" she asked bluntly.
"I'm a part of her family, but not by blood. I just happen to resemble her."
"Go ahead, speak."
The youngster spoke passionately. "We all know that Xena has done many wrong deeds in her past, but we also know that she has changed. For the last four years, she has been trying hard to make up for them, to right the wrongs she has done. She has helped our tribe many times, even to the point of saving our lives and homes, our very existence. We call her the Protector of Nations. She is the most awesome warrior I have ever seen and I am truly grateful that she now fights for good.
"She could help you, if you would let her. Your village is in danger of being attacked by a warlord. Going into a battle, there isn't anyone I would rather have by my side than Xena, and if you could see her fight, you would feel the same.
"I ask you to reconsider what you have done. Let the Warrior Princess fight for your village, your people. You will see that she has changed "
"NEVER!" Fidalia exploded. She struck the council table with her fist. "The woman is a menace. She has killed Amazons in the past and now you want me to believe that she would fight for me?" Her sneer returned. "Would you fight for someone who let you out of jail only for that purpose?"
Elisa raised her chin. "No, and neither will Xena. She won't fight for you." The young Amazon lifted her arm and pointed to Gabrielle. "She will fight for her."
All eyes turned toward Gabrielle. The bard was astounded that this young woman thought she had so much influence over the Warrior Princess, then she began turning the evidence over in her mind. That warmth I saw in Xena's eyes she looked at me with with love! That's what it was! She loves me; she wouldn't beat me. And when she was raging at the man who whipped me, I spoke to her, touched her arm and she calmed down. She stopped both Mara and Shalene, because I asked her to. Whatever she used to be, she's no murderer now. She doesn't deserve to be judged so harshly.
Eponin had been listening with amazement as Elisa spoke so fervently about Xena. The girl is a wonder! She's always been as stoic as the Princess herself. I never realized she could be so eloquent. She's putting up a good argument, but Fidalia isn't buying it. Now it's my turn. Let's see if a bluff will work.
"Queen Fidalia!" Eponin roared and jumped up. All eyes swerved to Eponin. "It's true, Xena would fight the warlord for Queen Gabrielle's sake, but you won't let her do that. So, I've changed my mind. My Amazons will not fight either!"
"What are you saying?" Fidalia roared back. "You say Gabrielle is your Queen, but you aren't willing to fight to protect her?"
Eponin was still shouting, "We have no guarantees that Gabrielle will ever know that she is our Queen. I see no profit in some of us losing our lives to save a woman who may never return to us. It was a gamble I was willing to take when I knew Xena would be fighting beside us. But if she is not in the battle, we won't be either!"
Fidalia pounded her fist on the table. The possibility of losing 17 fighters from her forces hadn't occurred to her; their loss would hurt the village's chances severely. "I can't believe "
"STOP!" Gabrielle's voice cut through the redheaded Queen's fury. The bard stood up, squared her shoulders and raised her chin. Silence fell for several seconds and tension mounted. Eponin and Elisa sat down, leaving the floor to their Queen, not taking their eyes from her.
"Eponin is right. It doesn't make sense to fight with the best warrior of all sitting in the jail hut." Gabrielle's voice was strong and true. "If Xena isn't forgiven and allowed to fight, I will return to my village with Eponin and the others."
"Nooooooo!" Mara screamed. Her desire to protect Gabrielle from harm fueled her anxiety. "You can't go back with them. They'll hurt you! They are the ones who beat you. Don't you remember?"
Eponin and Solari and the two youngsters frowned at each other, shook their heads and shrugged. They couldn't figure why Mara thought they had hurt Gabrielle. But they were proud their Queen was asserting herself.
Gabrielle looked kindly at the Amazon who had taken care of her and had been her friend. "Mara, I don't remember anyone beating me and I don't believe they did. I'm sorry if this is hurting you, but I see no other choice. I will not stay here and see Xena punished. I repeat, either she is forgiven and allowed to fight to save your land, or I leave."
Xena's memories were playing havoc with her emotions. She had gone over and over the massacre of the tribal leaders. Then, finally, she had refought in her mind the long battle she and the northern tribe's youngsters had had with Alti, the shamaness. We got rid of her and her evil powers. That was a good thing I did. This thought revived her spirits a little, so she concentrated on thinking of the many other good things she had accomplished. But the present situation, coupled with Gabrielle's amnesia, was a heavy blow.
As she went over the day of the landslide in her thoughts, she suddenly remembered that the avalanche hadn't started with a loud crack, as they usually did. It had begun with an explosion. And it had been aimed at Gabrielle. With these thoughts came those of the situation involving her poisoning and suddenly, the memory that had been buried by her pain and weakness exploded into her mind. Ares! I thought then that Ares had a hand in it. Why didn't I remember that?
A despairing woman changed abruptly into an enraged warrior. She jumped to her feet. "ARES!" she shouted. "Get down here and show yourself! What in Tartarus have you been up to? ARES!"
Within a few minutes, the handsome God of War appeared in his usual flash of light. He had a wide smile on his face and looked exceptionally happy. "Why, Xena, what a pleasant surprise," he chuckled. "I usually have to hound you for awhile to get a chance to talk with you and here you are calling for me. How nice! Does this mean you have good news for me?"
Xena grabbed two fistfuls of Ares' leather shirt and yanked him up nose to nose. She twisted her lips in derision and growled, "Ares, if I thought it would do any good, I'd smack your face."
"Whooooaaaaa!" the God jerked his face back in pretense. "That sounds pretty mean even for my Warrior Princess." He assumed a hurt look. "What are you so angry about? I haven't done anything to you lately, that is." He smiled wickedly and put a hand on her hip. "Not that I wouldn't like to Hmmm, you've lost some weight."
Xena angrily shoved him away. "I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about Gabrielle and what you've done to her." Xena folded her arms and glowered at him. "I want to know what's going on."
Ares looked sincerely puzzled. "Gabrielle? I haven't done anything to Gabrielle. You've threatened me enough times with never, ever coming back to me if anything happened to her, I got the message. Why, what happened that you think I had a hand in?"
Xena, still fuming, was skeptical, but she told him the whole story of the avalanche and the poisoning.
"No, no, my dear, not me. I didn't cause this problem," Ares raised his hands up, palms out.
Xena looked at him through narrowed eyes. Ares was a shifty rascal but she sensed he was telling her the truth. "Then it looks like somebody wanted me to think it was you. Do you know anyone who has a grudge against you or is that too wide a field to cover?"
"Heh, heh, Princess, very funny." The God of War faked a silly smile. Then his face lit up. "But I think I have an idea of who it might be. I'll be right back." Ares waved his hand and disappeared.
The goddess Discord was sitting in the Amazon council room listening to the fierce argument that was in progress. Wow, this is great stuff. What fun I'm having! Xena will never get Gabrielle back and Ares will take the blame, I'm sure. Heehee.
Her laughter was short-lived. "Ouch! Ares, let go of my ear!" the goddess shouted as Ares suddenly grabbed her and zapped her into Xena's jail cell.
"Here's the culprit, Xena!" he crowed as the two appeared. He held onto Discord's ear, pulling her head sideways. "I found her in the Amazon council room spreading her mischief." Ares leaned over and whispered in Xena's ear, "If she hadn't meddled in my business, I'd almost be proud of her." The god laughed out loud.
Xena looked at the goddess with distaste. "What's up, Discord? Is playing havoc with Xena's life the game of the month or something?"
"Talk!" Ares ordered as he glared at her.
"I'm just tired of Ares always liking you the best," the peevish goddess admitted. "I figured if you got mad at him for hurting Gabrielle, he'd give up on you and like me instead."
Xena's fists were clenching and unclenching but she knew hitting this jealous goddess would be wasted effort. "Well, if you ever want to pick on us again, make sure it's me you go after and not Gabrielle. Or I'll speak to a few other gods I know and get you in trouble with them," Xena threatened.
Ares tugged harder on the girl's ear. "Including me! Now, fix things back like they were," he ordered. "And don't meddle in my affairs again."
"I can take away the results of the poisoning, but I can't fix Gabrielle's amnesia, I didn't do that," the goddess pouted. She raised her hand and touched Xena on the forehead. The pain and weakness that had been making the warrior's life miserable were gone. As she felt the strength flowing back into her body, her resolve also strengthened. I'm not going to give up on Gabrielle. We still have hope of a future together.
"Was there anything else?" Ares tilted his head for a moment, tuning in to Discord's thoughts. "Ah, yes. You cast a spell on one of the Amazons. Take that off, too."
Discord screwed her face up in chagrin. "I'll have to go back to the council room."
Xena looked at Ares. "Which Amazon is it?"
Ares yanked again on the girl's ear and Discord reluctantly answered. "It's Mara, the one hanging out with your little chum. I convinced her that you had beaten Gabrielle. So she would turn her sister and the others against you." Discord flashed a nasty smile. "Though that wasn't necessary. I didn't know about your killing off the Amazon leaders. They aren't too happy about that!"
"Neither am I," Xena muttered softly.
"Xena, I'll see that Discord removes the spell and I'll impress on her that I'm the only one who's allowed to pull your strings! We'll talk about my helping you with this, later. Ta-ta!" Ares flashed his wicked smile at Xena and he and Discord disappeared in a burst of light.
Xena strode back and forth across the floor. Soon, she heard guards approaching. I wonder what Fidalia has in store for me? She sounded like she thought hanging would be too good!
"Well, Fidalia, which is it?" Gabrielle turned from Mara to the Amazon's half-sister, the Queen. The redheaded Amazon had used the distraction of her sister's remarks to pull herself together. That Gabrielle was willing to stand up for Xena was a second shock for Fidalia. She looked at Mara whose head suddenly jerked and whose face assumed a puzzled expression.
"I thought you said that Xena was beating Gabrielle. If that's so, why is she taking Xena's part?" Fidalia demanded. "You even just now accused the other Amazons of beating her, too. What is going on?"
Mara looked confused and then apologetic. "I don't know why I said that, Fidalia. Gabrielle never said she was beaten by Xena or anyone else. I'm sorry, I don't know where the idea even came from. I feel like a stranger was saying that."
Fidalia glared at her sister. This whole thing is getting messy. Maybe I do need to rethink my decision about Xena. It looks as if Gabrielle really is an Amazon Queen and maybe I should give more credence to what she says.
Her eyes turned to Gabrielle. "You really think Xena should be allowed to fight?"
"Yes, I do. Consider for a moment. What real purpose does jailing her serve? People are usually jailed for punishment and to make them see the error of their ways, or to keep them from hurting anyone else. If it's for punishment, and she has truly changed, she already knows the error of her ways and probably punishes herself every day for her past misdeeds. Wouldn't you?" Gabrielle took a deep breath. "And the only one it will keep her from hurting is the warlord we want her to fight against! Is that what you want?" Gabrielle paused to give Fidalia a moment to ponder what she was saying.
She could see that Fidalia was wavering and she continued. "Give Xena a chance to do something to show her reformed nature. Free her and let her join us. We will all fight for you." Gabrielle looked toward Eponin. "You will fight alongside Xena, won't you?"
All four of the Amazons stood and answered, "Yes!"
Fidalia looked toward Shalene and raised her eyebrows. Shalene still rankled a bit from the arrogance she felt Xena had shown her. But she was not a fool. If this woman is half the warrior they say she is, I'd be stupid not to want her help. Besides that, we sure could use those 17 extra Amazons. She stood. "We would be happy to have these women join us if that is your wish, Fidalia." Shalene wanted to give her leader a chance to save face. "But what happens with Xena is your decision."
The corner of Fidalia's mouth quirked up and she gave Shalene a look of gratitude. Turning back to Eponin and the others, she announced, "Very well. Xena will get her chance. Guards, go get her and bring her here."
When Xena saw that the guards were taking her back to the council chambers, she assumed her warlord swagger. The return of her strength had marked the return of her self-esteem. If I'm going down, I'm going down with some pride. She strode into the council hall and, with everyone's attention on her, marched right up to Fidalia. "You sent for me?" she snarled.
Eponin had to bite her lips to keep from laughing out loud. Look at the Princess. She thinks she's coming in here to be sentenced yet she acts like she's running the show. And, come to think of it, darned if she isn't!
Fidalia's eyes no longer held indignant anger. She looked at Xena more with appraisal than anything else. She held silence for a moment longer than necessary, in an attempt to demonstrate her leadership.
"Xena, your friends have spoken very well of you and the progress you have made on the path to doing good. They have convinced me that you have reformed and that I should reconsider my treatment of you as a criminal. Even Queen Gabrielle feels that you should be given a chance to prove that you have changed. She and her Amazons request that I give you the opportunity to redeem yourself by fighting, side by side with my people, against the warlord who threatens us."
Xena's face could have been carved from stone. Fidalia had barely noticed a slight flicker of cobalt-blue eyes when Gabrielle's name had been mentioned. "What do you say, will you fight for us?" Fidalia demanded.
The blue eyes swerved over toward hopeful mist-green ones. The bard nodded to Xena as their eyes met.
The stone face softened a little and the blue beacons came back to shine into Fidalia's cinnamon-red orbs. "I will fight because Gabrielle asks me to," replied the Warrior Princess.
Grudging respect sounded in Fidalia's response. "You don't give an inch, do you?" She didn't expect an answer, and didn't get one, other than the waving of one eyebrow by the warrior.
"Well, while we're all here together, we might as well work on our strategy for facing this warlord." Fidalia walked to a table strewn with maps and some of the others followed her.
"Do you know his name?" Xena asked.
Fidalia turned to one of the other council members who answered, "They call him Prindos."
"Do you know him?" Fidalia asked Xena.
"You might say I know him. My army fought his army for control of one of the provinces. He is a strong leader and will have a strong army. We need to find his weak spot." The Warrior Princess seemed to turn her thoughts inward as Fidalia explained her strategy to her captains and the visiting Amazons.
Fidalia, Shalene, Eponin and Solari had their heads together discussing the areas of the perimeter and the village which were the most defensible and where they thought they should concentrate their forces. Gabrielle and Mara were listening closely.
Elisa had not taken her eyes from the Warrior Princess since Xena had entered the room. She could see that some change had taken place, that Xena was no longer weak and shaky. And Xena's warlord swagger had kindled a bright light in Elisa's eyes. She's better. I don't know how, but the Warrior Princess is BACK. And she's brought her attitude with her.
The young Amazon saw Xena look in her direction, nod toward Gwynna, and tilt her head sideways. Elisa pulled Gwynna along with her and met Xena in a corner of the room away from the gathered strategists. Xena wasted no words. "Get our horses and meet me at the northern edge of the village. Wait there for me." She slipped out of the door and was gone. Elisa and Gwynna also left and headed for the stables.
"This warrior's heart is grieving;
Oh! My bard, you can't forget!
I need your light beside me, when
The sun begins to set."
The two young Amazons were mounted and waiting at the northern edge of the village, with a saddled Argo in tow. Just as they were wondering where Xena was, she dropped from the trees onto Argo's back "Had to get my weapons," she grinned, waving the chakram at them before hooking it to her belt. "Follow me."
None of the Amazons guarding the perimeter had any notion of stopping Amazons who were leaving, so no one challenged their departure. Xena led them several miles away until she found a small clearing where they stopped and dismounted. Following her lead, Elisa and Gwynna squatted and sat down forming a circle with the warrior, facing each other. "Xena, you're cured!" Elisa remarked.
The Warrior Princess smiled at the girl who had been at her side every time she needed support. "Yeah, Leese, I'm all better now. Ares' little buddy, Discord, was messing with my life, but she's out of the picture now. She also cast a spell on Mara, making her think that I was abusing Gabrielle."
"Will Gabrielle be over her amnesia, then?" Gwynna asked.
Xena's smile died. "No, that was an accident and no one knows if she'll get better or not."
"She really stuck up for you, Xena, with Fidalia," Elisa declared. "Even if she doesn't know you she still likes you."
Gwynna spoke up, "And you should have heard Leese speak for you. You would have been amazed! I didn't know she knew that many words," the blonde Amazon teased her friend whose face was turning red.
"Thanks, Leese, I won't forget all you've done for me," Xena vowed. "Now, let's get to work."
"What do you have in mind, Xena?" asked Leese, happy to change the subject.
"Well, I said at the council meeting that Prindos is a strong leader and we needed to find his weak spot. Then I got to thinking The weak spot for any army with a strong leader is to be without that leader, especially if his captains are used to following orders rather than generating them. And Prindos is egotistical enough to surround himself with yes men who don't know how to make their own decisions."
Xena grinned at the two young women who were obviously eager to be involved in whatever she was proposing. "What I want to do is kidnap Prindos."
She looked at Gwynna, the expert tracker. "First, we need to track him and find out which tent is his when they stop for the night." Gwynna nodded. Then Xena looked at Elisa, the expert knife-thrower. "Next, I'll need some help in quietly getting rid of his guards." Elisa's dark head bobbed up and down. "Then," the Warrior Princess grinned her feral grin, "I'll grab him!"
And hope nobody notices he's missing until daybreak. "My idea is to take him back to the Amazon village and persuade Fidalia to have her troops attack the army at its encampment. With no leader, we should have the upper hand. I can't see letting an army that size enter your territory before you start to fight it. Let's get to work."
By the time Fidalia noticed that Xena and the two young Amazons were missing from the council chamber, they were long gone. She was furious. "I'm stupid enough to let you talk me into releasing Xena then she runs away before the battle even starts. What do you have to say now, Eponin?"
The weapons master was emphatic. "Xena has never run from a battle in her life. She probably has an idea about it that she's not ready to share yet. Maybe she needs to check it out, first. I only know that when the battle starts, she will be in the thick of it."
"Well, for your sake, I hope you are right. You're the ones who said you wouldn't fight without her. Have you changed your minds?" Fidalia persisted.
"Never," Eponin and Solari said together. "We'll be here," Eponin continued. "And so will she."
"Should I go after them?" Shalene offered.
"No, we can't afford to let anybody chase them. If they're gone, they're gone," the Queen answered.
"They're not gone. They'll be back. Just wait and see. The Warrior Princess doesn't run," Solari affirmed, stubbornly.
Fidalia almost smiled. "Well, I'll say one thing for your tribe, you sure do stick together. OK, does everybody understand the battle plan?" Everyone nodded. "We'll meet back here at sundown. The scouts should have a report for us by then about whether Prindos is headed this way and when to expect him."
Prindos' army had sacked a village the day before and was spending today traveling toward the Amazon territory while enjoying the spoils of victory. They had stopped for a sumptuous afternoon meal made from the food stores stolen from the village. The army was just cleaning up and renewing their journey when Gwynna found them. Prindos was at the head of the column that was marching on.
Gwynna got an excellent close-up view of him when he rode directly beneath the tree in which she was hiding. She would know whom to look for when they camped for the night. She worked her way back through the trees to the site where her horse, Nightmare, was tethered. Looking around for some berries and nuts, she found enough to fill her stomach for the moment. Untying Nightmare, she mounted and rode parallel to the army, biding her time until they stopped for the night.
Meanwhile, Xena and Elisa, leaving signs for Gwynna to find them, discovered a small cave in which to cook a meal without giving away their position. They were gathering wood to build a fire when Xena said, "Leese, you go catch a couple rabbits and I'll cook them."
Leese's jaw dropped but she recovered quickly. I remember Gabrielle telling me, "Whatever you do, don't let Xena cook for you. That is not one of her many skills!" With a deep bow and in mock-serious tones, she answered, "Excuse me, Warrior Princess, but I have heard of your remarkable prowess in catching rabbits and I insist that you would be the better choice to find our dinner for us. And, of course, when you catch the rabbits, I will be obligated to cook them for us."
Xena picked up a chunk of dirt and winged it at her. "Can you even cook?" she laughed.
Elisa plucked the chunk out of the air and grinned. "I'm not the greatest cook in the world, but Gabrielle warned me against letting you do it." Uh-oh, shouldn't have referred to the Queen.
At mention of her partner's name, the warrior's face had grown pensive. She flashed a forced smile at the young Amazon. "Good point. I'll get the rabbits." She jumped up and melted into the trees.
As the silence of the forest closed around her, Xena tried to face the possibility that Gabrielle might never regain her memory. All our years together will be lost--the good times, the bad times, the hurts, the joys, the partings and reconciliations. All those memories are burned into my heart, and the one person who has shared them with me doesn't really exist anymore. It's like a part of me has died. And who will guide me back when I turn toward the wrong path? Do I have the strength to do that for myself? Gabrielle, I need you! I need you! Come back to me! The warrior's heart and mind ached with yearning to see some sign of recognition in her bard's eyes.
Xena shook herself, bringing her thoughts back to the situation that needed to be resolved first; the possible peril that Fidalia's Amazons, and Gabrielle, faced at the moment. As soon as Gwynna got back, Xena could start taking care of it.
The Warrior Princess caught and cleaned two rabbits and brought them back to the cave. Elisa had built the fire and had a spit ready to roast them. She accepted the cleaned animals and put them on the spit. As she sat watching them, a thought occurred to her. "Xena," she asked, "why did you bring Gwynna and me with you? I'm really glad you did, but you could have taken care of this yourself."
Xena sat cross-legged near the fire. "I thought you and Gwynna could use some training in kidnapping a warlord and I didn't know where else you would get it," the Warrior Princess explained.
Elisa's smile blazed. "You sure got that right. I don't know of anyone else who would even attempt to kidnap a warlord! Thanks for giving us the chance to help out."
The two ate in companionable silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Elisa picked out a couple choice pieces of rabbit, wrapped them in a large leaf, and tied it shut with pieces of vine. She felt the warrior's gaze on her, looked up and said, "For Gwynna "
Xena's soft smile curved her sculpted lips. She liked the fact that Elisa was looking out for her best friend. "I figured," she acknowledged quietly.
They both stretched out alongside the fire, resting, as they awaited Gwynna's return. About half an hour after sundown, the blonde Amazon rode Nightmare up to the cave, dismounted and tied her next to Argo. Entering, she looked around. "Nice," she remarked as Xena and Elisa sat up.
"I saved you some rabbit," Elisa told her as she opened the packet and placed
the pieces on the spit.
"Great, I'm starved." Gwynna searched for a pointed piece of wood, then sat down between Xena and Elisa.
"Here's the layout of the camp," she said. She drew the campsite on the ground with the stick. "Prindos has his tent set against the side of a cliff, I suppose for protection. But it will be an easy matter to reach it from above. Maybe not so easy to get him back up there once we have him. There are four guards near his tent." Gwynna made an X on the ground for each guard's position, then thanked Elisa, with a smile, as the dark-haired Amazon handed her the heated meat.
"Can the guards be seen from the cliff at night?" Xena inquired.
"If they keep the campfires going all night, there shouldn't be any problem seeing them," Gwynna assured her. "Leese could pick them off with her eyes half-closed."
"Leese could pick them off with her ears," Xena said matter-of-factly. "Can horses be taken to the top of the cliff?" was her next question.
"I rode Nightmare up there," Gwynna nodded.
"And do you both have your Amazon ropes with you?"
Both nodded. Xena smacked her hand on the ground. "Well, then, Argo will haul Prindos back up the cliff! Let's get moving!" The three set out for the army camp.
From the top of the cliff, Xena, Elisa and Gwynna could survey Prindos' entire campsite. Much of it was hidden among the trees but the tent they were interested in was visible in a small clearing directly below them.
Most warlords did not have enough confidence in their troops to sleep without trusted guards around them and Prindos was no exception. Campfires to either side had died down to embers that still emitted enough light to see four guards in place near the tent.
Xena had tied three ropes together, fastened one end to Argo's saddle horn and fashioned a noose in the other end. She nodded to Elisa then watched as the girl expertly threw her knives and felled one guard after another, until all four were downed without a sound other than the thump of their bodies hitting the ground.
Then Xena shinnied down the rope, cut a large hole in the top of Prindos' tent and climbed on down the rope into the tent. Prindos was fast asleep on a pallet in a corner. The Warrior Princess crept over to him and hit him with her fingers in special pressure points in his neck. His eyes popped open in alarm and met two gleaming blue ones. Xena put her finger to her lips, raised an eyebrow and whispered, "Sssshhhhhhhh. No yelling, Prindos, if you want to stay alive a little longer. I've cut off the blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds left to live."
The warlord struggled for breath and croaked, "Who are you?"
The Warrior Princess curled her lip. "You don't recognize me? The light in here IS poor." Xena thrust her face up close to his and bared her teeth. "The last time you saw me, you were running for your life!"
Fear joined the alarm in Prindos' face. "Xena! What do you want?"
"Maybe I'm looking for a job," the warrior shrugged nonchalantly. "How many captains do you have who could lead this army for you?"
"No one else," Prindos gasped, "but I'm interested."
The Warrior Princess' smile was sticky-sweet and nasty at the same time. Prindos knew his troubles would only get worse. "Well, thank you for the information, but, sorry, I'm NOT interested!" She released the pressure points and knocked Prindos out with a straight-arm punch in the jaw.
Xena tied him up, stuffed a gag in his mouth and secured the noose around his chest. Then she peeked outside, through the tent flaps, and eased herself between them. She took care of what she had gone outside for, then returned, unobserved, to the tent.
The warrior grabbed the hanging rope, pulled twice on it, and she and her captive rose through the hole in the tent's roof. When they reached the top of the cliff, Elisa reached over the edge and helped pull them up onto the flat ground as Gwynna halted Argo and untied the rope from the saddle.
Xena stood up and reached inside a bag she had fastened to her waist. She pulled out four knives and handed them to Elisa. "Wouldn't want you to lose your Dad's knives now, would we?" she asked. Elisa blinked back the moisture that spurted into her eyes at the kindness shown her by this feared warrior.
Xena tied Prindos behind Argo's saddle and threw her leg past him as she mounted. The trio of women guided their horses down the far side of the cliff and headed toward Amazon territory.
It was four hours past sundown and the Amazons were still discussing fortifications in and around their village. No one on the council was happy with Fidalia's battle plans. There weren't enough women to defend every possible access to the village and this caused a serious flaw in any attempt at reaching a consensus of opinion as to where were the best places to put their forces. This same discussion had been going on for three weeks.
Council members were picking apart Fidalia's strategy piece by piece and the Queen was getting extremely frustrated. She was striding back and forth at her favorite spot in front of the council table. "Our scouts say Prindos is within a day's march of our village and here we are, still unable to agree on a plan to defend ourselves! We need to come to some decision. My plans are better than nothing. Do you think some miracle is going to happen to save us?"
Just then the council chamber doors burst open and Xena, Elisa and Gwynna strode in. Xena had Prindos thrown sideways across her shoulders. She marched over to the council table, pushed Prindos up in the air above her head and dropped him with a loud thud at Fidalia's feet.
The Queen's eyes grew into huge circles. "Who what how ?" She was too flabbergasted to talk. She lifted her cinnamon-red eyes from the body on the floor and met two crystal-blue eyes holding a hint of mischief.
"Your warlord, Queen Fidalia," the Warrior Princess bowed deeply and, with an elaborate flourish, waved an arm at Prindos.
Fidalia looked around. Gabrielle, who had insisted on being present at the meeting, was smiling. Eponin and Solari were beaming and the two young Amazons with Xena had eyes shining with pride. Even Shalene had a grudging smile on her face.
The Queen, shaking her head, turned back to the warrior. "All right, Xena, I know when I've been proven wrong and I admit it. I thought you had run but your friends kept assuring me you would be back. Only they didn't tell me you would bring Prindos with you!"
"I also have brought a battle plan with me," the Warrior Princess offered.
"Go ahead, tell us yours. No one else has had a good one, yet," Fidalia said resignedly.
"How ready are your Amazons for battle?" Xena asked.
"We are completely ready. We just can't agree on which parts of the village to defend when the army gets here," Fidalia answered.
Xena drew herself to her tallest possible stance and faced the council members. Her eyes locked onto theirs, one by one, as she spoke. "Prindos' army is about three hours' ride from here on horseback. But they are sleeping. When morning comes, they will awake to find they have no leader and, for awhile, they will have no idea what to do. I propose that we take all the available Amazons and strike them before they wake up. We can sneak archers into the trees to hit them at the same time our mounted force engages them. We will catch them by surprise and, leaderless, they will have no one to tell them how to form themselves for battle. Without a focus, they will be unable to mount a cohesive defense. We can divide them into small pockets and cut them down at will. Not only will we have the advantage over them, but by attacking them in the field, we will prevent them from coming into the Amazon village and destroying your homes and community."
In one swift motion, the Warrior Princess drew her heavy sword and slapped the flat side of it down, hard, against the council table. "We will SMASH them!"
The startled Amazons at the council table leaped up and grabbed their swords. There was sudden silence. The council members quickly realized that Xena had thrust her sword back into its scabbard even before they had drawn theirs. They looked at each other, sheepishly, sheathed their swords and sat back down.
Xena turned again to Fidalia, one eyebrow raised. "How soon can the council take a vote on my plan?"
Fidalia, to her credit, recognized a good plan when she heard one. Instead of answering the warrior, she faced the council members and demanded, "All in favor of the proposed plan, say 'Aye.' A chorus of 'Ayes' left no doubt. All the council members were in favor of a plan that could save their village.
Fidalia shouted, "Get everybody moving! We'll meet in the Village Square in one half hour, ready to ride! Guards, take this piece of dung and put him in the jail hut. Leave him trussed up, then come join the rest of us."
Eponin was the first one out the door, followed by Solari. They headed for their group of Amazons to prepare them for the battle to come.
Fidalia swung her head toward Xena. The eyes of two warriors met and locked together for several moments, taking measure of each other. Fidalia decided that Xena had proved herself trustworthy. "Will you ride beside me at the head of our forces?" Asking someone who was not an Amazon to ride into battle beside the Queen was a tribute of the highest order. But Fidalia had to acknowledge that Xena deserved it. She chided herself at the irony of this situation. A few hours ago, she had condemned Xena as a murderer. And now Xena's plan might be the only one that could save her people.
"I will ride beside you if you will allow Elisa and Gwynna to ride with Gabrielle." Xena knew that her Gabrielle, in spite of being injured, would not have stayed out of the fighting, and this Gabrielle probably wouldn't either. The warrior was determined to protect the bard as much as possible and knew that Elisa and Gwynna would defend her to the death.
"No problem," Fidalia agreed. The Queen looked as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders as she waved Xena to accompany her to the Village Square.
The Amazons were within striking distance of Prindos' army as the sky began to lighten. Some of the women were sent through the trees to get rid of any guards who may have been posted.
Solari and five archers had split off from Eponin's group to join 15 other archers. They were given orders to travel through the trees to get as near as possible to the encampment, spread out and begin shooting as soon as the fighting started. Their particular target would be anyone who looked as though he was rallying the men together. The Amazons were determined that the leaderless army would stay leaderless.
Fidalia, Xena, Eponin and Shalene rode at the head of the mounted group. Further back, Elisa and Gwynna rode on either side of Gabrielle and Mara, neither of whom would stay behind.
Just as the darkness began to thin, bringing the dawn, the force of women rode into the encampment without warning, swinging swords and staffs and slaying anyone in their path. As they slaughtered soldiers trying to rise and grab their weapons, men further beyond their path leaped to their feet and prepared to defend themselves. The area became so thick with people that the women eventually had to dismount to maneuver.
The constant stream of arrows that was so effective in the beginning of the battle had to be halted as both sides joined in hand-to-hand combat. Xena and Fidalia stood back to back, each accounting for more than their share of soldiers. Xena could see that Eponin and Shalene were doing a good job working together to her right. Her eyes, as always, searched quickly for Gabrielle's golden head.
The bard and Mara were sandwiched in between Elisa and Gwynna, but Xena could see a separate group of soldiers getting ready to rush them. Screaming her battle cry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" she jumped high into the air and flipped to a spot next to Gabrielle, between the bard and the onrushers.
Her action brought Gabrielle's words to Mara's mind, "Why didn't you just flip over them?" Obviously, Gabrielle was mistaking me for Xena. I guess I better get used to the idea that she belongs with her, not with me. The thought saddened Mara, but the battle left her no time to dwell on it.
Xena thrust her sword into the lead soldier, pulled it out and swiped it back and forth sideways taking out the next two. She jumped into the air and kicked the fourth one in the head. As she came back to earth, Elisa came alongside her and fought off the next soldier, punching him in the neck with the hilt of her sword.
Xena saw that now Fidalia had her hands full, so she flipped back over toward her side. As Xena was in the air, a bolt from a crossbow hit a glancing blow on Fidalia's shoulder and a second one was headed for her neck. Xena reached down and plucked it from the air as she finished her flip and landed next to the Queen. Fidalia's cinnamon-red eyes locked with Xena's crystal-blue ones for a grateful moment then swung back to the fray. Unhampered by her flesh wound, she wielded her sword with devastating force against two attackers.
As Xena was fighting off three soldiers at one time, one of them nicked her leg with his sword and she went into battle fury mode. Kicking, hitting, thrusting, jumping, swinging, head-butting, she cut a swathe through a pack of 15 soldiers, one of the last groups that had survived the Amazon's surprise attack. Fidalia's Amazons were awed by the power of her fighting.
The battle was showing signs of winding down when the Warrior Princess heard a sound that chilled her blood. It was the bard's voice screaming, "XENA!"
Elisa and Gwynna had been doing a great job of keeping Gabrielle safe as she attempted to fight off a soldier or two with her staff. Hampered by their sore backs, both she and Mara were still making a good show for themselves when Mara slipped in some gore and fell. Four soldiers rushed to take advantage of her fall. Elisa, already engaged in a sword fight, saw Mara fall and yelled to Gwynna to help her. Gwynna immediately took out two of the attackers with a long sideswipe of her staff, but the other two were out of reach.
Elisa, still battling with her sword with one hand, grabbed one of her throwing knives and threw it, catching the third attacker in the chest. But she couldn't hit the fourth man because Gabrielle was between the young Amazon and her target. Just as his three fellows were being taken down, he reached Mara, stood over top of her and lifted his sword in both hands to strike her.
Gabrielle saw what was about to happen, but was also out of range of hitting him. He's going to kill her! He's going to kill "XENA!" her heart skipped a beat as her voice yelled the name of her beloved warrior. Within a split-second, a body went flying over her head, crying, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiy!" and two booted feet hit the soldier in the chest, bowling him over backward.
Xena bounced off his chest, flipped backward up in the air and came to rest next to Gabrielle as the others finished their battles and ran to the fallen woman. Mara blinked up at them from eyes that had been closed in anticipation of her death. The sound of the strange battlecry had opened them for her just in time to see Xena land on her attacker's chest.
Fidalia came running, too, and fell to her knees next to her sister. She threw her arms around Mara and hugged her fiercely. "Owwww! Watch my back, my back," Mara cautioned as she returned the Queen's hug.
"To Tartarus with your back, I'm glad you're alive!" Fidalia shouted with joy. "I saw him lift that sword and I thought you were dead. That crazy, flipping warrior saved your life!" Mara looked past Fidalia's shoulder in the direction that Xena had landed and what she saw both saddened her and made her happy.
Xena hit the ground next to Gabrielle with a tentative look of hope on her face. Her expectant blue eyes met the bard's confused mist-green ones. "Xena, where are we?" Gabrielle asked. Her eyes left the warrior's face and swept over the battlefield. "How did we get here? How did the landslide miss you?" Her head swiveled back to a face that was struggling not to fall apart. Her partner's eyes were spilling over with tears and her teeth were clamped down on a trembling lip.
The Warrior Princess put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and the bard's heart ached at the joy she saw in her friend's beautiful face. "By the gods, Gabrielle, you've had amnesia for days." Xena's low voice was thick with emotion, "I didn't know if you would ever come out of it. But you have! You have!" Long bronzed arms drew her friend close and wrapped around her. Xena's dark head bowed to touch the golden one of her bard and her long body shuddered with happiness.
Gabrielle wound her arms around her friend's waist. Tears streamed from her eyes, too, as her compassionate heart recognized the terrible strain her warrior had been under. She thought I was lost to her, maybe forever. "Oh, Xena," she soothed the Warrior Princess, "I'm here. I'm here for you, always."
Mara saw the two friends embracing and realized that Gabrielle's memory had returned. The sight of the two friends, clinging together in the middle of a battlefield, left no doubt in her mind that they belonged with each other. Maybe, someday, I'll be lucky enough to find a friend like that.
Funeral services were held for those women who had lost their lives in the battle against Prindos' army. Xena and the visiting Amazons assisted in the preparations and, at Gabrielle's request, Xena sang one of the dirges.
After the services, Xena, with Gabrielle, made a point of visiting for awhile with Eponin and Solari to praise them for their parts in the battle and in the search for their Queen. Any acclaim from the Warrior Princess, who was the greatest fighter they had ever seen, carried great weight with the Amazons. She clapped Eponin on the shoulder and remarked, "Glad your horse picked such a perfect time to go lame, Pony. Thanks. You were there when I needed you. I remember things like that."
"Happy to do it, Princess," Eponin answered, beaming.
The usually quiet Solari added, "You've done plenty for us, Xena, and we're grateful, too."
Xena reached out and slapped the shorter woman on the back, knocking her off balance. Eponin grabbed her friend's arm to steady her and laughed, "Forgot to warn you, Solly. Better brace yourself when the Princess congratulates you."
After her initial surprise, Solari laughed, too. "Riiiiigggghhhhhtttt," she agreed, and she and Xena grinned at each other.
Xena and Gabrielle also stopped to acknowledge Elisa and Gwynna and their assistance in the kidnapping of Prindos. "What's going to happen to him, Xena?" asked Gwynna.
"I would guess that Queen Fidalia will turn him over to the authorities, but she might just hold him here for awhile first," the warrior answered, with a nasty grin. "I know I'd make life miserable for him for awhile if I had him. He'd be cleaning out the latrine for a month."
Xena made a special effort to thank Elisa, again, for her constant support while the warrior was disabled from the poison she had been given. Elisa and Gwynna both were pleased when the Warrior Princess remembered one of Elisa's favorite sayings. "Well, Leese, I have to say you stuck to me like a burr, and I am truly grateful." She gave both youngsters a warrior handshake and a clap on the shoulder that made them feel 10 feet taller.
Xena promised Gabrielle that she would tell her the whole story of what she had missed when they were on the trail home. "C'mon, Gabrielle, you love to tell stories, but for me they are a real chore. Let me just enjoy your return for the rest of the day. I waited all this time to get you back, you can wait one day to hear about it, OK?"
The bard was dying to hear the details and she knew if she pressed Xena for them, the warrior would do as she asked. But she recognized that Xena was entitled to wait and she acquiesced.
"Just one more stop, and then we'll be free for the afternoon," Xena promised. She led Gabrielle to the healer's hut and they entered. Xena met the healer and asked her about the salve she had put on Gabrielle's back. "She and Mara are out of pain and well on the way to healing in just a couple of days. What did you use on them?"
The healer showed Xena the plant she used and they discussed where it grew and how it was processed into the salve. The healer gave Xena a jar of salve to take with her and the warrior expressed her gratitude. They left the hut and Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Ironic, isn't it? This whole thing started over a plant we were looking for that had special healing powers and here, we've found one."
Gabrielle answered, "Some really strange coincidences seem to happen often to you, Xena. Didn't you ever notice?"
Xena didn't feel up to pursuing that line of thought. "We still have a couple hours of daylight. What would you like to do?"
Gabrielle turned to her best friend and smiled. "You probably think I'm crazy, but I'd like to walk together in the woods like we usually do. I feel like I just want to feel free of everything for awhile. Like I've been in prison or something."
"Well, you were shackled in chains in a slavers' caravan for awhile, maybe that's why you feel that way," Xena told her.
"Xena!" the bard slapped her playfully on the arm. "If you aren't going to tell me the whole story until tomorrow, don't tease me with bits of it now."
Laughing, the Warrior Princess raised both arms in surrender. "OK, OK, not another word until tomorrow." And the two friends went traipsing off into the forest.
Fidalia had asked Gabrielle to have her people congregate in the Square on the morning of their departure so that the Amazons might bid a formal farewell to the women who had helped to save their village. Now, Xena and Gabrielle and their Amazon companions were gathered in the center of the Village Square, prepared to leave for home. The inhabitants of the village were assembled completely around them. With Shalene on one side of her and Mara on the other, Queen Fidalia approached Queen Gabrielle who was flanked by Eponin and Xena.
"Gabrielle," Fidalia began, "I still wish you would reconsider and stay for the celebration to honor our victory."
"Thank you, Fidalia, but my regent and the women of my village will be waiting eagerly for our return." Gabrielle smiled good-humoredly. "I've been missing long enough as it is."
Fidalia returned her smile, "I understand."
She turned to Xena and looked deeply into her cobalt eyes. "I don't know when I've ever misjudged someone so badly as I did you when we first met. I throw you into jail and you return my affront by saving our lands and homes. And, as if that wasn't enough, you save my life and my sister's life. How can I ever repay you?"
Xena pulled herself to her full height and her lips curved into a slight smile. "Your sister, Mara, took Gabrielle under her protection and probably saved her life. I consider that was prepayment for anything I did for her and your village. As far as saving your life goes," Xena shrugged, "that was nothing." One eyebrow waved saucily at the redheaded Queen.
A burst of laughter exploded from Fidalia's mouth. "Are you always so damn cocky?"
A full smile spread across the face of the Warrior Princess. "Yeah, most of the time, I guess."
Fidalia reached her arm out to Xena, who grasped it in a warrior handshake. "Well, around here, Xena, you can be as cocky as you want. And I'm going to see that others hear of what you've done here, maybe offset some of the bad things they hear about you."
"Thanks, Fidalia." Xena's face grew serious. "Nothing can atone for some
of the things I've done, but I intend to keep trying."
Fidalia stepped back and addressed the group. "Come back whenever you wish. You will always be welcome here. Safe journey!"
Gabrielle stepped up to Mara and put a hand on her arm. "Xena told me that you tried very hard to protect me and I want to thank you for that."
The tall Amazon smiled down at the bard. "I only did what one Amazon should do for another. Xena's a lucky woman to have you for a friend. Be well, Gabrielle. Come back and visit us some time."
Xena mounted Argo and reached down for Gabrielle. The bard smiled at Mara and gave her hand to Xena who pulled Gabrielle up onto Argo behind her. The Amazon contingent mounted and, as they rode out, Fidalia's people cheered and clapped for them and tossed hastily gathered flowers down in their path.
"Some send-off, huh?" Gabrielle shouted against Xena's back. The Warrior Princess placed her palm over Gabrielle's hands, which were clasped around her waist. She patted the bard's warm fingers and responded, happily, "Perfect."
At every possible moment of the day's trek, Xena had been telling Gabrielle about the events that had happened since the start of the bard's amnesia. By the time the Amazons camped for the evening, the tale was almost finished and Xena promised to end it after they had eaten.
When their meal was over, the Warrior Princess and the bard settled on a fallen log in a small clearing off to the side of the main group. Gabrielle had helped Xena clean and burnish her armor and now the warrior, sitting to the bard's right, was sharpening her sword. With her left hand, she held the hilt of the sword upside down with the point touching the ground. Her right hand ran the sharpening stone evenly down the flat part of the edge.
The rhythmic sound of the sharpening stone against the sword played accompaniment to the final telling of Xena's tale, up to and including the scene of reunion on the battlefield. Xena's eyes lit with the marvel of rediscovery each time she glanced sideways at her friend.
"Sounds like I had another great adventure that I don't even remember," Gabrielle remarked. "You get to have all the fun," she groused good-naturedly.
Xena's hand stopped, her head turned toward the bard and her eyebrows went up. Her expression was a blend of surprise and disbelief. "Fun? Being buried in a landslide, losing your best friend, being poisoned, being thrown in jail, fighting an army--maybe I'm overlooking something here. Which part of that was fun?"
The bard grinned. "C'mon, you know you loved it all."
The warrior laid her sword and sharpening stone down and clasped Gabrielle's nearest hand, holding it firmly, but gently, in her own long, bronzed hand. Her eyes looked down at their entwined fingers and her voice became very fervent. Gabrielle was surprised by Xena's abrupt shift in focus, and she listened attentively to her partner's quiet voice. "You know how, just when the sun begins to set, everything looks a little different? It's still the same, but not quite as crisp; the edges are a little dim?"
The bard merely nodded in answer.
"Well, that's the way my life is when you're not around. Nothing is bright and shining anymore. My whole landscape is cloudy and dull." Long lashes lifted slowly as the crystal-blue eyes rose and met the mist-green ones, sending their message of enduring love. "Nothing is any fun without you beside me to share it."
There was a long moment while their eyes were locked together that Gabrielle could have sworn everything on earth stood still. The moment passed and the blue eyes changed. "And don't you even try to pretend that it is!" Xena squeezed and released Gabrielle's hand and picked her stone and sword back up to resume the rhythmic care.
Gabrielle's breath had caught when her friend looked up at her. Xena. Your eyes have this unexplainable ability to reach inside me and touch my soul. I don't think I'll ever get used to that. Now she cleared her throat and started to breathe again. "Hargh-em. Er I guess that means you missed me a little, huh?"
There was no answer.
Gabrielle, smiling, leaned forward and turned to look into Xena's face. She was startled to see a tear sliding down the warrior's cheek and she reached over and wiped it off; but another fell right behind it. "Xena," she asked softly. "Why are you crying?"
"I'm just really happy to have you back," Xena half-whispered and the bard accepted that. She moved over against Xena's arm and laid her head on her shoulder, knowing her nearness was welcome.
Xena's love for the bard had touched her own soul, too. Unbidden, the terrible vision that foretold their deaths had leaped out at her from the dark recesses of her mind where she had banished it. Before the shamaness, Alti, was killed, she had put a vision in Xena's mind of being nailed to a cross. And next to her, also being nailed to a cross, was Gabrielle. Gabrielle, if you stay with me, you will die! But you are my light, my family, my reason for living. How can I ever send you away? Could I ever let you go? Is there any possible answer for this?
With an agonizing effort of will, the Warrior Princess shoved the foreboding vision back into its tenebrous niche. I will STOP worrying about this, for now! Let me just enjoy your return. I will STOP worrying about this! And she did
But she couldn't stop the tears.
A Warrior's Sunset
The world turns dim and cheerless
When the sun begins to set;
Predicting nightfall, with its dreams
Of horror and regret.
If one can clasp the sunlight
And embrace it till the morn,
'Twill banish each dark phantom's clutch
And offer life, reborn.
The warrior's heart is grieving;
Oh! How could her bard forget?
"I need your light beside me, when
The sun begins to set.
"You brought that light to my life,
And spread sunshine from above;
You led me from destructive paths
And helped me learn to love.
"My world was dim and cheerless
Up until the day we met;
I am reminded every time
The sun begins to set.
"You lost your mem'ry of me,
That we were the best of friends;
My heart still shudders with the thought
Of what that loss portends.
"This warrior's heart is grieving;
Oh! My bard, you can't forget!
I need your light beside me, when
The sun begins to set."
Comments are welcome. PruferBlue@aol.com
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