The Wild hunt
By: Ranger Liz
Part One: The Hunt Begins
Gabrielle surveyed the labyrinth of game trials in mounting frustration as the dim light of late afternoon began fading. She was lost. Totally, and utterly, lost inside the dense, wild forest that bordered Amazon lands where wild beast roamed.
Though she had spent the better portion of four years traveling with the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle had never been that good of a woods woman. She could make camp and cook the meals Xena caught them, but she'd never been in such wild setting before without the warrior at her side.
Already a chill had begun to settle in the woods, and she cursed herself once more for her own foolishness. Xena must be beside herself with worry, not to mention the Amazons they had been set to meet.
Ephiny had sent word that the Amazon Queen and her consort were needed back in Amazonian due to strange events that had transpired the last several moons. The missive had been vaguely worded, and reached the two women once they had returned from Brittany.
It had taken the young messenger several weeks to locate the pair, and Xena had told them that they would be there as soon as possible. The young Amazon sensed that something that occurred between the two lovers that neither seemed quiet able to handle, and sped off to tell the regent the Queen would be arriving once the pair had had time to settle personal matters.
That had been one week ago, and the lovers had been making their way towards the Amazon's lands with unspoken secrets between them. Xena had warned her beloved bard not to wander far from their camp when the warrior went hunting.
Gabrielle had been happy enough to agree, wondering where her baby was, and if she was safe. She prayed each night that her child was a child of the light, and knew that Boudica had been aware of Gabrielle's deception.
Boudica and Ceaser's armies had begun a bloody battle that ended in a stalemate when the temple of the One God tore itself apart. The legions of Rome bore the brunt of the damage when the wave of fire had swept out across the valley floor, burning most where they stood.
Ceaser himself had been spared, but he had lost a quarter of his men in that fiery moment, and even he knew when to retreat. Boudica's men and women took advantage of the retreating army's confusion, and managed to slay dozens more until the Celtic Warrior Queen called her people off.
Wounded and weary, the flame haired warrioress had found the lovers hunkered in the ruins, and had met Xena's worried eyes with compassion. Xena gave the short version of the battle against Craftstar while the three women rode in the Warrior Queen's chariot.
When word of the bard's condition reached the embattled Warrior Queen she had sent out scouts to help the lovers, making sure that they reached a friendly port after the incident on the cliff.
The proud warrior had exchanged a warrior's clasp with her old ally, then faced Gabrielle once Xena had begun to bring their gear aboard the Phoenician trader's ship. Stern blue eyes studied the small woman with understanding, and the big woman gently squeezed the bard's left shoulder. "Hope is all we have, Gabrielle, that our children will make us proud of them. Only time will tell if your gamble will be the end or the beginning of something new..."
"Gabrielle, I am the Warrior Queen of this land, nothing happens that I do not notice. My scouts saw what you did. They had taken Hope to an island where she will be given guidance, and guarded, until she choices her path," Boudica murmured, then walked away to mount her chariot. "If she is her mother's daughter, she shall live a long and happy life, if she is not, then the priestess will do what they must. Either way, the matter is out of your hands."
Gabrielle took so small measure of comfort knowing that her daughter would be given a chance to decide her fate, knowing that the Warrior Queen's people would end Hope's life if she became evil. It had been this burden that the bard had kept deep inside herself, the same burden that had built a wall between the lovers.
Lost in thought the young Amazon Queen had heard the sweet trilling of a songbird that sparked her curiosity. Laying aside her camp chores, Gabrielle had followed the melodic song until she got a glimpse of a jewel bright bird.
In a flutter of feathers the bird had disappeared into the woods, and Gabrielle found herself drawn towards it's sweet song. Only after she had wandered through the dense undergrowth for several candle marks did she realize her mistake.
Wearing only her usual daytime attire and armed only with her staff, the bard sensed how vulnerable she was. Her skin had broken out with goose pimples and she shivered uncontrollably against the damp air.
All around her sounds of the awakening night creatures began filling the darkening skies, and she gripped her staff more firmly. Her staff worked well enough against most opponents, but she hoped she would not have to try her combat skills against a loin or bear or wolves....
Gabrielle's sea-green eyes narrowed when she heard something moving through the dense undergrowth towards her. She scanned the darkening undergrowth and cursed herself for being a fool. Other things began moving around the small glade she'd stumbled into, and gut instinct told the bard she was in trouble.
An eerie silence descended on the forest's creatures as the first rays of the full moon began filtering through the tree canopy. A thrill of dread dread hummed along the bard's spine and she glimpsed the outline of a massive canine-like beast advancing towards her.
"Down," commanded a strangely accented voice from behind the bard as the calf-sized animal sprang towards the bard.
Gabrielle complied, and heard the whistle of arrows slice the air above her head. A howl of pain informed the bard the arrows had found their intended target, but she did not have long to ponder what had transpired.
A strong, slender hand grasped her right elbow and urged the bard up. "To the tree..." her rescuer ordered, hustling the bard towards one of the towering forest giants where a knotted rope hung down. "Climb.... NOW!!"
Gabrielle saw what had inspired the urgency: half a dozen of the shaggy beasts had emerged from the undergrowth and began circling them. "Who-".
"Climb," snapped her rescuer as the evergreen and brown clad woman notched three arrows and let them flight. Two of the beasts yelped, and fell mortally wounded, but four more remained and the woman had no more arrows left.
In a fluid motion the woman threw aside her bow and drew her sword without another word. Her sword sang as she swept it through the night air, beheading one of the red-eyed things with grim determination.
Looping the leather carry strap over her shoulders the Amazon Queen clambered up the leather rope until she came to a man-wide branch sixty feet above the ground. Chest heaving more from the excitement than the exertion Gabrielle strained to hear the muffled sounds of the battle below.
The rope moved, and the mysterious warrior drew herself up onto the wide branch. Dark blood stained the sleekly built woman's leather and heavy linen tunic, but Gabrielle could not tell if the blood was the woman or the beast's she'd beheaded.
"Are you hurt?" the woman asked, pulling the rope up without looking at the bard.
"No...but you are," Gabrielle glimpsed the torn right sleeve and the nasty bite beneath it.
"It looks worse than it is..." the woman said, shaking her head in mild annoyance. "But that was my favorite bow those beasties are munching on. Come. It's time you and that big lout of a warrior are reunited...".
"She is on the other side of the forest, having followed the false trial I laid down so she would not wander into these woods. I think she should be safe, but there is no telling what can happen. Follow me."
Confused and worried about Xena,Argo and the Amazon escort, the bard rose and carefully began walking along the branch. At the end of the branch she discovered an old, but hopefully still strong vine bridge.
It bore the mark's of Amazon construction and seemed to have been recently repaired. Whoever the woman was she apparently was very familiar with the techniques and methods of Amazon woods lore and combat style. Section of the interconnecting aerial path were newly made, indicating the woman had been working here for sometime.
Gabrielle resisted the impulse to question the warrior since the woman seemed focused on their surroundings, raising one hand whenever she felt it necessary.
The waxing moon had reached its midpoint in the night sky when the bard her several anxious voices calling out her name, and relaxed when she heard Xena. The aerial route had taken them three candle marks by the bard's recooking, less time than she been lost, and she realized they had covered the same distance in less time.
On the edge of the forest there was blazing campfire surrounded by a tense knot of Amazons and one very angry Warrior Princess. It was apparent the search party had been unsuccessful finding the subject of their quest, and Xena's stance indicated she was fighting a losing battle with her temper.
"XENA," Gabrielle shouted as she slithered down the rope her rescuer had swiftly secured and lowered. Seven figures rushed towards the bard, Xena in the lead.
"Gabrielle," Xena's hoarse voice hinted how hard the warrior had been looking for her beloved bard as powerful arms gathered close. Salty tears of relief flowed down the warrior's drawn face, and she smiled. "Where have you been..."
"Lost..." Gabrielle admitted, feeling the strength of their bond renewed while she hugged the strong, warm body of her warrior close.
"Thank the gods," Solari murmured, pounding the towering arms mistress Eponin's back with a cheer. "We feared the worse when we could not track you..."
"It could have been worse, there some type of beasts in those woods..." Gabrielle interjected, hitching a thumb in the direction of the dark forest. "If it was not for my rescuer, I don't think I would be here right now."
"Rescuer?" Xena and the others exchanged glances and stared at the soaring tree.
Several of the Amazon drew their swords and others notched their bows when the branches rustled softly. A shadow cast form dropped out of the darkness with the feral grace of a wild thing, alighting beside the startled women and said, "Peace. I am an ally, not an enemy.. Xena."
Xena stiffened and did a double take as the figure walked cautiously into the firelight's edges. It was the first time that Gabrielle had the chance to really get a good look at the strange warrior. "Aidan?!"
"Ah, it is me, Xena," the woman's dark grey eyes twinkled with gentle good humor at the warrior's reaction.
"You were reported dead...." Xena stammered, disbelief giving way to pure joy. The warrior reached out and grabbed the other woman in a bone-crushing embrace.
Gabrielle and the Amazons watched the two women exchange a heartfelt embrace in bemusement, wondering who could evoke such emotions in the usually reserved woman. Xena stood several inches taller than the other warrior, and was more muscular in build than Aidan, but Gabrielle sensed the woman could hold her own against the bigger woman.
Aidan returned the embrace, then stepped back looking a bit winded. Xena's hugs could leave even Hercules wheezing for breath. Aidan grinned when the warrior reclaimed her hold on the bard, pleased by what she beheld.
"The reports of my death were wrong, but not by much. I spent six months in Niclo's care after Thaos..." Aidan's words made the warrior lower her head in shame.
"Thaos..Xena you said your army raided the island six years ago for its mineral wealth and wine," Gabrielle recalled the story of how that Xena had been drawn by the island's riches and months her army spent occupying it.
"Aidan had come to try and protect the inhabitants of the island, and led a band of rebels that eventually caused us to leave, but not before she reputedly lost her life saving some children and women from slavers. Before I became a warlord, before Ceaser, and the land of Chin, before Ares made me his creature, Aidan had found me. It was after the battle for Amphibolis. I was ambushed by some of Cortese's men, and left for dead in the woods...
I remember thinking that it was for the best when someone whispered it was not my time, and then nothing for days. When I finally woke up, it was inside a cave where Aidan had taken me. My wounds had been mended, but I was still dangerous weak, and she kept me safe.
I learned she was a ranger in training, one of the guardians of the wild lands and protectors of people and several years my junior. She taught much of the woods lore I know, and some healing techniques she'd been shown by Niclo.
She offered me friendship and guidance, but I was so angry and bitter that I used her. Once I was strong enough I left the sanctuary of the cave and returned to Amphibolis were my men awaited.
It was not till four years later that our paths crossed once, and I never knew that it was her until my arrow sent her off the cliff. Her identity was revealed when I tortured one of her rebels... And I realized that I had killed one of the few people who had helped me out of kindness."
"You're a ranger?" Eponin asked, a murmur rising among the small group of Amazon warriors. "Melosa had said that some remained, but we thought she must have been mistaken because none had been encountered in a generation."
"We are few in number and most have very large ranges that we cover, and we have found keeping a low profile is best. I have spent the last three years patrolling the areas of Ionia and beyond," Aidan paused and studied the gathered Amazons. "But the council of elders called me back when one of our brethren vanished in these woods four moons ago. Piers was a good friend, and a year mate of mine whose wife Rhea and children miss. I arrived here last moon, but found no hint of what had happened to him or the others that have vanished.."
"Why did you no come to the Amazons?" Solari asked, tone suspicious.
"It seemed best to keep myself concealed to find out what was happening, so I have been dwelling in the Wild woods and keeping watch," Aidan chuckled, recounting how her afternoon nap in the tree tops had been disturbed by the calls of certain Warrior Princess.
"But why did you lay a false trial down," Xena pressed.
"Because the seven of you would have destroyed what trail your companion had made, and to keep you out of harms way. Have any of you noticed that the wildlife has all but disappeared in certain areas of the forest? Whatever is happening is connected with those canine monsters that almost reached Gabrielle before I did," Aidan ran a hand through her rich chestnut mane and grimaced when she remembered the gore coating that hand.
"Not dogs, but some strange canine type animal. I felled twelve of them with my arrows, and two more with my sword before Gabrielle was in the shelter of the tree tops."
"You're hurt," Xena's sapphire-blue eyes narrowed at the dark fluid trickling down the woman's right forearm.
"Yes; one of the things got a few good bites when I was starting up the rope. It was a near thing," the woman managed a thin smile and gestured towards the fire. "I think we may want to keep several fires burning tonight."
"And the horses will need to be inside the ring," Xena included, thankful that she had had the sense to have those left at the camp gather all the wood they could. "Can you take care of the set-up, Eponin?"
"Consider it done, Xena," the muscular woman nudged two of the other Amazons and headed back toward the camp.
Solari remained near the Amazon Queen and her consort, watching for any hints of danger from the forest or the strange warrior. Gabrielle gave the worried Amazon a reassuring smile that made the dark eyed woman relax her vigilant stance marginally as they returned to the camp.
As they drew closer to the firelight the bard flinched when she saw that there were more than a few bites and cut marking the ranger. Xena's lips thinned when the extent of the wounds became obvious, but she kept her tongue.
Warriors rarely admitted to the extent of their injuries until the battle had ended, and Xena understood the reasons behind it. The bard, on the other hand, did not fathom the stoic manners these people put forth once the incident was done.
"Solari, get Xena's medical supplies, and have someone boil water. Xena and I have some wounds to tend," the tone was pure Queen as the bard scowled at her savior. "I will never understand warriors and wounds: you act as those you're not in pain, or badly hurt, when you are!"
Aidan, Solari and Xena crossed glances and both women laughed at the younger woman's outburst. "Gabrielle, any fight you can walk away from, the wounds are not that bad. Painful, yes, potentially dangerous, yes, but that you can walk means you survived the worse of it."
"Warriors..." Gabrielle muttered under her breath as they entered the campsite.
Xena motioned for the wounded ranger to sit beside the main fire, watching the Amazons efficiently set-up several other fire rings under Eponin's watchful eye. Solari brought Xena her medicinal pouch, and placed several water skins on rocks left to heat by the fire. Gabrielle accepted the fur-lined cloak brought to her by one of the younger Amazon warriors, and gave the woman's hands a gentle squeeze of gratitude.
"Here, let me see how bad those bite's are," Xena reached out and helped the ranger loosen her jerkin's butter soft leather ties.
Gabrielle studied the woman's garments with interest, noticing how the supple leather trousers and jerkin were dyed to match the verdant background, and the thick linen's light brown hues further helped camouflage the woman. Unlike Xena or the Amazons, the ranger had not armor, though she did have two daggers lashed to each thigh, and the sword she wore strapped across her back indicated the woman engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
Aidan flinched when Xena helped her shrug out of her tunic, and the bard's stomach lurched. A crimson stain had stained the left side of the woman's tunic, and Xena shot Aidan a less than pleased glance.
"There was no helping it, Xena. I had to get your bard back to you, there was not enough time to worry about some animal bites. Besides, I knew well enough that this wounds would require more attention than I could give them. I have had worse," Aidan reminded the annoyed Warrior Princess.
"And how did you know you could trust me?" Xena asked, helping the woman remove her tunic to reveal the woman's sun-bronzed, incredibly toned upper body. Though not as heavily muscled as Xena or Eponin, Aidan's body was a master-work of sculptured athletic beauty.
Gabrielle was not the only woman to appreciate the physical perfection revealed by the Warrior Princess, especially when Aidan loosen her lush mane of chestnut hair from its leather tie. If possible her beauty rivaled that of the Warrior Princess herself, and several of the Amazons were murmuring about the woman's sexual leanings.
"Your deeds have been spread far and wide by your bard, Xena, and I knew you would find your way, given time," Aidan responded, seemingly unaware of the speculative glances she was receiving. "And others believed as I did."
Xena lowered her intense sapphire-blue eyes and nodded, lower lip caught beneath her straight, white teeth as she examined the side wound. "You'll need stitches for this, and the arm bite. Has the water boiled yet, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, it's ready," Gabrielle brought the first of the heated skins of water over. "I did not get a chance to thank you for saving my life."
"It was an honor, Queen Gabrielle..."
"You knew about me?" Gabrielle squeaked.
Aidan's dark grey eyes sparkled in amusement as she said, "Xena's deeds are not the only ones that I have heard about. Thought we are secretive, we are well informed. And besides, your friends there kept yelling about how could a certain Warrior Princess misplace their queen."
"You watched us?"
"Long enough to discern the reason for the commotion and to lay down a trial," Aidan watched Eponin, Solari and Xena exchange looks. "Since I was able to walk, I have been trained to blend with my environment, to be one with my surroundings."
"Why did you not contact us, we could have helped find Gabrielle," Solari's dark eyes narrowed in mounting anger.
"And waste time explaining myself, risk losing the trial in woods that have already confused even my senses? Whatever has been causing these disappearances has been active for six or more moons, and has the stench of dark powers to it. Had I done what you asked, I fear that Gabrielle might have fallen victim to whatever forces control those things.
No, I did what I thought best under the circumstances, and have no
regrets about it. If it offends your sense of honor and duty, Solari, I am sorry, but it was necessary. Melosa knew my Grandmother, and counted us as friends, but if my presence causes you up-set than I shall not remain amidst your ranks."
"No; you are Xena's friend, and therefore mine as well. If Melosa trusted the rangers, so shall I. There will be no more discussion of the matter until we reach the royal village where it can be properly addressed," Gabrielle stated in cool tones that brooked no argument that the Queen had spoken once again.
Solari bowed her head in submission, and managed a thin smile, "I am sorry, Aidan, I meant no insult, but Gabrielle is special to us all. We Amazons have become very attached to our wandering monarch, and take no threat to her well being lightly."
"None taken. Friends," the ranger offered her wounded arm with a lopsided grin.
Solari carefully clasped the woman's arm, becoming more than mildly aware of the woman's current state of undress. The Amazon could not prevent her gaze from drifting lower in flustered appreciation. "Friends," the Amazon stammered, driving an elbow into the hard midsection of a certain Amazon arms mistress.
Eponin rubbed her mid-section with a evil grin and said, "Nothing like enjoying the natural wonders of the outdoors, eh?"
"You have a very dirty mind, Eponin," Solari groused,
"This is gonna hurt, " Xena warned the ranger as she began cleansing the nasty bite out. Aidan inhaled keenly, but did not flinch at the merciless efficiency of the Warrior Princess. "You need to lay on your good side, so I can flush the wound with wine."
With a curt nod the woman laid down on a blanket and silently endured the entire process, color draining out of her face as Xena began carefully stitching shut torn flesh. Xena's eyes drifted towards an old arrow wound that marred the woman's left shoulder and shut her eyes, recognize the pattern.
"I'm sorry, Aidan," Xena murmured, fingertips brushing over the old scar with glistening eyes. "Here, this tea will help fight infection and ease the pain."
Aidan accepted the earthenware mug and sipped the hot brew that Gabrielle had prepared.
"I forgave you a long time ago, Xena. Please, do not torture yourself about what is in the past. It is done."
Xena nodded, gratitude shining behind her expressive eyes as she began carefully wrapping the stitched wound.
"Xena said you fell off the sea-cliffs..." Gabrielle ventured carefully, wanting to understand the woman from her lover's past.
"Aye; I lost my footing and fell about one hundred feet, into a deep pool. I remember the shaft of the arrow catching on a rock as I struggled to the surface, the roar of the ocean pounding around me. The tide caught me, and pulled me away from the ragged cliffs to where some fisherman were working.
They realized who I was, and pulled me out to take me to the mainland. There they found some Amazons from another tribe waiting, and they brought me to Niclo. Or so I am told, since I was a bit delirious with fever there's not much I remember about the rest.
It was nearly two weeks later that I came out of it, and found myself in Niclo's mountain cabin. There I remained for the winter months, regaining my health and strength before the elders sent me to Ionia."
"Which tribe?" Gabrielle asked.
"I do not know. Niclo said they knew Melosa, but nothing more than that. It seems that one of the priestess had been told by Artemis that they would be needed. They left several days after leaving me with Niclo," Aidan answered honestly.
Xena shut her eyes, imagining what the ordeal must have been like, then continued treating the woman's wounds. Had she ever been as forgiving as the women who had graced her life? Aidan, M'lia, Lau Ma, and Gabrielle, women of exceptional courage and intelligence that had offered an embittered warrior hope.
True, Hercules had been a big part of her redemption, but the first three women had laid much of the internal ground-work towards that change. And Gabrielle had made it possible to endure the hard path of redemption Xena walked with love and friendship.
Aidan's relaxed posture became alert and the woman's keen eyes searched the darkness. "Trouble?" Xena questioned, rising.
"Perhaps... We are about to have company," Aidan rose and walked to the edge of the campsite, listening intently. Xena joined the woman, senses tuned to the subtle sounds the other woman had picked up much sooner. "Keep the other back..."
"Aidan," Xena touched her friend's bandaged side. "Be careful."
"Always," the ranger murmured and walked towards the grey shadows emerging from the forest. Eight wolves encircled the unarmed, half clad ranger, the biggest silver grey male padded silently forward.
"Xena..." Eponin started forward, hefting her heavy battle staff in scarred hands.
"She knows what she's doing..." Xena informed the stunned Amazon. "I hope."
Aidan kept her gaze lowered as the pack leader cautiously investigated the ranger. With a throaty growl the wolf challenged the woman, and watched her response. Aidan snarled back, assuming a more aggressive posture when the wolf bared his glistening white fangs.
In a flash of silver the wolf sprang forward and found himself snatched out of the air by the ranger. Aidan had the big animal prone on his back, throat and belly exposed while the other wolves watched the fight intently. Though he struggled to free himself the wolf could not break the hold the ranger had on him, and began whining.
Aidan kept her firm hold, but began making soft noises that soothed the wolf. She started rubbing his chest with firm strokes, all the time keeping herself clear of his jaws until the animal relaxed.
It seemed hours before the ranger released her grip and let the animal roll away. Ranger and wolf studied each other with unwavering attention until the wolf nuzzled the crouched woman's right hip. Aidan growled softly, sounding affectionate and reassuring while the wolf licked her hands and face with eagerness.
Aidan rose and made a motion that the pack leader followed with keen eyes. The wolf rejoined his pack, and melted back into the dark forest.
During the entire display no one in the camp had made a sound or dared to move, shocked by what had just happened. Even Xena found herself reevaluating what she thought she knew about the woman's skills.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle was the first to break the silence when Aidan ambled back towards the camp.
"Fine; just needed to explain my position to the pack. Normally, wolves avoid humans like the plague itself, but game has been sparse and the pack spooked..." Aidan snatched up her discarded tunic and tossed it into the fire. "And the scent of the strange beasts still clung to me. He could not tell if I was really human, or one of those things, so he attacked. I convinced him I was not the enemy, once I had his attention."
"You're bleeding again," Xena pointed to the soiled bandages.
"I know; felt the stitches tear when I grabbed the wolf. Sorry, but it needed to be done. There were about twenty other wolves surrounding us. Anything else would have made them attack us; the challenge seemed the best choice. Besides, the scent of those things must be very strong, so I think washing down is in order. Gabrielle, could you get the bar of soap in my pack?"
"Sure," the bard retrieved the much battered, small leather backpack the woman used. Reaching inside she found a small, leather wrapped bundle the size of her curled fist that smelled of pine and cedar. "Is this it?"
"Yes; there's a spare tunic, too."
"Are we safe now?" Xena inquired, helping the woman undo the stained bandages.
"From the wolves, yes. And I doubt those things will risk an out and out battle with wolves. They had no apparent coordination, no defined structure unlike the wolves. Besides, most of the incidents have occurred well east and west of us. But, I'd keep the fires burning, and several guards on duty," Aidan shook her head and studied the moonlight sky. "The wolves will warn us, should I be wrong."
Xena arched an eyebrow.
"You might say that I'm part of the pack now; they are loyal, loving creatures unless driven by famine, disease or dark powers. Of all the animal in the woods, wolves I trust the most. Bears and wild cats can be too unpredictable, but wolves have a well ordered social structure that can be used, if understood," Aidan started washing herself off, flinching when Xena touched a nasty bruise. "And they can play real rough..."
"And you thought I was the master of understatement," Xena teased the bard hoovering close by.
"But wolves are dangerous animals...." Solari insisted.
"And humans are not? Some people would deem your people dangerous and unworthy of being free, because they do not understand that most Amazons are brave, trustworthy people merely living by their own social order," Aidan responded, glancing at the Amazons clustered around her. "But if one takes time to learn about you, they would realize such views are mostly incorrect."
"Mostly ?," Eponin challenged with a broad grin.
"There have been outlawed bands in your nation, but they are the exception rather than the norm..."
"Ah, a warrior-philosopher, I see," Eponin ran her fingers through her tawny mane and met the ranger's eyes. "You are very sure of yourself."
Aidan grinned back and studied the brawny Amazon through narrowed eyes, "As are you, Eponin."
Amazon and ranger locked gazes, neither seeming cognizant of their immediate surroundings for a few moments until Solari nudged her friend's side playfully. "We have first shift, Ep."
"Yes; first watch..." Eponin stammered, reluctantly breaking eye contact she gave her life-long friend an icy glare. Solari's eye brows arched in surprise, and comprehension dawned behind her dark eyes.
Xena noticed how Aidan watched the woman's departure with a bemused expression. Gabrielle's trained eye had missed nothing, and no doubt was committing the details of the night to memory. If they survived whatever was happening, the bard would create a unique epic out the ranger's story.
"Ready for a rinse?" Gabrielle held up one of the heated skins and some clean rags.
"Yes; I think the soap should have removed the last traces of those creature's scent..." Aidan braced herself when the bard squeezed the water skin, creating a stream of heated water that rinsed away the soap, dirt and blood.
After two more such dousings she used one of the clean rags to dry herself off. Xena washed down the wound-site and began restitching, saying "Next time, I charge you, Aidan!".
"Next time you can use your charkrum, Xena.." Aidan retorted, enduring the painful process once more.
"Here; this tea will help you," Gabrielle offered a steaming earthen mug. "I will help you get some rest; it's one of Xena better tasting teas that will cure what ails you."
"Drink it," Xena did not look up from her work. "You need sleep and fluid, so don't argue with me."
Aidan snickered and accepted the mug, "Hmm, magic brew tastes good.."
"Ah, the barbarian speaks..." Xena intoned, grinning at her lover's baffled expression. "The first time I really regained consciousness in the cave I found myself confront by this strangely clad young woman carrying a buck on her shoulders. She seemed so foreign, so uncivilized, I muttered...
"Oh great, a barbarian has found me," the two women said simultaneously.
"I was certain she could not speak my language, since I was a Greek, and she was obviously...a barbarian. Aidan let me rant on for a good while, then hunkered in front of me and said: it's Greek to me."
Gabrielle beamed, envisioning the moment of revelation, asked, "And what did you do then?"
"Demanded she take me back to Amphibolis right then and there..." Xena finished her handiwork with a flourish. "And Aidan replied that was not possible, pointing out I was in no shape for such a journey."
"And Xena didn't try to escape?"
"Of course she did. I had realized she would likely try to leave, so I hid her clothes, and my stuff, in some tree branches. I never heard some of the words she used next, but she realized she had no choice in the matter."
"There, that should do it. Speaking of clothes, we need to get you dressed and keep you warm. Do you have a bedroll?"
"Back at my campsite. I brought my 'pack since it contains some of my important gear and medicine pouch; the shirt and soap where for tomorrow morning..." Aidan rubbed the back of her neck and grinned.
"What equipment," Gabrielle inquired, brimming with curiosity as she laid the pack by the woman's feet.
"Pretty much what Xena uses, with a few exceptions.." Aidan noticed the Amazons not on watch were also listening, interested in the trappings of her trade. Fishing inside her bag she pulled out her spare tunic, and four strange mutli-pronged metal devices with supple leather bracing and straps. Once she donned her tunic, she held up the metal devices. "These let me climb any tree, not matter how high and hard. Two fit over my hands and wrists, the others strap onto my ankles, and give me purchase. I don't use them that much, but they come in handy."
"For more than climbing," Xena stated.
"Yes; they can be used as weapons when necessary," Aidan shrugged her shoulders.
"Nasty," one of the Amazons commented, running one hand over the rucked scars left by a lioness on her left leg. "It would be like a big cat attack."
"Basically; I've never had to use them as such, but my companions have. The wounds are very much like a lion mauling."
"I am Dara, and my friends are Thalia and Brina..." Dara introduced the two other Amazons, and gestured towards the metal devices. "May I examine them?"
"Yes; the lioness that attacked you was very large," Aidan ventured, noting the cloak the tawny haired woman wore with a raised eye-brow.
"And she learned an Amazon warrior is not an easy meal; she makes an excellent cloak, don't you think?"
Gabrielle's attention focused now on the green eyed Amazon she had met briefly several times, and said, "Just like Hercules did with the ********* lion! Of course, he wore it for a while. His mother has it hanging over her mantle at her house."
Dara fingered her cloak and glanced towards the raven haired, browned eyed Brina with twinkling eyes, "Brina and I have found better uses for my lioness' skin, eh love?"
"Yes; we have, my proud huntress," the shorter woman squeezed her lover's knee affectionately.
Dara laughed, and studied the well made climbing claws with a critical eye. "The Amazons have similar devices, but nothing as effective as this would be..."
Xena motioned for the others to be quiet, hitching a thumb towards the ranger. The ranger had fallen asleep, back propped against the stump behind her. Xena gathered the slumbering woman up as though she weighed nothing and carefully laid her down on her own bedroll. Gabrielle and she could share the bard's bedroll, she mused.
Gabrielle draped a spare blanket across the ranger, smiling at her lover. Xena's special tea had done it's job; the ranger would sleep till morning.
The other women soon bedded down for the night, knowing they needed to sharp for their own up-coming watches. Xena made sure she and Gabrielle were closest to the ranger, the bard cradled close.
"Xena..." Gabrielle clutched her lover's arm and pointed towards what the warrior had been aware of all night. The wolves were encircling the encampment, having spent the night sharing the watch.
"They never left the area: Aidan knew it, too," Xena murmured, awe struck by the majestic packleader's true size as the animal rose from beside his mate. He must have weighed a good hundred and thirty pounds, yet Aidan had wrestled him down with such apparent ease.
The Amazons watched the ghostlike forms disappearing into the early morning mist, transfixed by what they beheld. Aidan walked forwards towards the edge of the encampment once more, hunkering low mere yards from the big animal. She kept her eyes averted and permitted the wolf to close the distance, sharing something only they understood.
Wolf and woman regarded each other with mutual respect for several moments, then the wolf turned and followed his mate and pack back into the forest. Aidan rose, dusting herself off and shrugged her shoulders, "Told you, wolves are loyal friends."
"How..." Solari stammered, realizing she would not comprehend what she had witnessed, and shook her head. "You must be part wolf yourself."
"Perhaps I am, Solari," the ranger teased, flashing the usually unflappable woman a wolvish grin.
"I assume you're feeling much better, eh?"
"Yes; whatever was in your tea seems to have helped, Xena."
"Good; it's about another six candle marks back to Amazon land. The more distance we put between us and these woods, the happier I'll be," Xena stated, sensing the others shared her sentiments.
"Fair enough; Amazons, break camp," Eponin called out, joining her sisters in the task. "We can eat while riding."
Everyone pitched in, and the fires were soon doused and smothered, and gear stored away. Xena mounted up behind her beloved bard, noticing that the Amazons were having a heated debated about who the ranger would ride with.
Aidan stretched for several minutes, warming up her muscles then smoothly began loping in the right direction. Her gait carried her effortlessly forward, bringing the verbal exchange to an abrupt end. "But she's hurt..." Dara stammered, pointing towards the receding form already cresting the hilltop half a league distant.
Xena laughed, and shook her head, "I saw her match pace with a running buck just for fun; she travels faster on foot than most riders do on a decent mount, and if she needed a ride, she would ask for it."
"She matched a running buck..." Eponin's eyes tracked the woman's progress.
"For one entire league," Xena recalled how she watched the young woman keep pace with the racing animal. "Shall we?"
"That's it: she has to be part wolf, or something," Solari groused, intrigued despite herself.
With that statement the riders went to join the running woman whose fluid stride showed no signs of tiring even six leagues later. She and Eponin conversed most of the distance, unaware of the knowing looks exchanged between the others.
"Aidan, how did you get here from Ionia?" Gabrielle inquired when the small group crested the top of a hill.
"Actually, I was near Olbia..." Aidan paused, sipping at the water skin she carried.
"You didn't run here, did you?" Solari sputtered.
"She took a ship," Xena pronounced.
"Ah, no, I did not take a ship either..." Aidan drank another mouthful of water, the hint of a smile pulling at her lips.
"Then how did you get here?"
"I got a lift," Aidan inclined her head towards the eastern horizon where a midnight black and golden form rode the air currents high above the lush valley. "from a friend of mine."
The perplexed women watched the form hurtle through the clouds, becoming more distinct with each passing moment. Golden wings sweeping powerfully downwards, the sable winged horse gave a mighty call that made the earth bound horses stomp their hooves and snort.
In swirl of gold and black the stallion landed beside the ranger and pranced forward in a display of grace and strength. Aidan reached up and smoothed the forelock of the golden maned Pegasus and murmured softly to the sapphire-blue eyed animal. "This is Nightbeam..."
"He's a Pegasus," Gabrielle stammered, watching the mythical creature softly nuzzle Aidan's sweaty throat, licking the moisture away.
"Yes; I saved him from a hunter's snare five summer ago in the wild mountains of Anatolia... His mother had broken her legs trying to free herself, and foaled soon afterwards. I had to slay his mother, since her legs had begun to fester with infection, and tend his wounds gotten at birth. His injuries took four moons to mend properly, and more moons to win his trust entirely," Aidan pressed a kiss into the stallion's arched neck, then reached inside her backpack for an apple. "Here you go, brave one."
Nightbeam neighed softly and accepted the gift, gaze never leaving the other horses or their riders.
"How do you ride him," Xena questioned, slowly dismounting when Aidan nodded approval.
"With his permission and a special harness made of leather ropes to help me keep my seat, no bridle nor reins: he and I understand each other. Here; offer him another apple, Xena."
The Warrior Princess accepted the small fruit and carefully extended her hand. A radiant smile etched across the dark haired warrior's face as the Pegasus ate the fruit, sparing the golden mare a curious look at her snort.
The other women carefully dismounted and approached the wondrous animal, eager to touch one of the most legendary of creatures. Nightbeam permitted the women to caress his glossy hide until he decided he had had enough.
With loud snort he stepped back and dipped his head towards the golden war mare, Argo, then turned sharply and raced down the hillside. In four wing beats he was airborne and spiraling higher into the azure blue skies where other winged forms moved.
"Okay, she rides a midnight and golden winged stallion, talks with wolves, moves like a phantom through wild lands, and runs like a gazelle...." Solari cast a beseeching look heavenwards and said, "What next, walking on water?"
Aidan burst out laughing and shot the Amazon a humorous look that made Solari grumble good naturedly about what Ephiny would think. Ephiny and her lover would no doubt spend part of the night discussing what had happened, Xena guessed.
Solari and Ephiny had become lovers following the battle with Valeska, and the two women were considering a formal union, once this newest crisis was resolved. Gabrielle and Solari had spoken during the night, the two friends enjoying the pleasure of each other's company.
"We are just another league from our lands, it would be best if you rode with one of us," Eponin announced, remounting smoothly she offered her hand.
Aidan accepted the offering and settled herself in front of the Amazon. Eponin strong arms gently encircled the other woman's slender waist and urged her mount forward. There were more than a few envious eyes cast upon the pair as the women continued the journey.
"Xena, did you see Eponin's eyes?" Gabrielle whispered, hugging her warrior from behind. "I've never seen her act like this... Do you think?"
"Yes, love, I do," Xena answered, thinking about how she had acted the same around Gabrielle. Gabrielle had become the source of the warrior's strength, joy and hope. There was nothing she would not do for the bard, and nothing the bard would not do for her warrior.
Though their love had been tested sorely, it had proven itself true and just.
The remaining ride was passed in silence, each woman lost in her own thoughts.
Part Two: Dark Magic
Solari returned the sentries bird calls with the proper response, clasping her hands above her head in a sign of peace. Seven masked warriors slid out of the tree tops and surrounded the riders, one slender form pushing back her mask with a relieved smile.
"Thanks the Goddesses you are all right! A village near where you met reported that two farm families vanished last night, and their animals were either torn apart or missing, too," Ephiny opened her arms for a heart felt embrace with her friend and Queen, frowning at the lines of worry newly etched on the young monarch's face.
"We can talk later, Ephiny," Gabrielle assured her dear friend, watching Xena dismount with ease. The regent and the warrior clasped forearms, the consort of the regent sharing a private smile. "We have an ally and guest, Aidan of the Rangers..."
Ephiny's hazel eyes grew wide in surprise when the chestnut haired woman bowed her head. "Then it is true; the Centaurs said others of your kind have arrived. Two women-one past her prime, the other young, and a dark man wearing the garments of the wild lands of Britannic."
"Sounds like Selene and Coral, the male sounds like Theron, but he has been in the West lands of the Isles. Strange, it has been several years since we last heard from him, but he has always been somewhat an enigma amidst our ranks," Aidan murmured, shaking her head and dismissing a vague sense of dismay.
"Aidan, what does he look like?"
"Dark like a raven: jet black hair worn in a warrior's braid, black eyes, well muscled and tall, if you like such things," Aidan answered, sensing the big warrior behind her chuckling softly. "It has been near four summers since we last met at a council session; he was his usual silent self."
Xena recalled the dark rider she'd spotted outside the ruined temple of Dahok, and knew the rider and ranger were one in the same. It remained to be seen if he was friend or foe, the warrior thought grimly as she watched the chestnut haired woman.
"I suggest we return to the village; we can discuss matters once you have had a chance to wash and eat," Ephiny grinned when the bard's sea-green eyes brightened at the prospect of the feast no doubt awaiting her.
Ephiny swang up behind Solari, whispering something that only the warrior could hear, but the wicked grin etching across the woman's face spoke volumes. No doubt the regent and her mate would enjoy their reunion, albeit a brief period of separation that they had endured.
It was another two candle marks before the party rode through the well fortified eastern gate where the Amazons greeted their returning Queen with shouts of joy. The sun had passed its high point, and was sinking towards the western horizon.
Night would fall in another four candle marks and the waning moon would rise once more in the night sky. Xena noticed that the Amazons had reinforced the defense walls, and tripled the standing guards. All brush within four hundred yards surrounding the large village had been burnt back, the blackened land affording no place of concealment on the barren ground and archers moved effortlessly through the trees outside the gates in pairs.
Ephiny and her sisters had left nothing to chance. The village population had swelled, farmers having been made to move inside the shelter of the fortified village during the waxing of the moon. It was obvious the women were sharing close quarters, but they did so in good spirits.
Children raced around tolerant teenagers assigned the task of overseeing the little ones while all able bodied women shared the task of keeping the village clean and safe. Even those warrior assigned to the outermost ranges of the Amazon's lands were inside the walls, the confinement showing in their tense stances.
"All Amazon villages have found themselves equally bursting at the seams; I fear that you and Gabrielle will be sharing quarters with myself and Solari. Aidan, we'll find you someplace..."
"She may share my hut," Eponin offered, risking the censure of her regent and dear friend.
"It's an appealing offer, but one I must decline. This night I intend to be waiting and watching for the master of those creatures that attacked Gabrielle..."
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny demanded, paling visibly at the thought of the bard in danger. "What attack, what creatures..."
"It is a task best left to the talents of your bard queen; if I am to do what I have been sent to do I must rest and wash," Aidan dismounted, glancing up at the arms mistress. "Perhaps I might share your quarters once the moon has waned?"
"Count on it," Eponin slipped off her mount and glanced back towards Dara. "Dara, could you tend Tarsa? I will show Aidan the bathhouse and my hut: I will make sure no interrupts your rest, unless you want it."
"That's if I and Gabrielle permit you to leave the village..." Ephiny studied the woman. "You have been wounded, and we heard you ran most of the way here."
"True enough, but I have endured far worse. You have your duties, I have mine. I mean no disrespect, but I can not remain safe here while others might be endangered. It is my code of honor, my oath before the ancient mothers and their daughters that I must follow."
"I have many skills, some which she taught me: she makes me look clumsy in woods lore, even wounded. I'm not thrilled at the prospect, but she's right: she saved Gabrielle, maybe she can save some others."
"Then it is decided: you will do what you must, as will we. Eponin, make sure she has whatever supplies she requires. Xena and you will watch the walls tonight. Except for those sentries stationed outside, no else will be allowed in or out this night. Gabrielle, you and Xena may bath in the royal hut. We will discuss this matter once you have washed and eaten."
Gabrielle nodded, watching the ranger and arms mistress walk across the center of the village. The mood had become darker in the village, and the bard was grateful that her warrior would not be outside the sheltering walls this night.
It was dusk when the ranger emerged from the arms mistress's hut, an Amazon bow slung across her chest she walked alongside Eponin. Her baldric's buffed leather straps showed recent work, the pommel of her long sword rose behind her left shoulder. Her hair had been tied an intricate warrior's braid that rested between her shoulder blades.
The golden mane warrior had spent most of the remaining day inside the Queen's hut, laying out the plans for the coming night with the others.
Both Gabrielle and Ephiny disliked the idea of the ranger leaving the safety of the village, but the Warrior Princess quelled their protests. Eponin had reluctantly agreed with the raven haired, blue eyed warrior's assessment: Aidan was the best candidate.
"Is there no other way?"
"None that I can think of, Eponin. If I can spare another's life, even if it means my own, it is what I sworn to. I am a ranger...it means sometimes what we want is secondary to the needs of the wild lands and innocents needing our help."
"Aidan, I am not good with words, not like our bard-queen, but I felt something today. It is like nothing I have experienced before..." Eponin fumbled for further words when they neared the gates. "Ah, you must think I am addled, to speak of such things when we barely know each other!"
"You are not addled, Eponin of the Amazons. What you felt was shared," Aidan touched the towering woman's blushing cheek gently. "But this is not the time to discuss what has passed between us...tomorrow will be."
In the gathering gloom the other Amazons and the Warrior Princess granted the pair a moment of privacy until the sun had begun sinking behind the horizon. Xena cleared her throat and hitched a thumb towards the rising moon, "It's time..."
Aidan stepped away from the distressed arm's mistress and stepped towards the gate. Xena motioned towards the guards watching the stout gateway and said, "Don't make me regret my words, Aidan."
"Ah, the bard has affected you in more than one way..." Aidan teased, flashing a grin to the two women she vanished into the darkness of the night.
Gabrielle brought the tray laden with steaming mugs of tea up onto the walkway where Xena and Eponin held command. Both women were grateful for the strong brew that would keep them alert, Xena pressing a quick kiss onto the bard's smooth brow.
"No; it's been quiet, too quiet," Xena answered, restless eyes scanning the horizon she watched the moon's descent.
"What about the sentries," Gabrielle scanned the trees near the edge of the burned area.
"So far, so good. But there haven't been any sentries taken this close..."
"To the east!" shouted one of the Amazons stationed nearest the eastern wall.
"Gabrielle, get down..."
"Now; Dara, take her back to the royal palace. Ep, you're with me. Maia, keep sharp," the warrior barked, watching the incensed bard being swiftly escorted out of harm's way. Xena and Ephiny ran towards the commotion and saw what the guards were watching: two small children were stumbling towards the gate, crying for help.
Amazon children. From the next village two valleys over where some had family. Cries of horror and demands that the gate be opened were being shouted out while Xena tried to regain control of the frightened warriors. "We can't leave them outside," one of the guards snapped, ready to throw open the gates.
The children drew within javelin range of the gates.
"Look...It's Aidan," Eponin shouted, pointing at the figure racing across the moonlight expanse, bow held at the ready. Shadows raced towards the small figures, closing the distance faster than the running woman. "Goddess.."
"We must open the gates," a warrior named Kyrstal shouted, pushing past the Warrior Princess and rushing down the steps.
Aidan calmly raised her Amazon bow and sighted, two arrows singing through the predawn air aimed not at the canine creatures, but for the children. Screams of protest and rage rose from the defenders on the wall when both arrows found their intended marks: the little ones.
"Murderous bitch," bellowed one of the more massive warriors, hefting her javelin she threw it with expertise and raw power. Medea was a champion javelin-thrower amongst her warrior sisters, the javelin hit Aidan's right side.
The ranger staggered backwards, hands clutching the lethal projectile in disbelief as she sank to her knees. She watched two of the huge war dogs turn and stalk forward, coal red eyes focused on their helpless prey.
"Look..." one of the warrior's called out, pointing towards the 'children'. Both had fallen to the ground, dead, their true shapes revealed: they were men dressed in dark leather armor. It had been a ploy to have the Amazons recklessly throw open their gateway.
Xena somersaulted off the walkway and hit the ground running, sword drawn.
"AAAIIIYYYIII," the warrior's famous battle-cry brought the canine creatures around as she raced towards them. Dawn's light swept forward, the massive beasts retreated, vanishing like phantoms into the last shadows of the retreating night.
"Aidan," Xena re-sheathed her sword and knelt beside the semi-conscious woman. Pain fogged grey eyes focused wearily on the raven haired woman's frantic blue ones, and rueful smile touched the ranger's lips, "Guess you're going to charge me, huh?"
"Yeah..." the warrior heard the others opening the gate and hurrying towards the two women. "Aidan, stay with me..."
"Damn, this really hurts," Aidan groaned, unable to prevent tears running down her drawn face. "Wild hunt... Xena.."
"What," Xena watched helplessly as the woman's eyes slide shut.
"Aidan?" Eponin's stricken expression darkened when she saw the damage wrought by one of her own sisters. "Medea, if she dies, you will die, too!"
The muscular arms mistress vowed, casting a dark glare at the shocked javelin-thrower. Medea bowed her head and whispered, "She saved us from our own folly; if she dies, then I shall give myself over to Hades, Eponin."
"Enough! Get a stretcher and have Althea and Doria prepare the healer's cabin. Ep, hold the spear steady while I bind it in place. Medea, hold her still..." Xena commanded, lips compressed into a thin line.
She spared a glance to where the two fighters had fallen and frowned. Both bodies had vanished. Eponin cast a sideways glance towards the spot and said, "Where in Hades did they go?"
"I have no idea, but it means we're in real trouble. Right now, let's focus on Aidan."
Dara and Brina emerged carrying a litter that the groaning ranger was carefully laid on, under the guidance of Xena's watchful eye. Amazons cleared the way for the solemn group, the warrior princess whispering words of encouragement to grievously wounded ranger. Gabrielle and Ephiny waited outside the healer's place, the regent and queen wearing twin expressions of concern and anger.
Medea heard her sisters murmuring about the incident on the wall, the warrior's dark eyes glistening with unshed tears of remorse. Gabrielle studied the woman's downcast demeanor and whispered into Ephiny's ear, the regent nodding in agreement. "Dorcus, make sure our sister does not do something rash to herself. And Eponin, you will not pass judgment on your sister. She made a mistake, we have all made similar ones; it is an emotional time, not time to render decisions without due consideration," Gabrielle announced, Ephiny standing directly behind her young queen. "Remain vigilant, Amazons."
The healer chased out all those considered unnecessary, though they kept Eponin and Dara to help them remove the javelin.
Aidan's scream rose above the sounds of the roused village, then the cabin became silent.
Xena pressed clean clothes down over the grisly wound, staunching the blood flow once the head of the javelin had been pushed through. It was a deep wound, but there was not stench of nicked bowel or signs of organ damage. Aidan had screamed when the Warrior Princess shoved the head of the javelin out the opposite side, passing out with a low moan. It had taken the combined strength of Eponin and Dara to hold the struggling woman down during the worse part of the process.
"Artemis be praised, her pulse is still strong," Althea said, permitting herself a smile the silver haired healer motioned her pupil forward. "If she has not lost too much blood, I think she should live..."
Xena nodded, preparing the best herbs for healing such a serve wound while Eponin kept direct pressure on it. The somber women flushed the wound site using strong wine, then the dark haired warrior began the process of cautiously stitching shut the wound.
Althea and Doria busily readied the salve and fresh bandages, Eponin and Dara standing by should they be needed. "She will have to drink broth and water to replace the blood she lost," Althea informed her earnest trainee as Xena asked for more light.
It was noon when the exhausted Warrior Princess stepped out into the light, and a runner headed towards the royal palace where the queen and regent discussed the news of last night's events. Xena watched Dara and her beloved embrace, the smaller woman whispering soft words into the lioness cloaked woman's right ear.
Eponin had insisted she stay beside the injured woman, and the healers quietly accepted the powerfully built woman's silent challenge. Xena hoped the ranger would survive her most recent brush with death, especially since she had known what those things were.
The warrior shuddered mentally at the memory of those things, and what would have happened if they Amazons had managed to open the gates. Aidan had realized what those monstrous beings were, and had done the only thing to prevent the Amazons from making a tragic mistake.
Her bold action might still cost her her life. Xena had seen strong men die from lesser wounds, and she prayed her friend would prove her wrong. Aidan's pallor and repressed breathing worried Xena and the healers. Even the woman's steady pulse had declined, the next few candle marks would tell whether or not the woman would survive.
Half way across the village square Gabrielle, Ephiny, and Solari emerged from the royal palace to meet the somber warrior. The young queen reached up and swept an errant lock of hair out those sapphire-blue orbs, whispering, "Come on. You need a bath and some food; we'll talk about what happened, too."
Xena permitted her lover to guide her into the royal palace where a steaming tub awaited the warrior. Gabrielle began undoing the buckles and straps that held the warrior's breast plate in place, and soon had the woman stripped down to her leathers.
"The scouts reported that Aidan's fellow rangers reported nothing unusual around the Centaurs lands, but there was an incident that occurred in one of our villages. Two sentries reported that they saw what appeared to be small army moving surrounded by those things from the Wildwood. At the forefront was a dark rider whose mount ran above the ground...." Gabrielle paused, urging her warrior into the huge tub she began rinsing her hair. "The sentries remained in the safety of the trees, and investigated the area in the morning. Xena, there was no trail left behind, thought both warriors swear the army must have had over a hundred men. And a farm stead run by one of the Amazons was found burnt down. There was no sign of the farmer nor her family, and the livestock had been torn apart."
"Why didn't they go into their village?"
"Petra told her sisters she did not believe the stories about phantoms roaming the Wildwood, nor the adjacent lands, so she and her mate and children remained at their farm. The sentries never saw the flames or smoke during the night, even though the farm was half a league away."
"What did our sentries report?"
"Nothing other than seeing Aidan apparently in pursuit of something or someone until those things appeared near the gate. They spotted the same rider moments before Medea threw her javelin watching. And men wearing black amour just outside the gateway. Xena, what's happening?"
"I don't know, but I think Aidan knows what we're up against. She knew what would happen if we opened the gate..." Xena heaved a weary sigh and smiled bitterly at her bard. "If she survives, she might be able to tell us what she learned."
"Frightened, angry, and guilt stricken. She blames herself for not having been quick enough to stop Medea's cast. If Aidan dies, I would not want to be in Medea's boots," Xena relaxed under Gabrielle's expert ministrations, the warmth of the water and the bard's touch draining away her tension. "Join me?"
"Of course," Gabrielle whispered, undressing she poured another bucket of heated water into the tub. "I like it hot."
"I know, so do I," Xena replied, arching one eye-brow in silent challenge.
Gabrielle laughed, granting herself and Xena a momentary respite from their duties. Slick skin smoothed against slick skin when the two women moved together, wanting nothing more than a reaffirmation of their love.
Xena entered the dimly illuminated cabin and glanced at the dozing Althea. Eponin had been convinced that she needed fresh air and a good bath by Solari earlier in the day, since the arms mistress had been by Aidan's side for three days.
If the warrior had not known better she would have thought the ranger dead, so still had she been. At one point Althea had thought the woman had passed over until she found the faint pulse and breathe that proved otherwise.
"You must be Xena," a husky voice pronounced from the shadows, the speaker the silver haired, cobalt blue eyed woman called Selene.
"I'd heard you arrived this afternoon. Do you know what's happening to her?"
"It's a healing trance; it's a practice imported from one of the eastern lands. If the person goes too deep, there is a chance they may not awaken. How long has she been like this?"
"Almost five days. Nothing has brought her up, and we dare not give her too much water or broth for fear of harming her. What's the longest anyone has been in this state and regained awareness?"
"Three days," Selene shook her head and smiled bitterly. "If Niclo were here, he could help us."
"You know Niclo?" Xena studied the woman with renewed interest.
"I should; we have been life mates for twenty years. He has other duties that prevented him from joining me; he sends his regards, warrior. It is not often one returns from the dead."
"How long have you known Aidan?"
"From the day her mother Thalia birthed her in Illyricum twenty six summers ago. Thalia and Kalliope were so happy to have a daughter, they were a happy family. An Amazon warrior and her healer wife, both rangers. Kalliope was killed when Aidan was ten by raiders, Thalia never took another lover once her beloved fell," Selene shook her head and smiled softly. "Aidan was already in her fifth year of training when it happened. Thalia vanished two summers ago. We have no idea what befell her, but Aidan has not stopped searching for her mother.
It was her grandmother's final request before she gave Aidan that sword she'd born all those years. It's a strange weapon, much like it's first bearer and present one. Aidan has been like a daughter to me..."
"If you had stumbled across my range when you followed Ares, warrior, I would have done my level best to kill you. Oaths be damned. I hated you. Niclo healed you because M'lia begged him, even though he had no love of you. But he would have taken care of you. He is a healer, a man of compassion," Selene straightened to her full height and grinned down at Xena. "I am not so very forgiving."
"A trait Aidan does not share," Xena replied, bristling under the woman's implied threat. No doubt the woman could hold her own in a battle, but the years when she might have matched Xena were past.
"Selene, Xena is my friend..." a hoarse voice interjected, startling both women.
"Aidan," Selene's demeanor changed immediately. She knelt beside the cot and touched the young woman's pale forehead. "You have been gone long."
"Not so long," Aidan managed a weak smile and glanced at the Warrior Princess. "Xena.."
"Aidan," the raven haired warrior gripped the ranger's proffered right arm in a warrior's clasp. "Are you hungry?"
"Yes; but first, can I bathe? I smell worse than a bear den after the winter season," Aidan's nose crinkled at her own ripe smell.
"Ah, the sleeping one has rejoined us," Althea murmured, rousing with a blink of weary eyes.
"Yes; she has. Before we talk about a bath, we'd better check the wound,' Xena insisted, carefully unwinding the bandages. The warrior gently probed the area, humming softly under her breath. "It looks good. Whatever you did seems to have helped the wound heal very nicely."
"She really needed a bath," Xena teased as she finished the examination. "The stitches might be able to come out pretty soon; you should teach me that technique."
"It takes time to learn, but you use meditation, so it should not be hard for you to understand. Where's Gabrielle and Ephiny?"
"Here," Ephiny announced crisply, entering the cabin with her queen. The two had been practicing with battle staves when word had been sent by the guard outside that the ranger had regained consciousness.
"What do you remember about the night you were injured?"
"Everything...first, though, I would like to have a hot bath and fresh air.." Aidan leveled herself up onto her elbows despite Althea's protests. "I'm just tired, nothing more. Xena would not let me move if she thought there was danger of reopening her handiwork, would you?"
"I'd tie you down, if necessary," Xena stressed, arms folding across her ample chest. "But I have to have to agree with Althea; let us carry you to the tub when it's ready. We'll do the work, you were almost killed."
"Aidan, you will have to listen to what the healers' say. I am not going to loose you to stubborn pride," Selene stood beside Xena, arms folding across her smaller chest.
Ephiny and Gabrielle assumed similar stances, and the ranger mumbled under her breath about unfair advantages as she laid back down. Water was swiftly prepared for the bath located in the third room of the large cabin, and Xena carried the protesting woman to the tub once it was ready.
"Ah, this reminds me of when you were a mere babe," Selene declared, taking on the task of washing the blushing ranger. "You were always coming in covered head to toe with the grime of unknown origin, some animal following you."
"A typical Amazon child," Ephiny laughed, recalling how her own mother had lamented that there was more dirt on her youngest than the ground itself.
"So Kalliope insisted," Selene scrubbed behind the muttering young woman's ears.
"She had a way with wild things," Gabrielle pressed, envisioning the wolves surrounding their recent camp.
"Yes. She has a fondest them, and they for her. One time she wandered into the Amazon village followed by a she-bear and cubs. Aidan was five years old then, and her gifts were apparent when she explained the bear and cub were her 'friends'. Everyone thought she'd been playing with one of the farm steaders children, not a she-bear and her cubs!"
"You played with wild bears," the bard blinked in disbelief.
"Well, they were my friends," Aidan said in a nonplused manner as she endured the thorough scrubbing she was receiving.
"An animal sacred to Artemis," Althea reminded the assembled women.
"Yes; Kalliope and the Amazons took it as a sign of Artemis's blessings on Aidan and the community. The she-bear remained near the community until Aidan left for her formal training with the rangers."
"And wolves are sacred to Apollo," Gabrielle ventured.
Aidan lowered her gaze, uncomfortable with the course the conversation was taking regarding her unique bonds with nature and her creatures. "No offense, but I can take care of the rest, Selene," Aidan gently took the sponge out of her mentor's hands and cleared her throat. "I promise not to drown, so do you mind?"
"Oh, yeah, sorry," Xena politely turned around, as did everyone else though the warrior whispered to her lover. "Eponin will be very upset she was not here to help with that task."
Gabrielle colored and shot her beloved warrior a withering glare that made Ephiny and Xena snicker. "Done?"
"Almost," Aidan ducked beneath the water in a final rinse, then rose and begrudgingly accepted Xena and Ephiny's assistance. "I'm fine..."
"The wound is rather well healed, but humor us for another day or so," Xena urged, gently drying the woman off. Wrapped in a dry blanket the ranger was once more carried by the raven haired warrior. A set of Amazon leathers were laid on the bed, Ephiny explaining, "Your leathers are still being mended from your recent adventures. Solari and I guessed your size."
"It's been some time since I wore Amazon leathers, but it is an honor," Aidan smiled her gratitude, fingering the finely made halter and short skirt that she donned with ease.
Eponin and Solari entered just when Aidan finished dressing, the delighted smile on the arm mistress's face reaching her eyes. "You make a fine Amazon warrior, Aidan of the rangers."
Xena concurred, thinking the ranger's usual garments were practical for her arduous lifestyle, but liking the Amazon outfit better. "Eponin, we need someone to watch over Aidan for a few more days..."
"Consider it done," the arms mistress reached out and swept an errant curl off the ranger's forehead. "You had us worried."
"I'll be fine, but my health is not what we should be worried about.."
"Do you remember what you said outside the gate," Xena had puzzled over the phrase the semi-conscious woman had said.
"Yes. The Wild Hunt. It is a legend of my grandmother's natal land, Hibernia. She was a warrior chief of her tribe when her cousin Dev betrayed her and seized power; she was sold into slavery, and brought to these shores in chains. Keara's captors had taken her armor and sword, the one I carry, as part of the spoils. What none them realized is that she bore the seed of her lover Aidan, a warrior whose origins she knew not of, but loved none the less.
A wild storm tore the ship apart, and my grandmother found herself washed up onto on strange shore. She did question why she alone had survived, having been bred along a wild coast she knew how to swim like a seal, even though she was now heavy with child. She had swum the distance shoreline, awakening the next day.
What she never did understand is how her sword and armor washed up beside her. It had been given to her by her beloved Aidan, forged of a metal she not found in her lands.
She found herself stranded in a distant land, without shelter or food. My grandmother said she walked for many days until she found herself in verdant valley where the rangers lived, guided by moon silver hounds.
I remember she told me when I was ten about the how she thought they were the hounds of the Wildhunt coming to get her. The Wild Hunt are soul-stealing hounds of supernatural origin controlled by a huntsman, a dark souled being, harvesting those souls unfortunate enough to cross his path.
What I saw fit that description.... But this huntsman has humans working for him..." Aidan paused, licking her lips as she regarded the others. "I encountered some of his soldiers earlier on... I was thinking about how my mother would have known more about the old stories when 'she' appeared in front of me."
"But it wasn't your mother," Xena concluded.
"No; it wasn't it was one of the men in black armor. It's some type of illusion spell that they are employing, and it uses a person's own images against them. I was thinking about my mother, and the warrior became her.
But my mother was a gentle soul, a healer whose hands never touched weapons or harmed deliberately. My 'mother' tried to stab me with a dagger as she drew near; I saw the glint of metal, and reacted instantly."
"What did you do," Selene asked softly.
"I drove a knee into my 'mothers' groin, and found she had changed a lot in the last few years: she'd become a man. I knocked him out, then left him tied up near the lake...." Aidan lowered her eyes and sighed. "What did you find on the two I dropped outside of the gates?"
"Nothing... They vanished. None of the scouts could find a trace of them, Aidan. Not even your arrows."
Aidan's stomach choose that moment to rumble angrily, and the women laughed. "Let's get you some solid food and fresh air, Aidan," Eponin suggested. "Can she stay at my hut, Althea?"
"I think the danger has passed. Bring her by in another few days to have those stitches removed. And if no one needs me right now, I shall take a nap!"
Without another word the aging healer turned and went into her private room, collecting her orange and white tabby cat along the way. Eponin and Xena walked on either side of the ranger, supporting most of her weight as they let her walk.
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Selene were engaged in an intense conversation about the meaning of what Aidan had told them, meandering behind the three warriors. A shadow crossed their paths and the group halted in mid-stride.
Medea shifted anxiously from foot to foot and blurted, "My life is yours, should you demand it for what I did..."
"Medea, this is not the time nor the place for this," Eponin growled, still furious with the other woman.
"Eponin, wait. Medea, I am not an angry with you. You reacted to what you thought was cold-blooded murder of two children, and used the weapon you wield very effectively to punish their slayer. I do not hate you, nor do I want your life. What you can do for me is show me how to throw a javelin once I've mended, if that's all right with you," Aidan smiled and stepped away from her 'escorts' and offered her right arm.
"Truly?" the brown haired, amber eyed warrior beamed and gathered the ranger into a heartfelt embrace that lifted her off her feet.
"It is done, friend. I must tell Tanya the good news!"
Medea returned the ranger to her feet and sprinted towards her beloved's hut. A wheezing Aidan found herself being unceremoniously swept up into a laughing Eponin's brawny arms, "Happy now?"
"Delighted. Did any one get the number of that charoit that ran me over just now?" Aidan inquired.
"You okay?," Gabrielle's sea-green eyes twinkled with ill concealed amusement.
"Fine; just got mauled by a human she-bear, that's all," Aidan frowned, noticing her current position with narrowed eyes. "Ah, Eponin..."
"Yes," the tawny haired Amazon peered down at the woman she cradled in her arms.
"Oh, Hades... Food. Please, take me to food," Aidan settled herself further into the arms mistress arms. "Hmm, I could get used to this."
Selene wiped her eyes and studied the pair, "Aidan, love, I must go back to the Centaurs with what you have told me. I and Coral will come by for a visit soon. And you, Eponin, do not exhaust my little one."
Pressing a kiss against the blushing young woman's temple the older ranger turned and exchanged a more formal farewell with the regent and queen. Selene headed across the village where the horses were kept, Xena walking with her to check on Argo.
The women headed to the royal palace where a Gabrielle sized lunch awaited them.
Part Three: Ancient Ways
Gabrielle looked up from the pile of scrolls she had been busy reading, smiling at the warrior lounging across from her. Xena had spent the majority of the morning working out with Aidan, Eponin, and Medea. Aidan's recuperative powers almost matched Xena's, the bard thought as she carefully rerolled the vellum documents.
"Did you find any references to what Aidan told us?" Xena tossed an olive in the air and caught it in her mouth.
"Nothing like this has happened here in the time the Amazons nation has dwelled here. And the Centaurs' writings indicate the same thing. Has Solari returned yet with the scrolls from the Academy?"
"No; Ephiny's worried she and Dara may have a hard time getting those documents released--even copies. But Homer's no doubt convincing them of the need. It should be another few days before she returns, if she has the scrolls of Nicodemus," Xena glanced at the stack of scrolls and frowned. "Gabrielle, you need fresh air and exercise, want to join us on a hunt?"
Gabrielle glanced at the piles of scrolls she'd spent the last four days scanning, and sighed. If there was an answer, it would be in writings of Nicodemus, the Adventurer-Loremaster. Nicodemus had been an explorer, his inquisitive nature making him travel the breadth of the known world. A collector of legends and myths, he had written down an enormous amount of information that current scholars claimed were mainly created tales of an old man's later years. Others argued he wrote of the true nature of the world, and secrets of the ancient ways where hidden within the text.
Gabrielle and Homer had been given a rare chance to view some of the man's works when she and Xena had last visited Athens; the writings had been magically, sweeping epics filled with vivid details.
If nothing else he had been a wonderful writer and bard, and Gabrielle wished she'd known him. But he had lived over one hundred years ago.
"I'll go with you, but I'm not going to hunt," Gabrielle stretched and rose, and snared Xena's hand as she headed for the palace's exit.
Xena beamed, and let herself be led outside by her lover.
"Where's Aidan," Gabrielle whispered as she hunkered down beside Ephiny.
The regent shrugged her shoulders and smiled, whispering "On the hunt... she lost even our best scouts, not to mention Xena. It's incredible how she becomes part of the forest..."
Xena and Eponin emerged from the edge of the forest carrying assorted hares and game birds with pride. Game had proven elusive even for the Warrior Princess, but there would be meat for tonight's meal.
Other Amazon hunters bore their prey, laughing and enjoying the brief respite from the strange events of the past moons. There was still not sign of Aidan.
"There...." Gabrielle spotted a forest green and brown shadow walking out of the forest, and blinked twice. Aidan carried a massive stag across her shoulders, a feral grin etched on her visage as she ambled towards the gathering Amazons.
"A stag? She caught a stag," Ephiny cheered at the idea of the rare treat. There would be a feast tonight in the village.
Whoops of appreciation greeted the ranger as she drew close, and the chestnut haired woman stopped to readjust her burden. Aidan laid the magnificent animal down by the queen and regent's feet, and said drolly, "Sorry about being gone so long, but he gave me a fine chase."
"How far," Eponin asked, brushing aside a wisp of hair plastered to the ranger's forehead.
"A league and a half..." Aidan sighed when the arm's mistress began kneading her shoulders. "I offered his heart to Artemis, and field dressed him, so all that remains is skinning and roasting him."
"Impressive," Xena admitted, hefting the animal up onto Argo where she'd secured her game. "Well, we have Gabrielle's dinner, what about everyone else?"
Aidan raised both hands and laughed, "No... I have had enough exercise for the day between sparing with you and Ep, and chasing our friend here. I want nothing more than a hot bath right now. Ep's staff lessons were rather intense today."
Eponin leaned down and planted a kiss on the shorter woman's neck, and purred, "Not even a heated oil rub down?"
"Now that's the best offer I've had all day," Aidan turned inside the circle of the Amazon's arms and nuzzled against the other woman's shoulder.
Gabrielle observed the loving manner the two women shared, and sniffled. Aphrodite and Cupid must be congratulating themselves on another job well done; Aidan and Eponin made a fine couple, the type that endured the test of time.
Xena subtly wiped her eyes, claiming it must be dust, and dared anyone to say otherwise. The hunters headed back to the village, a sense of celebration in the air as they thanked Artemis for the bounty of the land.
Not even Xena spotted the shadowy figure of the dark rider watching the entire scene with burning eyes. He and his mount turned, returning to the dark shadows he inhabited without a sound.
The Amazons patrols rode past the dark rider as he headed out of their lands for the Wildwood. Soon they would be building bonfires for their slain, not for their pleasure, he vowed.
It was the will of Dahok.
Wild drum beats filled the night air and shadow cast forms moved in a sensuous dance of pure joy. Xena watched her bard's erotic display with hooded eyes, proud this woman was her lover and companion. Eponin handed her friend a wineskin and gestured at the dancers, "Gabrielle has indeed grown into a fine woman under your guidance, Xena. It is hard to believe she is the same native farm girl that received the rite of caste so long ago."
Sipping the fine wine Xena shook her head, and murmured, "Don't give me undo credit; we all underestimated her when she first joined me."
"Yes; how many time did you try and loose her?"
"More than I care to admit..." Xena laughed at her own folly and grinned at the Amazon. "At least, you did not make my mistakes. Aidan is very selective, you know."
Eponin beamed. Aidan and Gabrielle had begun moving together, the two women creating enough heat to make the bonfire seem cold in comparison. Having been told by their respective mates that they would not dance, the two decided that they would show what Xena and Eponin were missing.
Ephiny leaned over and snatched the wineskin and observed, "If Solari were not absent, I would make sure she did not have to dance with someone else.... Hmm, as Regent, I'm not sure whether or not what they are doing in positively indecent."
Eponin swallowed hard when she saw Aidan's hands smoothing down the Queen's sides, drawing her back close against herself as she slid down. Xena sprang up and stalked forward, unable to deny the siren call of her beloved a moment longer with the arm's mistress on her heels.
"Oh, hello..." Gabrielle purred, pretending not to have noticed her warrior standing directly in front of her.
Xena narrowed her eyes and fitted herself against her lover, slipping into the rhythm of the dance. Gabrielle was now sandwiched between the ranger and the warrior, and enjoying every moment of it. "I could get used to this," Gabrielle remarked, smiling brightly.
Eponin joined the increasingly erotic tableau, hands coursing up and down Aidan's sides. Other Amazons watched the unfolding performance with reverence, then began forming small groups.
Ephiny shut her eyes and mentally called out to Solari to hurry home, feeling alone until her Queen beckoned her to join them.
A chorus of wolf howls punctuated the uninhibited atmosphere of the village.
In the darkness glowing eyes other than those of the wolves watched and waited. Soon, soon they would be freed once more to race across the lands in search of prey. Their master had promised them, so they watched and waited.
Aidan sat, silently working on her new bow made of horn, bone and sinew. It was a recurved style, smaller than the Amazon bow she'd been given, but far more powerful due to it structure. The ranger had been brought the raw materials by Selene during her convalescence, and Aidan spent hours making the fine weapon.
Xena watched the woman silently check for flaws, marveling at the stillness of her friend. Her own head still ached from the events of the night before, and she could not help but recall the experience of the previous evening.
It had been a first even for the warrior herself, though both Ephiny and Eponin had mentioned such passionate things were not unknown to them. Aidan had merely smiled and gently extracted herself from the warm nest they had made, dressed and went to complete the bow.
In another few days the moon would be full. Last night Aidan had been both ardent and gentle in what they had shared, but there had been something behind the woman's eyes even then. Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin were still abed, cuddled together where they had ended the night.
"Aidan..." Xena squatted beside the chestnut haired woman and touched her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
Aidan sighed, a hint of a rueful smile tugging at her thin lips she laid aside her bow and thought a moment. "We are headed for something dark and dangerous, Xena. I felt it yesterday during the hunt; we were not alone out there."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"And how does one catch a shadow? It's nothing solid that filters through the tree's, but these shadows are part of it. I hope that the works of Nicodemus help us..."
Xena frowned. She hadn't sensed anything, but the conviction of the other woman worried her. Aidan rose and headed towards the practice arena with a quiver full of target arrows.
Xena followed the ranger and pondered what she had said while Aidan sighted on the closet target. Notching an arrow, she took aim and let fly. It's course was true, and pierced the target dead center.
Aidan methodically began firing arrows in a rapid fashion at increasingly distant targets. Xena watched the younger woman with a critical eye, and grinned hard. "Aidan, do you want me to throw some targets?"
"Yes; hitting a still target is child's play: this bow needs a better test," Aidan declared, flashing her friend a roguish grin. Already a small crowd of Amazons had gathered to observe the ranger testing her newly complete weapon.
Xena trotted over to the bin of dried gourds and gathered half a dozen of the things that she brought down the field's length, and hefted the first one. Aidan lowered her bow and waited, raising it only when the raven haired warrior threw the first gourd high overhead.
An arrow pierced it dead center before it began falling earthward, and the Amazons whispered amongst themselves. Xena began lobbing the round fruits faster and further, and each time Aidan struck her target dead center.
More Amazons had begun clustering around the large practice ground, cheering the display of skill that both the ranger and warrior were enjoying. A familiar voice rose above the others, full of pride. Aidan glanced backwards and beamed at the arm's mistress.
Xena motioned Eponin to join her, whispering in the other woman's ear and laughing.
Eponin nodded, and went to fetch four more of the target gourds, and stood opposite the Warrior Princess. Both women hefted two of the hard things in each hand and launched them skyward simultaneously; four arrows streaked through the morning sky with deadly accuracy. Applause and hoots rang out when the ranger lowered her bow and declared, "Xena, I thought you were going to give me a real test!"
Xena bristled at the challenge, and spotted what she needed: a basket of apples laid beside one of the watching Amazons. She pointed at the farmer and motioned for her to toss her some apples.
The sun-bronzed woman grinned and rummaged through her basket and brought forth three over-ripen ones that she would have fed to horses. Her young daughter took the fruits and ran over to the towering, sapphire-blue eyed warrior with wide eyes.
Stooping down the warrior graciously accepted the proffered apples and watched the child rejoin her mother. When the child was clear of the arena, Xena threw one up with all her might into the crisp morning air.
Aidan sighted and released. The was split in mid-air by the speeding shaft that hit the most distant target dead-center. Xena threw her remaining two apples without warning, in two different directions.
Again, the arrows found their mark with unerring accuracy. Xena raised both eye-brows and joined the other in clapping for the ranger. Aidan was a fine swordswoman, a good staff fighter, but perhaps the best archer Xena had ever met.
"I believe my new bow has passed its tests," Aidan remarked, coloring slightly at the reaction of the Amazons and the Warrior Princess. She began gathering up the arrows, aided by some Amazon children and Xena.
"How about some breakfast?" Gabrielle asked between yawns, standing beside an equally tired, but happy looking Ephiny
Xena crossed the arena and hugged her beloved bard, glancing back to see Aidan and Eponin's sharing a similar moment. Eponin inspected the finely crafted weapon with a critical eye, asking pointed questions that Aidan answered easily.
Ephiny watched the two sets of lovers with wistful eyes, again pleading with the gods and goddesses to bring back her lover soon. Last night had been wonderful, full of sweet moments, but she missed the woman she now considered the other half of her soul. Gabrielle seemed to read her regent's mood easily, and linked arms with her long-time friend.
The small group started across the compound when the sound of horse hooves approaching rapidly caught their attention. Two dust encrusted forms dismounted with haste, and the joy Ephiny felt was tempered with dread.
Both women were haggard looking, and their mounts showed the signs of hard riding as the two Amazons headed towards the royal party. Dark eyes flickering momentarily over her lover, Solari handed Gabrielle an oiled leather document case bearing the Academy of Bard's device.
"Homer says these are the scrolls you wanted, and he prays you find your answers...especially since the various temples are reporting strange occurrences throughout Greece and other lands. And what the Oracle of Delphi has seen has frightened her, and caused great alarm. She saw a dark tide welling forth from the Wildwoods, engulfing all the known world in terror and death..."
Dara cleared her throat, and intoned gravely, "And there are reports of these events touching all lands. Boucidea is dead, some say in battle, some say by her own hand, when Ceasar's new troops been crushing her rebellion. And an isle of priestess has been mysteriously destroyed, the reports of desecration shocked even the priests of Ares...."
Xena's eyes narrowed. If what happened frightened the priests of the God of War, there was only one thing she could think of: Dahok. The one God, a god of such darkness he made other gods and goddesses quiver with dread and loathing. Even Are's was shaken by this new god that had emerged from some dark hole in the vastness of the universe.
But why had he destroyed the Isle of the White Winds? Xena had heard of the small islet off the coast of Brittiania where priestess watched over the safety of mainland. And Boucidea dead? Xena shut her eyes, thinking how twice she had harmed the fierce warrior woman who had once been her friend.
"Rumors abound of a woman-child wielding strange, dark powers reputed to be the herald of the darkness ceasing the lands..." Solari interjected, unable to meet the eyes of her Queen. "Her name is murmured with dread: Hope."
Xena twisted around and stare in mounting horror at the woman she loved, the woman she thought she knew better than herself. Gaberielle's tear streaked face met her warrior's, and one of the secrets became a cold realization. "Gabrielle, you did not kill her...."
"Xena, I could not kill her...she's my daughter...."
Those within hearing range were dismayed to learn that their monarch had borne a child that seemed the very polar opposite of her own nature, and Ephiny signaled for the royal guard. In a moment they had cleared a path to the palace where the small group helplessly watched two lovers struggling with the bitterness of such a secret.
Food and wine were silently brought in, and the Queen paced around the confines of the council room, ignoring the feast of cold meat, cheese, assorted breads and fruits and nuts. Xena varied between snarling out foul oaths, then vainly attempting to comfort her lover.
"Gabrielle, Hope is not your child....Dahok's rape implanted his seed--"
"Rape?!" Solari's cry of fury was joined by the other Amazons inside the chamber. "You were raped by the Dark God?"
"Yes....and Hope was the result of the rape," Gabrielle admitted hoarsely, hugging herself at the memory. "Xena, I could not kill again...."
This announcement further shocked the Amazons, and their mood became darker when they thought about how this dark god had harmed their Queen. "Xena, how did this happen..."
"It was my fault...." Xena answered, telling the entire story without sparing herself about leading the innocent Gabrielle into harm's way.
Ephiny's hazel eyes glinted with steely anger when the Warrior Princess finished her story, furious that Xena's desire for revenge had almost killed her friend and ruler. The other Amazons were equally enraged, and they began arguing loudly about what should be done.
Ephiny and Xena seemed about to come to blows, and Gabrielle wept helplessly at the sudden darkness engulfing her friends. The mood in the palace became darker by the moment, and Xena shoved Ephiny back when the Regent called the dangerous warrior a particularly foul name.
"Enough," Aidan shouted, placing herself between the two women just before the first blows were exchanged.
"Do not dare tell me, the Regent of the Crown, what to say," Ephiny snarled, lashing out with surprising strength towards the ranger.
Aidan's head snapped back under the blow, but she absorbed it easily enough. Blood trickled down her chin where her lower lip had been split by the blow, and dark bruises began forming even as Ephiny blinked in disbelief.
The act of mindless violence had broken whatever spell had been forming over the group of women, and Aidan wiped away the blood with the back of her hand.
"Aidan, I am sorry...I do not know what came over me," Ephiny shook out her own bruising right fist, wondering how the woman had remained standing. She had never hit anyone so hard before, and the woman managed a painful smile. "Are you all right?"
"Yes..." Aidan grimaced at the blood running down her chin and dribbling onto her chest. "But I do have an alarming habit of evoking undue violence in your people...."
Ephiny flinched at the truth of the statement: twice she had been harmed at the hands of the Amazons, and both times the woman had forgiven them.
"It's not your fault, Ephiny. If I am not mistaken, we are just beginning to feel the results of the darkness touching these lands. Xena, you must control your temper more so than anyone else: if Ephiny lashed out, I can imagine what you were feeling..."
Xena nodded, repulsed by the momentary images of what she would have done to the Regent had Aidan not interfered. But why had Aidan not been equally affected by the strange blood lust that the news of Boudecia's death and Hope's survival created?
Aidan's silvery grey eyes met the Warrior Princess's in curiosity when the Xena inhaled keenly; Xena alone seemed to have glimpsed the fay gleam behind her old friend's eyes, and she noticed that there seemed to be a fading moon silver aura around the woman. Even Aidan seemed unaware of the power she radiated during those few moments, and Xena recalled stories Boudica had told of the hybrids of humans and gods in the isles.
And of the mystical land of Aidan's grandmother, and her mysterious lover whose name meant fire. Aidan bore that lost love's name, and Xena suspected she bore more than his name and coloring.
An inner voice warned Xena not to comment on what she had beheld, understanding somehow she must not speak about it. Yet. Gabrielle and Eponin were busily examining the nasty gash, and the bard sighed, "It will need some stitches, Aidan."
Aidan sighed, shook her tousled chestnut mane and sat on the stool indicated by the bard. Dara brought over Xena's medicine pouch, and Xena watched her lover cleanse the wound, then deftly stitch it shut.
The ranger endured the painful process with the resignation, flinching when she touched the area. Eponin pressed her lips against her lover's temple, and whispered something that made Aidan blush.
"Solari, Dara, why don't you two get washed up, and get some food and sleep. Aidan and I will busy the next few hours, reading through this scrolls..." Gabrielle announced, knowing that Solari and Ephiny would appreciate what little personal time they could get together. "Xena, you and Eponin should oversee the defenses again, and make sure we have enough supplies for the villagers that will be arriving later today."
Aidan removed her baldric and sheath, placing her grandmother's sword beside her as she and Gabrielle began the ponderous task of finding the answers she hoped where in the scrolls.
When she unrolled the first scroll, she gasped. These were no copies: these were the original works of the Adventurer-Loremaster himself. She ran her fingertips along the edge of the old vellum parchment, reading the words of Nicodemus.
History, legend and magic flowed together in the writings of the greatest bard the world had known, and Gabrielle wished again she could met the lost bard. Nicodemus had vanished one day from the small school he had started, his students eventually becoming founders of the Academy of Performing Bards.
He had been described as a slender man with flowing silver hair and keen grey eyes smoldering with things beyond human ken. Some believed he had wandered to the sea cliffs where he lost his footing, and returned to the sea that had carried him on so many adventures, and others said the Gods and Goddesses had had him brought Olympus to weave his tales of magic and myth.
His disappearance would most likely never be solved, Gabrielle thought as she read scroll dealing with the birth of the Gods and Goddess. Some she knew, others she had heard of, but many where unknown to her.
Aidan seemed equally absorbed in her scroll, grey eyes narrowed in deep thought. The bard studied the other woman, thinking how little they really knew Aidan. Aidan raised her eyes, and waited for the bard to say something.
"Aidan, what do you remember about your grandmother's lover..."
"She said he was the most handsome man she had ever met, but not affected by it. He was a gifted poet, archer and warrior, and loved nothing more than a spirited adventure...."
Gabrielle nodded, thinking how much Nicodemus and Aidan sounded alike. "What did he look like?"
Aidan frowned, then shrugged her shoulders and said, "Tall and silver haired, though he was not old, and grey eyed like me. She says I have his eyes, though I have her hair color... My mother had his silver hair and grandmother's sea-green eyes...."
Gabrielle sat back, thinking about the stories concerning the missing scholar and wondered if the two men were one in the same. He arrived around the same time Aidan's grandmother had, and wandered around Greece looking for his lost love. A woman he had never found...
But why had he left years before his lost love died? And why could a man capable of plying the seas in a small ship he alone operated not find the woman?
Her eyes fell to a section of the script, and she discovered her answer. It has been twenty years since my love, had been stolen by her traitorous kinsman. And though I have sought her along these exotic shores and lands, there has been no sign of her nor our child.
There is only one capable of so binding a geis, and he has been kept a bay by my own kin's blood since time began. And each day the call of my blood makes staying harder, and soon I must return home...."
Gabrielle shivered, touching the script written by the man they knew as Nicodemus, and glanced at Aidan. She glanced at the scroll again, frowning. The words were not what she had read before, and Gabrielle wondered if she had imagined the entire thing.
Aidan had returned to the task, and the two women continued reading the twenty scrolls that the bard hoped contained the information they needed.
Part Four: Storm winds
Aidan paced inside the hut, not able to explain why she could not sit down or sleep. Nor had she eaten in two days. Her stomach did not rumble, nor did she feel hungry.
"Aidan...." Eponin sighed, reaching out to touch her lover's side with gentle fingers. "Come to bed..."
"I can't...don't ask me why, but I'm not tired or hungry..." Aidan sighed, shaking her head and glancing towards the window. In another night, the moon would be full....and she could not help but feel trapped inside the hut.
So far Gabrielle and she had not been able to find the clue they needed, and the bard had finally fallen asleep. Aidan continued her pacing, the compulsion to heed the instinct to leave becoming worse with each passing hour.
Eponin rose from their pallet, padding silently over to her lover's side and enclosed Aidan inside the shelter of her strong arms. "What's the matter, love?"
Aidan pressed her face against the swell of Eponin's heavier breasts, inhaling the mixture of leather and sunshine that clung to the bigger woman. And below the scent of the woman, the scent of their recent loving.
"Goddess..." Aidan shuddered when a spasm wracked her lithe frame, the sweat springing up on her skin as the compulsion became stronger still.
Alarmed, Eponin drew back and raised the smaller woman's chin to search her dark grey eyes. "You are on fire...."
Powerful arms swept her up, and carried her back towards their much rumpled pallet, then the towering arm's mistress strode towards the blanket surrounding the small section of the hut she owned. On the other side slept several other warriors, Dara and
Brina amidst the ranks of those warriors who had given up their huts to families.
"Dara...fetch Althea... Aidan is ill," Eponin called out, turning back towards their section of the hut even as the green eyed warrior rose.
Eponin cried out in dismay. Two huge wolves leapt out the window, and there was no sign of either Aidan or her sword. Heedless of her nudity, the arm's mistress fetched up her own impressive blade and charged out of the hut into the dark night.
Clouds obscured the almost full moon, and for a brief instant the Amazons that had followed their friend beheld a sight they would never forget. Aidan, surrounded by moon silver wolves, raising her sword high overhead and calling out in a strange, liquid tongue as silver-white flames encased the sword.
The silver-white flames engulfed both the woman and the wolves, until it became a bonfire of otherworldly power. Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari and other Amazons watched the woman shimmer within the fire.
Not even the Warrior Princess could approach the conflagration that was sure to leave not even ashes behind. Dara, Brina, Medea and Solari restrained a screaming Eponin. Gabrielle clung to Xena, weeping silently at what she believed to be the death of a good friend.
Aidan turned to each direction of map, uttering words of ancient power and bringing her sword around in a sweeping arch that sent silver bolts flying. Having covered the village entrances, the ranger brought her sword down in a powerful downward stroke that buried the sword up to it's very hilt.
The silver flames vanished, and Aidan crumpled to the ground as the phantom wolves simply flickered out of existence. No one dared move for several moments, uncertain what they had witnessed. Xena cautiously advanced, sensing the power throbbing under her very feet towards the too still form.
Braced for the worse, she was not prepared for the woman's flesh to unburnt and clear. Weary silvery-grey eyes flickered open and focused on the stunned Warrior Princess as Aidan whispered something again in the strange tongue she had been using. She gripped Xena's sword hand in steely clasp the warrior could not have broken if she wanted, and the white-fire burned through Xena.
Xena dropped onto her knees, more stunned than hurt by the dizzying release of power that the woman had summoned. Aidan's eyes slid shut and she went limp, spent by whatever had transpired.
Xena blinked, ran her hand over her eyes and touched the hilt of the sword. She could not budge the weapon, not even when she utilized all her strength. Frowning, she touched Aidan's throat, and relaxed when she felt a strong pulse.
Aidan was alive.
Eponin broke free of her friends and ran to the side of her lover with fearful eyes. Xena smiled her reassurance, saying, "She's alive...just stunned."
"What happened?" Ephiny groused, raking her long fingers through her golden brown curls in mild annoyance. She and Solari had been celebrating their reunion when they both had heard Eponin's cries, and had run outside.
"I don't know," Xena answered, shrugging her muscular shoulders. "And I do not think Aidan will remember herself, when she wakes up..."
Eponin carefully gathered up the form of her beloved mate, realizing there was much she did not know about Aidan. But she knew they were destined to be together. It felt right.
"Come on, let's go to the royal palace," Xena said, sliding a protective arm around the bard's shoulders.
Eponin strode towards the palace, thankful the fever seemed to have abated. She deposited Aidan on the pallet Xena and Gabrielle shared, and covered the unconscious woman.
"First things first, you three might want to get dressed," Xena observed, recalling the passion of several nights ago with a small grin. "Then, we wait until Aidan wakes up...whatever happened out there was nothing evil...."
"Then what happened?"
"I think Aidan was being used as some type of vessel, but for what remains to be seen," Gabrielle murmured, recalling the words of Nicodemus. "And those wolves were guardians, I think."
"Like the wolves back in the forest?" Solari asked, shrugging into her usual attire that lay on the other side of the palace. With the influx of farmers and others dwelling outside the walled village, housing arrangements had been better planned this time.
Dara appeared, handing the arm's mistress her set of leathers and cloak before heading back to the hut she was currently located in. Word would be sent if she was needed, till then she wanted nothing more than to hold her beloved Brina.
Althea entered the royal palace, examining the senseless ranger and confirming Xena's guess that the woman would be fine. Whatever had happened had drained the woman, but not harmed her.
"What about Aidan's sword?" Solari asked.
"I could not budge it," Xena admitted, shaking her head. "Whatever happened was connected to the sword being lodged in the ground..."
"But how could she drive it through the stone beneath the village? Just a couple of feet under the dirt, there is a shield of granite..." Ephiny recalled the reason why the city had been built on the sprawling granite shelf. It would prevent an enemy from tunneling beneath their walls, and the underground river furnished fresh water to the natural wells they had found.
The lands beyond the city were rich for farming, but the village itself had scant soil for planting crops. Xena shrugged her shoulders, equally puzzled by the strange events of the night.
"I suggest we try and get some rest," Xena recommended, knowing the coming night would unleash the terrors of the unknown.
"Gabrielle and I can sleep on the floor, why don't you join Aidan..." Xena had already started to unfurl her sleeping blankets, smiling gently at the blue eyed arm's mistress.
A double shift of Amazon royal guards surrounded the royal palace, and Xena's inner voice told her they would not have any further trouble this night.
Dawn's first golden rays touched Aidan's unmoving form, and the ranger inhaled sharply. Eponin was instantly awake, and Xena smiled reassuringly towards the towering Amazon as the ranger's eye-lids flickered open.
"Aidan..." Eponin whispered, kissing her lover's smooth forehead as the chestnut haired woman frowned.
"Aidan, do remember anything about last night?" Xena inquired, hunkering beside the pallet the two lovers were curled on.
Aidan's brow knit in concentration, and she heaved a sigh, "No...nothing. But why do I feel like I was dragged behind a chariot?"
Gabrielle stirred, blinking towards the source of the noise that had disturbed her slumber, and forgot her annoyance. She hastily joined Xena beside the bed, hearing Ephiny and Solari moving in the background.
Xena explained the events of the previous night, noticing how the ranger struggled to keep her eyes open. Whatever had happened, it had drained the ranger more than anything she had obviously encountered before. Aidan curled further into her lover's warmth, and fell back into the sleep of utter exhaustion.
"She's just tired," Xena assured the anxious arm's mistress. "And I don't think she'll be going out with us tonight or tomorrow night. Whatever she did, it has taken a lot out of her."
"If I am not needed till this evening, My Queen, I would like to spend the day with Aidan."
"Of course," Gabrielle knew the arm's mistress would be needed latter, before the sun went down, out in the Wildwoods. She, Xena, Solari and other warriors would be spending the night high above the forest floor, waiting and watching.
They hoped they could discern what manner of being they were dealing with, and how to stop it. It was a mission replete with dangers, and now they would down one of their best warriors: Aidan.
But the old hunting and patrol routes high above the forest had not been disturbed by the darkness that lurked below. Selene and Coral had been in the Wildwood, too, the last full moon. Each of the rangers had stationed themselves at different points inside the sprawling forest, Aidan having selected the heart of the disturbed area.
Aidan would be sorely missed, but there was little doubt the ranger would able to fight, let alone move. Dark circles beneath her eyes told of the toll last night had taken, but for what reason?
Gabrielle returned to the pile of scrolls, and began seeking the clue she sensed was hidden within them. Xena, Ephiny, Solari and Dara would be busy coordinating the defenses both of the village, and the groups operating outside the walls.
Orders were given that no one was to touch Aidan's sword, and royal guards were posted around the weapon buried hilt deep inside the earth. One thing was noticeable: the dark cloud that had been afflicting those inside the village had been banished, no doubt due whatever Aidan had done.
Aidan remained beyond anyone's ability to rouse, and even Xena admitted she was concerned for the woman. It was almost as though she was enthralled by some unknown magic.
Eponin joined Xena and the others for the first night's patrol, worried that nothing seemed able to break this strange spell over her lover. Gabrielle and Ephiny remained inside the village, overseeing it's defense with Brina, Medea, Tanya and the other warriors.
A strange bluish mist rolled out of the hills from the heart of the Wildwoods, carpeting the land in a blanket of the stuff. Flashes like heat lightning raced through the mist, and unholy things moved through the mist.
Gabrielle peered down into the mist that encircled the village's defensive walls, and she shuddered. High above, almost full moon had taken on a reddish hue, and dark clouds raced across it's suddenly hostile visage.
The bard swallowed, thinking of the nights she and Xena had reclined beneath it's cheerful light. Now, the once kindly visage had taken on a darker aspect, an aspect awash in blood.
"Look..." one of the sentries hollered, pointing towards figures that began shambling out of the mist.
Bile rose unbidden inside Gaberielle's mouth when she realized what was walking towards them. Bone glistened beneath the ravaged flesh of the once human forms, and the stench of death made the women defending the walls gag. An army of the undead were surrounding the village, under the guidance of the dark rider that the moon revealed for a brief moment atop a nearby hill.
"Sweet Artemis..." Ephiny recognized two of the figures: they were one of the missing Amazon patrols. "It's Patrice and Cari...."
There were dozens of forms, some more skeletal than others, flanked, if not driven, by the midnight black hounds with coal red eyes. The first of the undead reached the walls, but the moment they attempted touching the gates a silvery-white flame rose around the walls.
Those not able to retreat simply burst into white-hot pyres that consumed themselves, and nothing else. Whatever the ranger had done, it was repulsing the vile things under the dark rider's control.
Moon silver hound like wolves flashed towards the few black hounds foolish enough to approach the village, and the monstrous creatures fared little better than their grisly soldiers. Amazon archers loosen shafts towards those the fighters that were not undead, and heard more than a few men cursing when the arrows hit their mark.
Gabrielle used her staff to drive back one of the mortal warriors that had been able to pass through the barrier, driving the end of her staff into the man's chin. He tumbled back over wall, landing with a sickening thud, but the warrior-bard steeled herself to the reality of what she must do.
There were dozens of little ones to protect, and she would not let harm come to her adopted people without a fight. She hoped that Xena was safe....
Hours had passed, and yet the sun had not risen. Xena swore under her breath, sensing the cause of this unnatural turn of events was the dark god. Dahok. Hope was alive, the daughter of darkness and light, and no doubt part of this madness.
The forest beneath the patrol was shrouded by a mist, a cold mist that robbed a person of their senses. A mist inhabited by things that would give Hades himself nightmares. One of the young Amazon warriors had lost her footing several hours ago, and plunged headlong into the mist.
For a brief instant the mist had parted, and they saw the young warrior had survived her fall. But shadows became shapes, and shapes shambling horrors birthed from the darkest night Xena had ever witnessed. Creatures that made Harpies seem tame attacked the warrior, and tore her limb from limb....
And Xena had not been able to halt the attack, just end the warrior's agony. Her touched the chakrum pensively, recalling how Eponin and Solari had silently thanked her for the merciful act. Xena shivered inwardly, unable to think of anything other than Gabrielle.
Her beloved bard.... She had gone on a fool errand. Without Aidan, they had nothing. All her skills, all her will were nothing against this darkness.
She had won once against the Dark God, and he had learned from his mistakes, unlike Ares. Ares. Yes, he had made his appearance, taunted Xena that this time she needed him, and they alone could turn back the tide.
But there would be a price. She would have to become his creature, she would have to renounce all that she held dear, but she would save the others. She could save Gabrielle....
Xena chewed her lower lip in thought. How was she kidding, thinking she could defeat Dahok a second time? Gabrielle...was she still alive?
Pounding a balled fist against her coiled thigh, Xena glanced towards the twenty women she had lead to their deaths. That what this was. Death. No glory, no honor, just an ugly death, but no rest.
They all had seen the gruesome army of villagers, Centaurs and Amazons walking beneath them. The undead called to serve the god that Xena had thought she had defeated. Again, her pride had cost innocents their lives.
Ares. Would he honor his agreement? And could he defeat the god that had most of the gods and goddesses of Olympus full of dread? What power could turn aside such darkness....
"Xena--" Eponin shouted, revulsion warring with terror on her face when the first of the dead had found their prey.
The half rotting corpse wore the same style grab of the lost ranger called Piers. Maggot ridden and bloated, the figure still moved with the grace of a trained warrior, making the horror more complete. Empty sockets burned with coal red eyes, and for a brief instant Xena considered oblivion...
A form shrouded in silvery flames rose behind the demonic being, and the creature turned. A shot of white fire engulf the thing that had been human, and for an instant Xena heard the horror murmur thanks.
"Aidan!" Xena shouted, not believing what she saw.
The ranger smiled, and pointed towards the trail system they had build. "Head for the river...it can not touch you once you are in the water..."
Eponin rose, crying out her lover's name in joy. Aidan turned, and the moon shimmered through the woman's ethereal form. The arm's mistress almost fell, and would have had Xena and Solari not caught her.
"Go...I can hold them back only for awhile..." Aidan whispered, her form shifting until a silvery wolf stood before them. Xena understood what she was seeing: it was spirit projection.
But was Aidan a ghost, or was her soul merely walking abroad while she lay inside the village. Selene and Coral exchanged worried glances, then started down the indicated path.
Aidan touched Xena, and Xena cried out at the surge of power washing through her mind and body. "Go... It is up to you...I must remain here, guarding..."
The wolf turned and sprang towards the writhing shadows below for a battle that would decide their fates. Xena clenched her sword hand, vowing she would not fail Aidan a second time.
"You heard her...run for the river!"
Solari, Dara, Eponin, and the other Amazons followed the two other rangers, leaving Xena behind. For a moment the mist lifted, and Xena watched Aidan battling the hounds and dead. Even if she was a spirit, the ranger was taking wounds....
Xena turned, and ran hard...
"Queen Gabrielle, you must come to the royal palace--it is the ranger," one of the young royal guards announced, running up the narrow steps of the defensive walls.
Exhausted, Gabrielle turned towards the solemn young woman, and saw the blood covering her. It was not her blood. "Ephiny, with me. Medea, you have the walls."
"Yes, My Queen," the exhausted warrior uttered, managing a solemn smile.
The regent and monarch followed the young guard towards the royal palace and froze. Aidan was laying on the pallet, unmoving, out of harm's way, but the woman bore numerous wounds. Blood flowed out of the woman's ravaged form faster than Althea could begin binding the hurts.
"It is dark magic," Althea whispered, hands drenched in blood. "And soon, it shall have her life..."
As the stunned women watched, another wound manifested itself on the ranger's lithe form, and the woman's pallor increased. Gabrielle shut her eyes, and thought what Xena would do. Was the warrior still alive?
"Ephiny, I must consult the scrolls..." Gabrielle insisted, understanding the answer was there. It just would take some searching...
Ephiny swallowed, thinking no doubt about whether or not Solari was still alive. Outside, a wind began howling with the sounds of the tormented souls of all the collective dark places where mortal and immortal alike feared to tread....
Above the unholy din, the sound of a young woman's voice touched the bard, and she felt her soul become cold. It was the voice of madness, of pure evil given shape by the hands of Dahok: it was Hope. And it said one thing, "I am coming, Mother...".
Hands shaking, Gabrielle light the candles she used to read by and unfurled the parchments. The key was here somewhere...
The river lay one hundred yards down a gently rolling slope, deep and wide the waters seemed a better choice than what was most definitely moving towards them. Here the mist had not totally covered the land, but the dangerous crossing would exposed them. How fast could they move?
Where was the dark rider? Xena shut her eyes, exhaled and reopened her eyes. She nodded towards the grim Amazons. Each woman prepared her own rope, spacing themselves carefully along the trees closest to the river.
"NOW," Xena shouted, and the women dropped together as one unit towards the uncertain ground.
Each woman released herself and ran hard towards the river that beckoned them. Half way there, the mist surged forward, and two of the oldest warriors lagging towards the rear screamed. Xena saw the dark shapes snatch the women back into the rising mist, and knew there was nothing she could do for them.
She hung back, urging the others onwards towards the river even as the dark rider crested the ridge. Xena began to turns towards the evil being when a cool hand touched hers.
Aidan shook her head, too weak to manage more than that simple gesture. Though this form was only an ethereal form, the wounds were ghastly. Half of Aidan's face had been ravaged, and one eye was missing.
The rider laughed, and began closing the distance. Aidan stepped forward, blocking his path as Xena turned and bolted for the water. She hit the river in a clean dive, knowing the ranger was lost.
Dahok would pay....
Of the twenty that had started towards the river, sixteen had made it. Eponin was being held back by Solari and Dara, the frantic warrior screaming the name of her lover as the dark rider's black flame sword sliced into the silvery form.
Aidan staggered and collapsed, lost in the mist as the undead charged towards the river.
Silvery flames arose, and the unholy things were repulsed even as arrows flew over their heads. Rank upon rank of the undead things fell under the golden arrows of Artemis and Britomartis, the two Goddesses of the Hunt having decided to join the fray.
It seemed battle lines were being drawn between the Gods, and the outcome would determine the fate of the world. Xena wondered why the current had not pulled them under, nor moved them towards the either of the shores when a boat glided towards them.
Not Charon's ferry, but an elegant vessel in the form of a swan made by no human hand. It was as though the thing had grown into it's form, for there was no visible planks and corking evident. And it seemed to pulse with life....
It came to a sedate halt amidst the women, and they knew better than to question their good fortunate. Xena was the last abroad, before the ship turned against the current and sped towards the Amazon village sans sail.
None of the Amazons spoke during the journey, each haunted by what they had witnessed, and amazed at having seen their patron goddess. Golden haired, and grey eyed, Artemis glowed with the power of Olympus. Her beloved mate, Britomartis, standing firmly beside the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, both using their arrows to hold back the dark armies of Dahok.
There was a flash of silver light, and the world went black around the warriors....
Gabrielle hoped she had proper pronunciation on the words she had found mixed inside the scrolls. Althea covered the bloody form of the ranger with a blanket, weeping silently at the ravaged body and face of the brave warrior. Ephiny swore darkly, punching her balled fist into the wall behind her.
And hit the breast plate of the Warrior Princess standing suddenly inside the royal palace. The Regent gave out a cry of alarm and pain, disbelief warring with pure joy when she saw Solari and Eponin on either side of the warrior.
All the surviving warriors found themselves inside the village, some in other huts, others in the open. All unhurt and whole, and cries of rejoicing arose when lovers, friends and family where reunited.
"Gabrielle...." the warrior surged forward, crushing the bard in a fierce embrace.
"Aidan--" the anguished wail told not all reunions were ones of joy, no matter how briefly lived. Eponin clutched the ravaged, lifeless form inside her muscular arms, heedless of the gore staining her garments and flesh.
Xena's pained sapphire blue eyes rested on the ranger's remains, and the gasp of pain behind her announced the arrival of Selene. Selene seemed suddenly old as she approached the rocking Arm's Mistress and form she cradled close.
"This must end...." Xena grated through clenched teeth.
"Xena, I think I have found an enchantment that might help us..." Gabrielle whispered thickly.
"Then we must do it...."
Gabrielle swallowed, knowing her next words would incite outrage from both the older ranger and the arm's mistress. Forming her words with utmost care, the young Amazon Queen said, "It requires the blood of a fallen warrior of the ancient guardians....from the heart."
Xena stiffened. Gabrielle heard the silence descend upon the group. "A warrior bathed in the blood of innocents, now reclaimed, must do it...with the fallen warrior's own sword..."
"Never...." Selene hissed, drawing her sword she stood before the remains of the woman she considered her daughter.
Eponin's clear blue eyes darkened with fury, and she rose beside ranger. Her own sword leveled with that of the ranger. "You will have to kill me first..."
Xena watched the royal guards surround the two women, and the brief struggle that ensued resulted in the pair being subdued. Xena swallowed hard.
Gabrielle continued, "The ceremony must be done outside...and soon...before it is too late..."
Xena shut her eyes, and gathered herself. She had to trust what Gabrielle was telling her. Soon, whatever protections Aidan had erected were bound to fail...
Xena slipped past the now securely bound pair and gently lifted up the remains of the noble ranger. Tears ran down her face as she headed towards the sword.
The mist had begun to seep beneath the walls, and the moon high above became more blood red with passing moment. The walls began shaking, and frantic warriors rushed around to bolster them with logs. Children cried in mounting fear, and the wind bore the chill of the grave...
Xena laid Aidan in accordance with the directions Gabrielle had given her, then reached down as Gabrielle began a chant.
"In the heart of valor, chains break..
and loosen the Mother of All held bound.
"Blood like the river eternal brings
life forth, and the blood of the daughter
shall free her ancient mother..."
Xena reached down and gripped the sword, and cried out when the moon silver flame shot along her sword arm and deep inside her breast. With a single, smooth yank she tore loose the sword and turned to drive the sword deep inside the still breast...
Blood poured forth, hot, and Xena swallowed. Aidan's eye had briefly flickered open and met Xena's with forgiveness and understanding. The Warrior Princess cried out in horror, realizing Aidan had not been dead, but in a trance.
Aidan's hands rose and clutched the blade to drive it deeper as the Amazons watched helplessly. Aidan cried out a name once, above the din, then her hands fell away.
Beneath the ranger's body, the ground surged and a silvery liquid spurted up out of the ground. The spring rose in height, washing the blood off of Xena's hands and off the ranger's lifeless body, mingling with the pristine waters.
Blood mixed with the shimmering waters that seeped back into the torn earth beneath Aidan's body. The ground heaved violently, and the women found themselves thrown about like rag dolls. Someone cried out that the gates encircling the village were collapsing even as the sound of a horn pierced the night air.
Dark figures began forcing their way through the openings appearing in the shattered fortifications, and six of the nearest warriors falling. Xena surged to her feet, snatching up Aidan's sword when the dark rider came crashing through the walls. A shadowy form followed him, mounted atop ghost white stallion whose eyes flashed like burning coals.
Shouts of anger and confusion fell silent when the two riders entered the village, the battle pausing momentarily. Xena glimpsed her bard rising, staff held in battle readiness while Ephiny, Solari and Eponin assumed defensive postures.
"Mother...." the shadowy form whispered in soft accusation, "you abandoned me...."
"I left you behind because I could not kill you..." Gaberielle whispered, tears streaking her face as she closed her eyes. How many had died, and would die, because she had not seen what Xena had? "But now, I wish I had killed you...."
The form shook it's head, pushing back the cowl of her robe hard sapphire-blue eyes met her mother's. Tousled red-gold curls surrounded a handsome face that resembled both the Warrior Princess and the Bard. "Ah, you seemed shocked, Xena.... I do not know why you should be... I am what you envisioned a child of your and mother's blood would look like..."
Xena's sapphire-blue eyes slid shut; she recalled back when she had realized that the Demon God had implanted his seed how she had wondered what a child of their blood would look like. It had been a brief second of wistfulness, now perverted by Dahok.
Hope had Xena's height and basic build, though there were elements of Gabrielle evident even there. She wore blood red armor that accentuated her sculptured form, and the pommel of an impressive sword rode above her right shoulder. "Theron, let us wash the earth in blood, fire and destruction, so we might pave the way for our God!"
"As you wish, my Lady," the dark haired, black eyed rider met the angry eyes of Selene. "You should have laid aside your sword years ago, Selene. You have become old...your death will give me little pleasure, for once we were friends..."
"For love, for honor," Theron answered, gesturing towards the Warrior Princess. "She slew my beloved, Kraftstar..."
"You have betrayed your oath...." Coral shouted.
"And, what, child, do you think you know of life? Have you ever lost someone you loved more than life, than the Gods themselves? Kraftstar showed me how the Gods have become nothing more than mere shadows of themselves... Dahok will recreate the world in his making...it may be evil, but it will be better than what is!"
Theron pointed towards the remains of the ranger he had slain, "Aidan was a fool...she followed the code to her death...a lamb to the slaughter of a Goddess no one recalls! I shall be a wolf for Dahok..."
"You bastard!" Xena seethed, watching the Dark Rider raise his horn of darkness to his lips again.
Where were the Gods, she wondered. Artemis and Britomartis had stood against the two evil ones...had they been destroyed, or had they fled?
"Neither," came a soft reply.
Standing beside Xena was the tawny haired huntress of Olympus, her beloved mate next to her. Artemis smiled softly down on the amazed little bard, glancing behind them towards the spring with anticipation.
Demonic forms began forming themselves out of the darkness as the horn blasted twice, calling forth the minions of Dahok. Xena got the sense the legions of darkness far out-stripped their ranks, even with the Goddesses help.
"Theron, you understand that you shall pay for your betrayal of your oath?" Artemis inquired softly, emerald green eyes glinting. "Aidan was much favored by myself and Britomartis, not to mention other gods..."
"And all her devotion earned her nothing but death..." Theron laughed, feeling safe beside his chosen master.
"For such as she, there is no such thing as death," announced an oddly accented voice.
A silver clad form rode a pure white steed into the village square, a handsome, ageless man whose dark grey eyes shone with power. Nicodemus/ Aidan never dismounted his steed, stormy grey eyes focused on the dark man. "But you, death will seem a dream of paradise, once I am done with you..."
"And who are you," Hope sneered, glancing towards the handsome rider.
"I am the Harbinger of the Mother, son of the Ancients Ones that before banished your foul sire to the realm he now inhabits! Arise, Mother of All! Be free once more..." Aidan shouted into the wild night, raising a polished silver horn to his thin lips.
The blast of the horn sounded like the cry of wild things, of the blood surging through the veins of predator and prey alike, and the ground heaved beneath the two armies feet. A silvery fountain of water rose, turning pink with the blood of the fallen ranger as the wind howled.
A form began taking shape from the rising spring that now was crystal clear, and Hope shivered. A tall, slender form with fair skin and pure silver hair raised her arms towards the heavens, as a voice like liquid silver rose in volume.
The Goddess was singing an ancient incantation, the words of power in a language no mortal mind could recognize nor hold. But the effect was immediate.
Hope's army of undead flashed out of existence, the husks consumed by a white flame that freed their trapped souls. Her mortal followers fell writhing to their knees as the young goddess found herself being bound. Bands of silvery light encased the child of Dahok, and Hope wailed out her father's name.
Dark flames rose around the young goddess, and Danu frowned when the child of her ancient foe vanished. She turned towards her son, and said, "His powers have grown considerably since I have been bound..."
"But we shall win," Artemis said in grim determination.
"In time, Daughter of Zeus. But this shall be a battle that will shake the vaults of the heavens and the lands below alike...especially when not all Gods stand against the One God."
"Dahok has supporters in all the different Pantheons of Gods..." Britomartis sighed.
"But for now, we have sent him running," Danu replied, mounting a moon silver horse that had appeared out of thin air. "Aidan, there is justice to be served..."
"Yes, Mother," Aidan glanced towards the writhing Hunter of Souls. "Theron, once you walked in the light of true, now you shall run in the shadows of damnation...hunted till time ends.."
Theron shook his head, horror washing over his face when he watched the Master of the Hunt raise his horn. Aidan gave one mighty blow, and the men that had followed Theron found themselves elevated above the ground. Wolf-like hounds gave voice to the night, and sprang forward in pursuit.
Aidan sent his mount forward, and the entire hunt vanished from sight. The three Goddesses began turning away when Xena stepped forward, shouting "WAIT!".
The goddesses turned towards the weary warrior, and Danu glanced towards the sword the warrior held. Her gaze traveled towards her descendent's remains, then back towards the Warrior Princess.
"She died to break your bonds..." Xena whispered thickly. "She served you all well."
"Yes; she has been an honorable warrior..." Artemis agreed, smiling.
"And your point would be?" Danu asked.
"That she should not have had to die...." Xena swallowed hard, thinking of the woman she had become to love dearly. Aidan had been a true friend from the start, a warm presence the Warrior would miss.
"It was her destiny..." Danu answered, inclining her head towards the still form. "Her sacrifice has broken my bonds, bonds forged by Dahok... Only her blood could free me, shed by a warrior with a dark past..."
Xena swore, thinking how damned unfair it seemed. She had taken more lives than she had saved, she had harmed so many, and yet she lived. Aidan had been her polar opposite. Noble and wise, good and loving....
Tears burned the Warrior Princess's eyes, and she did not dash them away or hid them. She felt them run freely down her face to splash on the torn remains of Aidan. The tears of the proud warrior mingled with the spring waters, washing over the ranger's lifeless body.
The water roiled, obscuring the ranger's shattered form inside a pool formed by the spring waters and the warrior's tears. Energies swirled inside the opaque waters until a blinding silver light forced the mortals gathered to avert their eyes.
Aidan burst up out of the crystalline waters, gasping for air as though she had been holding her breath for a long time. The ranger coughed hard, water flowing out of her nose and mouth as the spring vanished.
"Aidan," Xena murmured, feeling Gaberielle touching her right elbow. Eponin rushed forward and gathered her stunned lover close, laughing and crying simultaneously as she examined the ranger.
"Eponin?" Aidan whispered wearily.
"Here, my love," Eponin assured her beloved mate, smoothing her fingers across the unmarred flesh of Aidan's face. Eponin claimed Aidan's lips for a ardent kiss.
The ranger sighed, laid her head against the muscular warrior's chest and slipped into oblivion. Eponin glanced uncertainly towards her queen and her consort.
Xena cast a heated look towards the three Goddesses.
"She is resting, Warrior Princess...it has been a rather trying day even for my Granddaughter," Danu laughed, fading away with the other Goddesses.
In spite of the losses of the day, there was a new sense of hope rising amidst the assembled Amazons. What had been destroyed could be rebuilt, the wounds of flesh and soul would heal given time once the necessary tasks were done.
"Amazons, we have work to do...." Gaberielle announced, inclining her head towards the bodies of the fallen warriors. Gaberielle turned towards the Arm's Mistress. "Eponin, get her inside the palace...and stay with her. I will not let her pay with her blood again."
"Yes, My Queen," Eponin sighed, gently bearing her burden towards the untouched palace.
The survivors began the hard work of cleaning away the debris of the nightmarish battle....
"Take care of yourself, Aidan," Xena said, gathering the ranger close for a bone-crushing embrace.
Aidan gasped for air when she was released, winded by the warrior's enthusiastic farewell. It had been two weeks since she been resurrected, and Aidan had just begun to regain her strength and vigor.
"Easy, Xena--I don't think Danu would appreciate your undoing Her handiwork," Gaberielle cautioned, beaming as she gave the ranger a gentler hug. "I am so happy the council gave you this territory.."
"As am I," Eponin interjected, joining the group. The towering blonde woman slid her right arm around Aidan's shoulders, laying claim to the the woman.
Aidan leaned into her lover, grinning when the muscular woman playfully nipped the nape of her neck. Xena and Gaberielle exchanged farewells with Ephiny and Solari, then swang up onto Argo's back. Extending her right hand she pulled Gaberielle up behind her,
"Aidan..." Xena pointed towards the hills surrounding the village where silvery forms moved.
"I know...they are guardians, friends to share the watch..." Aidan answered, grey eyes flashing moon silver when the ghostly forms vanished.
Xena inclined her head, understanding the battle line had been drawn. It was only a matter of time until the fight began again, but this time she knew the tide of darkness would not find it so easy. Aidan and her clan were part of the fight for the Light....
"Take care, old friend! Until we met again," Aidan said softly, eyes once more the familiar dark grey eyes.
Eponin clasped Aidan close against herself as though as she could shelter her lover against the storm winds forming again. Aidan leaned back, receiving and giving comfort simultaneously. The bonds of love and friendship would be tested again, and Xena worried what price they would have to pay.
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