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Copyright Trey 1998
See Part I for full disclaimers.
Miaska paced back and forth within the hut. Gabrielle watched her, having abandoned all attempts at calming the woman after the first few hours. It amazed her how concerned the Amazon was for her younger companion, how close they seemed despite their age difference. Had she not been told, she would have thought them sisters, for though they were very different in appearance - their hearts were bonded in a way she couldn't explain, but understood.
She turned to look at Xena. Her best friend had been silent ever since the fight in Orphido - at which she had only played a minor role due to the warrior's insistence that she hang back in the safety of the other Amazons. If only she had protested jubilantly she may have had a chance to see whatever had caused Rel to disappear, whatever now tormented her friend.
Xena herself sat, disconnectedly, on a chair in a dark corner. She was still running through the past days in her mind, something wasn't fitting with all that had happened, it was like one of her bard's tales with the ending missing - it left questions, left the listener in an inescapable maze. She had been spiralling through its passages all night, becoming more despondent with each dead-end she ran into, more tortured with every choice of path, and more discouraged as she ended back in the same place each time.
Something about the girl seemed disturbingly familiar, like a vague recognition that refused to be identified.
'Jason...you killed...' Rel's words span through her head as time burned down the candles. Who was Jason? She had killed many people that day, but knew none by name...and surely Rel didn't know any of the Raiders, did she?
She seemed so sure. In the short time the warriors had known each other, Xena had grown fond of the strong-minded blonde. Ever since that first morning of their meeting, that time - seemingly long ago - when their blades had battled so valiantly, so heroically. She was young, and yet she didn't appear to have any fears, almost inviting death.
Another pang of recollection convulsed through her, but the arrival of Ephiny prevented her from probing it further.
The blast of first-light blinded the three women from their individual thoughts.
Miaska greeted her sister Amazon with a searching expression, 'Any news? Has Rel come back yet?'
Ephiny lowered her eyes and shook her head while Gabrielle moved over as the Harlot's shoulders dropped in disappointment.
'I don't get it, where is she?' Miaska was close to tears, 'Why did she run off like that?'
'She's going to be fine,' the bard assured her, 'she can look after herself.'
'And how would you know?!'
Even Xena was stunned by this outburst, as the Amazon pulled sharply from Gabrielle and distanced herself.
'You don't know her, don't know what she's like at all...' the woman's sobs meant no one saw a shadow standing in the doorway.
'...but you do.'
All eyes re-focused on the figure.
The young Harlot let herself be engulfed by her friend's mothering hugs, 'Rel, where were you? What happened...?'
The others closed in, just as eager to hear the reply.
'It was nothing, really. In the battle, all that blood, I...I just freaked out. I had to get away...'
She wouldn't look at any of the expectant faces.
'All night? You had the whole tribe out after - ' Ephiny broke off from her scold, realising this wasn't the time.
'I'm sorry,' was all the apology Rel offered, turning to walk away from her closest friends, 'it won't happen again.'
Rel sat huddled in the stable. She was trying to hide, not only from the likes of her over-sympathetic friends and hushed whispers of the other tribe members, but also from part of herself. She couldn't conceive what she was about to do, tried to reason it out, yet each time there was the simple choice: either she killed Xena, or she didn't.
As an Amazon she had earned the right to take revenge against the murderer of Jason...but how could she kill Xena? The woman she knew now was a changed person from the one who had invaded her home town, it was a long time ago and the warrior had swapped sides. 'That doesn't excuse her,' part of her argued, 'she murdered the one person you had left, destroyed the one thing you cared about, and you're going to let her walk away without punishment?'
She squirmed, trying to come up with a reply, but couldn't. Her clenched fist opened to reveal the thin vial, no bigger than a butterfly cocoon. Inside swirled the dark liquid, the patient insect, given to her by Knol. It was the colour of the sky after the sun has long-since set but before the boundless night has taken hold, a royal blue toned with streaks of black, misted by fog and clouds which shrouded the moon. She was mesmerised by its innocence, by its beauty, as it tried to break loose of its restraint.
'It wants to fly,' she thought, seeing the creature held captive, 'it wants to be free.'
She could relate to that. Over the past night her emotions had been shredded so viciously - the weight of Choice bearing its teeth just as the wolf had at her weak spirit.
'I will release you,' she whispered, standing decisively, 'and Jason will rejoice at your freedom, as much as I.'
There was a snort from behind, alarming her so much so that she almost dropped the bottle.
'Seass,' she rebuked affectionately, slipping the cocoon into a pouch by her scabbard and rubbing his nose. He wined softly, his mane falling over one eye as he receded away from her touch, withdrawing to the back of his stall.
'He knows,' she thought dejectedly.
The horse refused to look at her as she stared for several long minutes. He had always obeyed her before, always done as she commanded without question, but this was different. This had to be done on her own and he would have no part in it.
'Perhaps its for the best,' she said to him, 'I guess I'm alone in this one, huh?'
He dropped his head lower as she left, 'this wasn't suppose to happen...'
For the rest of the morning Rel tried to act "normal". She had a long, in-depth conversation with Miaska, fortifying her earlier claim that she had simply "freaked out" the previous evening, and reaffirming their friendship. Though she did, unavoidably, withhold information from the older woman, she shunned lying. She told of her flash-backs and of the wolf - for Miaska was her best friend, the one she trusted - but the part about Xena and the poison Knol had conspired to her, she understandably left out.
She spoke, also, to Gabrielle and Ephiny as they sat making decorations for the Vindasha. They too were told only half the story, but in slightly less detail.
It was only Xena she couldn't bring her being to face. She didn't trust herself to be within an arrow's flight of the woman at that point, for fear of either being possessed with hate, or collapsing under the pressure of her charm. She knew that her conscience, given half the chance, would reveal her vengeful plot, try to lift the guilt from itself, and she was adamant not to let that happen.
As the day progressed, though, avoidance was becoming increasingly harder.
At noon she sat, as she always did, with the two sisters while they ate - finding she could relax easier in the warmth of the day, accompanied by their sibling witticisms and friendly gibes. Things had almost returned to their usual cycle, almost as if the past days hadn't existed. Almost. She glanced down at the pouch, seeing the leer of the bottle protruding through its cloth.
'If I do this,' she thought, 'if I go through with the plan, things might never return to their old ways...would Miaska and Ephiny forgive me?'
Her conscience continued its trickery.
'They will, 'the other side argued, 'I am merely fulfilling my Right, Jason's Right...'
She panicked inwardly as Ephiny waved a small group of Amazons to join them - Xena and Gabrielle inclusive - but saw no escape. She scrutinised her food, wishing fervently that she was one of the fried Millani bugs she now crunched upon.
No one noticed as Xena and Rel both sat, opposite each other, and ate without a word. Each was consumed with their own thoughts while concurrently trying to guess the others.
Rel became abruptly hindered from this as her name was caught in the drift of conversation.
'...what?' she looked questioningly.
'The drinks...' Ephiny repeated, gesturing to a few empty mugs, 'you're the youngest, you have more energy than us.'
'Geez, and I thought Amazons were against slave labour.' she mumbled humorously, rising from her seat, 'I tried to be born earlier, you know, but the gods just couldn't fit me in...'
A slight smile twitched Xena's mouth as the young warrior reached to take her mug, 'Your ego was probably too big,' she quipped, and for a moment a smile passed between them, before each averted their gaze sharply.
Rel headed for one of the long tables lavished in autumn fruits and Amazon dishes. She clanked the cups down by a large bowl of punch, the sudden awareness that this was her one chance to execute the concocted strategy.
She glanced briefly behind, seeing that Xena's back was turned and that the others were lost in a sea of festive talk.
'One chance,' she thought.
Knol had told her that the bottle contained enough venom for three attempts, should she fail in the first two, but Rel knew she would never have the courage to risk more than one.
'Just a third of the bottle,' they had agreed. This would kill the Warrior quickly and painlessly, but would lie dormant in her soul, waiting innocuously for a sudden eruption of glory. There was no exact time this would occur, anywhere between one day and two.
'A long 48 hours,' she thought, lifting the vial and pulling the stopper out.
She let Time corkscrew around her as she stared deeply into the liquid. She remembered the first moment she had encountered its power, at a time when everything seemed perfect. Back then, her life had been whole, her and Jason never being parted, like one soul with two minds. But that was then. She remembered the village Elder had shown them the fluid, saying that it would pass his old horse to the next life with the dignity he deserved. Jason had nodded understandingly, pulling her out of the stable and trying to change the subject - but Rel was hexed by the image of the liquid, and had stayed to watch the creature's final battle.
Her mind refused to picture Xena going through the same spasms of distress as the horse, refused to let another suffer the same confusion.
'How does anyone know it's painless?' she questioned, 'They've never experienced it, how can they know?'
Her hand had dropped down as she lapsed into seething anger which randomly hurled itself through the confinements of her body. It shot through her nerves, clamping every muscle and plucking at their strained composure.
A hand locked round her taut shoulder, jerking her so violently that the bottle slipped from her grasp and fell with a soft plunk into Xena's mug. Naikari, an Amazon only a few years older than she, grinned at her - not noticing the anger or shock pass over her comrade.
'Hey, we're dying of thirst over there...don't tell me you get "freaked out" by punch now too?'
It was a joke - a meaningless tease - but it choked Rel like a noose, the older Harlot kicking the step from under her feet and laughing at the crack of the blonde's neck. Was that what all the Amazons thought - that she was scared of killing people now? That she was weak? That she was nothing but a cowardice?
'Here, let me take some of these,' Naikari reached out to pick up Xena's mug.
Rel grabbed it from her, spilling a little but keeping her glare firmly on the other woman.
'I - I was just trying to help....wow, Rel, what's wrong with you?'
With a last disgusted look, Niakari retreated back to the table. Rel stared enviously after her and watched as she sank back into the rippling waters of chatter.
'I'll show her,' she spat, 'I'll show them all, for by the time the Vindasha comes - Xena will be no more than a bad memory...'
Her eyes lit up as the butterfly began to break open the cocoon, feeling freedom was close. She smiled corruptly and walked over to the table, setting the punch down and nodding in reply to the thanks.
Xena took her mug and regarded the young warrior with suspicion, something was different about her. Before she had been quiet, nervously picking at her food while remaining low in her seat as if trying to hide, but now she sat almost challengingly, daringly, as she heartily munched at the meal. The dark warrior took a long gulp of her drink, and turned her eyes.
Gabrielle awoke that night to cries of alarm and torches dancing past the window of their hut. She glanced at the other side of the bed, to where Xena should have been, but was confronted by the empty sheets. She rose and swung open the wooden door, staring for a few moments as Amazons swarmed to the centre of the village, before grabbing her staff and following.
'What's happened? Where's Xena?' she asked the first Harlot she reached.
'Murder!' was all the reply she got, 'Murder!'
She pushed through the crowds, and gasped as she saw Melosa standing over a body.
The body of Niakari.
Xena was crouched over her, but Gabrielle could see from her face that the girl was already dead. She stepped over and touched her friend.
Xena stood up, 'It looks like she was poisoned. Probably with Carell or Black's Venom.'
'Snake venom,' Xena translated, 'but there are no bite marks, so if it was...someone should be asking how it got there.'
'...but who'd - '
The surrounding Amazons hushed as their Queen raised her hands. Two stepped forward and covered the body, another - possibly a sister - sobbed openly. Melosa tried to comfort her, but the other woman twisted away, rage flushing her face as she pointed accusingly at a figure lurking at the back of the crowd. Amazons parted, and Rel's shadowed contours were left alone.
'HER!' the grieving Harlot denounced, 'SHE'S the one! Her name was the last thing Niakari said, she's the murderer!'
Rel tried to struggle free as several Amazons grabbed her arms and others closed in. Melosa called the restraints off and stepped into the circle, trying to look into the girl's eyes, but her gaze wouldn't be met.
She turned to the accuser, 'A name is not proof enough to condemn, there will be - '
'Then what about this?!' the Harlot thrust the empty vial at the Queen, 'My sister found it in the bottom of her mug after lunch, and if you remember it was Rel who - '
'Why would Rel want to kill Niakari?! If you're looking for someone to blame, fine, but find the guilty person, don't just execute the first person to...to...' Miaska trailed off, her sudden burst into the ring startling the prosecutor.
Rel herself stood quietly as the arguments clashed around her. How could this have happened? She had kept her eyes fixed on the contaminated punch, and remembered setting it down directly in front of Xena, she even saw her drink it down - how could this have happened?
The voices around her rose, but to screeches of inaudible intellect. Her glances darted fervently as the looks of hatred burned into her, glares of loathing empowering angry allegations which span and dazzled; the sight of Niakari's blanketed form branding itself in her vision.
All the anger which had been barricaded within her - the Memory, Jason, Xena, Artemis, Knol, Seass - all of the emotions she had ran so recklessly from, now caught up with her in one concussion of pain.
She lashed out at the nearest people, Miaska and Gabrielle. Both fell from view as she ripped her way through the tribe - the flames burning more energy, more force, into each blow. Within moments she was streaking through the trees, hearing cries of 'after her!' and 'Rel's the murderer!' as hooves pounded behind her.
She became aware of where she was headed: the shrine.
'What are you doing?!' she screamed to herself, she had turned from Artemis now, Artemis had turned from her...
She adjusted her course, her only other escape route being eastwards, out of the valley.
But the Harlots were gaining. The further Rel ran, the sparser the trees became, and the faster the riders began to close in.
She was almost in open ground now, she had to think of something fast. Her legs ached with effort as she saw two peasant travellers moving along the road ahead. She strived against the pain, forcing herself to go faster.
One of the peasants turned, hearing her approach, but saw only a blur of movement as her fist hurtled to his head. His companion only had time to gasp before the action was repeated. Rel paused only to look at the rising dust of Amazons before jumping the startled brown horse and spurring him to full gallop. This was more like it. But although the animal was, undoubtedly, trying its best to respond to her urges of speed, it simply wasn't used to running flat-out. She turned him parallel to the river and tried to find a suitable crossing point at full-pelt. Her concentration was so that she didn't see the golden mare angle itself to ram them.
Xena's battle cry turned her head just before the impact knocked her from her mount and crashed them both into the icy water.
Rel attempted to counter the woman's weight above her, trying to use the current to sweep her away, but Xena's hand forced her head under. She fought harder, this time in sheer desperation, as the water buffeted around her. What was Xena doing?! She wouldn't kill her, surely...
Rel's questions were replaced with fear as her lungs screamed for air, she tried to kick her legs against the river bed, but they were met with jagged stones which cut deep into her skin. The blood churned around her, she tried to recoil from its stain, but it was too angry. Her throat rasped, her eyes stung, her knees burned, her head pounded, and she opened her mouth to wail for mercy.
Instead, she was met with a rush of cold liquid. The foul taste made her gag as she realised she was sucking in her own blood, but this only made more flood down into her throat.
Maybe this was as it should have been, Xena was destined to kill her, she was simply fulfilling Rel's request from the past.
Her will died, black and red gyrated her vision. She went limp.
A sudden flash of realisation hit Xena as the girl's resistance evaporated. She dragged Rel up from the depths by her hair, stunned to see her tinged in red, surely she hadn't killed her...? The anger of Rel's injury to Gabrielle had caused her a lust for reprisal, but she hadn't meant to -
Amazons skidded to a halt and waded out to them, an edge of anticipation creeping into their surprise as the yielding form of the criminal Harlot was held in Xena's arms and carried to the bank.
Under the crimson smears was pale bluish grey skin and impassive eyes.
'She's dead.' someone stated.
Xena was too stunned to respond. She had once told her brother that murder was pure evil, there hadn't been any need to kill the girl, it wasn't in self-defence or battle, they weren't enemies...
'We must stay together...'
The words were spoken by memory, but to whom they belonged or why they glided like phantoms through her mind, she couldn't figure.
A sudden splutter of the "dead" awakening incinerated all thought.
The Amazon lapsed into fits of coughs, vomiting up the water and blood which infected her lungs. Her body began to shake intensely - the cold shock pulling her muscles into juddering contortions. Xena snatched the saddle blanket from one of the Harlots and moved closer to her.
As the dark warrior towered over, Rel suddenly became a wild animal. Her space trespassed on and her escape cut off, threatened was one of the many feelings which hurricaned over her. One quivering hand clenched itself round the hilt of her sword, she drew it and slashed the descending material.
Instantly there were thirty steady blades ringing a crown of silver thorns around her.
Xena watched as Ephiny shook her head sadly and ordered Rel to be bound. The older Amazon turned and mounted her horse without looking at her sister's best friend, and the dark warrior swore she almost caught the gleam of a tear.
Gabrielle sat with one hand keeping the pressure on her forehead where Rel had assaulted her earlier.
'I think I need a helmet...' she ruminated.
Miaska had refused the aid of either her or the tribe's healer, pouting that she was fine, though the gash down her right cheek suggested otherwise.
The turbulence of voices and hooves announced the return of the hunt, and the dazed Amazon followed the bard outside.
Melosa and the remainder of the tribe gathered to greet the offender.
They were surprised to see her bedraggled appearance, but the Queen stepped forwards as the blonde was shoved roughly towards her.
'You cannot out-run your crime, Rel,' she reprimanded, 'I take it from your actions that you are guilty...?'
Rel skirmished, but then looked up. Every pair of eyes was transfixed on her, accusing her. It wouldn't matter if she denied the charge, they were already convinced differently - she could see it in their stares. Maybe she had never truly belonged here after all, maybe it had taken murder for her to realise that she didn't fit.
'But it was an accident...' she replied, bewildered as the words forced themselves free and were spoken out loud before she could protest.
'So you do confess to killing Niakari?' Melosa kept her tone calm, yet her glare was that of stone.
Rel couldn't see any way out, 'I was following Amazon law.'
'And which law would that be?!' the deceased's sister cut in, 'Which "law" states that you can murder?'
Another tried to restrain the grieved woman, but she relented, 'No! She's not even a real Amazon, how can she - '
Melosa's order silenced all.
She turned, 'Rel?'
Rel dragged the moment, trying to compose an explanation worthy of forgiveness.
'I had no choice...it - it was an accident.....Jason...'
Forgiveness? How could they forgive what they didn't understand?
But to someone, or rather someone's dark sub-conscience, it vibrated with deeply clouded clarity. Jason? The same person Rel had accused her of killing? The same one which had "freaked" the girl into hiding in the forest all night? Questions sprinted through Xena's mind like Olympic finalists.
'Rel...' Ephiny dismounted and drew closer to her friend, 'what happened to your brother was a long time ago. We're sorry that it did, but you've got to stop living in the past - I thought you'd moved on, I thought you were happy...'
'How can you say that?!!' Rel erupted while Xena stood in vacant mystification, '...what am I suppose to do, just forget him? How can I be "happy" when his murderer - the one that ripped us apart and made our home as dead as Tartarius - how can I be happy when she stands among us and calls herself my friend??!'
Looks of revelation and wonderment passed through the tribe as they speculated who was being referred to. Only one conceived it, Xena. She was, after all, the only one which had a history of creating hell on earth, but she still didn't understand it completely - Rel had tried to kill her?
The Amazon - not a "real" Amazon? - stepped closer to Xena. She seemed to notice the dark warrior's confusion, and looked slightly offended.
'Who are you?' came the Warrior Princess' words. It was the question which had won the laurel wreath, the right to be asked.
'Who am I?' Rel repeated scornfully, 'Why, I'm the one person who wanted - no, begged - for your terror to prove itself. I'm the one who wished for you to take one moment out of your life to end mine - we had to stay - '
'- together.' Xena finished.
Gabrielle was as confused as the others, more-so in fact, but she observed the scene without comment.
'Are you saying it was Xena who attacked your town?' Melosa questioned.
The bard felt like she had joined a conversation mid-haul, as though everyone else knew something she didn't. Rel lived here, this was her home - not some town - what was everyone talking about? And Xena - what did this all have to do with her? Why had Niakari been killed?
The Queen appeared to consider all the available information, as every leader should, carefully.
'Your act of Vengeance is not acceptable,' she finally stated.
Rel gasped, '"Not acceptable?!" But she - '
'She killed your brother, yes, but he was no Amazon, and at the time neither were you. Our oaths and laws do not apply to those outside our society.'
'So I'm an "Outsider" now?'
'Your blood is not Amazon.' Niakari's sister intermitted.
'And yours isn't that of Aries, but you still manage to -'
'Rel! Toak!' Melosa was losing her patience. She turned to the former, 'Rel, your heart is as pure as any of our kind. You fight with pride and courage, and you have grown accustom to our ways. In all respects you are as much an Amazon as any of us.'
'But..?' Rel replied, there had to be one.
'But you have committed one of the highest crimes of our society: you killed another Amazon. It wasn't in a challenge, it was conspired without her knowledge, and is therefore treated as a case of murder.'
Continued Part IV