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DISCLAIMER

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and the Amazons are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The story however is mine. There are scenes of violence, and though not graphic in nature may upset those with a sensitive nature.

This is the third part of a story called That Road Once Trodden, that started out as something to keep me awake when on night duty and has turned into a personal quest.

Thank you once again to all those that have e-mailed me. I hope you enjoy this instalment.

XFLS:- if your out there Iíve lost you e-mail address please get in touch.

 

THAT ROAD ONCE TRODDEN -- Part Four

by Karen Surtees

 

The tunnels to the cellars were dimly lit with flickering torches, damp and cold. Gabrielle shivered as she wondered how the Amazons guarding Xena put up with it for hours on end. Ephany noticing the shiver mistook it for concern over Xena.

"These are the conditions Xena asked for you know." She said not wanting to see Gabrielle's temper flare.

"Yeah I know. I was just wondering how the guards stood it. Xena, well she could feel at home on top of a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm. I don't have to worry about that."

Ephany grinned at the bard. "Yeah, I'd noticed she can make herself at home just about anywhere."

"It's a warrior thing." Joked Gabrielle nervously as Lissa gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Ephany lead the group into a small chamber where the guards had put a table and a few chairs in to use while on duty. They rose from their seats as the Regent, their Queen and the Priestess entered. Gabrielle glanced round the room at the three guards, surprised at how young they seemed, she immediately picked up on their nervousness. It was as though they really were as young as they looked and had been caught doing something they weren't suppose to.

"How is she?" said Ephany inquired. There was a tense pause as the three eyed each other not wanting to upset their Queen then one of them replied.

"About the same. She kicked off again about two or three candlemarks ago. She managed to open the wounds on her wrists again. We had Cassandra take a look, but she didn't want to try and sedate her again, so they've been left." Ephany nodded. She knew the healers were getting concerned about having to sedate her so often and the amount of soneral it was taking to do it.

"Okay, who is down there with her now?" The amazon could feel herself wincing as she looked at her Queen, trying to gauge the reaction she was going to get.

"Er?Kiaya." Unfortunately for the reporting Amazon whose eyes were still glued to the Queen, it wasn't Gabrielle's reaction she had to worry about.

"Kiaya! In Artemis's name who let her down here?" The Amazons eyes flew to the furious Regent.

"Well Neela's daughter wasn't well and Kiaya came down saying she was doing her duty. I'm sorry Ephany ..She's senior. I never thought to question her. I thought it must be okay."

"Oh, for the sake of the Gods. Everybody knew my ruling. Stripping her of all privileges and assigning various other chores until she learned how to obey orders and under no circumstances was she to hold guard duties here!" The Amazon just shrugged. Ephany let out an exasperated sigh, then tiredly rubbed a hand over her eyes. ""Okay, we'll sort this out later. Who else is down there with her?" Hoping at least there was someone with a modicum of sense with her. A guilty flush crossed the Amazons face as she hung her head "Gods give me strength!" Said Ephany realising that nobody else was down there with Kiaya and Xena. "Right, you three with me." She was about to tell Gabrielle to wait here until she saw the look of determination on the bards face and realised it would be pointless.

The cell was further into the tunnels by some way. The Amazons had soon realised that hearing voices just outside the cell enraged the warrior further. So only those actually guarding the cell were supposed to be there at any one time, of course everybody went down when the healers entered the room to treat her wounds. Ephany was worried surely the girl wasn't stupid enough to get herself into even more trouble. Ephany's hopes were dashed as she heard Kiaya's taunting laugh echo down the tunnel.

"Not so mighty now are we Princess! Everyone kept telling me how tough you were; but you weren't so hard to bring down." Ephany broke into a run as Xena's howling response was heard closely followed by another mocking laugh.

Fear touched Gabrielle's heart as she heard what was going on down at the cell. The Amazon really didn't understand that she was playing with fire. Kiaya did not realise that the only reason she wasn't being ripped to pieces, was that Xena was chained at the wrists, ankles, neck and waist by chains that two Centaurs hadn't been able to break, in a cold damp cell that had sapped her strength to a manageable level. Not to mention the ironwood door that stood between them.

The sudden silence egged the group into a faster run over the last few hundred paces separating them from the cell. Xena's next roar was almost drowned out by the screeching of metal over rock as she strained against the chains holding her and found them giving. Kiaya didn't have any time to register that Xena had broken free of the restraints before Ephany, Gabrielle and the rest of the group appeared.

Ephany pointed towards Kiaya, "Restrain her." the guards instantly reacted, not wanting to garner the Regent's wrath anymore than necessary. Her next words were smothered out as Xena crashed into the ironwood door. Her cries of rage held absolutely no reason. "Everyone back out!" she yelled at the top of her voice. The guards dragged the now restrained Kiaya with them into the tunnel, closely followed by Lissa. Ephany reached over to grab Gabrielle, but the bard was having none of it and shook herself free.

"Gabrielle!" pleaded Ephany as another shudder rippled through the door. Gabrielle ignored her and place herself directly in front of the door. Ephany looked back over her shoulder and saw Lissa standing at the tunnel entrance. "Go to the village. Warn Eponin and alert the guard." Lissa nodded breaking into a run.

Gabrielle acknowledge Ephany's orders but kept her eyes locked on the fury that stood in front of her. She had never before heard the kind of rage that was pouring from Xena's cell or seen the incredible amount of power. She was once again amazed at the raw force within her best friend as Xena again pushed hard bending the ironwood door. Even though she knew the sensible thing to do was to leave and let the guard deal with this, Artemis's words kept running through her head.

"Do you believe in your friend Gabrielle?"

More than ever Gabrielle wanted to believe. In all her time with Xena she'd never felt threatened by her. It was her badge of pride that while others retreated in terror she could stand by Xena's side without fear, knowing she was safe. It was like standing in the path of a raging flood and knowing you were safe, because right there in front of you was this unmoveable will, forcing it to either side. She had always felt secure with Xena. Yeah, they'd been in scary situations, and yes she'd been frightened, but never of Xena.

"..She told you that either way she would lose you to this fight. Was she right?"

This was a test of faith, a test of her belief in Xena and she would not fail in it. As she placed herself in front of the door, that Xena's attacks were now splintering, she realised what Artemis had meant when she said,

"You're her way out Gabrielle, it's time you showed her the way."

If any part of the Xena that she knew and loved remained in the mad woman within the cell, the only person that would ever stand a chance of reaching her was Gabrielle herself. She had been wrong not to come down sooner, because if Xena couldn't be reached then there was nothing left within that body to save and ending it's life would be an act of mercy and would be welcomed by Xena's soul wherever it resided.

Ephany watched with mounting horror as the ironwood door began to buckle. Gabrielle stood in front of it not flinching. She desperately wanted to drag Gabrielle away, but knew if Xena recognised the bard struggling with her it would be the end of her life. She hoped Gabrielle knew what she was doing.

The animal that raged within the cell could sense its impending victory over its confinement, with one last powerful kick the door shattered. Its heart soared at he new-found freedom, it's blood boiled at the thought of revenge. Chain and taunt her would they? Well they'd pay for that in pounds of flesh.

Gabrielle felt the splinter's of wood hit as the door finally buckled against the furious onslaught, but didn't flinch or shy away. She was shocked at Xena's condition as she left the cell. Blood poured from her wrists, where she'd been pulling at the chains, which hadn't actually been broken but ripped out of the walls. Her normally vibrant hair was dull and lank. She had lost weight and by appearances was a shadow of her former self. Though the incredible strength that it had taken to break free proved that appearances could be deceptive. Gabrielle braced herself for the confrontation that was to come.

Xena exited the cell, chains dragging along the floor behind her. Her eyes quickly scanned the room looking for something, anything to destroy. They soon found a target in the small blonde figure standing before the door. Striding forward, she picked up the Amazon and slammed her against the wall with ease.

Gabrielle managed not to flinch as Xena lifted her into the air and threw her against the wall with force. She was amazed that she hadn't seemed to have broken anything, though she suspected the bruising on her back would be spectacular. She couldn't see any recognition in those blue eyes that she loved so dear only the burning of ice and fury. Still she had to try.. for Xena, for herself.

Xena held the woman off of the floor, slowly increasing the pressure on her arms. It would be so easy to crush her like a bug. Incredibly the woman didn't show any fear and was now talking to her in an irritatingly calm voice, which only infuriated her further. Pinning her with one hand, she drew the other back intending to knock some fear into her.

Gabrielle saw the rising fury in Xena's eyes and wondered if the warrior could even hear her. She prepared herself for the worst as she saw the fist draw back.

Xena was about to punch the Amazon with the bone grinding power she knew she possessed when a picture flashed in front of her eyes. It was this woman smiling and laughing. She tried to move her arm again. The scene changed to the woman bent over her own body crying. Still she fought to throw the punch, but each time a new picture formed showing this woman, laughing, crying, playing with her. She tried a final time to use her arm when the woman's words finally broke through to her. "Xena, I love you."

Gabrielle saw the hesitation, a familiar flicker in those eyes and carefully repeated all that she had been saying, growing increasingly confident that she was reaching her friend. Suddenly Xena's grip on her lessened and she saw a fleeting recognition on her face, then one word from her. "Ares!"

Those words echoed around her skull, forcing their way into every crevice, every dark corner spreading their light. Xena felt absolutely no desire to harm the woman in her hands and she lessened her grip. Just as quickly as those words had brought their light though the words began to fade. More scenes flashed into the front of her mind, with one of a darkly handsome man gaining in frequency "Ares." She whispered again.

The God of War was enjoying watching one of his many followers, inflict some discipline on an unsuspecting trading caravan. When the whispered words were heard. A smile graced his face. "I guess its time to go to work."

It hadn't exactly been the word she was hoping for; but then again at least it was a word. She felt the grip on her clothing tighten again and returned her attention back to Xena seeing the rage starting to return.

Ephany watched silently from the tunnel as the raging Xena slammed Gabrielle against the wall again. She was just about to charge into the chamber when Gabrielle's words seemed to penetrate the fury in her friend's mind. Gabrielle was the first to see the God of War appear behind the warrior as Xena whispered his name.

A sudden flare of bright blinding light behind Xena and Gabrielle found herself released from Xena's grip as the warrior crumbled to the floor. Gabrielle looked up and found herself staring straight into the God of war's eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but never got there. Ares raised his hands . "Hold on now!. This was necessary. She couldn't have held out by herself for much longer." Breaking into a smile Ares noted " Nice work by the way." The God of war sighed as no trace of understanding showed in the bard's eyes. "I thought Artemis had explained it all to you?" Gabrielle finally managed to regain the use of her feet and her voice; she stood rearranging her clothes.

"She did, " pause," sort of."

"Great a sort of from Artemis. Well little girl, the situation is this. Xena is just not strong enough to hold out against this type of attack. Even I can only hold it back for a short period of time. She'll wake up shortly and you'll have her for half a day, maybe less, that's all I can give you. You have until noon to get rid of the army and the priest, if its not done by then she's gone forever."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Hey, I care you know."

"Yeah, and I'm your greatest follower. What do you get out of this?" The God of war smiled knowing what she was thinking.

"Don't worry Danielle."

"Gabrielle." Interrupted the bard.

"Yeah, whatever."

"Then why help at all?"

"It's not just the Amazons that are threatened by this." Ares stated as he started to fade. "Remember you only have until noon."

Gabrielle looked over at the stunned Ephany and the sweat covered Solari and Eponin that had just arrived at her shoulder. "Now don't tell me you didn't see that?" Ephany nodded her head and walked over to her.

"I saw, what's more I heard. What in Hades name is going on Gabrielle? The whole of Mount Olympus seems to be dropping in to say hi."

A cheeky grin crossed the bard's face. "You get used to it around Xena. Though I do profess to liking Cupid over Ares, he's so cute." Gabrielle laughed at the look on Ephiny's face. "Come on, we need to tend to Xena we don't have much time." She knelt down next to her friend and gently shook her shoulder. Ephany waved Solari and Eponin in, just in case.

"Hey come on sleepy head, time to wake up." Gabrielle shook her friends shoulder again, smiling as she saw the first stirrings of wakefulness. "That's it, come on. Open those baby blues for me Xena." The smile turned into a full-fledged grin as Xena's eyes blinked open and looked at her. Gently brushing the dark hair from her friends face she let a small sigh of relief escape her. "Nice to have you back. You okay?" Xena stared at her intently then gave a small nod of her head. She struggled to rise to a sitting position, and was only saved from falling back to the floor by the bard reaching forward and supporting her.

"Are you sure, Xena?" the warrior nodded again and looked in puzzlement at the chains on her wrists, then lifting a hand she tugged at the shackle around her neck. Gabrielle shot a concerned look at Ephany. "Eph, can you get someone down to get these off?" Asked Gabrielle lifting a portion of the heavy chain in her hands.

"I'll do it." Eponin stepped forward removing a sharp tooling instrument from the belt at her waist. Xena immediately reacted to the tool as she would to a weapon and surged to her feet, dragging the bard who was still holding the chain with her. Eponin stopped a couple of paces away; knowing that to approach would be a mistake.

"Hey, hey, easy now. Eponin's only going to remove the chains for you, okay?" again the warrior nodded. Gabrielle was getting concerned now, Xena was not the most talkative person in Greece but normally she would have uttered a reply or two by now. But she did as she was asked and held her wrists out to Eponin to remove the chains. A candlemark later the chains were a pile on the floor. "Lets get you up to the village. We'll let Cassandra take a look at you, get you cleaned up, and get some food into you." She wrapped her small arm around her partner's waist and gently guided her to the tunnel.

It was some time before they exited the Temple. Xena was quite weak from her imprisonment and it had taken all four of them to stop her falling. Coming down the Temple steps Gabrielle was glad to see that someone had thought to rouse the healers, she also saw the three cell guards holding Kiaya as they stood off to one side.

"Cassandra," she called to the healer, " Do me a favour, please. Take Xena, and tend to her injuries, clean her up and get some food in her. I'll be along shortly. Solari go with them." The Amazon saluted her Queen and assisted Cassandra with the warrior. Gabrielle watched as the three of them shuffled across the village square, then turned angrily to Kiaya. "You!!" she put herself right into the Amazons face. "Are the most pathetic excuse I've ever seen for an Amazon! Now I have a problem. Do I let Ephany try and discipline you again, which I can tell from your attitude won't work. Or do I wait awhile and let Xena deal with you?" She raised her eyebrows, and let an evil little smile cross her face. "No, I can't waste her time with the likes of you. I'll just have to deal with you myself. Get yourself a staff and meet me on the practise ground in a candlemark." She started towards the healers hut when Ephiny's surprised filled voice made her pause.

"Er.., Gabrielle in case you haven't noticed it's after midnight and its dark."

"Then light a fire Ephany. That girl needs to be taught a few lessons, and I'm the one who's going to do the teaching. I'm going to check on Xena, When I come out I expect everything to be ready." She turned and left leaving a shocked group of Amazons wondering whether or not they had actually heard their young Queen challenge Kiaya.

A rather disbelieving Ephany and Eponin were supervising the building of a fire and the lighting of the practise ground. "Can she beat her?" Ephany looked with some concern at the weapons master.

"Who? Gabrielle? I very much doubt it Ephany. Kiaya's one of the best I've ever seen."

"Then how do I get her out of this?"

"Well.. you can't without undermining her authority."

"Great!! I've got the Amazon nation under threat from a warlord and his army, a half crazed Warrior Princess and a totally insane Queen to deal with. Things just couldn't get better."

"Well, Gabrielle might win." Ephany gave Eponin a disdainful look.

Gabrielle entered the healers hut without a look back at the stunned group of Amazons she'd just left. "How is she?" Cassandra looked up at her Queen and smiled.

"Considering the amount she's been through and the amount of soneral we've given her she's fine. I'm just wrapping up her wrists and ankles to make her a little more comfortable."

"Has she spoken yet?"

"No not yet, she's not quite with us yet, but don't worry after all that soneral and a blast from Ares it will take a little while for her mind to clear." Gabrielle rubbed her hand along the tense shoulder muscles felling them relax slightly under her touch.

"Solari, I'd appreciate it if you would take Xena over to the council chamber when Cassandra's finished."

"Yes, my Queen" Gabrielle gave her partners shoulder one last rub then left.

Xena was perfectly aware of what was happening around her. Unfortunately she just couldn't get her body to respond to it. She felt like she'd spent the last week celebrating with Eponin. The last time the two warriors had, had a drink together they'd had to be subdued by the village guard, something about them being a little to boisterous. Apparently one of the council had been a little offended that they'd used her hut for target practise. From what she could remember her head had felt similar to this then. Her body on the other hand, just wouldn't do as she asked it. Everything was to slow, to much of an effort, she felt as though she were weighted down, even lifting her head was hard work. The only thing that did seem to be in order, as Cassandra fussed over her was her rage. It was still there buried deep inside, but it was once again hers to control, hers to command.

Xena brought her wandering attention back to the healer as a warm mug was thrust into her hands. Her eyebrow arched in question.

"Its a stimulant. It will help counteract all that soneral you've had." Xena knew the type of tea Cassandra was talking about, she'd used similar on several occasions. She also remembered the taste. She took a hesitant sip and was rather surprised at its sweet taste. The surprise must have shown on her face because Cassandra chuckled at her.

"Do you really think that with a reputation like yours I would give you something you could hold a grudge against me for?" Xena glance at Solari who was trying to hide her grin, then broke into a chuckle herself. She could already feel her blood stirring, feel her reactions starting to quicken. She drank the rest of the tea and then started on the food that had been placed in front of her.

After leaving the healer's hut, Gabrielle returned to her quarters to collect her staff. The quiet knock on the door didn't startle the bard. She'd sensed the Amazons approach. In fact she was pretty sure she knew who it was." Come in Ephany." The door opened and the Regent stepped through. Obviously spending all of her time over the last three years with Xena was paying off. There had been a time when Gabrielle wouldn't have heard an army approaching over shale, never mind a single well trained Amazon warrior. She let herself feel a small surge of confidence, yes, she was definitely getting better at this warrior stuff.

"My Queen." Ephany said formally, worry plainly clear on her face.

"The answer to your Question is No, but thanks for asking." A trace of humour coloured her words.

"You might have actually given me the chance to ask it. You understand the consequences if you lose?"

"Yes I do, but that won't happen."

"You seem terribly sure of yourself Gabrielle. Kiaya is extremely good."

"Ephany," she said tilting her head toward the Regent, "Do you ever wonder why it is that Xena is able to do so many incredible things? Able to fight overwhelming odds without faltering?"

"Yeah, I have wished for her talent on many occasion."

"It's not just a talent Ephany, it takes long hours of practise and belief. Total and utter belief. She may worry about it before and after but when she's there doing it, there is no room in her thoughts for failure."

"I take it your trying to tell me you have this belief in yourself."

"Sometimes Ephany you do things not because you want to not because you're asked to, but because it's the right thing to do. Over the last few years my life has depended on this staff every day. There is a big difference between practise and the real thing, Xena and life have taught me that. Nobody has taught Kiaya that. While she may be good on the practise ground or surrounded by her Amazon friends in the few skirmishes she's been involved in; she's about to find out that life has a few more surprises for her. Come on lets get this over with."

Amazons had soon surrounded the practise ground. Despite the late hour it hadn't taken long for news to spread that their bard Queen had called Kiaya out in a duel. Most of the village was now in attendance. Ephany escorted the Queen through the gathered Amazons. Where? She wondered had this confidence sprung from. She had obviously learned a lot from Xena. Ephany just hoped she'd learned enough.

Gabrielle appreciated the warmth and light given out by the massive fire at the side of the practise ground. Night had brought a chill to the air and Gabrielle shook herself slightly before stepping into the arena. The bard advanced towards Kiaya with immense confidence, she had learned over the last few years to do anything less could be fatal. She also knew that no matter how good Kiaya was there was no way that she would be able to intimidate her with her superior skills. Practise with Xena made a mockery of anyone else's attempts; there was just no one better at intimidation than the Warrior Princess. She stood before the Amazon warrior and smiled.

When the Queen had called Kiaya out to the practise grounds she could hardly believe the little Queen had the guts to actually do it, but there she stood right in front of her. She'd had time to think since the incident in the cellars, she knew she'd upset the bard by taunting Xena. And she was ready to admit that it hadn't exactly been a bright idea to disobey orders once, never mind twice. The Whole Amazon community had made their views pretty clear where that was concerned. Even Eponin had all but disowned her over the whole affair. Still beating the Queen would show them all just how much better than the rest of them she was.

Of course once she'd beaten the Queen her mask would pass into her own hands. She began to wonder as she looked into the gentle face whether or not she knew what she was facing. She certainly didn't look scared or worried. Well that smile would soon be wiped off of her face.

The Amazons fell quiet as Gabrielle and Kiaya faced each other. A few noticed Kiaya's smile falter, as she was unable to face the young bard down. They backed off slightly, Kiaya lifting her staff above her head into the high guard position pointing towards the bard. Gabrielle on the other hand just stood and waited, staring at Kiaya. The Amazon was a little perplexed by the Queen's in action and decided to use it to her advantage.

Gabrielle stood still in front of the Amazon watching her carefully, hear Xena's calming voice in her head.

"There are two stages at the start of a fight Gabrielle. At first your opponent will try to intimidate you, stare you down, make you believe their will is the stronger. Ignore it, look straight through them. If you don't back off it will unnerve them. The second part is a little harder to master. Just before they move to attack there will be a little sign. A hardening of the eyes, a tightening of the fist, a crease in the forehead, something. If you can read that you will always have the upper hand."

Gabrielle was concentrating so hard on seeing the sign, she didn't even realise she was moving before her staff blocked Kiaya's. The shudder that rippled down her staff was strong and solid, but had none of the stinging power she associated with Xena's blows. She dropped to a crouch reversing the swing of her staff connecting solidly with Kiaya's ankles and sending her tumbling. Kiaya rolled from reach and bounced to her feet, a trace of worry on her face. Obviously the little Queen had a few more skills than she had expected. Instead of waiting for the attack Gabrielle pushed on twirling the staff above her head. Xena had called it a sacrifice move. You left a wide opening and would most probably take a hit, but if the bait were taken your opponent would be defenceless against the downward swing of your staff. Kiaya took the bait stepping in to deliver a blow to the stomach, receiving a stunning blow to the head for her troubles. Gabrielle the wind knocked out of her and her stomach smarting painfully spun out of reach. Catching her breath she set herself waiting for the Amazon warrior to get to her feet.

Kiaya rose unsteadily to her feet. She couldn't understand why she was having such a problem with someone who after all was only a bard. She tried a different tack going in low trying to take her feet. The bard nimbly jumped the swinging staff and delivered a crunching blow to Kiaya's right arm. The Amazon immediately reversed her staff attempting to take Gabrielle's feet from behind.

The bard jumped again and stepped back as Kiaya rose from her crouch. Both women were breathing heavily as their weapons clashed again. No matter how quick and forceful her blows were, Kiaya was unable to break through the Queen's defence; the young bard was actually making more hits than she was. In a quick succession of blows Kiaya found herself flat on her back staring into the starlit sky, Gabrielle's staff at her throat.

"Do you yield?" panted the bard. Kiaya nodded a mute response. "Good." Gabrielle gazed around the silent Amazon crowd before kneeling beside Kiaya with her back to them.

"You know Kiaya," she said looking out into the hunting grounds, "the difference between you and me is life. Your skills are certainly more precise and complicated than mine, but I rely on mine to keep me alive everyday." Sighing she looked down at the fallen Amazon. "You're a bully Kiaya. The worst kind because you don't even comprehend the consequences of your actions. By disobeying orders you put those that are depending on you at risk, not just yourself. Now I'll tell you this just once. This is your last chance. Grow up!! Act like an adult!! Because if you think fighting me was tough." She chuckled shaking her head a little. "Remember there is always someone bigger and better waiting around the corner, and Xena's it. She lives, eats and breathes because of her skills, you wouldn't last a second against her, and she's very mad at you. You've been warned. No more chances." Gabrielle didn't see the glint of anger and frustration in Kiaya's eyes as she rose and turned her back on her. Didn't see her rise, staff in hand, hateful intent on her face. She did sense the downswing of the staff directed at her head. Twisting she managed to avoid a head blow, the staff cracking painfully against her collarbone, snapping it. She saw her reach for the knife held on her belt, as she crashed to the ground. She saw the hate filled eyes glint in satisfaction, before rolling blackness claimed her as she fell unconscious.

What she didn't see; though she would hear enough about later which would enable her to tell the tale as though she'd witnessed it, as a large muscular hand that wrapped itself around Kiaya's throat, with the well toned muscles rippling along the arm that with ease raised the stunned Amazon off the ground. She didn't see the look of death in the feral blue eyes as Xena regarded the struggling Amazon and she didn't hear her partner's first words since leaving that dark cell.

"That was a mistake!" The choking warrior was pounding with futility at Xena's arm trying to get Xena to release her strangling hold. Feeling the anger flow through her blood as she looked upon her partner Xena tightened her grip cutting off the remaining airflow to the Amazon. Kiaya, suddenly remembered the knife on her belt, desperately she withdrew it and with all her remaining strength drove it straight into Xena's forearm. Without even blinking the tall raven-haired warrior threw the Amazon to the ground and pulled the blade out of her arm and throwing it away in disgust.

"Get yourself a weapon." The Amazon turned a deadly shade of white at the tone of the warriors voice. She was now beginning to realise what Gabrielle had been trying to tell her. This was the Warrior Princess in the flesh and blood, bid, bad and very, very lethal. All her insecurities came crashing down around her as she stared into those deadly eyes.

"I said get yourself a weapon!" Xena's voice dropped a few octaves lower becoming more menacing. She desperately wanted to snap this Amazons neck, but could already hear the lecture she'd get off of her bard should she carry her wishes out. She wouldn't let her get away without paying a portion of the price though. Nobody got away with touching the bard, especially when they had to take the cowards option to do it.

Kiaya scrambled unsteadily to her feet, she was finding it hard to breathe, her throat was swelling where Xena's hands had been crushing it. She looked at the faces of the gathered Amazons and caught Eponin's eye. The elder Amazon shook her head and signed to her not to choose a weapon but to use her hands. She was a little confused at first until she realised she had a better chance of staying alive if there were no blades or staff's involved.

"No weapons. I choose hand to hand." Stammered the Amazon.

"Good choice." Growled Xena advancing. She had regained fully use of her body and was eager to put it into action.

Kiaya didn't know what to do. She had seen her death in those eyes, but she was still breathing. She knew to attack would be pointless, there was no way she could defeat this woman; but neither could she just stand there and get beaten. In the end she just closed her eyes and swung for the warrior.

Xena was starting to feel a little guilty at the terror on the Amazons face plain for all to see. This irritatingly familiar voice in her head kept telling her to play nice. She gritted her teeth against it, okay she'd play nice, well nice enough to leave her breathing. The Amazons blind swing came as on shock, it had been plastered on her face. She knew she was in a no win situation and had decided to get it over with. Xena caught Kiaya's fist in her hand and twisted it violently.

The surrounding Amazons heard the bone snap. Xena jerked the now broken arm dislocating the shoulder. Kiaya was unable to contain her scream of pain and it echoed around the practise ground. Xena mercifully put her out of her misery by knocking her senseless. Not even giving the Amazon a second glance Xena carefully picked the unconscious bard from the ground. She walked forward as the Amazons cleared her a path with Gabrielle gently in her arms; Ephany and Eponin followed silently behind.

Xena didn't head for the healers hut, but instead she made her way to the Queen's quarters not stopping to open the door she kicked it open. She slowly and gently laid the bard on her bed, taking care not to injure or cause her anymore pain.

"Get your healer over here to help Gabrielle, and bring those maps you wanted me to see. We'll talk here." Xena hadn't even looked over her shoulder to give the order, for that is what it was. Eponin ran from the hut not wanting to raise Xena's anger more than it already was.

The Queens hut was crowded when Cassandra and one of her apprentices arrived. Eponin reached the hut only fifty paces or so before they had but already a council of war was taking place. Cassandra bustled through the listening warriors making her way to the still unconscious Queen. The healer could tell from the way the young girl was lying that the collarbone was broken, and was thankful that she had not yet regained consciousness because resetting it would be painful.

Xena stood studying the maps Eponin had brought in with her, concentrating on finding the solution to their problem.

"Are you sure he hasn't splint his troops?"

"Positive, the scout have been reporting twice a day. They are still altogether."

"Still coming in from the West?"

"Yes."

"When will they reach Hades Gorge?"

"At the speed they're travelling now, they should reach it by midmorning."

"Good. Then that is where we will attack them."

"Attack them? You mean we're going out after them?" Ephany was clearly startled at the prospect.

"Yes, we're going to attack them." Turning to Eponin she asked. "When can the warriors be ready to travel? Fighting equipment only?"

"Er..Three possibly two candlemarks."

"Make it two. Everyone who is capable of fighting goes." Xena turned to the healer just as she finished wrapping Gabrielle's shoulder. "Is she okay?" The healer nodded.

"Good. I want all the poison you have to coat the archer's arrows. Get it to Eponin within a candlemark" Xena stared at the remaining Amazons once Eponin had left. "It is a simple plan. The archer's will be placed on the sides of the gorge. In front of them but hidden will be our best warriors. When Alriss's army comes to a halt in the gorge, our warriors will move in behind cutting off the retreat, they should be vulnerable to attack from the archer's by then."

"I understand the concept, but what will prevent them from just leaving the gorge?"

"That will be my job. We don't have long so lets get going." The Amazons nodded and slowly left all of them giving one last look to their young Queen. Ephany was the only one still remaining.

"What are you going to do Xena? You can't hold an entire army by yourself."

"I won't be by myself Ephany." Xena's tone had grown dark, but Ephany pressed on.

"Who will be with you then?"

"You don't want to know the answer to that question Ephany. But we will be enough to stop Alriss." Enough. They'd be more than enough. Xena could hardly believe she was even contemplating on performing the calling, but she could see no other way of preventing this army from destroying the Amazon nation. Besides she would be the only one paying a price. Her soul was nothing compared to Gabrielle's safety, what would it matter? Xena could feel her inner trembling as the bards voice once again entered her thoughts.

"Of course it matters. It matters to me." And that was the problem wasn't it? Xena knew to call on the horsemen would mean the end of her redemption and the damning of her soul. It had taken her three years with the bard to regain just a little of it, and with this calling it would be damned forever. There was however very little choice, the horsemen were the Amazons only hope of survival and while the Amazon nation stood Gabrielle would be safe.

"Gabrielle's not going to like this."

"Gabrielle doesn't have a say in the matter. I will do whatever is necessary to stop that army."

"Does that mean calling on Ares? Returning to him?" Xena paced away from the table glancing over at the still unconscious bard, wondering just how much she should tell the Amazon Regent about her plan. She turned and stared her straight in the eye trying to gauge whether or not to tell this Amazon something she had never shared with anybody. The strength she saw in those eyes made the decision for her.

"Things aren't always black and white Ephany. I have seen and taken part in things you could only dream of. For a short period in my life I owed a particular God a favour. When I was called on to pay my debt I was given something. Something that to this day only three others and myself may call upon. When I stand before Alriss and his army I will stand with these three and we will be enough to stop them. This is not an idle threat Ephany. When you see the four of us, you will truly see who and what I am." She sighed. "I want a good contingent to stay with Gabrielle just in case." Ephany nodded and then silently left the hut, wondering just what Xena had been trying to tell her.

Alone finally with Gabrielle, Xena knelt by her friend's cot and stroked her hair; she leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. "You are and always will be the keeper of my heart and soul, remember that in the coming days if you remember nothing else. I know what is happening and I know how to stop it. But there is a terrible price to pay. Hear me when I tell you my friend, the price is worth it. Because I know that at the end of this road is safety for you, the Amazons, for the world, as we know it. Make my last story a good one. As I go into this battle know that I will always carry your light with me. I love you and nothing will ever change that." Giving her one last kiss the warrior stood, she reached across the bed and picked up her saddlebag removing from it a small bundle. She loosened the leather ties and shook out the golden chainmail cloak she had worn as a warlord. "Hello, old friend." She whispered then attached it to her armour and left.

 

"The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land: you may almost hear the beating of his wings."

John Bright (1811–89) British radical politician. Referring to the Crimean War. Speech, House of Commons, 23 Feb 1855

 

To say that Ephany was apprehensive was an understatement, although she had absolute faith in Xena's strategic abilities not knowing exactly what was going to happen was unnerving her. As instructed the Amazons had placed themselves in accordance with Xena's plan and now they just waited. Alriss's army was part way through the gorge and it would not be long before the warriors would be able to get behind them. A crash of thunder echoed overhead the Amazons looked up but saw no thunder clouds, a cold chill passed over them, many of them strained to see the riders of the horses they could hear galloping past but none could be seen.

Gabrielle awoke to a dawn filled room, the golden light flooded in through the window. She recognised her room, and the figure slumped in the chair beside her. "Solari," she whispered not wanting to startle the sleeping Amazon. Solari's eyes snapped open as soon as the words had left her Queens mouth. She smiled down at the Queen, but her smile held sadness as well as joy.

"What's wrong Solari?"

"Xena, and the Amazon warriors have ridden out to meet Alriss's army. It was planned that they meet about now." Gabrielle closed her eyes.

"How was Xena? What happened after I passed out?"

"Xena is fine my Queen, she was more concerned with you. I wouldn't try to move just yet you have a broken collarbone but Cassandra has set it and it will mend. Kiaya is a little battered, Xena stopped her from killing you. The fool attacked you and refused to give in, Xena stopped her but she used her knife to stab Xena .. Don't worry." She said as she saw the panic rise on the bard's face. "Xena is ok compared what she has been through it was just a scratch."

"What did Xena do?" Gabrielle saw doubt on the Amazons face. "Solari! What did she do?"

"Snapped her arm, dislocated her shoulder, and gave her a pretty sore head." Gabrielle raised her uninjured arm and draped it over her eyes.

"It was better than she deserved my Queen. She had yielded to you, and her attempt to kill you afterwards would have brought her the death sentence for treason."

"I know. I just hate to think of her doing these things because of me."

"I can think of no better reason."

Xena sat on Argo at the mouth of the exit to Hades gorge; the name was apt considering what she was about to do. She hoped with all her heart that Gabrielle would understand her reasons for making this choice. Looking up at the sun she knew she had little time left. Just them the first ranks of Alriss's army appeared round the corner. Xena drew her sword and held it high. The ancient words came forth from her mouth as she invoked the calling.

With each word spoken she could feel the power building and her soul slipping. She hadn't felt like this in nearly three years. Back then she'd never thought much about the Favour she'd owed Hades. The God of the underworld had called her on it though and explained what paying off her debt entailed. Then she'd actually rejoiced in her new found freedom to kill without thought, without conscience. Now it only took her further from her goal, further from Gabrielle, further from the peace she craved. She was Hades personal messenger of Death and together with Pestilence, Famine, and War, she was unstoppable. There had been many massacres, diseases, famines and war never associated with Xena Destroyer of Nations. But as the pale horseman and slayer for the Gods her hands were coated in the blood of millions, not the thousands the bard knew of.

The horsemen hadn't been invoked since she left Ares fold, but there had always been the possibility, and she was forever bound to service. She had no idea how she would explain this to Gabrielle. Just how did you tell your best friend you were literally Death?

Alriss had been pleased with the progress his army had made; they were on schedule to reach the Amazon village. He rode at the forefront of his army, the dark priest riding by his side. He nearly brought the whole army to a stop as he saw a lone rider blocking the exit of the gorge. He was about to send a party to clear the way when the priest held his hand up.

"Listen" Though still far away the voice, which from its timber belonged to a woman, was loud and clear.

"And I saw when the man opened of the seals, and I heard as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, come and see."

Thunder crashed above them, and beside the woman a shimmering form could be seen.

"And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer."

There were now two riders stood before the army and still the voice spoke on.

"And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword."

A crackling flash of lightning struck the floor beside the two riders, and where once stood two there was now three, and still the voice spoke on.

"And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat upon him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a dinar, and three measures of barely for a dinar; and see thou hurt not the oil and wine."

A sound of galloping hooves echoed all around the army sending a shiver of fear down the spines of the waiting men. Where once there were three there now stood four and still the voice spoke on.

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and her name that sat on him was Death, and Tartarus followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

All four riders took on an unearthly glow, each held a weapon high and still the voice spoke on.

"And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of the Gods, and for the testimony, which they held: Kill them all."

Alriss sat upon his horse and watched in dread and fear, legend told of the four horsemen, but he had never dreamt he would ever come across them and he knew at that moment that none of his men would leave the field alive. The chilling cry of ‘Kill them all' bounced around his head, freezing him in place. He couldn't even give the order to attack as the four riders bore down on his men; his only hope was that the priest had some way of combating them.

The priest knew on hearing that voice who and what he was facing, and his master had provided him with a weapon of sorts, but it could only be used once and that would still leave three of the horsemen. This day was lost, but he was determined to fulfil his master's wishes and rid the world of the warrior woman.

The men in Alriss's army didn't need him to give an order; they panicked as soon as the horsemen started to move on them. Many were kill in the crush to retreat before the horsemen were among them. Them Armageddon was truly among them.

The Amazon warriors had left their hiding places to close in behind Alriss's army. As the panic from the front filtered down to the rear the soldiers turned to find themselves confronted with an Amazon army. A deadly hail of arrows fell from the sky and battle was commenced.

Gabrielle had managed to sit up with the help of Solari and some of Cassandra's willow bark tea. She was still unsettled though. Something felt wrong; something was missing and couldn't figure out what. She struggled to her feet and Solari was immediately by her side offering her, her support. With her help she walked to the window and peered out.

"It's begun." She said in a small voice, and together bard and warrior stood and waited.

Xena's blood lust grew with every word of the invocation she spoke. It had been so long since the apocalyptic horsemen had been invoked that she'd forgotten how it felt to weald such power. As her words die away, the thunder of Argo ‘s hooves penetrated her mind and the joy of battle burned in her soul. She had one goal the destruction of all that stood before her and with that in mind her body did as was bid and killed all within reach.

The priest had managed to keep his seat on his horse as the stampeding army boiled around him. The tide didn't lessen but it became easier to ride against as he made for the pale rider.

Xena saw the priest and refocused her attention knowing he was the one that she wanted. The sea of men parted before her, and soon they were upon each other.

The priest decided to wait and see whether the use of his weapon was needed, and that was nearly his undoing. At the first clash of swords the woman warrior shattered his blade. And without a shadow of a doubt knew that he fought not Xena but death herself. He backed his horse away to give him time. Closing his eyes he dug deep down within himself and felt the power his master had given him. Opening his black orbed eye he again sought out the warrior finding her frighteningly close, he stretched out his arm and pointed channelling all the power through his hand towards Xena.

The resulting explosion of light killed those that were still standing around them, many that were in direct view of the glare were blinded for what was left of their lives, many would hear nothing ever again except for that crackling thunder bolt.

The press on the Amazons eased suddenly with the terrifying explosion, and they melted from the battlefield carrying their injured with them. The battle they knew was one Alriss's army was defeated all that remained was the priest.

The priest slumped totally drained over his horse's neck hardly believing he was still alive. He had accomplished his master's wishes and still lived. Heaving his body upright his eyes scanned the carnage. The horsemen had disappeared, Alriss's army lay decimated before him and a pale horse stood riderless.

Gabrielle felt a searing pain within and crumpled into Solari's arms. Cradling the stricken Queen the warrior lifted her back onto her cot and called for Cassandra.

Gabrielle was stood amidst a dark foreboding landscape, sound echoed around her as she frantically searched for something familiar. She found it in the lifeless body of her soul mate. She flung herself at her friend and lifted her head and shoulders into her arms.

"Xena?" She shook her partner. "Xena?" her shaking produced no results. She placed her hand against her neck but could feel no pulse of life beneath her fingers.

"Noooooooo." She cried desperately knowing that she had lost her one and true lifemate, tears poured from her eyes as she sat rocking her friend.

"And what might I ask is all this wailing?" The bard looked up through tear blurred eyes into the face of Artemis.

"I've lost her." Sobbed Gabrielle clutching Xena's body to her.

"Nonsense child, You're the keeper of her soul while you exist so does she."

"But she's dead!" yelled Gabrielle at the God.

"That remains to be seen doesn't it the God vanished from sight, leaving Gabrielle to ponder her words. Slowly her tears stopped and her breathing began to slow. She looked down into Xena's face and saw the peace settled on it. Without thinking she lowered her mouth to Xena and kissed her deeply, feeling a tingling throughout her body. She opened her eyes and found herself held in Solari's arms.

"What happened?"

"I don't know." Said the warrior, but don't worry Cassandra's on her way. "You were only out for a few seconds."

He watched the horse for a few seconds more then smiled and nudged his horse round. If he hadn't been looking he would have missed the warrior rising from the ground, would have missed looking death in the face, as her round bladed weapon slit his throat.

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It was an anxious Gabrielle that stood by the entrance gates of the Amazon village. Scouts had reported the returning Amazons as no further than a candlemark away, but hadn't been able to see whether Xena was among those returning. The first of the riders came into view many of them showing battle injuries. One by one she greeted the returning warriors but her heart only beat to greet one. She smiled and clasped Ephiny's hand as she and a battleworn Eponin rode past. Her heart was about fit to burst with the tension as a lone pale horse strode from the trees. Tears were already falling as her soulmate slid from her horse and pulled her close in a crushing hug. Ice blue eyes looked into forest green.

"Thank you" came the husky voice.

"For what." The bard asked a puzzled expression on her face.

"For saving my soul once again. For holding it tight when others would have let go." The blue eyes searched the bard's face; they pulled her into a deep loving kiss. "Have I ever told you how much I love you.?" Explanations could wait, while Gabrielle didn't ask, Xena wouldn't explain. For now she would just live in the moment, with her bard by her side.

The End


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