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|Chapter 1-8Chapter 9-15|
They kept coming, faster and more determined. These were not ordinary thugs or highwayman but skilled soldiers fighting for profit. With disheveled raven black hair flying, Xena spun. Her sword flashed with increasing speed and aggressiveness as she sensed the fight turning against them. Every once in awhile as she pulled her bloodied weapon from the body of yet another mercenary, she would glance to her side keeping close track of her best friend and soulmate, Gabrielle. The sounds of grunts and the thump of her staff hitting heads, knees or other body parts told Xena the Amazon bard was holding her own. Still the gnawing fear in her gut kept the warriors eyes drifting to her friends position just to be sure.
The momentary loss of concentration cost her as a fighter charged her from the back. As Xena sidestepped the rush and crushed the exposed neck that passed by her with her sword handle another raider slashed her arm above her gauntlet. The wound drove the warrior into a frenzy of activity as dark rage surged through her body. Her sword leaped and flashed cutting down the one who would dare breach her defenses. Sensing that her soulmate was surrounded, Xena let her chakram fly. Ricocheting off a tree trunk, the round circle of death mowed down opponents in its path that sought to destroy the bard before tamely settling back into the dark warriors left hand.
Gabrielles focus on her attackers was not broken by the silver flash and high-pitched whine of the device as it flew close by her head. She had long practice with Xenas use of the deadly. As the remaining mercenaries hesitated in confusion, Gabrielle charged bringing them to the ground with a series of swipes and circular movements of her staff.
Meanwhile, Xena dispatched the attackers before her by executing a neat midair flip that landed her behind them. A few sword strokes later sent those left to the ground still or in flight.
The tall muscular woman warrior straightened to her full height watching the raiders run. With a crinkle and sniff of her nose as the only outward sign of her declaration of victory, Xena surveyed the scene before her. Her fiery cobalt blue eyes darted searching for any new menace. Finding none, she turned to her friend. Gabrielle was leaning heavily on her staff, her ash blond hair dark with perspiration and her face red from exertion.
With two quick strides, the warrior was at her side.
"You okay?" Xenas searching gaze took in the bards appearance with one sweep and then locked into sea green eyes that returned her regard.
"Yeah, just a little winded." The bard shook her light head dislodging damp strands of hair from her forehead and studied her partners torso more closely. "Xena, youre hurt."
The dark warrior glanced down at herself, a self-deprecating grin coming to her face. "Not so good, huh? Guess Im losing my edge or something." Besides the wound on her arm that was flowing a red stream, Xena had several more gashes on her leg, a tear in her side and a mean jagged cut over her left eye. Various bumps were already starting to swell and darken, marring the smooth contours of her olive tanned skin.
Gabrielle searched her friends face, a questioning expression crossing her own. She was not accustomed to seeing the warrior take such punishment although they had been severally outnumbered. Of course, being outnumbered was their normal fighting scenario. "Come on, I gotta get these cuts cleaned up." The bard grabbed the warriors arm and moved her towards a log nearby.
"No, not here." Xenas quick eyes scanned the still bodies scattered around as she pulled her arm from Gabrielles grasp. "They maybe back." She turned and gave a shrill whistle. Almost immediately, a huge golden warhorse thundered from the trees coming to an immediate stop before them. The warrior swung gracefully onto the back of the animal and held a hand down to her friend. Gabrielle grasped it without a word swinging up behind. She hung on to the waist of her partner tightly as Xena urged the palomino into a rapid gallop. Soon they had left the carnage of the battle far behind.
The evenings campfire was burning brightly, the orange yellow flames licking up into the cold night air providing light and warmth to the two women sitting side by side on furs next to it. Xenas arm moved in slow smooth strokes sharpening the sword that was held upright in front of her. Her eyes almost black in the flickering firelight stared unblinking into the flames. Gabrielle stopped the neat notations she was making on a parchment roll, quill poised in the air. She turned to her friend, studying the silent remote form beside her. The right arm of the warrior was wrapped in a cloth bandage as was her thigh and midsection although she had protested there was no need. Gabrielle was long use to such arguments and simply administered to the warriors wounds as she saw fit. Xenas wonderful healing powers and capabilities to help the injured or sick were almost never turned to her own benefit. It was Gabrielle who forced the issue with determination and a deaf ear to the warriors complaints.
The bard watched her friend a moment longer and then decided to break the silence between them. "You want to talk about it?" The bard spoke softly, setting her pen down and starring into the fire as well.
"I think we got most of them. Those raiders will not be in good enough shape to bother the villages around here for awhile. Still we might trail after them tomorrow a couple of hours just to make sure. Dont know who the warlord was who gathered them. Good fighting men though, well skilled, highly trained...." Xenas voice was low and thoughtful as it trailed off into the night air.
"Thats not what I mean." Exasperation colored the bards words, darkening her eyes. "You havent said more than two dozen words a day for the last several weeks. Whats going on with you? Look, I know we both said we need to search for answers to understand all that has happened to us this past year, but its a little hard to be on a silent search. Xena, youre keeping me out, at arm length. Talk to me." Four years of traveling with the mercurial warrior had given the bard seasoned courage, which allowed her to make demands of the violent natured woman beside her. A bond between them built upon love that flourished in spite of terrible tragedies, betrayals and endless horror gave Gabrielle the right.
The sound of the sword scrapping stone stopped as Xenas hand fell limply to her side. She turned to study the young bard next to her. Gabrielles profile had hardened over the years, the girlish round cheeks given way to more angular planes. Her lips were set in firm lines replacing soft crinkles. The change to mature woman from innocent girl where obvious to the warrior as she studied her friends face. Yet the clear green eyes framed in light eyebrows still held a glow of inner strength. Her warmly tanned skin and light hair accented her beauty. Even through all the pain of death and separation, she still had so much to give so much joy in life. She still saw the good in everyone and brought it out to the light. All of this, Xena saw as plainly as if it was written in one of Gabrielles scrolls.
The warrior turned back to the fire as her gut churned. A dark foreboding ate at her heart. "I dont know what to say. I have no answers for me or for you. Guess Ive been trying to work some things out. Sorry, I didnt mean to....I just... Look, Gabrielle. I was so lost when you were gone, Ive been so glad to have you back. Please believe me, I just havent had much to say."
The warrior knew she wasnt making a lot of sense but words were never her specialty. Now more than ever she seemed unable to find any that conveyed her true grief, her feeling of loss when she thought Gabrielle had died. To have her back was a profound gift she couldnt believe she deserved. Yet, the guilt over the horrible experiences that the bard had lived through and the pain of knowing she was the cause was slowly eating her soul away. She knew the bard needed to hear more, to dive deeply into the warriors troubled being, to understand and share her pain but Xena was not now capable of such openness. The wounds of separation were still too raw.
Gabrielle turned from the fire to study her soulmate. Give her space or push the talking? With the bard, talking and letting the emotions all hang out always won out over silence.
"Dont you know how much I understand how you feel? Been there done that. When you died and I went to the Amazons, I felt only half-alive. Part of me was missing and I knew would be empty forever. The silence and loneliness ate at my soul even though I was surrounded by people who cared about me. Xena, I know how that hurts. That was one of the reasons why I couldnt let you kill Hope and die as a result. I couldnt go through that again."
Xena snapped her head back around to stare at the bard. "And so you thought I could?"
"I knew you would have the strength to go on and keep doing the greater good. Xena, this world needs your courage, your skills, your determination to fight the evil that seems to flourish all around us. Most of all these innocent people need your protection. Someone has to stand up to the gods, the petty warlords and demand that human justice and decency prevail." The bard turned to face the warrior with pleading pain filled eyes her palm up begging the warrior to understand.
Cold anger crossed the warriors face as her eyes blazed icy fire. "When I went to the Amazon land of the dead looking for you, I stopped to help the Amazons in need. I did it because I knew you would want me to not because it was the right thing to do. What makes you think I could do anything for the greater good without you?" The warriors body tensed like a panther ready to spring. Xenas piercing stare held the bards eyes waiting for an answer to this question that had dogged her since Gabrielles leap saved the warriors life.
"Why didnt you go back to the land of the dead after you helped the Amazons?"
Xena let out a deep breath. "I knew you were alive and not there."
Xena turned back to the fire. "I just did. I had a vision of us together and I knew."
"What if you didnt have that vision. What would you have done then?"
"I would have gone back to the land of the dead and searched until I found you."
Gabrielle reached out and held the arm of the warrior waiting for her to turn to meet her gaze again. When she finally did the bard continued. "And what if I wasnt happy to see you?"
"I wouldnt have been surprised. Its happened before." The warriors bitter clipped words hurt the bard as much as a physical slap.
"But Xena, dont you see. You couldnt stay with me unless you had died. That would have robbed the world of everything you are fighting for, everything WE are fighting for. What a waste that would have been. Whats the point? Evil wins? More people are hurt, die? You have a destiny, a purpose. Its to help others and to fight for what is right. Its a burden you chose when you turned your back on your old life. You cant quit now, even if your heart is broken, even if your soul is torn apart. It is who you are and what you have become." Gabrielle turned back to the fire and then continued more slowly.
"You fought with divided focus today."
"Like always," Xena countered.
"No, not divided attention, divided focus. Theres a big difference." Gabrielles stare locked onto the warriors eyes challenging her to disagree. It was Xena who dropped her gaze first and said nothing.
"Divided focus is why you were hurt. Dont you think I dont know that? Xena, we are partners in this and if something happens to me, so be it. It was my choice from the start and my choice to be here now. You cant take all of this on your shoulders. We just have to live from day to day and do the best we can. Isnt that enough?"
Tears stung the warriors eyes as she gathered the bard up in a fierce embrace. "Oh, Gabrielle. I cant lose you again."
The bard returned the embrace with one of her own. With a shudder, Xena collected her scattered composure together and growled in the bards ear. "Fine then, no more leaps into burning pits."
The bard leaned back to trace the lines of the planer jaw before her. With an impish grin she hugged the warrior again. "No promises."
After a long embrace that both women were reluctant to break they settled back on their sleeping furs and engaged in their favorite pass time of stargazing. As a shooting star crossed the sky both closed their eyes and made a wish. It would not have surprised either of them if they were to find out that they had made identical wishes for the other to find peace and happiness.
The two friends were up at the first light of dawn and with a quick breakfast were on their way. After several hours of tracking the mercenaries, Xena was satisfied they were fleeing the area, no longer a threat. After a noon meal of bread and hard cheese from their pack, the travelers headed north towards their home villages.
The bite of fall was in the air as the first green leaves showed the golden tints of autumn. Gabrielle was back on her favorite topic, the coming family reunion in Potedia, her home village. "We have one of these every five years, you know and Xena you would not believe the food. Everyone comes from as far away as Athens and the sweet breads, meats, wow its to die for."
Xena had lapsed back into her stoic warrior mode but was doing her best not to be too silent. The occasional "ahuh", "no kidding" or "really" seemed to be working for the bard. That was all the warrior really cared about now, making the effort to keep the bards spirits up. She tried not to think too much into the future knowing the pain that waited there.
"So I promised dad that we would be back before the harvest festival. The dance is the big event of the year. Most invitations and acceptances of marriage happen there. I tell you it is one romantic night." Gabrielles chatter floated back to the warrior on horseback as her head swung back and forth in constant search of the terrain. It had been the silence that had been the worst, Xena mused. She had never realized how much she loved to hear the voice of the bard until it was gone.
"Did I tell you about my Aunt Dalia? She is my fathers youngest sister. She was the one who fell in the well at the last reunion and ended up marrying Uncle Salis the man who saved her. Isnt that romantic? No matter that it was her third marriage or was it the fourth? Oh well, and the pumpkin and nutbreads they all bake. Did I tell you about the food? It will be wonderfullllll."
Xena slipped off the back of Argo and strolled along side of the bard who seemed suddenly lost in thought as quiet descended between the two. "What ya thinking about, Gabrielle? Visions of pies and breads still dancing in your head?" The gentle ribbing by the warrior was ignored as Gabrielle remained silent.
The eyebrows of the bard knitted together in concentration as she frowned at the warrior. "Ive been trying to work out the rest of the story about your battle with the Persians. I call it one against an army. What do you think?"
Xena cocked her head to one side with a half grin. "My bard, that was only the Persian advanced guard. It was most definitely not the whole Persian army."
"Still, I was out for most of the action. Help me out with this. Tell me how it was fighting them."
Xena thought for a moment and closed her eyes. "I bolted the door and waited for them to come through it. When they came, I socked a soldier with a right fist and then a left to another. I used my chakram to cut the throat of another and then I flipped over the one coming from the roof."
Gabrielle nodded. "He was the one I dreamed about."
"Then I leaped up and hung onto the chain while you dumped the oil. I kicked one soldier on the left in the jaw, another on the right in the head and yet two more in the chest. I flipped to the roof after that and drew my sword."
"Why did you do that?"
"Why the roof? Its higher ground. You always want to fight from high ground. Also, I could keep an eye on you as well. Anyway, I used a right cross slash and took one soldier out on the left and then another on the right." As Xena described the action her arm subconsciously moved in the rhythm of her sword strokes. "Then a left and another right cross. That was my mistake. I kept my arm up instead of dropping my shoulder. Thats how I got cut. If I would have lowered my arm, I would have taken the thrust on my shoulder armor."
Gabrielle stared at her friend in amazement. "You remember all of the details about that battle? It was almost eight full moons ago."
Xena turned to her friend a slight look of puzzlement on her face. "Of course. I remember every sword stroke, every kick, every hit and every flip of every battle Ive ever fought. I go over it in my head all the time, looking for mistakes and areas to improve."
"You remember all your fights, Xena. Every one of them?"
A look of sorrow crossed the warriors face as she dropped shadowed eyes to the ground. "Yes," she whispered. "All of them. I also remember the faces of the people Ive killed, Gabrielle. Every...one....of them. I guess its a curse to have such a good memory sometimes."
Gabrielle felt more than saw the warriors distress and quickly asked another question. "Do you always know where your sword is going to end up after a swing or thrust?"
"Absolutely. In a fight, you have to know exactly where each thrust, kick, block or parry is going to land. Otherwise, you might take out your own men."
Gabrielle turned back to the warrior. "Well, that makes sense. Okay, from the top again. Tell me more slowly how the battle with the Persians started."
Hours later found the two friends around the campfire enjoying the trout that Xenas unique fishing style had produced. The downside was that Xena had gotten badly chilled in the ice-cold stream and suffered a severe scolding from the bard. Gabrielle wrapped the sleeping firs around the sheepish warrior. "But trout is your favorite next to eel of course."
"I love trout but we could do without. By the gods, Xena if you get sick Ill thump you."
The warrior grinned widely as she cocked her head to one side. "Youll thump me? Just what is a thump?"
Gabrielle decided to demonstrate rather than explain. She threw her body directly into the warriors, crashing them both to the ground. A tickling match followed that left both of them breathless from laughter. As they settled down for the night, both realized how long it had been since they had enjoyed such a light moment.
The days passed as the warm autumn weather held. The two travelers met with no trouble and soon drew close to Gabrielles home village. As the afternoon advanced Xena decided to make an early stop for the night. Gabrielle realized that they were just a few short hours from Potadeia but chose to say nothing and instead began to gather wood for their campfire.
The warrior had grown silent and remote again, her crystal blue eyes veiled and shadowed. Once more their campfire routine was a quiet affair. Just as Gabrielle was going to try to reach out to the warrior, Xena surprised her with an observation.
"You know, weve been traveling together a long time, Gabrielle. Do you ever wonder what your future will hold?"
"No....not really." Gabrielle paused a moment and searched her friends face, trying to read behind the close mask she saw before her. "Have you been thinking about your future, Xena?"
"Sometimes I wonder how much longer.....I mean a warrior doesnt grow old. Someone younger, faster comes along and thats it. Ive always accepted that for myself but you have different options. Ever think about what you might be doing instead of hanging around with a beat up ex-warlord?" Xenas attempt at humor did not ease the sudden jolt in the bards gut.
"No Xena. Hasnt crossed my mind. Ive had a lot to deal with lately and try to understand. Im carrying around a ton of guilt over killing, failing to kill and not being able to kill in time to save a friend. I dont quite know what is right anymore for me. So please.....Dont do this. I have enough to try to figure out. Dont make me worry about you trying to tell me how to run my life or trying to make a decision for me by leaving me behind. Weve come too far for that now. You choose your path for the future and Ill choose mine. If you dont want me around, if you dont care for me anymore, love me anymore just say it."
The warrior gazed into hurt angry sea green eyes a long minute and then shook her head slowly. "Ask me not to breathe, Gabrielle. Ask my heart to stop beating but dont ask me to stop loving you. I dont know how."
Gabrielle threw her arms around the neck of the warrior and drew her close as her flair of anger evaporated immediately. "For someone with no word skills, sometimes you say the gods be damned things."
Xena buried her chin into the silky hair of the bard and sighed. "Learned from a great teacher," she whispered softly. "Gods help me, I do love you."
Gabrielle pulled back and searched the face of her soulmate noting the sorrow and pain etched there. "I love you, warrior. Dont you forget that."
"Not a chance."
The bard sighed and pulled her partner down into their sleeping furs. Why did something as wonderful as the love of another cause such pain? Perhaps, you cant know one without the other. Great, she thought. Just when I come up with a great story line, its too dark to write.
She sighed and snuggled up to the warm warrior next to her. Sleep took her almost immediately. Xena, on the other hand, her arm curled protectively around the bard watched the dark sky turn gray again as sleep continued to evade her.
As the golden hues of yet another bright day broke through the trees, Xena stirred and gently pulled herself away from the bard who was still in deep slumber. She stretched, poked the campfire into life and put up a small pot of water for tea.
The full morning sun warmed the face of the gently sleeping bard, finally waking her from a deep and restful sleep. Suddenly, she sat up, eyes wide as she jerked her head around searching for her soulmate.
"Good morning. Thought you might like to sleep in a bit. Were not far from Potadeia so theres no real rush." Xena stood up, stretched and offered the astonished bard a cup of tea.
"You okay? I mean...why didnt you wake me?" Gabrielles concern was mounting. Xena was not behaving even close to normal.
The warrior shrugged and seemed to look off into the distance a moment. "Have some breakfast and then we need to talk." She settled back down in front of the fire, stoking the coals absentmindedly.
Now Gabrielle was truly worried. Xena suggesting a sensitivity chat first thing in the morning was serious business. She munched a hard roll while rolling the sleeping furs into their travel packs. Finally, ready to continue their journey she turned to the warrior. "All right, Im ready. What gives?"
Xena pulled her eyes from the fire and search the cherished face of her friend for a long minute. "Im not going with you to Potadeia. Ill drop you off at the main town gate and head on to Amphipolis."
"Xena, now wait a minute...." Before the bard could continue, Xena moved over next to her and placed a gentle finger on her lips.
"Shhh, let me finish. Ive been doing a lot of thinking. Your family reunion is very important to your mother and father. They dont think much of me and Id spoil it for them. Now hold on, let me get this out...." Xena once more stopped the bards attempted interruption. "I know I make your mother and father uncomfortable. Having Hope telling lies about me just made it worse. This is not the time to try to change their minds. They will be busy with relatives and friends. Gabrielle, they should have time to talk to you alone and to understand who their daughter has become. My being around will make all of that difficult. You need time alone with them to mend some fences and to regain your home."
"But Xena, you are my home." Gabrielles quiet voice almost broke the warriors resolve.
"And you are mine but that doesnt mean we can ignore our blood families either. While you are at your reunion, Ill spend some time with my mother and try to explain what has happened this past year to us. Remember she doesnt even know I had and lost a son, her grandson. Thats going to be hard to tell her."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. She studied the firm jaw and angular cheeks of the beloved face in front of her. Suddenly, she brought up a gentle finger to trace the high cheekbones of the warrior and rub under blue eyes, circled with dark rings. "You havent been sleeping, have you?"
"Not much," Xena admitted. "Ive thought about what you said. Youre right. I have a path and Ive chosen it. Im a warrior and will always be one. I wont quit trying to atone for my past or stop trying to help the innocent. It is who Ive become. If you chose a different path or if something happened to you, I would grieve. I would miss you terribly but I will continue and I will always remember my promise not to become a monster.
Xena paused a moment and rubbed her throbbing forehead trying to ease the pain that lack of sleep and emotional turmoil had caused.
Gabrielle grabbed the hand near her and let her fingers intertwine those of the warriors. She remained silent waiting for Xena to continue; knowing how difficult this was for the stoic warrior who kept her emotions tightly bottled up in side.
Xena started again her rich contralto voice softer, deeper and yet tinged with the rich musical tone Gabrielle had come to know and love. "I am a woman with an evil past and no future. I accept that I will live a warriors life fighting for the greater good and die a warriors death in some gods forsaken place. That is my destiny as you call it. It doesnt have to be yours. You have a path to choose as well. You are a woman with a future, so much to offer so much yet of life to taste. Your options are endless. You could be a great Amazon queen, a wonderful bard, a cosmopolitan woman in Athens. You could choose to stay in your home village or another, settle down, marry, have children. Gabrielle, you can do any and all of these things. Your future is yours to decide. You can also choose to intertwine your path with mine but if you do, you will be choosing the path of a warrior. Do you understand? If you decide this is your path, it is not to follow me but to be my partner, a participant. That means more battles, more fights and more people dying. You may choose to take a life or not but you will have no choice but to fight. If this is what you want, I will teach you the sword, the spear and how to use a knife. Not so you slaughter with these weapons but so you will have the skills to use them if you choose to defend your life, mine or anothers. I have made my decision and now you must make yours. Youll have time away from me to think about this while you are in Potadeia. The choice is yours."
"Xena, I know what my choice is...."
"No," the warrior interrupted. "I believe you need time away from the road, away from the stress of fighting and away from me to make this decision. Gabrielle, give yourself a chance to think this through. I accept this as your decision to make, not mine. If you truly love someone, you must set them free to find their own path, dont you see."
Xena gripped the bards hand harder as she gazed into the sorrowful green eyes before her. "I will wait for your decision in Amphipolis. If you decide to intertwine our paths, send word to me and I will come to you. If you decide not to, I will understand. We will still be the very best of friends and I promise to come to visit you where ever you decide your path lies."
Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "I already know my answer. How do I know you will come when I send for you?"
Xena brought the bards hand gently to her lips and kissed the fingers she held. "This is your decision. Wild horses, fighting armies or even death could not keep me away if you ask me to come for you. I promise, I swear this to you."
"All right, Xena. I believe you."
"Gabrielle, theres more. You must know this as well. If you decide our paths are to be joined, then you must also understand that your end will be a warriors same as mine."
"What do you mean?"
"I have been given a look at our future and seen our death. Its not pretty, my bard."
"How can this be? Who gave you such a vision? The Faiths? Ares?"
"No, the sorceress, Alte. When we fought, she showed me my future. She thought she could distract me, weaken me with visions of our death."
"But you beat her."
"When she showed me dying, you were there as well. I knew that meant you were alive now. After that, killing her was easy. I had to end that fight and come look for you."
"Xena,.....How did we die?"
"In the most horrible of ways. Crucified by Roman soldiers, nails driven into our hands after we had been wounded, beaten. Not an easy end, Im afraid."
"How can you be sure the vision was real? Maybe Alte made it up to gain an edge in her fight with you."
"Perhaps. Yet all her other visions were real and her predictions all came true. Gabrielle, she promised I would become the destroyer of nations, and I did. She cursed my unborn son by saying he would never know his father or mother and that was true as well. I think that this vision is also true."
"And that is what this is all about, isnt it? You want me to leave you, stay in Potadeia and avoid this end you fear."
"No. Gabrielle, this is your decision. I just wanted you to know everything. No more secrets between us. No more unsaid thoughts, no more lies, no more illusions. I dont think we have much time left but only the Faiths know for sure. I wont change the road Im traveling. You have a choice and I will respect your decision and wont try to influence it."
Gabrielle pulled the warrior into a fierce embrace and then leaned back to search the pain etched face before her. "No wonder you lost sleep over this. I promise you; Xena that Ill think this over but I dont believe this changes anything. Remember, you gave me your word. If there is to be no more lies, no more unsaid thoughts, no more secrets between us then there can be no more broken promises as well."
The warrior nodded solemnly and pulled the bard to her feet. She grasped her shoulders and kissed her gently. "Time to be going."
Gabrielle grabbed her staff as Xena grasped Argos reins. They set off side by side with the great warhorse traveling behind.
All too quickly the pair stood at the outer gates of Potadeia. "Well, this is it Gabrielle. Have a great family reunion and enjoy the nutbread." Xenas attempt at lightness sounded hollow in the still morning air.
The bard looked up at her best friend but the words just stuck in her throat. Instead she grabbed her in a tight embrace and then watched as the warrior swung onto the back of her horse and galloped away perhaps out of her life forever. A tear found its way down her cheek as she turned towards the house of her family away from her home.
Gabrielle had not walked more than a few paces inside the town gate when an excited voice that she knew well hailed her. "Gab..ri..elle!"
"Lila," Gabrielle called back and rushed to her sister who met her with arms thrown wide. She gathered her in a tight embrace. "Its so good to see you."
"Im so glad you made it back in time for the reunion. Father was sure that Xena would keep you away." Lila smiled happily and then turned expectantly around. "By the way, where is she?"
"Xena dropped me off and headed to Amphipolis to see her mother." Gabrielle searched the face of her sister, steeling herself for some barbed comment about her best friend.
Lila surprised her with silence and a slightly disappointed frown. "I wanted to see her. Do you think shell be around later?"
Now it was Gabrielles turn to remain silent, giving the ground a serious stare. Finally, she raised her head to meet her sisters eyes. "I hope so," she softly muttered under her breath. "I really hope so."
"Oh, me too. I wanted to spend more time with her. You know Gabrielle, after she saved my life I realized that she is really amazing. I know, I know. You told me so...right?"
A large grin lit up the face of the pensive bard as she hugged her sister again. "Im glad you feel that way. Id love for you to get to know her better. And yes she is quite amazing."
Lila smiled at her big sister and with arms locked they skipped towards the house where they both were born. Gabrielles parents met their two daughters at the door with joyous hugs and loud exclamations of welcome. The scene soon grew more confused and festive as relatives poured from the interior of the small cottage passing Gabrielle around for yet more hugs and greetings. With aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends all talking at once, Gabrielle had to laugh in delight at the commotion.
"Inside, inside all of you," Hecuba cajoled pushing wayward relatives and her two daughters towards the doorway that clearly would not allow the mob to pass simultaneously. "The noon meal is ready, waiting and getting cold." As they laughingly let others pass in front of them through the door, Lila and Gabrielle exchanged knowing looks. "Nutbread," they said in unison with a grin. It was their favorite.
"Wait a moment, daughter. Let me look at you." Herodotus, Gabrielles father stopped her forward movement with a hand on her arm. As she turned towards him, he gathered her in his arms for a warm hug. "Im so glad to see you. I was afraid you would miss the reunion."
"Father, I would never. Not especially after you asked me to come. I love seeing everyone."
As the rest of the clan filed through the doorway, leaving father and daughter alone for a moment, Herodotus glanced over Gabrielles shoulder. "So where is she?"
"Xena is spending some time with her mother. Im going to send for her after the reunion is over." Gabrielle couldnt keep the defensiveness from her voice although she kept her tone even.
"Good. Glad shes not here. Gabrielle, that woman is nothing but trouble. Cant you see that? Its so good to have you home and spending time with us. Ive missed you, daughter." Herodotuss voice grew husky with emotion as he smiled down on his favorite.
"Ive missed you too, father. Weve got some catching up to do."
Herodotus nodded in agreement. His eyes narrowed slightly as he studied the form before him. "Youve lost weight. Are you well? That warrior hurt you, didnt she?"
"We hurt each other," Gabrielle admitted softly. "Yet were friends still, best friends. She is a part of me. Please understand she and I..."
"Gabrielle, I dont want to hear it. She must be some sort of sorceress who has cast a spell blinding you to her wicked and evil ways. Otherwise, why would you insist on traveling with her, in constant danger as she goes about fighting and killing at will? The horror stories that we have heard sicken and frighten us, daughter. Shell end badly and take you with her. I just know it."
Gabrielle searched the face of her father wondering how he could have known Xenas vision.
"Father, I love you and respect your feelings. But I am grown and must live my life. Xena is my life, cant you see that?"
"No, I dont understand. I will never accept that blood stained monster as your friend. Lets have a wonderful time together. Perhaps your home will feel right and you will stay. Nothing would please me more. All I want for you is happiness, peace and safety. I dont believe she has provided any of these things for you. Think on it. Her influence has clouded your judgment. When you followed her, you were young and impressionable. Now you are a mature woman able to make good decisions for yourself. We love you and want whats best for you."
Gabrielle turned troubled eyes towards her father. "I must choose my own path. Im sure we will have a wonderful visit but then I must be off. Ill send for Xena and well be on our way. Father, I feel that is what is right for me. Please try to understand. If you would just give her half a chance, you would find she is truly a remarkable person. She does good for so many and Im a part of that."
Herodotus just shook is head in disagreement. "Very well, lets not speak of this any further. If you decide to send for this woman, at least let me know."
"Of course, father." Herodotus placed a warm arm around the shoulders of the bard and steered her towards the cottage. "Your mother will wonder what happened to us. Im so glad you are home." As the two passed through the doorway, Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder towards the direction Xena had ridden and silently wished her well and safe journey.
Xena made good time and passed the night in a campsite near a small stream. Although she missed the bards voice, the warrior found she was content. Gabrielle was safe and with her family enjoying the festival with her relatives. In her heart, Xena knew that some time away from the stress of the road to rest in a peaceful environment was just what Gabrielle should have to help her mend emotionally. She needed time to reflect on all that had happened over the past year and to search for her own answers. The warrior was determined to give her that time and freedom to make her choices.
The light of early morning found Xena riding rapidly towards her home village, anxious to see her mother. She reflected that this would be the first time she returned to Amphipolis with nothing wrong; no pursuing armies, crazed goddesses, bad wounds or Furies driven insanity. She grinned wryly. What a dull visit!
As she loped into the main thoroughfare, the smells of baked goods, roasted and smoked meats mixed with freshly harvested grains reminded the warrior of other autumns spent in her home village. She pulled Argo to a stop in front of her mothers tavern and swung with unconscious grace to the ground. Xena felt the cold silent stares of passing villagers as she looped her horses reins to a post and climbed the step in front of her. The warrior turned her head and with narrowing eyes, gave the crowd that had started to gather her coldest emotionless warlord glare. "Ah-oh, wonder what Im suppose to have done now," came the unbidden thought that wrenched her gut. She turned back to the door of the tavern hiding from view the sudden pain that flashed in the depths of her crystalline pale eyes.
Xena entered the darkened tavern and stopped a moment on the threshold, letting her eyes adjust. The smells of cooking stew, ale, cider and humanity assaulted her senses bringing back a flash of her childhood. She turned and searched the mid-day crowded tables, looking for a familiar face.
The chatter of the patrons stopped instantaneously as they realized who had come among them. Suddenly from behind she felt a presence and instinctively turned to meet the danger. At the last moment she recognized the form who threw her arms around the warriors waist in a fierce hug and forced her tense muscles to relax.
"Xena, little one. Its so good to see you."
"Mother," was all Xena could say through a lump that had suddenly risen in her throat. She draped her long arms over the shoulders of the smaller woman in front of her and returned the strong embrace.
After a long moment, Cyrene pushed her daughter back slightly in order to get a look at the face and form before her. She searched the crystal depths of eyes so familiar and yet so changed. She noted the stark sadness and pain seemingly permanently etched in the pale blue windows to the warriors soul. She gently lifted a finger to trace the hollowed cheekbones and angular jaw of her child silently lamenting the ravages of time and events that had stolen the innocent youthfulness that had once been there. Yet the striking beauty of the face before her; proud, courageous and unmarred thrilled her as she remembered what her daughter had become.
Cyrene regained her composure as her mothers instincts took over her lips. "Xena, youre too thin. Have you been well? You dont look like youve had a decent meal in weeks. Get yourself into the kitchen. Ive got some stew on the fire."
Xena grinned openly at the familiar scolding. "You sound just like Gabrielle, mother. Yes, Im fine. And I would love some of your stew."
Cyrene beamed openly and grabbed the arm of her daughter pulling her towards the doorway on the other side of the tavern next to a long dark wooden bar. She stopped suddenly, raised her head and turned back to the entrance of the tavern. Seeing no one, she lifted questioning troubled eyes to the face of her daughter.
"Where is Gabrielle?" The sudden concern Xena heard in her mothers voice gave her gut yet another twist.
"Shes fine. With her family for a fall reunion." Xena kept her voice even with no emotion.
Cyrene searched the face of her daughter, not the least fooled by the tone of Xenas voice. "Why arent you with her?" Xena returned her mothers searching stare a moment and then abruptly dropped her gaze to the floor.
"She needs time with her family. I dont...that is... They are pretty uncomfortable around me. Cant say I blame them. So, I dropped her off and....um.. If its okay with you, Id like to stay here a little while." Xenas voice trailed off as she brought her eyes back to her mothers face, her eyebrows raised in a quiet search of her mothers reaction.
"Of course you can stay, my little one. Im glad youre home." Cyrene hugged her daughter tightly and then dragged her towards the kitchen. The tavern had returned to the normal din of the noon day crowd. Xena allowed herself to be guided by her mother as she expelled a relieved breath she didnt realize she had been holding.
A good visit after all. Perhaps, she needed this as much as Gabrielle.
To say the weeks flew by for Xena would not be quite true. As her stay in Amphipolis lengthened to a fortnight and then beyond, she kept her restless body active. She hunted game to stock the taverns larder, helped local villagers in need of a strong back for barn raisings, roof mendings and well diggings and trained the village militia in self-defense tactics and fighting skills. As time passed, the local residents became use to the stoic warrior in their mists and a guarded acceptance soon gave way to gratitude for her help and admiration for her many skills especially the healing ones.
As the energetic warrior kept busy, the days and weeks melted into each other. As the second fortnight of her visit approached with still no word from Gabrielle, Xenas spirit sagged. She realized that the bard had made her decision to choose a different path than the one the warrior traveled. Although, Xena had prepared herself for this possibility, the reality tore her heart and seemed to darken her soul. The warriors jaunty swagger seemed to leave her with dragging steps and haunted, hooded eyes.
Cyrene watched the changes in her daughter with misgivings. Xena had opened her heart to her as in long ago and shared past events including the loss of her son and of Gabrielles daughter. The warrior was determined to give Gabrielle the freedom to choose her future and not to interfere but Cyrene wondered and worried. She had become quite close to the bard when together they had helped Xena heal from a fearful wound. She found it hard to believe that a bound as strong as she had seen between them could be broken, even by the fearful events Xena had described. She knew well of Gabrielles courage and commitment. Cyrene could not accept the possibility of the bard breaking the amazing connection she had with her daughter. Still time was running out and Cyrene knew that the restless warrior would soon return to the road alone.
As gray clouds formed in the morning sky predicting a dark autumn storm approaching, Cyrene wiped her hands on the apron tied to her sturdy girth and watched the approach of her daughter. Striding along with Xena, in an accurate comical imitation of the warriors thrown back shoulders and rolling gait, little Sara kept pace. The only thing able to bring a quick flash of joy to the veiled eyes of the warrior was the antics of this little girl; dark haired, bouncy and a true re-incarnation of a little Xena, so proclaimed by her mother, Chasia.
Chasia had been one of the few girlfriends the young Xena had growing up. She had married the local blacksmiths son, Talis, a sturdy youth of much promise. Talis took over the trade of his father upon his death and soon the two had produced the little one of their dreams. As the child grew big for her age into a sturdy toddler, her quick intelligence and bright outlook soon captured the heart of the whole village. Now six, little Sara was able to wrap the tall warrior around her finger and any wish was instantly granted. As the two became fast playmates, the number of practical jokes played on unsuspecting villagers grew to an alarming rate. However, none were more victimized than the long-suffering parents of the little girl.
Even now as they approached Cyrene, Sara was suggesting the possibility of hiding in her mothers butter churn while Xena was to pretend she was lost. Cold blue eyes stared at the little girl beside her. "Look Im in enough trouble with your mother now. She still thinks you leaping out of that tree, scarring her half to death was my idea."
Not the least intimidated by the warriors tone the little girl looked up with adoring eyes. "But Xena, it was a great joke. You should have seen her jump."
"I did and then took your scolding." Xena couldnt keep the wide grin off her face as she ruffled the little girls dark tresses.
Cyrene looked at the two of them with dancing eyes and hands on her hips. "You two better not be up to anything, you hear me?"
They both turned innocent eyes to the older woman and said in unison, "Not us." Cyrene laughed out loud as Xena bent to her small friend. "Run on home now Sara. Ill be by later with Argo as I promised and well go for a ride."
The little girl beamed up at her friend and nodded. "Can we go faster this time?"
Xena just shook her head. "I cant get Argo to run much faster. Were burning the breeze now."
Sara squealed with delight and took off running towards the blacksmith shop in search of her dad. Saras home was attached to the shop and she was sure to find both parents there.
"You two." Cyrene wagged a finger at her daughter and was met with a mild laugh that faded almost instantaneously, as darker thoughts seemed to immediately flood the mind of the warrior.
"Mother, I just wanted to let you know that Im going to be leaving soon. Ive done about all I can around here. The militia is well trained and you have enough smoked meat to last through the winter. Its time I hit the road."
"Youve heard nothing from Gabrielle? Ive seen several traders from Potadeia come through town."
Xena shook her head and whispered huskily, "No."
"Why wont you go to her? Find out what is in her heart. Perhaps, she has sent word that has not reached us for some reason." Cyrenes voice was heavy with sorrow as she pleaded with the warrior.
Xena again shook her head and looked away with distant shadowed eyes. "She has decided and I respect that. I know it was hard for her to do this and I wont cause her more pain." She turned back to her mother with a gentle smile. "It has been a good visit but its time. The road calls and I must be going. I promise to come back and see you again, if youll have me."
Cyrene pulled her daughter into a tight embrace. "You are always welcome, my little one. When will you leave?"
"First light tomorrow, I think."
Cyrenes chest grew heavy with a dark fear that foretold she would never see her daughter again. "Promise me youll come back?"
"You bet, maybe in the spring."
Cyrene took Xenas arm and led her towards the tavern. "I insist you stock up on supplies before you leave. You will say good bye to everyone? You know, Xena you have made a lot of friends who care about you."
"Yes mother. I will. Its good to know that I can come back here to family and friends."
"Always, my little one. No matter what happens in the future, always." Cyrene met the pale blue eyes of her daughter with her own determined loving gaze.
Arm in arm, mother and daughter crossed the wide village road and stepped up to the taverns sturdy door. Just as Xenas hand reached for the heavy iron latch, she paused, her head tilted in stiff listening attention. Suddenly, she whirled around and retraced her steps only to stop and wait as a running villager came into view from around a corner.
"Xena, Xena." He pulled up as he neared her bending over gasping for breath. She immediately was at his side with a firm hand on his back.
"Xena, the outer guards saw raiders coming fast up the main road."
"How many?" Xena scanned the horizon but couldnt see their dust yet. She figured this gave her a few precious minutes to prepare.
"A score maybe. Perhaps more. Didnt get a clear count and I didnt wait around to be sure."
Xena let a feral grin turn the corners of her mouth as her eyes lit with blue flames. She turned back to face her mother who stood stiff as a statue, her face a study of dismay and fear. "Mother, sound the alarm."
"You, come with me now." Xena grabbed the villagers shirt, straightened him up with one tug, and pulled him to her side. She moved forward rapidly to the edge of the village with the shaken farmer in tow. The clanging of the village bell could be heard for miles, calling out the guard. In no time, towns people were running into the street all heading in the same direction as Xena, well schooled in their response to the warning.
"All right, listen up. This is no drill. Militia to the front, break out the crossbows and pikes. Draw the wagons to shut off the road. You there get the unarmed women and children back to the tavern. NOW! Do it!" As Xena barked commands, villagers ran in hurried order. They armed themselves from a shed stocked for just such a purpose and took positions they had practiced.
Xena once more scanned the horizon. Now she could see the beginnings of dust clouds swirling up into the gray sky. The dark clouds that had threatened rain all day seemed even closer as a cold chill born of bad weather and fear cut the villagers as they prepared to meet the threat.
The warrior straightened and strolled with negligent ease towards the end of the street. Wagons blocked all ways into the village except for a narrow opening that had been left in the middle of the road. The rear of the village bordered on dense forest made more difficult to pass by fences and bogs placed by the warrior princess. Her strategic capabilities were apparent, as it was clear that the town could only be attacked from the front where the villagers were lined up behind wagons in a strong defense. Xena strolled out in front of the gap and stood carelessly, arms folded waiting the arrival of the raiding army. The villagers took heart at her courage and armed their crossbows with determination.
"Now remember, dont shoot till I give the word. Ready the long pikes for when the horsemen charge the wagons. Everyone stays behind the wagons. No one rushes out to meet them. Ready?" With this last question, Xena turned to eye the militia and was met with a resounding cheer. She grinned and turned back to the oncoming raiders, determined that none would reach the villagers to do harm.
The first wave of horsemen topped the small rise over looking Amphipolis and came to a halt, dark horses prancing in place and swirls of dust surrounding them like an evil smoke. As they lined up surveying the village before them, their leader could be made out in the middle of the line. He was all in black except for a large silver helmet perched on his head and a red flowing cape trailing behind him. Even from a distance he was a menacing view.
Xena remained out in front of the village, waiting developments. It wasnt long before the warlord motioned to one of his men who tore down the hillside in a straight line to the warrior. He pulled his plunging horse to a stop directly in front of her, so close the foam from his side coated her armor. Xena did not flinch or budge a muscle. After a moment, he called down to the woman in front of him. "We intend to relieve this town of some badly needed stores and supplies. You can give it to us willingly and spare your lives. Or you can die. The choice is yours." The messenger finished his loud speech that carried throughout the village and waited, his head tilted to one side. Finally, when Xena still did not speak he drew up arrogantly. "Well, woman, what is your answer? I have no more time to waste on the likes of you."
The words were no sooner out of his mouth when Xena moved as quick as a flash to his side and dumped him from his horse to the ground. As the raider went for his sword, she kicked it out of his hand and dragged him to his feet. With her face a few inches from his, her cold icy stare boring into his eyes she spat her reply. "Its clear your mother never taught you any manners. Now here is my reply. This village has nothing to give to scum like you. If you know whats good for you, ride back the way you came. However, Im in a playful mood today so Ill make you an offer. Send your big brave leader down here and Ill challenge him to a fair fight winner take all. Got that little man?" She backhanded him across the face and turned the stunned raider back towards his horse. She threw him on it with an amazing strength and slapped the animals rump driving it back the way they had come.
When the messenger reached the swarm of fighters, there was a momentary silence followed by a yell as the entire horde came tearing down the hill straight at the warrior. Xena drew her sword and waited silently until they were almost upon her. "Now," she screamed at the top of her lungs and giving her war cry charged into their mists pulling raiders from horses and slashing others with her sword.
All around her a hail of arrows found their marks as the screams of horses and men attested. Xena was a whirl of activity, slashing, blocking and dumping men to the ground. In the choking dust, she was well hidden making her attacks and then disappearing again. The horseman that did make it past her to the wagons fell on the long pikes that were raised by the villagers. The gore was unbearable as horses and riders died fearful deaths. Finally, the raiders fell back with over half their number dead or screaming on the ground. As the dust cleared, Xena strolled forward standing out in front of her village daring the warlord to accept her challenge.
Finally, he came just as she knew he would. Cyrene pushed her way to one of the wagons only to be held there by one of the villagers as they watched the scene unfold before them. The leader pranced his horse in front of the warrior, stopped him and slid from his back. He drew his sword and approached the warrior slowly, arrogantly. "So, I have been challenged by a woman, winner take all. What makes you think you are a worthy opponent?"
"I suppose I could say that a good share of your fighting force dead or out of commission proves our capabilities. Still Ive offered you a chance and Ill live up to it. Come on wind bag, lets see what youve got." Xena grinned widely although her icy stare never left the face of her opponent. It was that grin, a vicious smile of pure malice that finally got through to the dense warlord and gave him pause. Xena circled him, her sword flashing in the air around her head as she let the dark anger in her come to the surface. He paled slightly and stared. "Who are you?"
"My name is Xena and youve attacked my home village."
"Ah, the warrior princess. Ive heard of you, Xena. Theres quite a bounty set on your head. I plan on collecting." The warlord circled and lifted his sword.
Xenas patience had run thin and she moved forward swiftly. "Time to fight, big man. Talk is over." She thrust and sidestepped as the dark warlord turned and blocked her move skillfully. He countered as sparks flew from the blades that met and slid together between the combatants. Xena thrust yet again and spun out of the way as he tried a strike to the side. He was heavy and tall with a long reach but that made him slow. Xena soon realized her advantage and began to use it slashing into him and then side stepping his lunges. She toyed with him, keeping the fight going longer than necessary as his breath soon came in gasps.
Cyrene watched the combatants with a mixture of fear for her daughter and amazement at her grace. She was so fast and quick that Cyrene knew it would be soon over. She relaxed slightly watching her daughter practice the skills that were so much a part of her reputation and so much a definition of what she was. Suddenly, Cyrene heard a scream and turned. "Sara, no stay back."
Like a black dart, Sara flew out of the arms of her mother and into the street running towards the fighters. "Xena, I wanna help."
Meantime, Xena had tired of the game and with a flip over her badly winded opponent she struck him on the back of the head. He whirled and put everything he had into a wide arcing swing that missed the warrior since she was no longer there. He turned in confusion as she swung her sword downward cutting him across his chest. One more quick parry and she buried her blade deep into his heart, ending the fight once and for all. As she watched him drop before her, a smile turned the corner of her mouth as she looked back on her village. A glance showed her the raiders were fleeing in disarray. This defense had been all too easy. She pulled her sword from the fallen warlord and raised it high in triumph. A sudden scream brought her around again as Chasia ran toward her. "Sara, Sara, no, no, NO!"
Xena looked down and there at her feet was the little girl, lying in a rapidly spreading pool of red blood. Xenas blood soaked sword slipped from her nerveless hand as she dropped to a knee next to the child. Her mother ran up and grabbed the little form in her arms. The warrior reached a shaking hand to the little girls neck and felt no life beat there. She could only stare at the pale face of the once lively child now still and dead. Xena raised her eyes to those of the grief stricken mother in mute agony and was met with a glare of pure hatred. "You killed her, you monster. You killed her. They said that your help would cost us. It did the last time and now youve done it again. What good is saving the village when the villagers have to die? How could you? You monster." She screamed the same words over and over, tears running down her face.
Xena stood silently, her pale face emotionless and still as the rest of the villagers ran to the scene. As the crowd gathered, mummers filled the air as the grief of the whole town began to pour out. Cyrene made it to the side of her stone cold daughter who simply stared at the scene before her. She grabbed her arm and turned her so their eyes met. "Xena?" What Cyrene saw frightened her for there was nothing but gray shadows in the once clear blue eyes of the warrior.
The warrior looked right through her own mother but did not see her. Xena took the chakram that was at her side and dropped it to the ground. She then turned on her heels and headed towards the distant rise over which the remaining raiders had fled. She never looked back but with measured tread left the scene of her recent battle.
"Xena, Xena," Cyrene called over and over but the warrior seemed not to hear. She simply walked away.
How far had she walked? Xena couldnt tell. She was not aware that a night and day and another night had passed. She just walked without stopping. Finally, she reached a clearing near a stream and sunk to her knees too exhausted to move. Her head bowed as no foe mortal or god could ever achieve, she stared at the ground before her, too numb with grief to think. She prayed that the Faiths would take her life as the pain had become unbearable but she knew it was not to be. Perhaps this was the Tartarus she had earned visiting her early on earth. As she knelt in the dirt, not able to go forward, truly lost, she became aware of a presence.
She turned her head, as the first emotion to break through the gray cloud that had surrounded her soul was rage. "Ares, what ever you want, go away. I didnt call for you and I dont want to talk to you."
The darkly handsome leather clad god showed himself before the warrior and gently pulled her to her feet. "Now thats no way to talk to your most ardent admirer and fan. Xena, Ive missed you. What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Get lost!" Xena pulled her hands from the grasp of the war god and turned away. "Leave me alone."
"My dear Xena. I have been leaving you alone and look what has happened. You seem to be missing your little friend, you know the irritating blond. Then you go off and fight a wonderfully charming little battle and stick it to one of my most promising warlords. In the process, you kill a little girl and wind up in the dirt along side of the road. What am I going to do with you?"
"Go away," groaned the warrior but her voice was weak and desperate as the words of the god flayed her.
"Come on, Xena. Admit it. You loved that little fight. I could feel the joy radiating from you. You dont need Gabrielle anymore. She is happy in her little village doing her thing. Its what she was born to do just as you were born to greatness. You were born to lead my armies, conquer and rule as the world should be ruled. Its time for a new order, our order."
Xena raised her head and sneered at the arrogant form before her. "So we are on to new orders, are we Ares? What about Dahoks new world? So soon you forget about that one?"
Ares raised his hand with a dismissive wave. "Minor setback, my dear. Nothing more. No hard feelings about all that are there? After all, your precious Gabrielle is safe and well. Hope is dead. What more could you want?"
"You out of my life," snapped the warrior.
"Xena, Xena. Come now, you know that your destiny lies with me. Youve proven that you are just as evil as I am. Now you are butchering children. We make a good team. I know the battle excites you, I excite you."
Xena hung her head as the words of the god sunk home as true. She had enjoyed the battle and murdered freely toying with the warlord before she had slaughtered her prey. Her fight for her own redemption was over. She had lost. Now nothing was left except to protect the world somehow from her uncontrollable desire for blood.
"Ares, Im not going to lead your army, Im not going to conquer territories and Im not going to rule any people anywhere."
"So what are you going to do, Xena? Lay here in the dirt? Your little friend has found a new life, why wont you?"
"What do you know about Gabrielles life? Have you been interfering with her? If you have, Ill get you somehow, Ares." Xenas rage spilled over as she glared at the smug god before her.
"Now Xena. You are so beautiful when you are angry. I love that aggressive streak in you. Ive done nothing to the bard, I swear. Want to see for yourself? Here look." Ares opened up his hand to show Xena a small crystal ball. "Look into the sphere and see what Gabrielle is doing."
Xena gave the god a mistrustful glance and then stepped closer to stare into the shining sphere. Suddenly, she could see Gabrielle. The bard looked well rested and happy, talking among a group of young people. Xena could hear music start, and Gabrielle was whisked away into the arms of a good-looking gentleman. From the colorful dresses that the dancers wore, Xena guessed that this was the harvest dance. As Gabrielle floated around the dance floor in the arms of her young man, Xena could see the quiet smile on the bards face. The tall, muscular farmer bent his head down, whispering something into Gabrielles ear. She nodded slowly in reply, a radiant smile on her face. Xena saw enough turning her head away. The pain that squeezed her chest and grabbed her gut made her catch her breath. As her soul slowly sank into the darkness that had long tried to claim it, she turned her eyes towards Potadeia and said a silent goodbye to the bard.
"All right, Ares. You win. She is happy. You leave her that way. Its me you want. Take me. Promise me youll never visit her again. Leave her to her life." The defeated tone in the warriors voice filled the god with joy. He had her and they both knew it.
"I promise not to interfere with the irritating blond ever again, I swear." The god held a mocking hand up to swear his oath, grinning in triumphant. "By the way, where is your chakram? Leave it behind?"
"To Tartarus with you, Ares."
"Now Xena, you had better get ready to fight. Cause I think youre going to have some company. Just call my name if you need my help but remember with my help comes a return favor." With that the god disappeared in a flash of light leaving a very confused and concerned warrior princess. Before she could figure out just what Ares meant, the sudden crash of bushes and yells of soldiers told Xena she indeed had visitors.
"What the Hades now?" groaned the warrior as soldiers spilled out from the forest and made straight for her.
The first thug that reached the warrior was met with a flying kick that launched his sword into the air. A flip and roll later Xena was now armed and the fun began. They came at her in bunches trying to overwhelm her with sheer numbers. With wide arcing swings of her sword, she cut through the mass of humanity pouring in on her. She launched herself over the heads of her attackers, landed with a slight bounce and began battling the ones in the rear looking for an escape route. There was just too many of them and Xena could feel the strain caused by several days of no food or rest. She sensed that they were holding back trying to take her alive and this increased her determination even more. Slashing with sword hand and landing solid blows with her other hand and feet, she gained ground towards the dense forest which could provide her an escape into the trees.
She had almost cut a path through the humanity when a rope was thrown over her body and pulled tightly, jerking her off balance. It took just a moment for her to whirl and cut the offending line with one swipe of her sword but that was enough for a number of attackers to launch themselves on top of her at once. They all went down to the ground together in a melee of arms, legs and weapons. Suddenly, Xenas war cry could be heard above the din and bodies flew everywhere as the warrior princess arched her back throwing off her assailants. In the ruckus however, one of the thugs had managed to enclose Xenas wrist in a heavy metal cuff attached to a short chain. As she scrambled to her feet, she felt one of her ankles imprisoned as well with another chain. She let out a roar of rage and began to use the short chain as a deadly weapon swinging it in a wide circle, knocking down attackers in droves.
Xena was tiring rapidly and could feel the battle slipping away from her. She called on the last of her reserves and fought desperately to gain the forest edge. As she closed on her goal, she suddenly came face to face with the leader of the force who kept throwing more bodies of men at her. She thought she recognized his sneering features but was too busy fighting to make a connection. Her one thought now was to take him down and escape. As she was almost upon the warlord, he thrust the last of his reserve force directly in her path. With a mighty swing of the chain attached to her wrist, she leveled more of them and then hesitated as the warlord had pulled a young boy directly in front of him. That pause cost her as a glancing blow to her head was delivered from the rear. She stumbled, shaking her head to clear it. Another thug grabbed the chain attached to her ankle and pulled mightily dropping the warrior heavily to ground. They were on her again, pounding and striking the firm body of the warrior doing serious damage. Again, she was able to throw some of them off and was just regaining her feet in an amazing demonstration of pure courage and strength of will when a telling blow to her head dropped her into darkness.
Krocis shook his head surveying the disaster before him. "One lousy woman warrior and half of you idiots are on the ground. Get up. You there get the shackles on that bitch before she comes to. MOVE!" He smirked as he walked up to his prize. "Shes a beauty though, have to admit it. Xena, Xena, you havent changed a bit. Rumors of you going soft are greatly exaggerated." He rubbed his long chin, gently stroking a jagged scar that ran down the side of his face and laughed out loud in delight.
His men soon had both wrists and ankles of the unconscious warrior banded in metal manacles. A metal collar that was locked around her neck followed. "Bring the cage up," ordered the warlord. A man led a horse into the clearing which was pulling a metal cage on wheels barred on all sides, top and bottom.
"Okay, okay. Pull her in and attach the chains to the bars. Tight now, dont give her any slack or youll pay." Krocis supervised the efforts of his limping troops as they imprisoned the warrior in the finest Hephaestusian steel compliments of a power in high places. The small bared box was barely big enough to hold the long frame of the warrior sitting up. So spread-eagled as she was her arms and legs ended up not being too far apart. However, in order to close and lock the door, her knees had to be bent half way against her chest. The tall warlord strolled around the cage, admiring his work and stopped next to the dark head pulled against the bars of the cage by the throat collar. Xena hung limply to one side as blood streamed down the side of her face from a jagged wound to her temple. He placed a hand between the bars on her jaw and turned her head to view the damage. "Just the beginning, dear Xena, just the beginning." He laughed evilly again in triumph and motioned the men to get started. He had caged the wild beast and he planned on having some fun with it for profit before collecting the bounty on its pelt. Yes, this had turned out to be a great day after all.
Swish, swirl, graceful pivot, thrust. Now for the final turn, sweep and swing thus ending the morning drills. Gabrielle leaned heavily on her staff, letting her panting calm into even breaths. She wiped away the beads of sweat that had accumulated on her forehead and turned towards the valley below. Every morning, she came to this gentle rise which overlooked her home village to practice her skills with her staff and to search for a little peace in privacy. How long had it been now, she wondered loosing count of the days, weeks and now months that she had spent in her childhood home? Too long. She sighed and stared out at the valley before her, the summer wheat golden brown and harvested, the trees turned gold and red in autumn splendor. The quiet scene was a stark contrast to the turbulence of her mind and the bone deep pain in her soul. Xena had broken her promise and had not come for her. Reason dictated that she should let the warrior go a path of single isolation her choice, her right to make. Yet Gabrielles entire being rebelled at the warriors decision as hundreds of reasons rolled around the bards head to counter the warriors wishes. No, this time she would honor the warriors choice and not follow.
It was time to get on with her life and this was causing Gabrielle much pain, as it was not clear that she wanted a life to get on with that did not include the morose warrior. So the bard stayed in the gentle cocoon of her family becoming day by day more quiet, withdrawn and despondent. The once joyous twinkle in her eyes faded into serious shadows and the optimistic smile she normally wore disappeared. Yes, it was time to leave but where to go? The bard plopped herself down in the tall grass, pulling a stalk out and sucking it absentmindedly. The Amazons made the most sense. They needed her and she certainly needed them especially now. Although, she had this daily conversation with herself for at least the past several weeks, nothing came of it. Gabrielle did not act on her decision. Something kept her in Potadeia waiting. She shook her head and made up her mind that she would wait no longer. Her parents had thought that since she had stayed so long, she had decided to settle down. It wasnt fair to them to keep these false hopes alive. Gabrielle could not imagine staying in Potadeia another week much less the rest of her life. She had changed too much, gown away from the village mentality. Her mother and sister had began to suspect this but Gabrielles father still held out the hope that with "that vile woman" gone and Gabrielle free from her influence, the bard might be home to stay.
"Gab..ri...elle, Gab...ri..elle," a voice drifted up to the bard from the middle of the hill below. There she could see her sister Lila tromping through the high grass towards her.
Breathlessly she arrived and settled down on the soft earth next to her sister. "Thought I might find you up here." Lila paused and gasped a moment before continuing. "You still swinging your staff around? I cant imagine why you do that now. Why do you spend so much time up here? Mother was worried when you werent at breakfast. She said youre not eating enough."
"Im fine, Lila. And yes Im still practicing my staff drills. It keeps me in shape." Gabrielles voice was gentle yet a slight note of irritation crept in against her will.
"But Gabrielle, why bother? You wont need your staff anymore." A sly smile came over the freckled face of Gabrielles younger sister. "Tomias will protect you, Im sure. Hes so strong, I dont think you have a thing to worry about." Lila finished with a soft chuckle.
"I dont want or need anyone to protect me. I can handle myself. Lila, why do you keep bringing up Tomias? You are getting as bad as mother." Gabrielle gave up trying to keep her voice level as her annoyance grew.
Lila smiled indulgently at her sister and took her hand. "Gabrielle, if you want to pretend that this whole village does not know that he popped the question to you at the harvest dance and you did not turn him down, why go ahead. Im your sister remember and love you dearly. Im so happy for you."
Gabrielle stared at her sister in shock. "I never.... That is I did NOT accept his proposal."
"But you didnt say no either. Come on, he is the best looking and most eligible man in this village and for miles around for that matter. Youre really lucky, father says."
"Oh and why is that," Gabrielle snapped at her sister, her patience at an end.
Lila just prattled on, ignoring her sisters increasing bad temper. "Father says that youre lucky a nice man will want to marry you after youve been traipsing around the country side with Xena, dressed in those Amazon clothes. He said no respectable village girl would ever do that."
Gabrielle leaped to her feet, her sea green eyes flashing rage. "Lila, Ive got news for you. I intend to continue to traipse around the countryside wearing whatever I please. Im sorry father does not approve but frankly thats his problem."
Gabrielle stared down at her sister and then gently pulled her to her feet as she took a deep breath. "Lila, Im sorry. I didnt mean to snap at you but I cant stay here. I just want you to know that Ill be off soon."
Lila grabbed her sister in a tight hug as tears stung her eyes. "No, Gabrielle you wont leave will you? Its been so great to have you back. I cant think of being here without you again. I love you so much."
"Listen to me dear sister. I love you too but a friend of mine once said that if you truly love someone, you have to set them free to find their own path. My life lies beyond this village, Lila. It always has. I will always love you and mother and father but there is a world beyond the hills that calls to me. I must go. Dont you see I would wilt and die here? Im not ready to be the wife of a farmer, even a kind and good looking one."
Lila searched the beloved face before and finally nodded slowly. "I understand but I dont have to like it."
"Ill be back for visits more often, I promise. I do love to be with you, please understand."
Gabrielle gathered her sister into another firm hug and then wiped the tears that had streaked down her face.
"You should tell Tomias of your decision, Gabrielle. I think he believes there will be wedding bells soon."
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh and finally nodded. "Good point. Ill do it today."
"When are you planning to leave?" Lila asked in a hesitant voice.
"Soon maybe tomorrow or day after."
Lila nodded and turned to walk down the hill slowly, her dejected head hung in a downward angle.
Gabrielle watched her leave as a twinge of guilt crept into her soul. After all, Lila and her family just wanted her to settle down near them. Was that so much to ask? The bard shook her head as a deep voice purred into her ear. "You must chose your path, not let your family decide for you. Yes, it is too much to ask if they truly want you to be happy." A single tear crept down Gabrielles face as she allowed herself to truly miss her warrior. "Good bye, Xena. I love you. Im giving you your freedom to choose just as you gave me mine."
Continues in Chapter 9
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