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DISCLAIMERS- This story was written as part of a three story arc and theorizes that Callistoís sister did not die in the fire at Cirra. It takes place shortly after "Return of Callisto". Parts 2 & 3 are still simmering but I need some feedback to continue. There is no sex but a bit of violence. This is the Xenaverse after all. This story was written about 2 years ago and I hope it aged well.

Please send comments and feedback to xenasis@yahoo.com and OTEREWQB@hotmail.

My thanks to the Creators and actors in the Xenaverse for such wonderful Characters and for letting me borrow them for a bit. I returned them none the worse for wear.

Thanks also to the positive feedback I received on "Progeny". Keep it coming!


 

GHOST OF THE PAST

BY
April McKaig

 


SECTION 1-2 SECTION 4-5 SECTION 6-8 SECTION 9-15

 

PROLOGUE--

 

Flames. Reaching toward the heavens like outstretched hands. A thick, black smoke wafted through the air. It carried with it the smell of death and destruction. Weak, scattered cries of pain and pleading rose above the stomping of the horses. Various soldiers barked out orders in a further attempt to wash out the death knell.

the armor clad soldiers once so eager for battle stood nearby. They watched as the wildfire claimed the village instead of them. No one was sure what started the fire only that in the arid village it quickly consumed everything. Most of the towns people were too frightened to come out of their huts when they were attacked. The she-demons army was well known and feared and because of that fear, most of the towns population perished in the hellfire. Those that escaped the burning buildings now cowered in shock. The screams of the injured and dying echoing in their ears over the crackle of flames.

Slowly, as if in a dream, a young girl of no more that ten winters opened her eyes. Glancing around her she was assaulted by the sight of what was once her home. Everything was burning. The hut of an old woman who baked treats for the children was now scorched ashes as was the woman herself. With great effort the girl turned her head a bit and looked at her own hut. It was little more than a pile of smoldering wood and mud. The cries of her mother as their home burned down around them still rang in her ears. Her younger sister had made it out and safely into the surrounding woods. She had been right behind her when her mothers cry for help stopped her.

A section of the ceiling beam had collapsed on her mother and the flames engulfed her. The young girl tried to help her mother, pulling at her and the burning wood on top of her. At one point her own clothes caught fire but she scarcely noticed and continued trying to save her mother. Even after her mothers screams stopped, the child continued pulling on her in an effort to free her. The girl had been badly burned on her back and arms and was overcome with the smoke filling the tiny hut. Consciousness was beginning to fade when suddenly she felt arms about her, pulling her out of the smoke and flames.

A short time later she found herself lying on the dusty, sun-baked earth. The pain of her burns were quickly encasing her and threatened to carry her into darkness. She fought against it, wanting to see one thing before she was carried away to Tartarus. She had to see the face of the leader of this soulless army that had claimed her family and life. Her friends and neighbors had repeatedly screamed out the Warriorís name and at last she got a clear glimpse of the woman as she rode through the burning wreckage. The Warrior stopped a few yards away surveying the remains of the once peaceful village and shouted orders at the soldiers.

The Warrior was riding a blond mare and scanned the destruction she had wrought. She a was tall, muscular woman dressed in black leather and shiny armor. Her hair, black as the night, was flowing down her shoulders. Her eyes, so brightly blue their intensity threatened to blind anyone brave enough to meet them. The broad sword she had wielded so effortlessly and mercilessly was now by her side as one of her soldiers rushed forward and began rapidly talking.

The injured girl couldnít make out any of the conversation but it was apparent that the Warrior was angry and upset. She glared at her man as his motions became more frantic. The Warrior again scanned the burnt remains of the village and this time her eyes locked on the injured girls for a moment. The Warrior saw hatred and pain. Although she couldnít be sure, the girl thought she saw a flicker of regret in the ice blue eyes of the Warrior.

It was the last thing the child saw as the battle against pain was decided and she fell into darkness.

She sat up suddenly. The dull ache in her arm and hand were the only waking reminder of the nightmare she had just relived. The night was silent except for the whispering of the wind through the nearby trees. Quickly she stood up, pulling her sword from its sheath and then quietly walking to the edge of the forest surrounding their camp.

A few deep breaths helped ease the tension that had mounted with the dream. Looking at the faces of her charges put her even more at ease. They were so young and innocent and had lost everything, just as she had years ago. Their lives would be much different though. She had sworn an oath to herself and the memory of her lost family that no innocent would suffer as long as she could prevent it.

A guard situated near the camp border nodded as she passed and vanished into the forest. The majority of her soldiers had been with her long enough to know of her nightmares. It was what kept her from sleeping more than a few hours a night. They were also the cause of her nightly walks. Those closest knew that it helped ease the painful memories and they knew her well enough to know that she should handle any trouble that might arise.

Casually, she walked into the dark forest and after awhile settled on a suitable spot of isolation. She didnít fear the night or the woods, she had seen things far worse. The area was a small clearing surrounded by tall oak trees and she kneeled down on the cool dew soaked grass. Glancing up she spotted the highest tree top and spoke in a low firm voice, "Is it time?"

The wind picked up slightly, carrying a whispered reply. "Soon."

Licking her lips, she looked down at the ground. She shivered as her emotions churned. There was a slight hesitation before she spoke again this time her voice not as firm, "Iím scared my Huntress. I trust you as always but this time--."

The soft voice interrupted her, its tone like a reassuring mother, "My child, after all you have seen and done this should not frighten you. I have always been with you and will guide you from harm. Your mission is important and must not fail. There must be Guardians and I was very careful when I chose you as mine. Before you can continue your mission you must face your past and its time is coming."

The woman smiled warmly, "As you wish Artemis." With that she stood up and took a few steps then stopped. Turning, she looked back at the tree top, "If youíre certain there is no other way." When she received no response she nodded and continued her walk back to camp.

Several minutes later when she had disappeared into the thick woods, a brilliant light drifted down from the tree tops and settled where the young woman had kneeled. Artemis the Huntress watched as if she could still see the girl in the overgrowth a look of motherly love on her face. "You will do well my daughter." She whispered after her, "You are stronger and have a braver heart than even you suspect."

The light was beaming brightly now and without warning it shot skyward toward Olympus.

 

1.

 

The sun had only been up for a few hours and already the heat was radiating off the nearby rocks and ground. Most of the animals were already seeking a cool place to nap away the days' heat. The songs of the birds had dwindled to a mere chirp off and on. The last few days had been rain free and incredibly hot, leading many to believe that the Gods were angry about something and punishing the earth with a drought.

Xena rode Argo gently, not wanting to over stress her this early in the day. They still had a good distance to cover before sundown and she wanted to make Vesperous before the sun rose to it's highest. She planned to be in Barbus within the next few days to help a friend with a problem of a band of trouble makers. After that she hoped to take a rest and visit her mother in Amphipolis.

Gabrielle strolled along beside her casually, still sleepy and feeling the effects of the sun.

"It's going to be another scorcher today." She stated, breaking their comfortable silence.

As usual Xena gave the shortest possible response, "Yep."

They continued for several minutes in silence but as Gabrielle became more alert her tongue also awoke, "How far did you say it was to Vesperous?"

Xena glanced up at the sun and then at the horizon, "We should be there in an hour or so."

Gabrielle nodded and kicked at the piles of dirt in the road, "I hope they have a decent marketplace." She said more to herself than her companion.

Xena smiled slightly, amazed at how the most trivial thing could be turned into a major disaster by her aspiring Bard friend. "Don't worry Gabrielle. They have a small but well stocked marketplace."

"Oh, I'm not worried," She admitted, "it's just that we're getting really low on supplies. The thoughts of another tree bark soup make me nervous."

They continued in silence, Xena keeping a constant eye out for trouble and Gabrielle talking softly to herself as she worked on a new tale.


As Xena predicted, they hit town just before noon, and true to her word the marketplace was well stocked and well populated.

As Gabrielle went from stall to stall looking for the best deals, Xena became aware of the towns' people watching her closely. She stopped and looked around inconspicuously, and got the distinct feeling of walking into a hostile war zone. Her sixth sense told her not to linger in the open for much longer and she always listened, it had saved her life countless times.

"Let's go." She said softly but firmly to Gabrielle and began walking way from the marketplace.

Gabrielle knew her friend very well and immediately followed. Once they were in a less populated part of the village, Xena relaxed, but never let her guard down completely.

"What, may I ask was that about?"

They had reached a section of town where most of the people made their homes. Xena quickly scanned the nearby huts, spotted the one she was looking for and led the way, "I didn't like the welcoming stares we were getting."

Before she could say more, she saw an old man come out of the hut she was advancing on. He looked up and saw her, smiled briefly, then glanced around to see if any of his neighbors had seen the welcome. He shook his head slightly and nodded toward a nearby grove.

Before she could change her path, they were stopped by two large burly guards, who seemed anything but welcoming.

"You new in town?" The largest one, obviously the leader asked.

"Just passing through." She answered, watching them for trouble.

Trouble happened almost instantly as the men raised their swords and swung at the two women. Xena had her sword out in the blink of an eye. After a few well-placed swings and bottom of her boots to the men's faces they were on the ground, unconscious. She looked around to make sure no others were coming and then corrected her path. Within minutes she and Gabrielle were in the center of an orange grove. The air seemed cooled and smelled of citrus as they settled in the shade and waited.

"Who was that man?" Gabrielle questioned as she pocketed a few of the oranges.

"Krosis, an old acquaintance. Maybe he can tell us what's going on around here."

Xena was up, and her sword drawn before Gabrielle heard the first leaf rustle, but she followed suit and held her staff ready.

The old man appeared and gasped when he saw them waiting. He quickly made sure they were alone, and then greeted them with a smile. "Xena, pardon my hesitant attitude but what are you doing here?"

She relaxed the sword but kept it unsheathed, "I came to get supplies and I thought I'd look in on you. I felt like the prize pig at a feast in town, what is going on here?"

The old man sat under the nearest tree and sighed, "There was an attack on a nearby village. It's not the first and the survivors all seem to vanish without a trace. They started about three weeks ago, there is no pattern and they seem very skilled. Strangers are not very welcome around here, and unfortunately memories are long where you're concerned."

"Who's responsible?" She asked simply.

He shrugged, "That's the worst part, no one knows. The Army attacks, kills, scavenges, and disappears. They leave no clues behind, not even wounded or dead. Of course when you showed up in town, the fires were lit."

Now Gabrielle jumped into the conversation, "What do you mean, the fires were lit?"

Xena and the old man looked at each other for a second before she received an answer, "They think I'm responsible."

 

They had left town shortly after the meeting with Krosis, without supplies and with very little information. After a couple of hours of riding, the heat of the day became unbearable and Xena spotted a shaded area near a brook a few yards from the road.

She took care of Argo first, making sure the horse had water and was sufficiently shaded, then joined Gabrielle at the brooks' edge rinsing the road dirt and sweat off their arms and faces.

They finally settled under the large Oak tree by the water and Gabrielle pulled out her orange stash, which was a welcome change from their usual fare.

Xena had already devoured one orange as Gabrielle finished skinning her first, "I can't believe that they think you're responsible." She replied as she handed Xena another.

This time she took her time with her snack, "My army was very active in this area a few years ago."

Gabrielle turned to face her friend, "That was a long time ago. You're not like that anymore. How long before these people start accepting that?"

"Bad memories fade slowly."

She was silent for a moment, eating her orange and thinking, something obviously bothering her. Xena watched her but didn't pry, she knew when Gabrielle was ready to continue she would.

"Krosis" she began anew, "he's your friend, right? He didn't act like much of a friend."

She knew what the statement meant but only answered, "He's an old man."

"But he's supposed to be your friend," She continued, "He was afraid and ashamed that someone would see him with us."

"With me." She corrected.

"Some friend." Gabrielle finished flatly.

Xena spoke hesitantly, "As I said he's an old man. He's lived there most of his life, his neighbors only know my reputation not me. He has to look out for himself and I understand that.

I'm used too not getting a warm reception."

Gabrielle couldn't let it go, "But he's your friend and that Xena is in the past. Friends are supposed to help each other out. I'd never turn my back on you, no matter what."

She stopped eating and looked at her friend warmly, "One day you may have to, if it means saving your life."

Now Gabrielle stopped eating and stared at her friend, "There is nothing that could make me

be ashamed to admit knowing you. You're my best friend, and I'm proud to say it."

Argo stomped at the ground causing Gabrielle to look away and miss the slight blush that rose in Xenas face. By the time she turned back around Xenas face had returned to its stoic demeanor.

"Thanks. That means a lot," She answered softly, "but the fact still remains that the old Xena was not a very nice person and still has a lot of enemies. Some of those good honest people. Do you not remember the reception I got at your village?"

Gabrielle nodded and reflected on her first meeting with Xena Warrior Princess. It seemed longer than three years since that first encounter, but she could clearly remember the reaction of her family and friends. Even after she had saved their lives from Draco's men, being wounded in the process.

Her father had been one of the first ones to thank her for saving their wives and daughters. Then the whispers of her identity surfaced and the entire village turned cool. The Elders asked her to move on as quickly as possible.

She remembered coming to the defense of the Warrior. Reminding her father and the others that Xena was hurt and had just saved them. Could her wounds not be tended before she left?

Before an argument broke out Xena had quietly grabbed her things and said she was just passing through anyway.

Gabrielle was fascinated by the meeting. She had heard all the horrible stories of The Warrior Princess and her army, but the woman she met didn't seem like the same bloodthirsty animal of the stories. Because she followed her heart and head, she had begun the adventure of a lifetime, leaving behind a boring life in a small village.

Then she thought of Perticus, her betrothed by family arrangement. She had left him behind as well not anxious to marry. Though he had been sweet and handsome, she wanted more than a farmer and to be more than some farmer's wife.

When they met again, he was a soldier. No longer the innocent farm boy and she was no longer a little village girl and this time their love was mutual.

They had sealed their love in marriage a few months later, but their lives together had been cut painfully short by the murderous Callisto.

Her appetite suddenly gone she threw the half-eaten orange across the clearing and stood up, "I'm going for a walk." She stood up and ventured away from their shaded resting area.

Xena watched her walking beside the brook, her head down in deep thought and instantly recognized the mood that had come over her friend. She silently scolded herself for mentioning Gabrielle's home village.

Outwardly Gabrielle had seemed to recover fairly quickly from her husbands' murder, but inwardly she was never quite the same innocent she had been. A piece of her had died with Perticus that day and the change was only noticeable to those who knew her best. Most of the time she maintained her usual facade but on occasion she slipped into a quiet, reflective posture.

For several months after his death Xena had been awakened late at night by her soft crying.

She had tried to comfort her friend, her heart aching at the guilt of being partly responsible for Perticus's death.

Had she killed Callisto when she had the chance at their first meeting, Gabrielle would have been happily married and starting her family by now. Although Gabrielle assured that she never blamed her friend, Xena felt a heavy burden of guilt. Gabrielle had even reminded her that had she not arrived when she did, she would have been dead as well. Xena knew it was true but that didn't help ease her conscience.

"Stop that." A firm voice broke the revelry.

Looking up she saw Gabrielle standing beside Argo, her usual demeanor and smile back in place, "We'd better get moving."

Xena popped the last bit of orange in her mouth and stood up, gear in hand, "Yep, it'll be dark in a few hours and I want to reach Emola before then."

She saddled Argo while Gabrielle refilled their water flasks, and in a matter of moments the gear was loaded and she climbed into place in the saddle. Once settled she reached down a hand to Gabrielle, "Come on."

Gabrielle was a bit caught of guard by the gesture. The only time both rode Argo was when there was trouble and they needed to move fast. She quickly glanced around looking for the trouble that Xena had spotted.

"It's too hot to walk and we need to make up some time." Xena explained, her hand still outstretched.

Gabrielle grasped her hand and was pulled up. She settled behind Xena, "I'm glad you came into my life when you did, and I'm glad you're my friend."

Xena glanced over her shoulder and smiled, "Me too." She nudged Argo and they began down the dusty road at a slow pace.

 

2.

 

Emola was a small village located in a fertile valley whose main businesses were horses and grain. Xena and her army had allowed the place to survive because the villagers eagerly supplied her troops with all the hay and grain they needed. Although she would have never admitted it back then, she also found the valley beautiful and peaceful. High grass green and lush, wild flowers covering the tops of the hills, a thick strip of trees surrounding two sides of the town and a large clear lake to supply the water for the town's people.

They reached Emola long before dark and discovered two things. The town had been the obvious victim of a recent attack and it was currently under siege again. The attacker this time was the lowest of scum Zeus had ever allowed breath.

As they topped the hill above town, they saw a large force of Slavers battling a small band of soldiers. The soldiers fought fiercely but were badly outnumbered and were being worn down. The battle seemed centered around one of the few still standing buildings. When Xenia caught a glimpse of what was in the building, she knew why the soldiers fought so hard.

"One thing hasn't changed since the old days," She growled as Gabrielle slid off Argo, "I hate Slavers." A familiar war cry sounded from the hill and Xena charged down into the valley. The fighting stopped for a brief instant when both sides heard the war cry. The soldiers used it to their advantage to take out a few more of the slavers.

Argo came to a stop a few yards from the fight and Xena flipped off the horse and landed in front of a slaver. He was a tall, muscular man with greasy hair and bad teeth. He looked surprised by the woman in front of him but wasted no time bringing up his sword.

Xena brought up her sword, meeting his in mid air. Their steel met with a clashing roar, adding another chorus to the metal song that filled the air.

The force of the clash caused him to take a step back. He quickly recovered and raised his sword again but never used it as Xenas fist firmly connected with his face. His eyes crossed and he fell to the ground, unmoving.

She glanced to her right and saw one of the soldiers, a short, slender helmeted fighter, taking on two slavers at once fighting like a lion but losing ground. She moved to help him when

Gabrielle arrived on the scene.

She tapped one of the slavers on the shoulder with her staff and when he turned to face her she promptly took him down with a sweep to his legs. The final punch of the staff into his stunned face ended the confrontation.

He was quickly joined on the ground by his friend as the young soldier nodded to Gabrielle and moved to intercept the next attacker.

Across the compound two men suddenly appeared in front of Xena leering, "This one will bring a good price at the slave pit."

"Hi boys," She smiled, "Wanna play?"

They grinned at one another and reached toward her, gripping only air as she leaped into the air and delivered a well-placed boot into each mans chest on the way down. They flew backwards landing on their backs, momentarily stunned.

She somersaulted in the air and landed at their feet, sword in hand, "Are you tired of playing already?"

Slavers relied on bullying the weak and taking advantage of the down trodden. Usually when faced with a real fight they ran like frightened rabbits. Scrambling in the dirt one of the men didn't disappoint, the other was more stubborn. He jumped to his feet, his sword ready and snarling like a mad dog complete with foaming at the mouth.

She shook her head, kicked the sword out of his hand and put him back in the dirt with a flying kick.

A commotion to her left caught her attention and she saw two of the soldiers fighting off five slavers as they neared the door of the main building. She had the Chakram in action in a flash. The spinning disk ricocheted off a building, a wagon and an unconscious slavers head. Next, it clinked against the five slavers helmets dropping them one by one like dominoes before returning to her waiting hand.

The two soldiers waved their thanks and prepared for the next onslaught. More of the slavers were beginning to flee from the fight but a few stubborn men remained.

Xena started after some of the rabbits when she heard a familiar voice yell her name.

Spinning around she was just in time to see a slaver knock Gabrielle off her feet into a pile of debris. Gabrielle tried to regain her footing but fell, her head firmly connecting with an old wagon wheel as she went down.

"Gabrielle!" Xena called out as the young woman hit the ground with a loud thud.

She lay still as the slaver smiled, moving into position over her. With a sneer in her direction, his sword raised to strike.

The helmeted shoulder heard Gabrielle cry and glanced at Xena and then back to Gabrielle. In the blink of an eye the soldier went into action.

Xena moved toward her friend but knew she would never make the distance. Then she realized that the young soldier had left his sword in the belly of the slaver he was fighting and was unarmed as he ran to Gabrielle's assistance. She grasped her Chakram and took aim.

The soldier hit the attacking slaver running full force and knocked him backwards a few steps. Then promptly took a protective stance between the unconscious Gabrielle and persistent slaver.

Xena held the Chakram and continued toward them. Stopping again when she saw the helmeted soldier reach behind his back and pull a pair of chobos from his belt.

She had assumed that it was a young boy under the helmet but now realized it was a woman. Watching in surprise as the soldier twirled the Amazon fighting sticks with skilled precision and grace. The woman brought the sticks across his chin and then delivered a crushing blow to each shoulder. A few more strikes and he was on the ground, permanently. The Amazon stayed in her protective stance by Gabrielle as another thug advanced.

Xena was on her way to help when her path was blocked by a large tree of a man wielding a battle axe. He tossed the axe back and forth in his large calloused hands, challenging her.

She looked at his battle scared face and sighed. Worry and exhaustion were beginning to settle in, "Let's get this over with, Tiny." She replied taking a fighting position.

He was off balanced by her flippancy, but quickly leaped into battle, swinging the axe full force, aiming for Xena's head. In return she simply ducked and let his momentum carry him around. Then flipped over him, landed and kicked him with such force that there was a loud smacking sound as he ran head first into the wall of a nearby building.

Axe man bounced off the wall and staggered back trying to shake off the effects of the blow. When he turned back to face the Warrior Princess, he met a one-two kick that stopped him cold. He stood upright for a second. Then his eyes rolled back into his head and he fell to the ground like an old tree.

That was enough for the other attackers. They began scattering and running toward the hills, leaving wounded and prospective slaves behind. The soldiers held fast, not pursing them. When the slavers were almost at the top of the hill, then the soldiers began checking their injured comrades and moving into the building they had fought so bravely to defend.

Xena rushed over to Gabrielle and found the Amazon kneeling beside her, examining her wounded head.

"What happened?" Gabrielle asked weakly as Xena knelt beside her and took hold of her hand.

The Amazon finished her check, "A nasty bump, but you'll be okay. Probably have a headache the size of Olympus though."

Xena began her own check as the Amazon removed her masked helmet. She stopped long enough to get a look at the soldier and was immediately struck by her youth. She was perhaps a few years older than Gabrielle, with shoulder length brown curly hair, fair complexion and hypnotic green eyes. The familiar earring of Melosas tribe dangled from her left ear, and a brightly colored blue headband signifying a warrior adorned her head.

She had already applied a pressure bandage to Gabrielle head, so there was nothing left to do but make her comfortable. "Thank you." Xena replied as the Amazon stood up.

The Amazon looked back at the building and then met Xenas eyes, "Thank You." She replied simply.

One of the soldiers called out, "Captain." And the woman turned to acknowledge.

"I'll be back." She assured and disappeared into the building.

Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle, "How are you feeling?"

She took a breath, lightly touched her head and closed her eyes, "Like I was hit with one of Zeus thunderbolts."

Xenas tone was filled with relief, "Thank Zeus you have a hard head. Just lie still and rest. The slavers are gone."

The Amazon and her soldier came out of the building and summoned the others. As each soldier approached they began reporting to the Captain. None of the villagers had been hurt, two of their soldiers were badly injured and four were dead. As the dead were named the Amazon dropped her head in silent prayer for their brave efforts. The reports continued and after a moment she took a deep cleansing breath and resumed command attitude. She scanned the compound and then looked up at the rapidly fading sun as the last of the reports were heard.

"We'll camp here tonight," She began, "Fabius, see to the injured. Hernam, Basty check these vermin lying around and take the bodies into one of the old buildings."

"The injured?" Hernam, the tall, muscular red head questioned.

"No survivors." Was the answer. "Beldon, Giles Benedictus and Delia secure the area and set up watches. Leonis, Xanthus and Otes you get camp set up."

A young woman came out of the building timidly, "Captain?"

Amazon turned and her features immediately softened, "Yes Chloe."

A few of the other villagers joined her in the doorway. All of them were dressed in farming clothes and bore the bruises and demeanor of survivors of a raid. "Let us help." She spoke for all of them.

They had lost everything family, friends and homes. Despite that they weren't ready to lie down and die and she admired them even more, "Of course. We could use some help." She turned to Leonis, a tall slender older man, "Will you assign duties to our friends?"

Leonis nodded and motioned them out of the building, assuming his roll as second in command.

The camp was becoming a flurry of activity when Amazon ventured back to Xena and Gabrielle. She handed Xena a flask of water and kneeled beside them. "How is she?"

Xena had just used a pressure point to help ease her friend's headache and now she was dozing. "A bad headache but she'll be fine."

"Without your help," the Amazon began, "These people would be the property of slavers. My name is Bethany and I am in your debt."

Xena looked at the villagers, recognizing the look that they wore. She had left countless people like this behind in her earlier days, it seemed only right that she help them for a change.

"I'm Xena." She looked down at her sleeping companion, "My friend Gabrielle. Your debt is paid in full."

The woman seemed stunned for only a second when she heard Xenas name then her face regained its normal setting. Most would not have caught that look of surprise it had been so quick but Xena did. She said nothing as Bethany began speaking, "We are from Havenous. We ride patrols in this area and try to help when a village has been attacked and before the slavers move in. These people were in a village that was destroyed about a days ride from here. We're escorting them to Havenous to start anew. Your friend was hurt helping us. We don't have much but I can offer you a hot meal, warm fire and thankful company. We'd be honored if you'd stay with us at least for the night."

It was a heartfelt offer and although Xena was anxious to reach Barbus this offer was tempting. Gabrielle needed a safe place to rest and with only eleven soldiers to protect thirty villagers, mostly children, these people could use an extra sword for a day or so.

"I accept your offer, thank you."

Bethany smiled, "Good. Now let's find a more comfortable place for your friend to get some rest."

Leonis, Fabius and Xena got the wounded settled and because of her medical ability Xena took over the care of the injured so Fabius could help elsewhere. As she checked and changed bandages on some of the villagers she could tell that they had been tended to with care and skill.

In no time with the help of an older village woman named Mara and her teenage son they had cleaned, sewed and bandaged the two soldiers and had everyone else resting comfortably. As she finished the last bandage, she noticed the older woman watching her with an odd look on her face.

When the woman realized that Xena was aware of her stare she blushed, "I'm sorry. It just amazes me that warriors so fierce can have the gentle touch of a healer."

"Warriors?"

The woman nodded, "Yes. The Captain has been tending to our wounded personally. To watch her with the wounded and see her with the children, you would never suspect that she can be as fierce as Aries when there's trouble."

"Killing is easy," Xena responded, "To save and preserve life, that's the hard job."

Mara grabbed a water flask and stood up her bones creaking in protest, "Bethany said almost the same thing." And she moved off to offer water to the wounded.

Xena scanned the activity around her. The soldiers moved quickly and efficiently. With the help of some of the villagers they had already cleared the bodies of the slavers and were almost done setting up camp.

A large fire was built in the center of camp and the smell of stew was beginning to float on the evening air. Two of the village women and one soldier worked at fixing the meal, cutting vegetables and slicing bread. She spotted the soldiers in the dimming light guarding the perimeter of the camp about thirty yards out.

On the far side of the camp were the children, and where she found Bethany. The children ranged in age from infants to just shy of teen age. A middle-aged woman and one of the younger woman cared for the infants and toddlers changing diapers and feeding them.

Bethany kneeled in the dirt surrounded by six children playing a game that involved drawing in the dirt. One of the little girls had her leg in splints that kept getting in her way, but Bethany took her time with them allowing the girl to keep up with the rest of the children. Earlier the children had been quiet and sedate. Many of them now orphans had seen their parents and siblings murdered for no reason.

Bethany sat with them, talking to them instead of at them. Played their games and lost convincingly and when a tear appeared she comforted them like a parent. Watching her with the children and the adults of the village helped Xena understand why Bethany had fought so fearlessly even in the face of defeat.

Again her old memories bubbled to the surface as she looked around the camp. She found herself wondering how many people, innocent people like this had she been responsible for. Had they had someone like Bethany and her soldiers to help them? Before she could fall to deeply into her own dark place, she felt a tap on her arm. She turned and saw Mara's young son standing few feet away. He was only about thirteen summers, with long black hair and deep sad brown eyes. He seemed to flinch and cower when she acknowledged him.

"I'm sorry Warrior." He slowly spoke, his voice barely above a whisper, "Mother wanted me to tell you your friends awake."

Xena mustered her friendliest face and gently patted his arm, "Thank you."

The boy relaxed slightly, said nothing and went back to help his mother. Xena let him get a small distance ahead and then followed him.

 

Bethany too had spent some time observing their guest. She had been so uncertain of her reaction when the two of them finally met, but she was surprised at the calm and peace that had settled over her. Watching Xena treat the wounded had convinced her even more that the stories of her turn to fight for good were true. Because of her own past she had recognized someone who had things to atone for and couldn't help but admire the fighting and healing skills of the Warrior Princess. Her residual fear and uncertainty were rapidly giving way to curiosity. Especially at how she came to be traveling with an Amazon.

She hopped to convince Xena and her friend to accompany them to Havenous. Not only to get some answers to old questions but because they desperately needed someone with Xenas fighting skill and strength. One of the women tending the evening meal called out and made a motion in the air, and the others began making their way to the pot over the fire.

The children immediately lost interest in the game and ran to get in line. As she stood up from the dust Leonis moved up beside her, both of them watching the crowd gather for dinner.

He was about ten years older than her and a full foot taller. He had the muscular build of a career soldier, his head topped off with short curly brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His face was weathered and slightly scarred but still handsome and he had blue eyes that twinkled with wisdom and compassion. "You okay?" he questioned, his voice firm but twinged with weariness.

"Fine. You?"

"Same." He followed her gaze and landed on Xena helping her friend sit up and eat. "So that's the infamous Xena Warrior Princess. She is awesome in battle." He committed thinking of her earlier fight with the slavers.

"Without their help I don't think we could have held them off much longer. I'd like to ask them to accompany us to Havenous. We could use an extra sword, especially one as skilled as hers."

As if one, both glanced to the farthest edge of camp where two soldiers stood guard. One tall and slender carrying a long scar down the side of his face. The other a short, heavyset man with a face that bore a strong resemblance to a weasel.

Leonis and Bethany had been friends and fighting together for five years and they knew one another well enough that their communication was almost telepathic. "That might not go over well with some." He spoke first, "Her reputation of late has changed toward a force of good but her past is still fresh in many memories."

"Could I be mistaken?"

He detected a slight hint of uneasiness in her voice, something that only recently had begun showing up in her. For the last few weeks her nightmares had begun getting worse and she seemed more on edge. Considering her past and some of what was happening now he could be more objective and more sympathetic.

"No." He finally answered, "We've fought together too long, and I've learned to trust your instincts. They haven't been wrong yet."

Her smile warmed him and he gave her a wink, "You need to eat and rest. You pull guard duty in a few hours."

Obediently she replied, "Yes Sir." And made her way to the dinner line.

He watched her blend into the group of villagers waiting their turn, admiration flaring its head in his heart.

 

Xena had managed to get Gabrielle to eat and drink a little and now she was dozing peacefully. She too had eaten and then made a final check on the wounded before she decided to stretch her legs. The sun had been down for over an hour and feeling safe and with full stomachs the villagers settled down to sleep, the camp encased in quiet.

She strolled slowly and quietly through the villagers, some nodding or smiling as she passed and she returned the greetings.

The night air was cooling and she took a few deep breaths, savoring the smells and sounds of the coming night. One of the many gifts that Gabrielle had given her was the ability to notice the simple things. Things most people took for granted or never noticed, including her until Gabrielle pointed them out.

The smell of freshly cut hay or Lotus blossoms. A chorus of tree frogs and crickets making evening music. The splendor of a sunset or rainbow after a storm. These were not the type of things a Warrior paid particular interest to, but then Xena was not the same warrior she had been a few years ago. The symphony was interrupted as she neared the edge of camp and heard voices whose tone had nothing to do with nature.

 

Benedictus had pulled her aside as she finished her dinner and urged her toward the old building at the edge of town where they had kept the horses secured. Bethany let him lead her into the woods behind the building, knowing that he would be a problem and that his voice could carry his ranting back to camp.

He paced in front of her, the scar down his face twitching in step. "What were you thinking, asking her to stay in our camp? Do you know who she is? What she is?"

Bethany remained calm. In the year since he had joined her patrol he had managed to throw a fit at least twice a mission. She was used to his tirades and quickly becoming tired of them, "Yes, I know who she is. I also know that she helped us and without that help these people and some of us would probably be on the way to a slave market or dead."

He stopped pacing and faced her, "Part of her plan no doubt. Get us to trust her, invite her to join us all the while her army is surrounding us just waiting on her signal. You've let a viper into our midst."

"There is no army, Benedictus. Have you not heard the stories of her helping people? She has changed. Even Hercules calls her friend now. "

"Stories." He replied, anger causing the tone of his voice to rise, "Do you believe everything you hear? She's a demon who uses and destroys on a whim. Iíve seen the aftermath of her attacks and that you of all people defend her. You know better than any of us what she's capable of."

Anger colored Bethanys features as she held up her gloved hand to stop him, "That is the past and you'd be wise not to bring it up again." She inhaled deeply trying to soothe the anger, "That Xena no longer exists. She risked her life to help us today and her friend was injured. We owe her our gratitude and the very least I can do is offer them a meal and a place to sleep."

"And wake up with your throat cut! I thought you were smarter than this. I will not stand by and let you lead these people to the slaughter. I'm sure the others will have something...." He stopped, looking over her shoulder, hand reaching for his sword.

Bethany turned and saw Xena emerging from the bushes a few feet away. She faced Benedictus and reached to stay his sword. "That's enough!" She almost yelled, wondering how much of the argument Xena had heard.

Xena stood her ground, raising her hands slightly to show that she was unarmed, but her eyes reflected readiness to defend herself if need be. "I don't want to cause a problem. I'll get my friend and we'll ride out now."

"Good. The sooner the better." Benedictus growled, keeping his hand on his sword hilt.

Bethany's eyes flashed as she gave him a look that would cause Aries to cower. Slowly she turned and walked over to Xena.

Never saying a word, she met Xenas eyes and held them. Before Xena could speak, she felt a bit disoriented then relaxed. Bethany's green eyes seemed to glow and swirl like pools of water. Xena couldn't pull her gaze away and really didn't want too. There was a calm reflected in those eyes. A calm that settled into Xenas soul. As quickly as it had begun, the connection was gone and she took a slight step back unsure of what had just happened.

Bethany's face radiated calm and confidence, "That won't be necessary. You are my guest and are welcome to stay for as long as you like. I apologize that you had to overhear this petty disagreement. Please stay."

"You've lost your mind." Benedictus interrupted.

She whirled around her anger resurfacing, "You have insulted our guest, who's only crime here is helping us when we needed it. I am used to your behavior and have been too tolerant but you will not show such disrespect to a friend."

His face and voice oozed contempt, "She is not my friend. She is a butcher and I will not be led to slaughter like an Ox."

Bethany nodded, "Very well. Get on your horse and ride out. The last thing these people need is to hear the rantings of your paranoid mind."

His disbelief was evident as he took a step forward, hand still on his sword, "What?"

Xena could only watch the proceedings uncomfortably. There was more here than her appearance and had gone too far to stop it from playing out.

Leonis appeared behind Benedictus, "She said mount up and leave. Go back to Havenous, if you can find your way and don't plan on ever riding as a part of this troop again."

Knowing that he was outnumbered by better fighters he simply sneered, "Fine. When you don't show up in a few days at least there will be one who knows why." He spun around, pushing past Leonis and untethered his horse. He quickly climbed into the saddle and with a final hateful look rode away from camp.

They all let out a soft sigh and kept staring into the darkness that had swallowed him.

"I'm sorry." Xena apologized after a moment.

"This has been brewing for a while. Long before you ever entered the picture." Leonis assured her.

"Still it might be a good idea to leave. There might be others who share his feelings. I don't want to cause you any problems after the kindness you've shown us."

"The problem just rode away." Bethany answered, "You and Gabrielle are welcome here. I would like you to stay but I don't want to push the matter." She started back to camp then stopped turning back to Xena, "For purely selfish reasons I wish you would stay. We could use a sword like yours to help us get these people home. My troopers are good but we could use the extra help."

Her honesty was a refreshing and welcome change. In truth she enjoyed their company and knew that they did need help. The deciding factor was the woman standing before her. She was as curious about that as the Amazon was about her. "What direction is Havenous?" she asked.

"South. About two days from here." She answered.

Xena looked at Leonis and then back to Bethany, "It just so happens we're heading south to meet with a friend. I think it might be a good idea to travel together, especially since we know there are slavers in the area."

"Safety in numbers." Leonis added.

Bethany's face lit up with a smile, "Good idea. Let's get back to camp. I've got guard duty and we have an early day tomorrow."

The three of them walked to camp discussing travel plans, each of them scanning the camp area for any signs of trouble. As they reached the center of camp Xena took her leave heading for Gabrielle and the wounded. Leonis and Bethany split up and headed into the darkness to assume guard duty.

Xena had spread out her blanket next to Gabrielle and tried to be as quiet as possible as she laid her sword and Chakram beside her bed. She sat on the blanket and slowly began unlacing her boot, weariness creeping up on her.

"Busy day, huh." A soft drowsy voice stated.

Xena glanced to her side, "I didn't mean to wake you. How's the headache?"

Gabrielle rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand, "Better. Those nerve pinches really helped."

With a soft grunt Xena pulled off one boot, tossed it to the side and began unlacing the other, "Good. You still need to take it easy for a day or two. We'll be traveling with this group for the next couple of days."

She looked around at the sleeping figures and watching guards, "Xena, what did we stumble into here?"

Xena pulled the other boot off and scooted around to face Gabrielle, "These people are survivors from one of the raids Krosis told us about. The soldiers are escorting them to Havenous to start new lives."

"Havenous?" Gabrielle repeated coming more awake and sitting up a little more, "I thought it was just a story."

Xena frowned, "What?"

"Havenous, " Gabrielle began explaining, "was a large Kingdom that was destroyed by a vicious Warlord. The ruins of the city remained empty for years then a group of pilgrims came upon it. Their homes had been destroyed months before and they were looking for a new place to start their lives again. They were overwhelmed by the size of the once great kingdom and loved the peaceful valley that surrounded it so they began rebuilding. As time went by other raid survivors from all over the land heard about the city and came to help rebuild. It took many years and a lot of hard work but it's supposed to have been completely restored and it's entire population a mixture of survivors from different raids."

Gabrielle's gift a gab and listening made her a wealth of information that even Xena had come to respect. "They welcome any people who are in search of a safe haven. They say that there is a Guardian watching over the city and it's people and protects all within its walls."

Xena interrupted, "Guardian? Refresh my memory."

"Chosen of the Gods." Gabrielle supplied. When that didn't seem to help, she continued, "Some of the Gods, the ones who appreciate and like mortals saw that they couldn't be every where to help us and decided to choose certain mortals. Bestow on them a special gift to help in their mission, like super strength or great speed, invisibility, all kind of things. Course all of this is only a myth. Part of the deal is that they can't advertise who they are so no one can really say they've ever met a Guardian."

Xena thought of the way Bethany had looked at her, her eyes glowing and the feeling she had of complete safety in that hypnotic look.

"Was I seeing things or was there an Amazon here earlier?" Gabrielle asked changing subjects and stifling a yawn.

"Yes and you can meet her in the morning. Right now we both need some rest." Xena answered as she lay down and settled into a comfortable position.

"Goodnight." Gabrielle lay down and was asleep in seconds.

Xena watched her friend for a few minutes thinking about the story of Havenous and it's Guardian. Before she could consider too much of the information exhaustion overtook her and she too, was asleep.

 

Like all Warriors, even when Xena was asleep, she was aware of all around her. As she awoke, she kept her eyes closed, straining her hearing to find what had caused her to wake. She suppressed a smile as she heard Gabrielle's soft snoring beside her. The young woman swore that she never snored but on many nights Xena had been awakened by snorting that could shake the ground.

Further away she heard other snores, groans and mumbling of the sleeping camp. In the far distance she heard a stomp and soft whinny of a horse. Then she picked up the sound of a child crying and thrashing in the throws of a nightmare. It was a several feet away and what had awakened her.

She was about to move when she heard soft rapidly approaching footsteps. Lying on her side she opened her eyes slightly and saw Bethany kneeling beside the child. It was a little girl of about eight, with long blond hair and brown eyes. Xena recognized her as the little girl who had her leg broken when her village was attacked. Mara had told her that the girlís entire family had died that day and that it was only by Zeus that she had lived.

Bethany gently touched the girlís shoulder, her voice soothing, "It's all right Neysa." The little girl woke up, her eyes confused and frightened. When she focused and saw Bethany she relaxed slightly and began crying, "The Monsters."

Bethany picked her up and cradled her, rocking gently, "There all gone now little one. It was only a nightmare. You're safe here."

Her tears subsided but she still shivered, "When I close my eyes I see them. I see what they did to my Mother and Father. I'm afraid they'll come for me too."

Bethany held her tighter and the little girl snuggled closer, feeling safe. "They won't come for you Neysa. I won't ever let them hurt you again."

"Promise?"

"Promise." She answered firmly.

The girl calmed even more, her shivering ending and her eyes began to droop as the rocking continued, "Will you stay here in case they try to come back?"

Bethany smiled, "Yes. I'll always be close to watch over you."

Now the girl smiled and closed her eyes. Bethany continued rocking, humming softly and watching the child as she drifted off to sleep. A single tear ran down her cheek and she closed her eyes tightly to stop more from following.

Xena watched for a few more seconds, then closed her eyes, more curious now than ever.

Continues...


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