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DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: This story occurs in a hard, violent time and my writing reflects that. If you are sensitive to that, you may want to skip some of the battle scenes.
SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.
Author's notes: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
How does one count the worth of a friend? Priceless? Invaluable? Incalculable? They all apply to Karen Surtees, but my word of choice is "cherished." Thank you, my friend, for "holding my hand" as I write, and for keeping me motivated. You are a treasure!
And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.
© Copyright 1999
Learning the Hard Way
"Kinda nice, being out here on the trail by ourselves again for the last few days." Gabrielle strode energetically along next to Argo as the warhorse plodded patiently through the forest. The tall, dark-haired woman sitting astride the palomino didn't answer, knew she wasn't expected to. The golden-haired bard really just liked to hear the sound of a voice. Since Xena was never very talkative, Gabrielle long ago had gotten accustomed to speaking aloud to herself.
The thoughts of the imposing Warrior Princess centered at the moment on Amphipolis which they were nearing. Home. Or at least the place she grew up in, the one where her mother and her brother still lived. Nowadays, Xena's home was much simpler. Wherever she and the bard were was home. The warrior smiled gently at this thought and looked down at the young woman treading beside her.
As she felt Xena's eyes on her, Gabrielle looked up and, meeting her gaze, dimpled a smile in return. Argo chose that moment to toss her head and the young bard laughed. "Look, even Argo is happy!"
"Gabrielle, I never even asked you if going to Amphipolis suited you."
"Xena, I had a little problem with going to Poteidaia and you proved me wrong, I really enjoyed it. But Amphipolis? Never a problem there. Your family treats me like one of them and you know I am crazy about your mother."
Xena grinned. "Because my mother fills you with her wonderful food! You'd love anybody who was a good cook."
"Not so!" Gabrielle protested. Then her face dimpled again. "Well, maybe that is so, but I love your mother beyond her good cooking, and you know it." Xena did know that was true. Cyrene welcomed the bard into her home as a member of her family and the two women were as close as many mothers and daughters were. She heard more about Xena's exploits in one visit from Gabrielle than she ever learned from her stoic daughter.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing her again. I have a few more good tales to tell her."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Guess I'll never get a word in edgewise."
Gabrielle snorted and the warrior's grin turned lopsided. It's great to see Xena in a good mood. She's had a pretty rough time for awhile.
"Xena, what do you think was wrong with you that Artemis' potion cured?"
"I don't know. I would guess it had something to do with all the blood I lost over a short period of time. When I see Claris again, I'll ask her. She disappeared before I could question her about it." And before I could ask her exactly what in Tartarus was in that potion. Xena's mind flicked back to the excruciating pain she suffered after drinking the healing potion. For a few minutes there, I thought Artemis was trying to get rid of me.
"I'm just really grateful that she made you well again. Now all we have to do is fatten you back up. But I'm sure Cyrene will take care of that."
Xena raised an eyebrow . "You've managed to turn the conversation back to food again. You must be getting hungry." Gabrielle grinned and nodded her head. "Well, Amphipolis is just over the next rise so you'll soon get your fill." The Warrior Princess chuckled as the bard quickened her pace.
Cyrene and Toris were in the kitchen of their inn when the Warrior Princess and the bard arrived and slipped in the back door. Cyrene spied them first. "Toris, look who's here!" She ran to the doorway and threw her arms around her daughter, noticing that her frame, though solid, lacked the substance it usually had.
The warrior's kin both had the same dark hair and noteworthy blue eyes that she had, though the intensity of Xena's eyes set hers apart. Toris stood an inch or two taller than his sister and Cyrene about six inches shorter.
She turned from hugging Xena, to clasp Gabrielle in a warm embrace while Toris and his sister greeted each other boisterously. This time, though, Toris didn't dance Xena around as he usually did. Once he picked her up and realized she had lost a lot of weight, he kept her up in the air.
"Whoa, Sis. What's going on? You're light as a feather!" He gently set Xena back on her feet and held her away, searching her face. He and his mother were dismayed to see how drawn the warrior looked.
"There's nothing to worry about. I was sick and now I'm well. I 'm counting on Mother to help me regain my lost weight." A knowing look passed between Cyrene and Gabrielle. The innkeeper knew she would get the full story from the bard.
"I'll take care of Argo and get your saddlebags. You just sit down and rest and I'm sure Mother will start filling you out, right now. Or, at least, filling you up." Toris grinned, then gave Gabrielle a welcoming hug. "Welcome home, Gabrielle. Save anything you might say about your adventures till I get back, OK? I don't want to miss a word."
"Sure, Toris," the bard promised and he went on out to the stables.
As she had observed the brother and sister together, it struck Gabrielle again how much they looked alike in their coloring and features. But Xena had an aura of command and power that Toris didn't have, a projection of formidable strength that she wore like a second coat of armor, silently challenging any who dared oppose her.
When the Warrior Princess stayed in Amphipolis, she made an attempt to downplay this aura, but it was so much a part of her persona, it was impossible to completely hide. No one, looking at her, could doubt that she was anything less than a person to be reckoned with. The way she carried herself, even at rest, said, "You might come at me, but you can't come through me. And you'd be a fool to try."
Cyrene steered the two younger women to the kitchen table, set some mugs of ale in front of them and went to the counter to prepare their supper. She chattered away about events that had happened since their last visit. She was getting very little communication in return from Xena so Gabrielle joined the conversation and turned the one-way narration into a true exchange, lifting Cyrene's spirits considerably.
By the time Cyrene had made up four plates, Toris had returned and joined them for their meal. Gabrielle promised to recount some of their latest experiences after they had eaten.
The bard, true to her famed appetite, wolfed down two helpings while the others made their way through one. "Ahhhhhh. That was food for the gods." she rubbed her stomach in satisfaction as Cyrene beamed and Xena and her brother, Toris, grinned.
Cyrene cleared the table, furnished them all with fresh mugs of ale, and rejoined them. The supper trade in the large dining room was being handled by her employees.
As she had promised, Gabrielle recounted the rescue of Prince Ricondo, Xena's illness and her cure by Artemis.
"Wow, you mean a goddess cured you? You must have a lot of influence with them!" Toris was impressed.
Xena gave him a wry grin. "Wasn't me, Toris. Gabrielle is the one with the influence. In this case, it paid to be best friends with the Amazon Queen."
"Artemis is the patroness of the Amazons," Gabrielle explained. "She did me a favor because Xena has helped the Amazons many times."
"Hummmph!" Xena snorted. "She did you a favor because she likes you. Not because of anything I did."
Gabrielle blushed. "It doesn't really matter. She cured you and that's that."
"Yeah, she cured me." Xena's eyes suddenly went far away and a look of torment raced through her expression. Cured me so I can watch you be nailed to a cross. Her eyes refocused and she quickly looked down as she realized the observant Cyrene hadn't missed the swift interlude.
Cyrene reached across the table and put her hand over her daughter's long fingers. "Xena, what is it?"
"It wasn't 'nothing' that caused that terrible look on your face."
Xena's jaw rippled. "It... doesn't really concern you, Mother."
Cyrene tightened her fingers on her daughter's bronzed hand and gazed intently at her lowered head. "Look at me, Xena."
The Warrior Princess fought down the pain of the horrific vision and raised clear eyes to her mother. But Cyrene was not to be fooled.
Gabrielle, seeing Cyrene's face, thought, Just like her formidable daughter, she is relentless.
Her mother's low, passionate voice struck Xena's heart. "Anything that causes the agony I just saw on your face concerns me. If you won't explain it, I will imagine all the worst things possible, so you are not 'saving' me by your silence."
Xena turned her hand over and clasped the work-worn hand that rested on hers. The warrior's magnificent eyes darkened with pain and she tried to unclench her jaw but only managed to part lips that suffered a slight tremor. Cyrene's cobalt-blue eyes were glued to Xena's face but with her side vision she saw Gabrielle take Xena's other hand between her two and squeeze it.
"Are you still sick?" Cyrene whispered hoarsely. A mute Xena shook her head.
What could have caused that awful pain on my daughter's face? "Are you... dying?" her mother persisted, asking the unthinkable question. Xena squashed her lips back together and her hold on Cyrene's hand tightened.
"By the gods, Xena, tell me SOMETHING!"
Toris' questioning blue eyes darted back and forth from his mother to his sister. Hesitant to interfere in this interrogation, he sucked in his breath when his mother mentioned dying and he saw the change in Xena's face.
The Warrior Princess threw a pleading look at Gabrielle. "Xena has seen a vision," the bard responded reluctantly.
Cyrene's eyes narrowed in concentration. "You've seen a vision?" Xena's head bobbed once. The innkeeper's eyes widened and her face lost its color. "A vision of your death," she guessed. The anguished look that overtook the warrior's features when she looked at her mother's face answered the question. Cyrene struggled to stay calm, to keep her wits about her.
Gabrielle couldn't look away from her partner's face. I know I don't really put much store in this vision, but Xena sure is beating herself with it. Why is she letting it tear her up like this? She doesn't even know if it's true but, if it is, I know she'll find an answer to it; she always does.
"But we don't know that the vision is true," the bard protested.
Ahhhh, but look at my daughter's face. That terrible look has fought its way past her iron discipline. SHE believes that it is true. Cyrene, still clasping Xena's hand, rose and went to her side. With her free hand, she brought the warrior's dark head to her bosom and stood there clutching her against her body. "No, no, please, Xena...I can't lose you." My dear, dear daughter. I know you fly into danger day after day. I've tried to steel myself to the idea of someday losing you. But I'm not ready for it. I'll never be ready for it. Please say it isn't true. As the potential reality of the vision sifted into her being and spread a dulling numbness through her body, Cyrene moaned and tightened her hold on her beloved daughter.
Tears began rolling from Cyrene's sorrowful eyes. Gabrielle released Xena's other hand, allowing her to slip it around her mother's waist, adding support to Cyrene's trembling frame.
Toris, frustrated by his inability to do anything, jumped up and started pacing back and forth. "When does this happen? What's going on? What can we do? Tell us!"
The Warrior Princes took a ragged breath. "It's... hard..., Toris..."
Toris swung toward Gabrielle and stopped near her chair. "Gabrielle, you tell us. Please."
The bard's mist-green eyes questioned Xena and the warrior briefly nodded. "Xena was shown a vision of her death by a woman who was fighting her. We don't know if it is true or not. She might just have been trying to beat her by distracting her."
"But what happened in the vision?" Toris persisted.
Gabrielle continued reluctantly. "We were in Rome. We were about to be crucified..."
Cyrene let out another moan. "You, too?" The bard nodded. "Oh, nooooo." Toris quickly pushed a chair under his mother as her knees finally buckled. She pulled Xena's head down with her, then, releasing it, she put her own head cheek to cheek with her daughter's. She let go of Xena's hand and the mother and daughter put their arms around each other. "Both of you... by the gods... both of you." Oh, Xena, now I know why your iron discipline has slipped. Gabrielle, too...our sweet, lovely Gabrielle...the one you've vowed to love and protect...If the idea is so unthinkable for me, it must be tearing you apart.
Cyrene rocked back and forth, pulling the pliant warrior with her. Tears, rolling down their cheeks, mingled and dripped from their chins. Gabrielle rose from her chair and knelt next to Cyrene. She placed her golden head in the older woman's lap and overlaid Xena's arms with hers. Cyrene moved one hand down and entwined it through the bard's hair. Then Gabrielle felt her partner's arm move and a strong hand rested tenderly against her cheek.
Toris resumed his pacing and kept running his hands through his hair after swiping them at his own cheeks. "Can't we do something? Can't we stop it?" But no one answered him.
Trying hard to cope with his own unsettling grief, Toris walked out into the night.
Gabrielle woke the next morning and looked up at Xena, surprised to see that she had just finished dressing in her leathers. The warrior usually rose before the sun. If she could be persuaded to sleep a little later in the mornings, maybe she would regain her weight sooner. "Hi," she murmured. "Are you OK?"
Xena looked down at her and grinned wryly. "Wondering if coming home was a mistake."
Gabrielle sat up and threw her legs over the side of the bed. "No, Xena, it was the right thing to do."
Xena plopped down next to her. "But I know I've hurt Mother and Toris. I feel like someone pulled out my heart, chopped it into little pieces, patched it back together and stuck it back in my chest."
"Wow, that was a pretty introspective speech for you," Gabrielle grinned. She wasn't too sure whether a little teasing would help or not, but thought it worth a try to lighten Xena's mood.
"Hummph! Right," came Xena's dry retort.
Xena was rewarded with a quick smile from her green-eyed friend. Then Gabrielle's tone sobered. "Xena, that's what happens when you love someone. If you cause them pain, it causes you pain, too. Love puts your heart at risk. But if you don't reach out to others, you never discover the wondrous joy it brings."
Xena looked down at the floor. Uh-oh, the bard thought, here we go again with the vision thing.
But the warrior surprised the bard. Raising her head, her cobalt-blue eyes glanced sideways at her friend. Then Xena turned, threw an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. "Don't I know it!" she laughed and quickly kissed the golden hair. Then she bounced off of the bed, said, "I'll meet you at the breakfast table," and strode out of the room.
"I was talking about your mother and Toris!" Gabrielle called to the empty doorway. A bronzed hand reached back and wrapped itself around the doorjamb, followed by a dark head with sculpted face. "That wondrous joy just helped my hurting heart." Xena's special smile lit her face; she winked one of her magnificent blue eyes and resumed her passage.
Gabrielle beamed. Xena was talking about me! That cheery thought kept a smile on the bard's face all the way to the dining room.
Xena stepped lightly into the kitchen looking for her mother. Sensing a presence, Cyrene turned from the table where she was ladling out porridge and saw the warrior. Her lips turned up in a soft smile. "Good morning. I was thinking about fixing a breakfast platter and sending it to you."
Xena walked over into her mother's embrace. "No need to do that, Mother. But thanks." She gave Cyrene an extra squeeze. "Thanks for everything."
Cyrene held the hug an instant longer than usual and a tear crept out onto her cheek. "This will take some getting used to, Xena. So, excuse me if I sometimes cry into your porridge." The innkeeper had learned that a little humor helped to make almost any situation a bit more bearable.
"Oh, Mother, I wish I could spare you this." Xena buried her face against Cyrene's head.
Cyrene tightened her hug, then gently pushed her daughter away and brushed the tear from her own cheek. "Well, we're all pretty strong women and we will cope. We will not spend this time together weeping over possibilities. What's to be will be. Now, you go sit down and let me feed you."
Xena leaned down and kissed Cyrene's cheek. "Yes, Mother," she said dutifully. Then her lips twisted into a grin and she sat at the kitchen table.
"Maybe you'd rather eat in the dining room?" Cyrene suggested.
"I'd rather be here with you," Xena answered. "If that's not too much trouble."
"Never any trouble, Xena. You stay right where you are. Here's a mug of tea. I'll have some food for you in a minute. First, I have to take these bowls of porridge out to some customers."
Cyrene smiled as Gabrielle entered from the dining room. "I'll help you with that, Cyrene." The bard came over to the serving table and gave the older woman a good morning hug. Then the two of them put the bowls onto two large serving trays, adding spoons and pots of honey. "Who gets them?"
"Everyone out there," the innkeeper laughed. "Porridge is the only item on today's breakfast menu. I overslept this morning and didn't get any eggs gathered."
"I'll go get the eggs," Xena offered. She got up and went out the back door, stepping into the yard that held the stable and the hen house. As she passed the stable door, she saw movement within and entered. Toris was forking hay into the feeding bins for Argo and Racer, his ink-black stallion. He pretended not to see Xena, just kept his head down and continued working.
The Warrior Princess walked over next to him and stood there, not speaking. After a few moments, Toris straightened up and stuck the pitchfork into the earthen floor. Grasping the end of it with both hands, he leaned it against his chest and stood there, staring off into space. Xena stood there with him, staring in the same direction.
At last, Toris was able to speak. "Isn't there anything that can be done to prevent this?"
"I don't know, Toris." He strained to hear Xena's low voice. "When the time gets closer, maybe I can come up with something. Right now, I can't think of anything to do. I can't just stop living."
The dark-haired man slowly turned his head and looked at his sister's profile. Oh, Xena, your beauty and strength and courage make my heart ache. I can't imagine a world without you in it. My little sister.
"I keep thinking about when you were a little girl," he mused. "How you used to pester me with your questions! Followed me everywhere I went, demanding that I teach you everything about everything! How many stars are in the sky? How do you tell when a horse is sick? Why does flint spark when you strike it with metal and other rocks don't? I didn't even know the answers to most things you asked, but you just kept asking."
The sides of Toris' mouth turned up with fond memories. "Do you remember the summer you decided that your legs would grow longer if you stepped in my footprints? You spent hours walking behind me, stretching to reach your feet into the same spots mine fell on. Lyceus was fit to be tied, because he didn't have his playmate."
A tiny puff of laughter came from the warrior's throat and she turned toward her brother. "Well, it must have worked. I'm almost as tall as you are."
Toris stopped smiling and his voice became serious. "Xena, you're taller than I'll ever be. You've gone more places, seen more things, hobnobbed with kings and queens. Half of Greece knows your name."
"That's not exactly something to be proud of, Toris." Xena frowned, thinking that her brother was putting value on the wrong experiences.
"Well, it used to be they knew you because you were a warlord. But now they know you because of all the good you've done, all the people you've helped. And you won't even take anything in payment. I'm proud of you, Xena." Toris nodded his head and smiled into the cobalt-blue eyes that were mirrors of his own.
"And when the time for your vision comes, if it ever does, I want you to call on me if there is anything at all that I can do. Will you promise me that?"
Xena leaned forward and kissed her brother on the cheek. "I promise. And thank you."
Toris cocked his head. "I think I'm going to try to follow Gabrielle's lead and expect that it won't come to pass."
Xena smiled and smacked her brother's arm as she turned away toward the hen house. "You do that, Toris. Maybe if the two of you wish hard enough, it won't happen. And if I don't go get some eggs, my breakfast won't happen, either."
The Warrior Princess hurried out of the stable, quickly brushing away a few tears that suddenly brimmed from her eyes. Damn wind! she kidded herself, then chuckled softly as she heard Toris blow his nose. Must be windy in the stable, too.
When Cyrene and Gabrielle returned from serving the porridge, the older woman waved the bard to a seat at the kitchen table. "Sit, Gabrielle. Would you like some porridge, or do you want to wait for Xena to bring the eggs?"
The bard hesitated and Xena's mother laughed. "I should know better! Of course, you will have both." As she talked, Cyrene ladled some porridge into a bowl and set it in front of Gabrielle, together with a spoon and some honey.
The golden-haired woman grinned. "You read me almost as well as your daughter does."
"At least where food is concerned," Cyrene teased. The innkeeper came and sat opposite the bard, setting a mug of tea in front of each of them.. She placed her hands on the table, fingers entwined, and stared at them for a moment. Then, looking up, she met Gabrielle's mist-green eyes overflowing with sympathy.
"You don't put much belief in this vision of Xena's, do you?" Cyrene asked point-blank.
Gabrielle looked a bit uncomfortable. "I guess what's bothering me the most about it is... how much it's bothering Xena. It's not like her to be so..." The bard hesitated, hunting for the right word.
"Emotional?" Cyrene suggested.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes... emotional. Usually, if I looked at her face a hundred times, maybe twice I could tell what she was feeling. She holds things very tight within herself. Yesterday was a real exception."
Cyrene smiled sadly. "That indicates how distressed she is. But, knowing Xena, I think most of her distress is for you rather than for herself. She seems frustrated."
Again, Gabrielle nodded. She gazed into the concerned blue eyes, so reminiscent of her friend's, and matched Cyrene's sad smile. "I think you're right. She always has worried more about me than about herself. And when something bothers Xena, if it can be fixed, she fixes it and if it can't, she ignores it. But she can't seem to do either one, at the moment. That's where the frustration is coming from."
"Has she tried to do anything about it?" Cyrene, also a headstrong woman, couldn't picture Xena just waiting for something so terrible to happen.
"Oh, yeah," Gabrielle retorted. "She's tried to walk away from me, figuring if we were apart, we couldn't die together. But that didn't work for either one of us. We strengthen each other; we need to face this together."
"You seem more optimistic than Xena," Cyrene noted.
"It seems I have more faith in her than she has in herself," Gabrielle replied. "No matter what the problem, Xena always finds a solution. And I'm sure she will figure this one out, too."
"But don't you think you are putting an awful lot of pressure on her? Your expectation that she will save you both could be part of what is weighing so heavily on her." Cyrene believed in her daughter, too, but knew that every human being, including Xena, sometimes faltered.
"You're probably right, Cyrene. I just know from past experience that when she puts her mind to something, nothing stops her. She gets it done, one way or another."
Gabrielle's optimism lightened Cyrene's heart. "My daughter is relentless," the older woman agreed with a smile.
The bard reached over and patted Cyrene's hand. "Just like her mother!"
"Not me, I'm afraid," Xena called, hearing the last remark as she came through the door. She had five eggs in each long hand and placed them on the serving table. "My mother, at least, remembers to take a basket to gather eggs."
"And it doesn't take me twenty minutes to do it, either," Cyrene gibed as she rose to prepare breakfast.
"Yeah, well, I ran into Toris and we had a little talk."
Gabrielle's eyebrows rose. "Talk? You mean you actually talked?"
Xena made a face at the bard. "Yeah, but I used up my quota of words for the day. I'm ready to eat." The Warrior Princess looked at her mother who was standing, turned toward their table, listening to them. "You want me to cook those eggs, Mother?" she asked with a grin.
Cyrene bustled over to the frying pan. "By the gods, Xena, Gabrielle would never forgive me! Besides, I don't believe in torture."
"Thank you, Cyrene, from the bottom of my... stomach," Gabrielle intoned in a deep, theatrical voice. Xena flicked the bard's arm with the back of her fingers as all three women laughed.
In the afternoon, Xena brought in four game birds she had caught. Whenever she came home for a visit, she tried to "pay" for her and Gabrielle's room and board by replenishing the inn's store of meat. Cyrene put two large pots of water on the fire to heat, to facilitate the plucking of the carcasses.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked. She grabbed a mug, filled it with tea from the pot sitting on the back of the iron range, and sat at the table.
"She went with Toris to pick up some supplies. They'll be back in time for supper." Cyrene's face glistened with the exertion of preparing meals for the evening trade she was expecting. The game birds would be a welcome addition. She wiped her face with her apron and, dipping a mug of water for herself, she joined her daughter at the table.
"I'm glad you came in, Xena. I know you don't like to labor over discussions, but I need to hear more about your vision. Your distress really bothers me. And your frustration. I think if you talk a bit about it, it might help you."
The warrior's fingers worked around the mug she was holding and her eyes were glued to it as though fascinated. Silence held for so long, Cyrene thought she wasn't going to get an answer.
Finally, Xena frowned and spoke. "I had a fight with a woman named Alti. She was kind of a sorceress and she could put thoughts and scenes into people's minds. She put one in my mind that showed... Gabrielle... and me... getting put on a couple of crosses. Nothing more." Xena's cheek twitched.
"Nothing more," Cyrene repeated. "You didn't see the actual nailing?" Xena shook her still bowed head. "Then Gabrielle is right to be optimistic. Don't you think if you actually were crucified, this Alti woman would have shown you hanging on the crosses? Maybe you do get saved."
Xena's lips twisted up into a caricature of her lopsided grin and she forced a hoarse voice. "You and I are a lot alike, Mother, but now you sound like my bard. She thinks I can do anything, solve any problem. But I'm just human like the rest of you."
"And you're scared." And Cyrene knew what caused her daughter's biggest fear. "You're scared for Gabrielle."
Xena's haunted eyes raised and met her mother's. A look of agony, heartache, and understanding passed between them and there was no need for Xena to answer. Then the warrior dropped her eyes back to her fingers, playing with the mug, and the two women sat silently for several minutes.
Cyrene broke the silence. "I'm going to say again what I said earlier. We are strong women and we will cope. What's to be will be. Let's put this horror behind us until it has to be addressed." She watched her distressed daughter fight to bring her emotions back under strict control. Finally, Xena sat up straighter, brought her magnificent eyes back up to meet her mother's and smiled. Another look passed between them and this one soothed Cyrene's heart.
The innkeeper rose from the table. "Now, if you'll give me a hand, we'll pluck these birds."
Xena and Gabrielle had been in Amphipolis for three weeks and the Warrior Princess had improved immensely. Most of her lost weight had been regained and, once the initial shock of the vision had been absorbed by Cyrene and Toris, the stay had been without incident. Once in awhile Xena would catch one or the other of her relatives gazing pensively at her, but they would exchange accepting smiles and go on about their business.
After those first days, they had agreed to put the darkness of the vision aside and enjoy each other's company. Knowing this could be the last time they ever saw each other added a clarity to even the smallest detail of their visit, while spreading a bittersweet tinge to their actions.
Finally, it was time to leave and no one wanted to let go. Cyrene held Xena in one arm and Gabrielle in the other, crying silent tears. "I've tried very hard to be brave about this vision, but, now that you two are leaving, I can't help myself," she said hoarsely.
Xena squeezed her tighter and answered with a lopsided grin, "It's OK, Mother. I've had a lot longer to get used to the idea and it still bothers me, too. Gabrielle's the only one who doesn't seem fazed by it."
Gabrielle kissed Cyrene's cheek. "That's because I don't believe it will happen. Xena always figures a way out of a bad situation and I'm sure she will this time, too. We'll be back here next visit, laughing at all this."
The bard's optimism brought a small smile to Cyrene's face. She kissed Gabrielle and Xena and finally let go of them.
Xena grabbed Toris in a bear hug and squeezed unmercifully. He hugged her, too, then held her away, staring at her beautiful face for a slow moment, locking it into his memory. Then the two embraced again and kissed each other's cheek. "I love you, Xena," Toris said, blinking.
"I love you, big Brother," Xena answered. "Take good care of Mother." The two stepped apart and Toris hugged Gabrielle as Xena mounted Argo. Then she lifted the bard onto Argo's back behind her; they waved and rode away.
Several mornings later, the two travelers hit the trail even earlier than usual. Xena had awakened in a bad mood and when she tossed Gabrielle out of her blankets, the bard took one look and decided silence was the wisest choice. At least until she woke up enough to handle the barbed looks she knew she would get when she started talking--no matter what she said.
So, for the first hour, Gabrielle practically sleepwalked next to Argo. Then the exercise, coupled with the bright sunshine filtering through the treetops, gradually brought her fully awake and re-energized her courage. She decided to throw out a line and test the waters. "You got special plans, today, Xena?"
No answer. Well, I didn't really expect one on the first try. "Are we headed anyplace in particular?"
Still no answer. I don't think she even hears me. "We're not too far from Amazon territory, are we?"
When Xena still didn't answer, Gabrielle looked up at her silent friend. For the first time, she noticed that Xena was riding in fully alert mode. She sat tall in the saddle, her head swiveling very slowly from side to side. "What is it, Xena? Is something wrong?"
The change in Gabrielle's intonation finally caught the warrior's attention. "I've had a bad feeling ever since I woke up," she answered.
"Hey, I was looking for some news," Gabrielle joked. But she was concerned. She knew the accuracy of Xena's intuition could be counted among her many skills.
As expected, one of the barbed looks was thrown down at the bard who smiled and shrugged.
"Stay alert," Xena growled.
Like I'm going to hear something before you do, Gabrielle thought, but kept the remark to herself and did walk more observantly.
Fifteen minutes later, Xena pulled the golden palomino to a stop and quickly swung down to the ground. "Wait here," she warned the bard, handing her Argo's reins. Turning away, she ran off into the forest.
Forty minutes later, she returned. "There's a large army camped about five miles from here, back in the forest, away from this trail. I don't know what they're up to, but I don't like it. They are just west of Amazon territory and too close for comfort."
The "What are we waiting for?" wasn't even out of Gabrielle's mouth before Xena had grabbed the reins, mounted Argo and was reaching down an arm. She swung the bard up behind her and urged the warhorse into a gallop.
"What if they have guards along the trail, Xena? Won't they see us?" Gabrielle hung on tight to the warrior's waist, the side of her face pushed hard against the muscular back. She still found a fast-moving Argo a bit scary.
"Not any more," was Xena's curt answer.
Not any more? What does that mean? Then the significance of the words became clear. "You killed them?"
Gabrielle felt the snort rather than heard it. "No, Gabrielle, I asked them please not to tell anyone that I am in the area, then sent them on their way."
"Sorry," the bard apologized. "That WAS a dumb question." She could imagine the Warrior Princess rolling her eyes and decided to say nothing more until they reached the Amazon territory.
Xena continued in her fully alert mode and stopped once more. This time, she didn't bother to speak, just swung her leg over the front of the saddle and hit the ground running. Fifteen minutes later she came jogging back and flipped over Argo's head into her seat. "Advance scouts," was the full report Gabrielle received.
Seemingly not in any great hurry now, Xena alternated Argo between galloping and walking until they reached the Amazon perimeter. The Warrior Princess pulled Argo to a stop when she heard a birdcall that she recognized. The perimeter guard was sending an alert that the Queen and Xena were approaching the village. Then Gwynna dropped from the trees with a big grin on her face. "Hi!" she called, then remembering herself, she dropped to one knee in front of her Queen.
"Please rise, Gwynna," Gabrielle responded. "How are you?"
The blonde young Amazon rose, still grinning. "I'm fine, Gabrielle. Sure is great to see you two. Maybe I can get a smile out of Leese now, for a change."
"What's wrong with Leese?" the bard asked, a frown showing her concern.
The tall girl's brown eyes turned serious. "There's an army camped to the west that has us all worried. Everybody has been on alert since even before they arrived and we're all a bundle of nerves. And you should hear Eponin! She wants to go fight them and she can't get anyone to agree with her." She looked toward Xena and her grin came back. "Perfect time for the Queen and the Warrior Princess to be getting here."
Xena grinned back at the youngster. "Thanks, Gwynna. We'll see you back at the village." She and Gabrielle waved and continued down the trail. About halfway there, an honor escort met them and led them the rest of the way into the Village Square. The "Big Three"--Ephiny, the regent; Eponin, the weapons master; and Solari, the chief scout, were gathered there with almost every other Amazon in the village.
As Gabrielle and Xena came into view, a murmur arose from the assembled women and all knelt in homage to their Queen. The warrior halted Argo in front of Ephiny and the two travelers slid down to the ground. Gabrielle motioned all to rise, then stepped into Ephiny's embrace.
"Are we ever glad to see you two," Ephiny almost shouted in her joy
"That's what Gwynna said," Gabrielle laughed. Then she turned to Eponin and Solari and greeted them with hugs also, noticing that Eponin, indeed, looked out of sorts.
Xena's cobalt-blue eyes took on the mischievous glint they always seemed to bear when she greeted Ephiny. The Warrior Princess reached out an arm for the warrior handshake but Ephiny brushed right past it and grabbed Xena in a hug. "Don't really think I'm going to pass up a chance to hug you, do you?" the regent murmured quietly, chuckling.
Out of devilment, Xena wouldn't let Ephiny go. The startled regent struggled to be liberated and Xena finally released her when Gabrielle turned back around and lifted her eyebrows. Solari, with a perfectly straight face, stage-whispered, "Doesn't Eph look good with a red complexion? Goes really well with her blonde hair."
Then she tried very hard not to laugh as Ephiny glared at her and the Warrior Princess gave Gabrielle one of her totally innocent looks. A few muted laughs could be heard from the other Amazons grouped about. Eponin frowned at Solari and shook her head.
Ephiny gathered what dignity she could muster and said, "Gabrielle, the Queen's hut is ready for you. After you and Xena freshen up, could we all meet at my place?"
"Sure, Ephiny, we won't be long. How about fifteen minutes?"
"Fine, see you then." Ephiny looked at Eponin and Solari and tossed her head toward her hut. The three went off and the group dispersed. Xena and Gabrielle followed one of the Amazons to the Queen's hut. The Amazon took Argo from them and left.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the hut and saw that some fruit and drinking water had been set out for them, and a large wash bowl, complete with washrags and towels.
The two women ate and drank some of the provisions. While they were washing the trail dust from themselves, Gabrielle asked, "What was going on out there between you and Ephiny? Have I missed something?"
"Er... no. I mean... no." Gabrielle marveled at the fact that the Warrior Princess actually looked sheepish and a slight flush crept up her cheeks.
"Xena, when I turned around and looked at you two, you looked like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie crock."
The warrior put up both her hands, palms toward the bard and tried to hold back the puffs of laughter that threatened to spurt up her throat. "Ephiny likes me, Gabrielle. I mean, she LIKES me. And I can't resist teasing her about it. I offered to shake hands with her, but she insisted on hugging me. Soooo," Xena couldn't stop the laughter from bubbling out, "I wouldn't let go of her. And she got red. And Solari had to get her two dinars' worth in, too." A full-fledged belly laugh made Xena grasp her sides. "And Eph's probably raking her through Tartarus, right now."
The Warrior Princess sat down on one of the chairs and laughed her fill.
"Well, I 'm happy to see that it's improved your mood about one thousand percent," Gabrielle said dryly. "But don't you think it was mean to tease Ephiny in front of the other Amazons? She is the regent and needs to hold their respect."
"Sorry!" Xena barked and went off into another spasm of laughter.
The laugh was infectious and Gabrielle started smiling at her partner. Actually, having the Warrior Princess give her a great hug probably enhanced Ephiny's stature with the others. "Well, you better pull yourself together so we can go meet with the Big Three."
Xena was completely sober for about two seconds. "Yes, my Queen," she droned, then her face crumpled and she started giggling, accompanied this time by the bard.
Gabrielle tried to catch her breath. "Use some of that iron discipline you're so famous for," she pleaded in a squeaky voice.
"I'm trying, I'm trying," Xena promised through another wave of giggles. Finally she got herself under control. She got up, grabbed one of the washrags and wiped the tears from her face. Then she walked over to the bard and washed her face off, too, and Gabrielle was able to stop giggling, at last.
She threw her arms around Xena. "That was fun. I don't think I've ever seen you laugh so hard."
Xena tossed the rag back into the bowl and wrapped both her long arms around her dearest friend. "It WAS fun. It's been too long since I've laughed like that." She kissed the top of the bard's head. "And I didn't mean to be such a bear today. I think I could 'feel' the threat of that army and I didn't know what it was." She relinquished the embrace and smiled down at the mist-green eyes. "Guess we better go see Ephiny."
"Yeah... I guess." Sometimes... I wish I could close the door on the rest of the world and just enjoy being with you. But then who would be there for all the people who need help? Gabrielle sighed and led the way out the door.
Ephiny, seeing them approach, waved Queen Gabrielle and Xena into her hut and seated them at the round table. She led Gabrielle to a seat next to hers, leaving the seat between the bard and Eponin for Xena.
A flagon of wine rested on the table and mugs sat at each place. Ephiny picked the wine up and poured some into Gabrielle's mug and then into Xena's, taking care not to look at the warrior while so close to her. Then she, too, sat at the table.
"How long has that army been camped there?" the Warrior Princess asked. She picked up the mug and drained half of the wine.
"Three weeks, " Ephiny answered, finally meeting Xena's eyes. "They moved that close to us, set up camp and have just been sitting there. They have advance scouts who have nudged our perimeter a couple of times, but never crossed it. When they first started moving toward us, five weeks ago, we prepared for an attack that has never come. Now, we're just sitting here, quietly going crazy, waiting to see their next move."
Eponin spoke up, her voice echoing her disgust. "I've been trying to get the council to send us against them, but they won't do anything."
"Have you estimated the size of the army?" Xena asked the weapons master.
"Looks to me like about three hundred men. With maybe a hundred and fifty horses."
"That's more than enough to mount a battle against you." Xena's voice went quieter as though she were speaking to herself. "But they haven't. I don't like it. Sounds like they are waiting for something in particular, maybe reinforcements."
"Eponin thought so, too," Ephiny said, nodding toward the weapons master.
"Yeah, and if they get reinforcements, we are in big trouble," Eponin asserted. "That's why I wanted to hit them right away." The weapons master, true to Gwynna's description, was obviously agitated that her opinion had been disregarded. "But it looks like we have to wait for the Warrior Princess to OK it."
Solari, disturbed by her friend's rash remarks, hurriedly jumped in and took up the talk. "We've been sending scouts out all around the perimeter and beyond and haven't seen nor heard of any other large body of troops. We can't figure it out."
"Who's in field charge of the scouting parties?" the warrior inquired.
"Your pup," Eponin growled, making a sour face.
Xena slanted her cobalt-blue eyes at the caustic weapons master and raised her brows. "Leese?"
"Yep," Eponin answered. "Seems like being a pupil of yours takes precedence over being experienced."
The focused warrior continued to ignore the weapons master's impetuous remarks. "Send her to me as soon as she gets in." Eponin bristled at Xena's commanding tone, but Solari grabbed her shoulder and frowned, forestalling anything further.
The Warrior Princess drummed her fingers on the table then turned back to Ephiny. "How far out from the village have you mapped?"
"About 50 miles in every direction. The maps are in the council chambers."
"Have them sent over to the Queen's hut." Ephiny, like Eponin, bristled at Xena's tone. She opened her mouth to retort to this order, then clamped it shut when she realized it wasn't really Xena talking; it was the ex-warlord. One who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. Having her on the side of the Amazons had saved them more than once before. That was worth swallowing a little pride for.
"Xena, we'll have to call an assembly of the council of war to legally put you in charge of this battle," Ephiny informed her. "I don't foresee any problem with that; it is just a formality."
Xena nodded. "Do I have to be present?"
"No, but Gabrielle, you should be."
"I'll be there, Ephiny. We should get the council together as soon as possible and get this taken care of." The regent nodded her accord.
The Warrior Princess looked again toward Eponin and Solari. "Meet me at dusk in front of the Queen's hut. We'll go check out this camp, see what we can discover."
"We'll be there," Solari answered. Surprised that Eponin hadn't agreed, she nudged her friend. "You're coming, too, aren't you, Pony?"
"Yeah, I'll be there," Eponin responded curtly. "At least that's SOME kind of action."
Xena downed the rest of her wine, then rose. "Get me those maps right away, Eph. I'll be in the Queen's hut. I have some thinking to do." She walked out the door, then stuck her head back in, almost as an afterthought. "You coming, Gabrielle?"
"Not just yet, Xena. I'll help Ephiny round up the war council so we can get that vote taken care of."
"OK. See you later." Gabrielle walked to the door and watched the ex-warlord swagger across the Village Square. Every available eye turned to watch, also.
Solari had walked to the door with the bard. She grunted a laugh as she saw the reaction Xena was having on the villagers. Ephiny moved to her shoulder and looked out, too.
"That's our Warrior Princess," the regent said. "And we're darned glad to have her."
"Amen," came the answer from two of the three other occupants.
Xena sat at the table in the Queen's hut poring over the maps that Ephiny had sent over to her. "C'mon in, Leese," she called before the girl had a chance to knock.
Tall, dark-haired and wiry, Elisa bore a striking resemblance to the Warrior Princess. Elisa's face was narrower and her cheekbones higher, but the major difference in their looks was in their eyes. Xena's were cobalt blue while Elisa's were smoke gray. A very slight tilt to her eyes gave the young Amazon a slightly exotic appearance.
Xena stood as the girl entered and they gave each other a mighty hug. Stepping back, Elisa grinned. "When I heard that you and Gabrielle had returned, it was like a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders. Thank you for coming back."
Xena smiled fondly at her protégé. "I'm told you have field charge of the scouts. That's quite an honor, Leese. Congratulations."
A faint blush crossed the Amazon's bronzed features. "Thanks, Xena. I'm trying my best to make the right decisions."
Xena nodded. "Take a look at these maps. I want to see just what areas you have scouted." The two women looked down at the map that lay on top. Elisa pointed out exactly where the eyes of a scout had looked at the terrain. She did the same on the next three maps.
"The only thing out of the ordinary was here." The young Amazon pointed to an area northwest of the Amazon territory, just slightly beyond their borders, and several miles above where the army was currently camped. "The forest here encircles this bluff. Just to the left of the bluff, in a large portion of the forest, the trees have been cleared. By the time we realized this, our scouts checked the area out, but weren't able to determine anything. Other than that, we found nothing."
Xena laid the four maps so that they overlapped on their edges, forming a square. "See this line of mountains?" She pointed to a ridge of peaks that ran from the south directly north from one map to the other, 40 or 50 miles east of the Amazon village. Then the ridge curved in a westerly direction across the plains about 20 miles north of the village, before turning directly north again. Elisa nodded. "Have you looked on the other side of the ridge?"
"Not down here. As I showed you, we checked through the pass north of here and even went several miles above it, but found nothing. I figured anything that came at us from the east would have to come over the ridge and, at 40 to 50 miles away, would still be plenty far enough away for us to prepare for them." Elisa looked inquiringly at the warrior. "Was that a mistake?"
Xena didn't answer that question. Instead, she pointed to the bottommost point of the ridge. "Suppose an army started down here, swung over to the other side of the mountains, and marched north along the outside ridge." Xena ran her finger up the mountain ridge drawing, on the side away from Amazon territory. "It would take them several weeks, but they could continue to follow the mountains where they turn west, and when they reached about this point here," she stabbed at the pass in the mountains that Elisa had indicated, "they could coordinate with the army to the west. The western army attacks us, we throw everything we have at them and along comes this other army through the northern pass. We'd be outflanked and in a heap of trouble."
Elisa's face blanched and her large eyes grew even larger. "I never thought of that, Xena. I'll go check the other side of those mountains, right now." The girl straightened up and started to turn away.
"Which way do you plan to go?" Xena inquired.
Elisa stopped and looked back down at the map. She put her finger on the pass. "This is closest. I'll ride to the pass then follow back down along the ridge until I see something. That way, if there is an army, I'll pinpoint where they are."
"Good. Take Gwynna and a couple others with you." Xena smiled up at the young woman and tilted her head at the door.
The Amazon turned and strode swiftly toward it.
"Leese," Xena called and the girl looked back. "Be careful, they may have lookouts posted. Don't take any chances; right now, we only need to know if an army is there, and its approximate size, if possible. Report to me as soon as you get back, no matter what the time. If I'm not here, wait for me." The young Amazon nodded and left.
A few minutes later, Gabrielle came through the door with a plate of food. "I knew you probably wouldn't stop to eat, so I brought you some supper."
"Yeah... " Xena, seated again, was still studying the maps and barely answered.
The bard walked over across from the warrior and plunked the food down in the middle of the maps. "Either you eat or I feed it to you," she threatened.
"Gabrielle!" Xena didn't move her lowered head. Looking up at the bard, she raised a warning eyebrow.
"C'mon, Xena, take a break. It's almost dusk and you'll be out scouting. You need your nourishment." Gabrielle scooped up a spoonful of stew and held it in front of Xena's lips. "Open up," she grinned.
The eyebrow notched a little higher. Gabrielle changed her tactics. "You know I don't want you to get sick again. Eat... pleeease," she wheedled, and waggled the spoon below Xena's nose.
The Warrior Princess snorted. I know she'll just keep pestering until I eat something! "Gimme the damn spoon." She grabbed the offending utensil and a big smile graced the bard's face as her friend cleared the whole plate.
Xena got up from the table and stretched her stiffened body. "Eponin and Solari should be here soon. And Leese will be back in a few hours with some information for me. I told her to wait here."
The bard nodded. "While you're gone, we'll hold the vote. Ephiny and I got hold of most of the council and we're meeting in about an hour." She put a hand on Xena's arm and felt the tension that had built up in her muscles. I'm probably lucky she didn't dump that food on me. Gabrielle smiled up at her friend. "Thanks for eating."
Xena patted her hand and smiled back. "You were right, as usual. Gotta stoke the fire to keep it burning." She looked through the doorway into the darkening evening. "Here come Eponin and Solari. I'll see you later."
Xena started to walk away, but Gabrielle kept hold of her arm until she turned her head back and raised a questioning eyebrow. "Be careful," the bard requested, letting go of the bronzed arm.
"I'm always careful." Xena grinned and left.
Riiiggghhhtt. The golden-haired Queen watched as Xena met Eponin and Solari. The two Amazons listened attentively as the warrior spoke, then all three headed for the stables.
The bard sighed. Poteidaia and, especially, Amphipolis were pleasant interludes. Now it's back to work for the Warrior Princess.
She walked out of the hut and headed toward the meeting at the council chamber.
Xena stopped and silently raised her hand. Eponin and Solari moved up next to her. The horses had been left behind while the women crept up to the edge of the army encampment. Full night had fallen and a heavily clouded sky diminished whatever light might have been coaxed from the quarter moon. Multitudinous campfires cast the only glow visible other than an isolated tent, lit from within. Desultory conversations, occasionally punctuated by a loud yell or raucous laughter, lightly reverberated around the area.
After thoroughly surveying the site, Xena reached out to either side and softly touched the two Amazons. A tilt of her head brought them following closely behind her as she moved away, deeper into the surrounding forest.
Xena stopped so abruptly that the two women barely avoided running into her only by skirting her. They recognized the Warrior Princess' alert stance and stood quietly, their eyes and ears seeking the source of the warrior's caution. Xena touched them again and pointed up and the three of them leaped for a low branch and swung into the tree.
They waited two full minutes, then heard several riders coming through the trees. It looked to be a scouting party leaving the camp. Eponin got Xena's attention and made a slicing motion across her throat, her eyebrows raised in question. The Warrior Princess shook her head, then noted the look of disgust that crossed the weapons master's barely discernible dark features.
After the riders had passed, Xena turned to Eponin. "Remember, Pony, this is a get in, get information and get out mission. We don't want to be calling attention to ourselves."
"Yeah, but nobody would have missed them until they were due back," Eponin argued.
"Fighting them would serve no useful purpose," Xena pointed out.
"Humph," a disgruntled Eponin snorted. "You getting wimpy? That sounds like something the bard would say."
Solari gave her friend a warning poke in the ribs, but Xena disregarded the Amazon's bluster, knowing that she loved a fight. "In this case she would be right. Now, let's get to work. I've got to get near that command tent but there are a couple of campfires between it and the forest. The question is, how do we get the men distracted so I can get close enough to see if I can hear anything useful?"
"Pony and I could stampede the horses," Solari offered. "Of course that might get a camp full of people chasing our tails."
"But if you stampede them INTO the camp, they just might be too busy to chase anyone for awhile," Xena suggested.
"And if we weren't anywhere near the horses, it might be even better." Eponin pulled a blunt-nosed fire arrow from the quiver strapped on her back and purposely waved it dangerously close to Xena's nose.
"Great idea, Pony." Xena's long fingers moved the arrow away from her face. "But I'm not interested in eating one."
"No?" snapped Eponin. "I thought you heroes ate fire for breakfast all the time." Solari frowned at her partner and Xena turned full-face toward her.
"What's eating you, Eponin? You got a problem, spill it." The Warrior Princess' voice had gone dangerously low.
Eponin's dark brown eyes swerved away from the intense cobalt-blue ones that were aimed at her. Her lips twisted for a moment, then her eyes came back and her chin jutted out. "The whole damn Amazon Nation sits on their duffs for weeks, not doing a thing about this army, even though I've been urging some kind of action the whole time. No, they delay till the super-tough, ex-warlord Warrior Princess shows up, then everyone acts like you're the savior they've been waiting for. If they'd done something when I wanted to, we wouldn't be in this mess."
"This is a pretty big army. The council hoped it would pass us by," Solari tried to calm her friend. "We didn't want to fight if we didn't have to."
"That's bull crap! When has any army come this close to us and then passed us by?" Eponin protested vehemently. "They're sitting here waiting for some reason, and I think we shoulda hit them before that reason happens."
Xena took into consideration that the weapons master's frustration was fueling her belligerence, but any assault on her own authority riled her. Her palms itched and she flexed her fingers, as she willed herself to inaction. Her voice came out flat and deadly. "Even if you hit this army with your full force, you would have trouble beating them. There might be a lot of casualties and your forces could be heavily weakened. Right?"
"Right," Eponin answered curtly, wondering what point Xena was making.
"Then what would you do when the second army hit you?" the warrior taunted, battering the words at Eponin like a sledgehammer.
Eponin jerked her head back then countered derisively, "What second army? Our scouts haven't found anything anywhere near us." She glanced at Solari, who shrugged and shook her head in agreement.
"I believe there's a second army coming up on the other side of the eastern range of mountains," Xena informed her in a cold voice. "I think that's what this group is waiting for."
The weapons master snorted. "That's forty or fifty miles..." She stopped and her face lost its color as she saw, finally, what Xena was driving at. "The pass... the pass is only a four or five hour march for an army." Eponin's belligerence left her like pulling the cork from an upturned flask. "By the gods, Xena, they'd annihilate us. How do you know...?"
Xena willed the tension to drain from her. Only partially successful, she fought to clear her expression but it came out half sneer and her voice was hoarse. "I don't know for sure. Leese is checking on it, now. Just call it the super-tough, ex-warlord's intuition."
Even in the faint light, Xena could make out the flush on the face of the weapons master. "By holy Artemis, Xena, that was just my stupid pride talking. I've been so damn frustrated... I train our women hard every day for battle and then when an army comes, everyone backs off. I know you had nothing to do with that, but it's tough to take when you show up and suddenly everyone turns to you for advice."
Red-faced, Eponin muttered. "Now it looks as though I was wrong, and they were right. Besides, I should know better than to take my gripes out on you; you're my friend." There was a pause, then Eponin asked, with some hesitation, "You're still my friend... aren't you?"
The Warrior Princess' face was somber and her voice dry as she mimicked Eponin's tone. "You're still alive... aren't you?"
Nah, she wouldn't... She heard Solari release a held breath and a glance at her friend showed traces of trepidation on her face. ...or would she?
"But, Eponin... " Xena's face hardened and her eyes glittered in the near-dark. "Don't push your luck." Her voice was low but now there was no doubt in Eponin's mind that the veiled threat was very real. The weapons master shivered as if a cold wind had blown past her.
Eponin cleared her throat and closed her eyes for a split second. I know you're tough, Xena, and you are the best one to lead us. But that doesn't keep me from resenting your influence on my Amazons.
"Now, let's get this job done." Xena's no-nonsense voice called them back to the work at hand. "Solari, when I give you the signal, you slip down to where the horses are and cut the rope that's penning them in. Eponin, you cover her. As soon as she gets back to you, the two of you shoot the fire arrows in behind the horses to force them into the camp. By that time, I should be in place near the tent and can get close to it in the confusion. Once your part is finished, take off back home. Just leave Argo's reins hung over the saddle for me in case I have to leave in a hurry. You ready?"
"I don't like it, Xena," Eponin barely muttered. Solari rolled her eyes in disbelief.
"What?" Xena's impatience showed. "You want to go to the tent?"
"No, you're the best choice for that." Eponin fidgeted a moment with one of the feathers on her tunic. "I don't like leaving you here."
A reluctant regard for the gruff weapons master's bravery succeeded in cooling some of Xena's antagonism toward her. Damn, she's actually worried about me. Mad, but worried. "I'll be OK. I want you two out of here. If they suspect outside interference, it's harder to find one person than three."
Eponin looked into Xena's calmer face. OK, I'd like to kick her butt, but I think she's our savior, too. She took a deep breath. "All right."
"You ready now?" Both women nodded. "Let's go."
Continues in Chapter 5
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