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Foreign Influences
by Oversoul

Standard disclaimers and warnings apply for alt. fanfic
Contains violence

Chapter Four

The thought of dealing with Ares, again, disheartened Xena.  It seemed to her that involvement with the God of War would always be in her life. She couldn't blame Ares for this intrusion, though, because this was the life she had chosen, and Ares sought after her for simply being a warrior just as he was doing with Tethian.

Katrina placed a bowl of stew into the distracted warrior's hand. It had been several minutes since Athena had spirited Gabrielle away with her, and Xena had been sitting on the blanket lost in her thoughts as they awaited the return of the Goddess. She looked at the stew and almost succeeded in handing it back, but Katrina chastened her as a mother would a child. Reluctantly, Xena tipped the bowl to her lips and let some of the stew dribble into her mouth.

"And what does a Warrior Princess have as her thoughts during moments like this?" Raven prodded in to Xena's reflective state.

Xena smiled wryly at the two of them. "Death and separation."

Katrina wanted to know which thought came first.

"Death. I think of death, but I *feel* the separation."

Raven watched Xena become distant again. The haunted look was back.

"You don't want to do this, do you?" It was more a statement than a question. Raven put her bowl down beside her on the blanket. "You don't want to lead Athena's army in defense of the city."

Xena focused her eyes onto Raven, eye to eye. "No, I don't."

"Then, how long will you let it go before you tell Athena what's in your heart?"

Xena snorted a wry little laugh at her situation. Yes, just what was in her heart these days... a love so strong she cried inside when it came into her thoughts for even a moment? She closed her eyes and saw Gabrielle in her minds eye... the image of the bard's gentle face close to hers... looking down her body and watching Gabrielle give her such incredible pleasure that she shuddered to recall the image however briefly.

And then there was the fear of who she had been not so very long ago. Ares would not let her forget that, and his various seductions to win her back to him milled about in her head. He had offered her an army to lead-- and she almost took the gift-- and a small village had almost been destroyed by her anger, but the feisty little bard had stood in her way, defying her, and even striking her.

Could she lead an army the size of the Athenian troops and not belong to Ares? She had led small bands of villagers in defense of their homes, but this army protected the pearl of Greece and the plains surrounding it. She had been to Troy when is was under siege and saw the planning that went on there. She began to calculate the number of lieutenants she would need to lead the troops against 1500 soldiers.

The plains would become a battlefield covered in blood and rotting corpses. The sun would raise the stench upon the heated air and if the wind was not offshore... Xena shuddered and put her bowl down.

Lord Tethian remained mounted on his horse as he surveyed the bloody campsite. Only a handful of men were in the camp at the time of the attack... the others were elsewhere, doing their job of hunting for food to fill the bellies of the soldiers. If the camp had not been so isolated from the bivouac, the carnage would have been found sooner. And whoever the attackers were, he already admired them for their expediency. The mutilated survivors of one hunting party spoke of women they had met nearly two hours forced march to the south. Could this be their doing?

Tethian watched the tracker work the campsite. He checked the ground near the burned out firepit where the body of the big, eyeless soldier with the broken neck lay bloating from it's day in the sun. Today had been quite warm, and the cloying stench from the blood was thick upon the warm evening air. The warlord closed his eyes, the stench bringing about exciting visions to his mind's eye, his body flushing hotly with a corrupt pleasure. His own men were not the gifts he wanted to bestow upon Ares, but he nevertheless found them exciting for his own twisted perversions.

"There were three... two small, one large," the tracker called over to him, breaking into the dark visions. "The smallest tracks belong to the woman who killed this soldier. Very skilled for someone so small."

"Then, I want her, Ciaus."

"Sir?" Ciaus approached the warlord. "What would you have me do?"

Tethian smiled at his man. "Take the arm badge from that soldier over there and put it on. I'll let it be known that you are in charge of this detail, and choose amongst the trackers and hunters for that man's replacement and send him to me. We have to keep this army fed. Take whatever men you need from the regular army and find the woman and her companions. She can amuse me until I put her in with the others."

Ciaus felt a cold shock run through his heart. He had only heard rumors of Tethian's treatment of the women before he gave them as gifts to his soldiers, but he had seen the end results. Ciaus had killed three of them himself because he could not bear to see them suffer. He was a 'hired' hunter and tracker... and he found it difficult to watch any living thing suffer just for 'amusement'.

Ciaus paused a moment. He could not refuse this mission and the only way he could figure to spare these women from certain torture at the hands of this warlord was to kill them when he found them... and he *would* find them... he always found his prey.

The white owl swooped low over the campfire and then circled the three women once before landing beside Xena on the blanket. The air shimmered and shifted around the magnificent bird and Athena stood in its place. Xena looked up at her and met her gaze.

Athena reached down and placed her hand on the warriors head, stroking her dark hair and searching the sky blue eyes. The eyes told their story well.

"Will you at least meet with Ares in council? And what about meeting the Queen of Athens to take charge of the troops?"

Xena sighed and placed her hand on Athena's as it continued to soothe her. She stilled the hand and squeezed it slightly in gratitude. "Ares, I will."

"Good... then let's go."

Athena looked over to Katrina and Raven. "And I wouldn't do what I think it is you want to do."

Both women looked at each other in innocently.

"Even if you manage to kill Tethian, there are others who will fill his shoes within this army. They already have a conquest agenda of invasion and control. What their bond is with Ares we have yet to find out."

"Then what are we to do?" Raven retorted.

Athena took Xena's hand and pulled her to her feet, "Stay put until we get back. There *is* something I want you to do, but we will discuss it when Xena and I get back." 

Athena waited until both women nodded their understanding and then she looked up at the tall warrior. "I hope you aren't nervous about meeting the mediator."


"My father."

Xena felt as though she were fainting as the dimensions shifted around her, the colors blurring as they melted and swirled. Her knees began to feel weak, and just as quickly as it began it came to a halt. The sudden stop jarred her legs as if she had just come down from a flip on to the ground.

Athena let go of Xena's hand and the warrior instinct took over. Xena crouched slightly and spun a quick circle to look around for any sign of attack.

"Relax. My father doesn't allow that sort of thing here. Ambushes are strictly forbidden."

Xena still kept her eyes darting around, searching for trouble. "No? Not even when his children are the ones having the dispute?"

"Especially when we are having a dispute. It can get very ugly."

Xena raised herself to full height again and looked more closely at her surroundings. They stood in an open park with only a few trees and a fountain. A small garden of colorful flowers circled the white marble structure, and the center piece of the fountain gushed water several feet into the air. Xena eyed the fountain and the rest of the open park.

"The fountain is one of Aphrodite's ideas," Athena smiled with amusement. "Drinking the water supposedly restores youth and aging never occurs."

"Next best thing to ambrosia," Xena mused out loud as she continued to search around her. Adrenaline continued to make her feel uneasy.

"Hmmm, well, my father is thinking of giving it to the mortals just to get it out of here, but Aphrodite is so pleased with it I'm afraid he'd have to hide it somewhere."

Xena continued to eye her surrounding suspiciously and an impatience settled into her... she knew that was not good.

"I don't mean to be rude, Athena, but can we get on with this? I'm not in the best of moods as it is."

Athena gagged Xena for a moment. "Save the foul mood for later, Warrior Princess... you'll need it."

"I don't doubt it," Xena nodded. Athena spun on her heel and began to march toward a small rise in the landscape. Xena began to follow the Goddess up the small hill in this idyllic setting. She shuddered. Without thought as to what it might mean, the warrior drew her sword and spun around.

"You think you can leave me, Xena! You think my sister will protect you, Xena!"

Ares beat down on the warrior's upraised sword each time he screamed her name. Sparks showered down around them both, and Xena had had enough of defensive posturing. She kicked out at Ares, catching him in the gut and knocking him back several feet. Xena held her sword at the ready, both hands locked around the hilt. Her concentration was on Ares, his movements, his eyes... his mocking eyes. He was toying with her and loving every moment of it.

The warrior re-sheathed her sword and cast a snarled look at the God of War. Ares put his sword away and stood with his arms crossed in front of him.

"I guess we don't need Zeus to hold this meeting, seeing as you've made yourself available."

"I'm always available to you, Xena."

"No thanks," she shot back at him.

Ares grinned. "You almost did it, Warrior Princess."

"Did what? You mean the Athenian army?" she taunted in return.

"It would have been beautiful, Xena... you leading an army of that size, with their capabilities... and your capabilities... it would almost be a fair match."

Ares laughed in that maniacal way he had that annoyed Xena till she just wanted to have at him. With his arms still held against himself, he began to pace in a wide circle around the two women.

"Ares... what are you doing?!" Athena hissed at him through gritted teeth.

"Taking advantage of a superior army, dear sister."

"Athens belongs to me, Ares," the Goddess warned him.

"And so it does, *dear sister*, but not for long. This army is on it's way to Athens, and I'm along for the ride," he smiled sweetly. "And when it takes Athens, they will give it to me... as a gift of gratitude."

"Gratitude for what?" Xena remained still and followed Ares with her senses alone as he passed from her sight to somewhere in back of her.

The God of War passed close behind Xena, and he leaned in near to her, "Now why would I want to give away all my secrets? Hmmm?"

"Because if this invading army is so superior, then what would be the harm?"

Ares laughed again, and his proximity raised the fine hairs on Xena's neck. He moved in front of her, his eyes encompassing both warrior women.

"Athens will be mine, Athena. You have lost already. In 6 months time they will be re-dedicating the temples to me! And I will have the power and respect of my father and my kindred."

"You think owning Athens will make you welcome in our father's house, Ares?" Athena was stunned by this incredulous assumption on her brother's part. "You are only here now because I wished to speak to you in front of him."

Xena laughed out loud, catching Ares full attention. "And that's why we are meeting here... isn't it? You don't want Zeus to know what your plan is for getting into his favor."

"You will always be vile, Ares," Athena sneered at him. "And it is not just me who thinks this... you may own Athens some day, but you will *never* be welcome on Olympus. You are living a dream."

"Maybe, sweet sister, but I'll own the loyalty of every soul that walks the land once I have Athens... and if I'm not welcome here, then I will make the land of the mortals my own, and I'll begin by ordering the destruction of every temple... every shrine... every image... of all those who opposed my entrance on Olympus!"

It took barely a heartbeat for Ares to spin around and walk away until his image became nothing.

In the silent void that remained after Ares departed, the two women held their private thoughts for a moment. Finally, Xena turned to Athena and was about to speak, but the Goddess looked as if she wouldn't be able to hear a word. Fear and panic showed in her eyes, and anger was set into the grimace on her lips.

"That bastard... he's going to make us all suffer, starting with me," she said at last.

"I guess you were right when you said this was god against god," Xena sighed. She reached out a hand and squeezed Athena's shoulder reassuringly. "We've got work to do... we better get back."

"I can't let him win, Xena."

"Then we better organize a resistance force, now." Xena smiled wryly and raised an eyebrow. "What about the other Gods? Will they help?"

Athena laughed bitterly. "We have our separate venues, Xena. We don't work well outside our specialty. We can appeal to each other for aide in an endeavor, but there is usually a heavy price to pay."

"Can't some of you put aside your vanities to help... just this once?"

"Only if the situation is desperate."

"And this isn't?"

"Not until the first blow is struck against a temple, a shrine or and image."

"Then, if there's no help here, let's get out of here."

Xena readied herself just before Athena placed her hand into hers. The warrior was about to close her eyes to avoid the vertigo that would follow when she glanced behind Athena to a small stand of saplings. Standing amongst them was a man wearing a simple white tunic and sandals. He was too far away for Xena to see any details of him, but he was there non the less, and then she lost sight of him as the dimensions swirled around her.

Ciaus had already ordered his six chosen men to mount their horses. This was not the normal number of hunters that would be sent out on a hunting detail, but then, this time they were not hunting game... they were hunting humans.

Normally, a hunting party of 15 to 20 men would be dropped off in the wilds. They would form a large circle and begin to walk into the center, killing every deer, rabbit, squirrel, wolf, large bird and any other edible beast as the hunters trapped the terrified creatures within the tightening death trap. Ciaus despised this method and never referred to this type of slaughter as hunting. But it was necessary... the supply of food is what allowed any army to live. And an army of this size could strip
the land of it's breading wildlife and lay it to waste for decades.

Ciaus was about to mount when Lord Tethian rode in to inspect the detail. He watched the warlord, always dressed in his finery and wearing a black leather and metal helmet that covered his cheeks, nose and neck. Outside of his tent, few people knew what Tethian truly looked like. His black eyes were the only detail of his face that were familiar to anyone who met him.

"I heard you selected only six men to accompany you," Tethian said as he halted his horse and dismounted next to Ciaus.

The hunter stood rigidly, his disgust at being so close to this monster was barely held in check.

"It's all that I need to hunt a human," the hunter said casually. He tried to meet the black eyes but there was always something about them that made him look away.

"Very well," Tethian smiled. Ciaus assumed he was smiling even though most of his mouth was hidden behind the cheek and chin guard. It was the brief glance at Tethian's eyes that gave the hint that her was smiling. "How long do you think you will be gone?"

"I suspect the quarry is still within a days forced marched of the area, and we are riding, so I expect to encounter them within 2 days. Safely capturing them may take a day or two if they already know they are hunted, which I assume they do."

"Safely capturing them?"

"Yes, m'lord."

Tethian leaned in uncomfortably close, a smell of foul nature emanating from his body. "Sacrifice the men if you have to, Ciaus. I want these women... especially the little one. The men say she has amber skin and eyes shaped like..."

"Lord Tethian!"

The Warlord spun around quickly to acknowledge the runner that had found him. The man was barely 17... barely a man at all. The young man fell to his knees and tried to get his ragged breathing under control. This young man annoyed Tethian, Ciaus could tell.

"Speak! Or are you going to puke first?"

Fear... no... terror took over the young man. His eyes widened, and Ciaus could see his mind and speech failing him. A few broken words were blurted out and Tethian made a sound of disgust. The lad wasn't just winded, he was ill. Ciaus could hear the wheezing coming from deep in his chest.

"What is your message, runner," Ciaus asked calmly. He used a soothing voice, one that he knew worked on frightened or injured animals. He took a water skin from his saddle, opened it and offered it to the runner. He drank a few mouthfuls, his eyes meeting the hunter's in disbelief. "Just relate the message."

The young man still looked to Ciaus and then after a moment back to Tethian. The wheezing persisted but not as loudly.

"My lord wishes to meet with you... he says it is urgent and it concerns the weapons smiths... their supplies."

Ciaus cringed and the hair stood up on his neck. It took a moment for him to realize what had caused it and when he did, he fought to keep his composure... Tethian was laughing.

"Your *lord* probably doesn't like that I'm having the smiths forge copper medallions for all the men. There are only two sides to the medallion... one side for Ares and the other side for my name."

Tethian snorted with a great amount of impatience.

"Ciaus, would you say this boy is sick?

Ciaus didn't like this line of questioning.

"Yes, sir, it seems he is." There was no avoiding the obvious.

"Not well suited for the job he has, then is he?"

The hunter was unsure if he was expected to answer. Small prickles of dread made him feel flushed all over, and with good reason. He watched Tethian pull a dagger from his belt and approach the runner from behind.

"Then give him to me... I could use one more man to stay with the horses and..."

"But he's useless," Tethian cooed as he gripped the runner's hair and pulled his head back, exposing the neck. "I *know* why Makrius keeps him and his like around," he sneered, "don't *I*, hmmm?"

The runner's wheezing bloomed fully as he began to hyper-ventilate. He had closed his eyes, not wanting to see the dagger held near his face.

"I really could use him... as bait..." Ciaus tried to sound *very* convincing that perhaps this young man was invaluable. "I could make sure he doesn't come back."

Tethian threw the runner to the side and glared at Ciaus. "See that he doesn't. I'm tired of Makrius's collection of young boys," Tethian directed his glare towards the runner, "especially ones that are sick and useless."

A few long strides and Tethian was mounted on his horse. He spun the horse in tight circles but still kept eye contact with Ciaus. "Bring me his little trophies when you're done with him. I'd like to make a gift of them to *Lord* Makrius."

After Tethian rode away, Ciaus stooped down to inspect the wheezing and trembling young runner. He was still hyper-ventilating and it showed no signs of letting up. Ciaus groped along his own waist and took his money pouch from his belt. An attendant approached Ciaus.

"I need another horse and supplies for this rider for 10 days," the hunter said evenly as he emptied his money pouch of all his dinars. The attendant left to get the requested items. Ciaus placed the open empty bag over the runners nose and mouth and indicated that the young man was to hold it there and breathe into it.

The 6 mounted men that Ciaus had chosen were trusted men from his own village in the north. They too had been 'recruited' when Tethian's forces had ridden through. And right now they all stared at him with knowing looks, but also with amusement.

"What?" he asked them.

"Just where are we going to get a pair of 'trophies' for Tethian's amusement with Makrius?" one of them half smiled.

The wheezing runner suddenly paid attention to the conversation. He got to his knees, still holding the money pouch to his face.

"This is a war zone... surely there's a body somewhere," Ciaus sigh dejectedly. "If not, this young man will just have to hope he doesn't bleed to death before he can start his life somewhere else where Tethian won't find him."

The young man's eyes widened slightly and he lowered the bag, "You aren't going to kill me, are you?"

Ciaus retrieved his dinars from the ground and stood up. The attendant was returning with a horse that had its saddlebags stuffed full. "Just don't get in the way of my mission. The lives of everyone in my village depends on our success in capturing these women Lord Tethian wants us to find."

The runner nodded his understanding as he still breathed into the bag. His breathing had slowed down and he lowered the bag, waited a moment to test himself and then handed the bag to Ciaus.

"Loatian," the young man said. "My name is Loatian... and I am forever in your debt."

Ciaus extended his hand down to Loatian and pulled him to his feet. He kept his grip on the man's hand and gave it a warrior's shake.

Athena smiled her approval when she saw that Raven and Katrina were still in camp when she and Xena returned. Katrina was arduously working her hands at the muscles of Raven's back, or rather, the scars that covered the muscles. Raven lay on her stomach as her lover rubbed a softening oil into the scars.

The texture of the scars caught Xena's attention as well. She had seen similar scars on people but never considered what they felt like to wear for the rest of your life. Xena frowned and tried to imagine the feel of stiff, hardened skin several layers deep attached to her own back. When the realization sunk in, she turned away quickly so that Raven would not see the pity in her eyes. That's why Raven spent so much time in the water, Xena realized... it softened the scars and made them as supple as
they could ever possibly be.

"Your brother seems to have put fear into your eyes, Kami," Raven murmured quietly. "I take it Ares won't back down from taking Athens?"

Athena sat down on a blanket and grimly shook her head.

"It's war, Raven. He's providing something to get Tethian to dedicated this campaign of conquest to *him*. I don't know what it is."

Xena felt uncomfortable... something about their conversation with Ares just didn't seem to sit right in her mind. She had been in many councils with warlords and advisors, and the one thing she knew was that precise wording of conversations and documents was paramount. Intentions could be misunderstood to a disastrous degree.

"What did Ares say about 6 months?" Xena asked suddenly.

Athena had been about to say something when Xena blurted out her question.

"He said in 6 months, Athens would be his?"

"And what happens in 6 months?"

There was silence as each woman calculated the months and thought of the rites and festivals that took place in six months time.

"Harvest!" they all almost said at once.

Xena smiled slyly.

"They plan to use starvation to get Athens to surrender. Food will come from allied villages to feed the army. And they can use the plains to plant and harvest, and by then Athens's will have used up it's food in stores and warehouses."

Raven sat up and slipped her tunic on over her head. "Yes, but if it were that simple, other's would have tried it by now... no?"

Xena laughed wryly, "If you were the Athenian army and looked outside your door and saw one army of several hundred you'd take care of the situation handily, especially with the Goddess at your back. Add another army of several hundred, and then another army... and a ship coming in... all of them united in a siege..."

"That's intimidating numbers," Raven agreed.

"But it doesn't work out very well... your invading army has to eat! It's a small city all in itself. They've made it this far down the peninsula because they *haven't* been burning villages and killing the farmers."

"Then why did you do that?" Raven asked bluntly.

Xena looked like she had been kicked in the stomach, and Raven immediately regretted having asked the question. Xena scowled angrily before the tears came. She spun around and blindly found her way across the distance where Argo was tethered to a tree.

"Xena... I'm sorry.." Raven struggled in a waning voice.

Three days! Three whole days before she could be in the comforting embrace of Gabrielle. Three days before she would be able to touch her, hold her, hear her voice. Everything felt so cold. Everything. Tears flowed as Xena reached out and stroked Argo with a shaking hand. She slumped into the warm flesh as she placed her cheek against the smooth silky neck of the golden warhorse.

Gods! Why was she crying? Xena felt angry with herself for this untypical reaction to the same question that had been asked of her by many people and even herself. 'Why did she do it?'

No, the question wasn't the problem. It was the comparison. A conquering army gains nothing if it destroys all the land's resources as it passes through an area... including the people to work the land to supply the food. Xena thought of the many villages she had razed to the ground. Only women and children and old men were left to rebuild their homes or plant their crops after they buried their dead. She-- the Warrior Princess-- had done that to them. She had forced the loyalty of those she conquered by killing the men of the villages. Xena laughed at her naiveté. She didn't order the killing of women and children... instead she had left them the existence of the living dead.


The warrior straightened her back and continued to stroke Argo. She didn't dare to face Raven if she hoped to recover her composure.

"The food supplies... that's the advantage, Xena... Ares promised them food from the villages if they do things *his* way," Raven said softly. She placed her hand around Xena's bicep and squeezed to reassure her.

Xena steeled herself, tucking her emotions in deep.

"I'm sorry, Xena... I didn't ask the question to hurt you."

"I know," Xena allowed herself to answer. She was so very aware of Raven's touch.

"But.. I did.. and I feel.." Raven tried to turn Xena around.

The warrior suddenly whirled around to face Raven. "Let me make this easy for you, my friend. I have done things in my past that I am only beginning to realize in detail now. This issue of what an army takes and what it leaves behind for the conquered is not new to me... but thinking about the people it affected is new."

Xena continued to gaze into Raven's open eyes, and after a moment, she laughed wryly.

"If Gabrielle were here, she would downplay my reaction to what you said and remind me of my purpose now. Maybe I've become too dependent on her to remind me."

Raven smiled with her eyes. "You've always had her support, Xena. What you are learning is to believe in yourself and who you are now. It *does* involve periods of chasing down your demons."

Xena finally smiled. "Like yourself?"

"I could be an example..." the little warrior grinned. "I've got the scars to remind me. Without Katrina... well, I don't really want to think of who I would be right now without her. I can see their faces... all the people I've killed in Nippon."

Xena bowed her head for a moment and then laughed her wry little laugh again. "I don't like to talk about these things... trying to explain to Gabrielle what it was like to be me..."

"She wants to know. She *needs* to know."

Xena shook her head, serious once again. This was too hard. Raven at least understood the killing rage... but Gabrielle...

"It's better to die in silence than to suffer out loud."

"We have to eliminate Tethian's food supplies," Raven concluded as she looked at the Goddess for confirmation. "The supply wagons from the villages and the hunting parties have got to go. That's too large an army to have left unfed for even a few days... even if they have field rations."

"Won't Tethian just attack the villages and take the food?"

"Ares wants the adoration of the people.. he doesn't want a full slaughter to take place. In order to keep functioning and feel safe, the villages have pledged themselves to Ares by surrendering to Tethian. Every man woman and child will believe that Ares is a savior that stops Tethian from killing them."

Raven frowned and shook her head, "So the people will follow Ares... and erect shrines and temples to him. That's quite a different approach for the God of War, isn't it?"

"War isn't just about a body count, Raven. It's tactics and intelligence. After Ares has Athens, then the slaughter can begin as he makes his bid for Olympus. He'll kill the resistors who still follow the other gods until there are none alive... and he'll have the help of all who worship him."

Xena cleared her throat before speaking. She had been listening to Athena and Raven, but had been watching Katrina as the details of the visit to Olympus were related and now the motives for the invasion were discussed. The quiet woman at last showed her frustration at being voiceless by flailing her arms wildly and pleading with her eyes. Xena had been watching her 'talk' the whole time.

"Where do you suppose those women came from, and the young girls and boys? Ares and Tethian made their point deathly clear to the villages as to what would happen to them if they resisted. The village farmers are too *important* to the food supply, but the women and young girls are perfect victims. I'm sure one public rape has just a strong of an impact as several farmers butchered as an example to the rest of the village. They are abducting the women from these villages."

Raven looked from Katrina to Xena and back again. Katrina's eyes had filled with tears as she nodded gratefully at Xena. Her shoulders slumped and she buried her face in her hands to hide her anguish. Raven leaned towards her and tried to take her in her arms, but Katrina angrily shrugged her off and sat further away from her on the blanket. Raven's heart was breaking as she watched her lover wipe the tears from her face with the back of her hand.

    Athena approached Katrina and knelt down in front of her on the blanket. "That's a good point, my friend. Most warlords kill the men and leave the women and children.. and Tethian is doing the opposite. This is a very brutal man."

    Slowly, Katrina lifted her eyes to the Goddess, still hurt and angry.

    "I would help you if I could, and I am sorry that I am unable. Maybe when this is all over.."

    Katrina smiled wryly through her tears and shrugged helplessly in resignation. She shook her head and motioned that it should all be forgotten, as if it were of little importance to her now. There were more important matters at hand, she said.

    Ciaus followed the trail down to the coast where the footprints of only two women were evident. But it was difficult to be sure, and it looked as if the path had been traveled over twice starting at a place a little south along the beach.

    "Only two women.. the big one and the small one that Tethian wants," Ciaus pointed out to his men. "Where the third one flew off to... I don't know. But this trail will take us right to their campsite.. and they won't be there anymore. We'll take it from there."

    Ciaus mounted his horse again and began a hard ride south. It took only 20 minutes to reach the stream that emptied into the ocean. He could see blood drying on the grasses that lined the banks. Yes, they would have been covered in blood... horribly painted and probably revealing in the battlelust.

    Ciaus imagined the two women enjoying the fight as they attacked the camp of hunters. There was no mercy shown. There was nothing at the campsite to warrant such a slaughter that he could find, but he had to remind himself that he didn't look for one.

    And where did the third woman go? Was she the one that had been tied by the leather leash? He wanted answers. Before he killed them, he wanted to know their purpose whatever it was even though it didn't mater one way or the other... they were going to die. If there was opportunity, he would ask. The hunter thought of his wife back at his village... her life depended on his eliminating the women who killed Tethian's men.

    He found himself standing alone by the dead firepit. It had gone out on it's own... dousing it would have created white steam and smoke rising too high into the night air. Out of habit, the hunter located the setting sun to calculate the approach of darkness... an hour or less, maybe.

    The deserted campsite told a confusing story.. and there were the footprints of a shod horse.. probably a warhorse. These women were only two of many but only two sets of footprints and the horses led south through the woods.

    Ciaus ordered silence and then began to lead his men, following the tracks that showed themselves in the sandy soil that the tall, trampled grasses grew in. And just when he thought it would be easy to follow them, the canopy closed in above them and the ground cover became soft and mossy... he would have to look for signs elsewhere.. a broken twig.. a bent leaf. It would be harder, but not impossible, even in the dark.

    "Argo comes with me!" Xena warned vehemently. She was angrily completing the gearing up of the war horse while she argued with Athena. Raven and Katrina cringed near the spring while this argument went on between Goddess and warrior.

    "She's hardly conducive to being stealthy, don't you think?" Athena retorted.

    "She's been trained," the warrior said evenly through clenched teeth as she hauled up on the cinch. "Besides, she'd be at great risk if I pastured her here. They should be following us by now."

    What Xena wasn't saying was that without Gabrielle, Argo was now the only familiar and comfortable companion she had... Argo was there for her even before Gabrielle came into her life. The horse was coming along.

    "You are stubborn," Athena concluded when she realized that Xena was not going to budge on this. She watched the warrior swing up into the saddle and nearly knock her head on a low overhead branch. Yup, stubborn all right. Who else would ride a horse through a forest in the dark but the Warrior Princess.

    "You three go north towards the camp, then east and try to come up from behind," Xena called over to Katrina and Raven, "I'm going to circle back on the trail and see if I can greet who they might have sent after us."

    "Alone?" Raven pondered.

    "No, not alone... I have Argo," and with that, Xena started to follow back along the trail that had brought them here. She left Athena standing with her mouth open and Raven and Katrina smiling.

    "Well, Kami, I guess we'll head north."

    "Isn't *anyone* going to listen to me?" Athena threw her arms up in exasperation and paced around the small campsite.

    "Apparently, not today, Kami," Raven smiled affectionately.

    "Maybe after we dispatch our immediate danger..."

    "Then I should make plans in Athens. You all seem to know what you're doing."

    Raven winked at the Goddess and then picked up her travel bag. She was dressed as Katrina was... all in black and wearing both swords and several daggers each. The black garb that Raven wore was still slightly damp even after drying in the sun all day, but at least it didn't smell coppery from the blood. Raven smiled to know that Xena was probably putting on damp, cold armor when she got dressed to go to Olympus.

    "How will you find us?" Raven asked.

    Athena laughed wryly.. sadly, "I can smell a battle."

    Xena let Argo pick her own path and pace through the trees, ducking under branches when the going got low, or bringing her legs up alongside Argo's neck when it got tight. Several times she found herself laying flat on her back with her head on the warhorse's rump for several minutes while branches brushed their leaves along her body. When she sat up, she would stop the horse and look around, orientating herself in the dark.

    This time when she sat up, she found that Argo had entered an impassable clearing barely 20 feet square. Xena looked behind and saw that the branches of the trees on the path had closed around themselves and they were well hidden in this small area.

    "Where have you brought me, girl?" Xena whispered to the waiting mare.

    Xena dismounted and loosely tied the reins to the saddlehorn. She looked up through the canopy to the silver tinted sky of midnight blue. The silver light filtered down through the trees enough for her to have excellent night vision, and she knew that whoever was sent after them would have the same advantage. It was time for her to use the invisibility tactics that Raven had shown her. Combined with her own stealth skills, she knew she could almost walk beside her pursuers and not be detected even dressed the way she was.

    The warrior patted the muscular neck of the warhorse in reassurance before breaking her way back through the trees, staying close to the trunks in order to not rattle too many branches. As she writhed her body around the trunks and boughs her sword and sheathe caught in a branch and stuck her to the spot. Xena backed up and unstrapped the sword. No room to swing it, anyway, she thought, and she laid it against a tree she
figured was in line with the short path from where she had left Argo.

    Xena continued to creep towards the trail they had made early that morning... to wait... she could be patient if she had to be. She knew it wasn't far to the trail... just a few minutes away... and she would climb a tree and sit in the bough waiting... and thinking.

    Twenty minutes later Xena had settled herself on a large branch that extended itself entirely across the trail. She positioned herself on her stomach with her feet crossed over the branch, toes locked. She had clear viewing through the leaves and could swivel her head in any direction. This is were the waiting part came in... and the thinking.

    Xena's thoughts centered around three things: Gabrielle, Ares, and the pursuers. All three subjects angered her but the one that angered her most of all was Gabrielle's absence. Either the Amazons recognized the very real danger to themselves and joined forces with Athena... with Artemis' blessing... or they would refuse and try to keep their isolated status. The competition between Artemis and Athena riled her and that brought Ares to task in her angered thoughts.

    How dare he!?!

    His arrogance and disregard for the women and children these warlords used and abused sealed Xena's resolve against the God of War. This was the lowest that Ares had gone... encouraging the kidnaping of women and children to secure a village's pledge of allegiance. No one that Xena had ever gone up against had pulled that tactic out of their bag of dirty tricks. All the villages had to do to prevent more kidnappings was to supply the army with food. Simple enough.

    And just when Xena's thoughts of the pursuers came into focus, so did their physical presence.
    Raven and Katrina had been following the hunting party for several minutes. They had had the misfortune of meeting them head on and had hidden to the side of the trail until they passed.

    Eight men, all on horseback except for the lead. And that man looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. Six men riding side by side when they could and a lone boy riding at the end. Smart of them. No attackers would risk exposing themselves for the taking of one boy.

    It was Katrina who paid attention to the gear fitted onto the horses. Ropes, shovels, nets, steaks, hatchets. What was this? The men were sparsely armored if at all, and they only carried daggers while each one had a bow except for the boy trailing behind. Katrina saw only two swords strapped to the horses, not even carried by the men. This was a hunting party, they both realized, and they were hunting *them*.

    Xena waited in the dark silence of the forest as the hunting party passed under her. She was preparing to jump down off the limb when the lead held up his hand to stop the procession.

    Oh, wonderful, she thought as she settled back down. They're going to leave the horses here and carry on by foot. How long is *this* going to take before they move on... if they move on? Great Zeus! What if they were making camp? There was no direct way down off this tree without dropping right into their camp. She regretted removing her sword, but she knew that eight men wouldn't be a problem for her. She could feel herself getting aroused at the challenge.

    Xena watched intensely as the men dismounted and milled about their leader, and it was then that she noticed how the horses were geared. The men began to remove the nets and ropes along with the other items and lay it on the ground in a pile as a young boy began to tend to the horses. I should just get this over with, she thought. No, better wait for the reinforcements to show up. But how would she know? Raven and Katrina were next to invisible to detect.

    The leader pulled the young boy away from the horses to directly below Xena. Xena was unable to figure out the man's rank in the dark, but his stance as he faced the boy was that of authority.

    "Loatian, you realize I'm not going to capture these women for Lord Tethian, don't you? I can't take them back to that kind of situation. I, and these men volunteered to work for Tethian if they left the rest of our families alone."


    "It may mean that I can't fool him and he'll take revenge on our village, but I have to try. You know I'm *not* a killer. I'm not even a soldier"

    Loatian shuffled nervously, "I know that better than anyone right now, and I'm truly grateful, Ciaus. I don't understand why killing them is the only solution."

    "If I bring them back, it'll be a slow death. I can at least give them peace from that. I'll bring Tethian the bodies... that should satisfy him... and what he does with them after... well, they'll be beyond caring, at least."

    Xena's hear pounded hard. No no no! Not now! The blood pounding in her ears began to drown out the rest of the conversation. She *had* to talk with these men, with Ciaus. She stood up slowly and moved towards the trunk of the tree. When she placed her hand on the trunk, she turned towards Ciaus and Loatian.

    "You don't have to kill us," Xena called to Ciaus.

    Movement stopped. Even Loatian froze. Xena knew they were gauging her whereabouts. She knew what they were doing. It only took a moment or two and then all seven men drew their bows and knocked an arrow in place.

    Seven arrows pointed in her direction.

    Are you going to catch all seven of them? Raven wondered as she watched from behind a tree. This was *not* what she had planned on doing. Why did Xena want to talk with them? They *had* to bring them back to Tethian, dead or alive... it didn't matter to them. If the hunters deserted, surely Tethian would take revenge on their families, if not the entire village.

   On a signal from Ciaus, the men spread out. *Really* spread out... all the while they keep their bows aimed amazingly well at Xena. It wasn't that hard to figure out where she was.

   "You know where I am, so why don't I just come down? We need to talk."

    "It would be less painful for you if you did, warrior," Ciaus called out. He concentrated so intently on the voice coming from the trees that he failed to notice the overhead limb until Xena dropped down on top of him.

    Raven had pulled the small hand crossbow from her pouch and knocked a bolt into it. It only had a range of 10 or 12 feet and she was at least 25 feet away. She needed to get closer. The bolts were tipped with a powerful sleep agent that needed to penetrate at least 2 inches. When she saw Xena drop down, she quickly moved through the darkness to within range. She had lost track of Katrina who had moved off to circle behind the hunters, but she had trust in Katrina's timing and methods. Xena was another story.

    Let's see who captures whom, Raven challenged. I hope you know what you're doing, Xena.

    Katrina pressed her body against a tree, blending with it perfectly. She knew where 4 of the men where and Ciaus and Loatian. She couldn't locate the last man from where she was. One of the men backed up to where she stood, within touching distance. With lightning speed she jabbed her fingers into his neck and then tried to catch him and his weapon before he dropped it. Without so much as an "oof", she succeeded in laying him down without a sound. She advanced through the trees and lay down near the side of the trail to ready her little crossbow.

    With the bow knocked from him, the wind knocked out of him, and stars exploding brightly in his head, Ciaus was helpless as Xena held him against her as a shield.

    "Nobody dies!" Xena warned them. She had her face pressed against the hunter, her arms holding him in a vice like grip around his neck. He wasn't going anywhere.

    "Put the bows down and we can talk," Xena pleaded but the men began to jockey for position and some began to come at her. If she didn't drop Ciaus, they would be upon her.

    To her right, in the darkness, she felt the breeze go by... heard the twang of a bolt being shot and the cry of a hunter. In the distance, she heard an impact of body against body and knew that both Katrina and Raven where in front of her, drawing the attention of the hunters in that direction. Loatian had dropped to the ground to Xena's left, and now he
crouched low in the dark.

    "Don't hurt him... please," he pleaded. "Yes! Let's talk! Ciaus, what could it hurt?"

    "It could get his village destroyed if he does," Xena hissed at the boy. "What do you say? Give this up and I can help you *and* your village?"

    Ciaus struggled weakly. The warrior's forearm was pressing against his neck and he could feel himself getting weaker from the blood being squeezed off.

    "What if I told you we could move your village to Athens to protect them?" Xena reasoned with him the best she could.

    Katrina listened to Xena's offer with relief. For her part in all this, she had no idea how to quickly subdue the men without killing them, and now she didn't know where at least two of them were now. Katrina relaxed a little after hearing the offer, confident that it would be accepted. She wasn't paying attention to her right flank.

    In the moonlit darkness of the forest, a break in the canopy shone moonlight down around where Katrina lay. Raven had pulled in to Katrina's left flank but not even Katrina knew she was there. Raven, from the shadows, saw Katrina, and she saw the hunter standing to Katrina's right, his weapon aimed at her head. This had all gone horribly wrong, and Raven reacted to the sight of her lover in perilous danger with an explosion of
panicked reaction. She screamed across the small clearing, startling the bowman and everyone else in the area.

    The last thing the bowman saw when he looked up was a black shadow coming at him through the air... shapeless and swift. Eyes widening, he barely had time to flinch before he released the arrow and braced for the impact.

    Xena knew it could only be one person who could pierce the tension with that anguished, animal scream. Startled, both she and Ciaus ceased their struggling with one another. They heard a hunter call out 'over here' not thirty feet away followed by shouts and running bodies crashing through the trees.

    "Katrina," she whispered faintly.

    She let Ciaus go and charged into the brush, following the sound of the men's voices as she bounced blindly off trees that met her squarely in the chest and face. With her heart pounding and breath tearing in and out of her, she burst into the small clearing.

    Gabrielle accepted the goblet of wine from Ephany but sat it down on the table beside her. She felt her stomach tighten at the purpose of this meeting and the aroma of the wine. The bard gave thanks in silence to Apollo for her 'gift', but truly regretted the circumstances under which she now had to use it.

    Gabrielle had arrived to find Ephany in charge in Melosa's absence. This was not the ideal situation in which to muster an 'army', but, despite the Queen's absence, these were still Gabrielle's people and Ephany was a dependable friend and ally. Ephany noticed the look on the bard's face.. the wine set aside... the downcast eyes. She moved closer to Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her, drawing her close.. holding her, and Gabrielle welcomed the embrace.

    "You haven't told me what Athena said before she left," she said gently to the bard.

    They stood on a platform out side the Queen's Chamber in full view of the other women. Torches lit the darkened village square but they weren't really necessary. In the center, a monstrous bon fire burned hotly as painted, sweating bodies danced with abandon to the drums.

    Gabrielle pulled back a bit to look into Ephany's eyes, but she still held the embrace. "She told me about the meeting with Ares... the intentions of Tethian's army. She told me what they thought Ares plan was."

    "And you know all this to be true?"

    Puzzled, Gabrielle frowned, "what do you mean? That Athena might lie?"

    "She's desperate to save Athens, her city. Duplicity could become her tactic as well. Ares doesn't have exclusive rights to it."

    Sadly, the bard shook her head.  "You know, Athena warned that no god or goddess would help until the first temple, or shrine or statue was struck. I guess it's not just the gods who react like that." She pulled away from Ephany and walked towards the edge of the platform, ready to speak, waiting for the drumming and the dancing to be over.

    She could sense the climax to the dance was almost near... she understood the dance now, and the drumming. The sweat soaked bodies, almost naked, writhing in deliberate simulations. Deep in angered thought, she flinched when Ephany put her hand on her shoulder and attempted to turn her face to face.

    "You said this was god against god, Gabrielle. Knowing their history... you tell stories about it!.. how can I not consider that this might not be only in Athena's best interests?"

    "Because *I'm* telling you all this, Ephany. Me. Gabrielle. And this is much too important... and I believe what Xena saw with her own eyes, "the bard paused, "the people need us, Ephany... those women in the army camp need us to *do* something!"

    "Gabrielle, please..."

    Abruptly, the drums stopped.

    "You can't just do nothing... what will happen when Tethian comes through here and he *will* come... and he won't just take a few Amazons hostage, Ephany... he'll take you all! I can feel it. Ares knows he won't be able to 'enlist' the services of the Amazons... not with women already being tortured in the camps."

    Gabrielle glared hotly into Ephany's surprised eyes.

    "Don't fight for Athena, then. Fight for Artemis. Fight for yourselves."

    All eyes were upon her. Her voice had carried *very* well, even to the women who's bodies were pounding hard from the dance. The silence wore on as Gabrielle looked over her audience. From out of the shadows, some women came into the light in couples, adjusting their rumpled clothing to their bodies to cover up what they had been doing, and some not caring to hide anything. Patiently, she waited for them, understanding what they were doing in the dark to the rhythm of the drums and why.

    "This village has been abuzz for the last three hours on why I'm here... the details I made available to you when I first came here with Athena, but now there's more you should know."

    "What's this about fighting for Artemis... isn't this Athena's war with Ares?" A voice from the back, strong and yet not angry.

    "Not any more. It's Ares' war with all the gods. He wants to gain position to be allowed on Olympus. He will take Athens and then control everything from there if he can. And if he's still not welcome on Olympus, then he'll destroy the temples, shrines and statue of all the other gods... with the help.. no, the blessings... of all the people who were spared by him from slaughter by this army."

    "Then, consider the first blow to a temple as already struck."

    "Excuse me?" Gabrielle queried.

    "Nothing... absolutely nothing... will grant him entrance to Olympus. He may have aspirations, but they will get him no where. *Some* of the gods may not realize it, but his war with them has already moved on beyond just his confrontation with Athena. No, Zeus will not welcome Ares." Still the same voice, still steady and strong.

    Gabrielle felt Ephany's hand on her shoulder again. The women in the square began to search out the voice.

    "You are sure of this? How do you know?"

    A moment. Another moment.

    "I know my father."

    "I think I'm going to be sick," Gabrielle moaned wretchedly as she paced in the Queen's Chambers.

    "We leave at first light... I need to tell the warriors..."

    "Ohhhh, gods... no..."

    Gabrielle reached for the first urn she could get her hands on that was relatively close. Ephany just stared at her as she threw up and dry heaved into the urn.

    "Well, what in blazes is wrong with you?"

    Gagging and spitting even more, Gabrielle sat down with the urn on her lap.

    "Maybe you have experience at going into war, Ephany, but I don't. I've organized one counter-siege with Meleager, and I've defended villages with Xena against small armies, but this is 1500 men, Ephany!"

    Ephany suddenly laughed, bewildering the bard. "I swear, by the hairs growing around Hera's nipples, little bard, I am *not* taking these women into battle against 1500 men."

    Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh a little... Ephany grinned back at her. The bard wondered if Hera could hear that.

    "Seriously, what good would we be if we just added our selves to the ranks that defended Athens? It's not our style of battle."

    Ephany opened a trunk and began to rummage inside. The first thing she pulled out was a small backpack and a blanket.

    "What are you going to do?" Gabrielle asked weakly as she moved the odorous urn away from her nose.

    "Run ambushes and interrupt supplies. We can take out small squads of the army pretty effectively with our style, especially at night."

    Gabrielle felt her stomach tighten again. "I've never killed anyone, Ephany."

    "I know... it's not in your nature. Why do you think I gave you the staff?" The warrior smiled warmly at the bard, waiting for her to get the rest of her thoughts into words.

    "How can I give the orders for you... for *us*... to kill?"

    The warrior thought about this for a moment. She had planned on keeping the bard with her when they split the women into squads... protecting her... but then just now realized that Gabrielle wanted to lead, not follow. Her admiration for the Princess swelled in her heart.

    "Gabrielle, you order to 'attack'... what happens in the attack is something that must be decided when the fighting is taking place. Some will die... some will survive."

    "And when the battle is over, and the body count begins? Who is responsible then?"

    Ephany pursed her lips and shook her head sadly. Did Gabrielle ask Xena such hard questions?

    "The responsibility lies with those who chose to make war on people who have no choice but to defend themselves in any way they can."

    The bard nodded her understanding. She knew she had to remove herself from feeling responsible or there would be no peace in her dreams just as there wasn't for Xena. Gabrielle felt a sudden need to be close to her lover. She unconsciously reached her hand to the braid that had Xena's hair intertwined with hers and felt it between her fingers. She was about to change her life forever, and even though Ephany was understanding, she needed Xena. Xena understood her convictions better than anybody. But, just as sadly, she realized, she counted on Xena to take the brunt if someone in their melees had to die.

    "Are you going to the temple tonight?" Gabrielle asked after a moment.

    The Amazon stood up straight and looked to the anguished bard.

    "Of coarse... it's... tradition for the Queen to lead the temple prayer before a battle, but in Melosa's absence, I'm elected."

    "I think I'll join you," Gabrielle half smiled.

    "Then you should lead the prayer, Princess Gabrielle," the warrior smiled.

    "No.. I couldn't..."

    "Artemis seems to have found favor with you. With Melosa not here, things might not have been decided until she returned."

    The bard nodded and rubbed her aching abdomen. She knew it was still early in the evening... plenty of time for the ritual bath, the dressing up and the temple session. She was hoping that sleep would be on the list of preparations before they departed.

    "I'll meet you at the baths, Gabrielle. I have to pack some things from my own home and I have to give instructions to the lieutenants... and make sure the horses will be ready."

    Ephany picked up the backpack and bedroll before she swept the curtain aside to leave.

    "Horses? You didn't say anything about horses!"

    Ephany glanced at Gabrielle and winked before she ducked the bard's panicked shouts.

    "I want a small one! You make sure it's a small one, Ephany! Ephany!"