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Editor's Choice Award

Disclaimer: The Characters in this story donít belong to me. They are the property of Universal. This story is meant solely for entertainment purposes and no monetary gain was made by the author. I also want to give credit to Mercedes Lackey whose mage and elf concepts were borrowed by yours truly. There is strong Subtext in this story...including some references to a lesbian relationship. So please be 18 if youíre reading this story, and please let it be legal where you are. That being said....I hope you enjoy the story.

By Shari Weiss

The sounds of battle emanated through the sunlit woods. Eleni strained her senses to determine which direction the noise was coming from. As she moved quickly through the dense forest, she began to see shadows moving ahead. Finally, the battleplace came into view. A dark-haired woman clad in leather and armor was battling fiercely with a small group of what appeared to be bandits. Beside her, a blonde woman clad in a scant green outfit of Amazon origin was wielding a staff with expert precision. Although the women were fighting well, Eleni could tell they were in trouble. These men were no ordinary bandits.

Eleni pulled her hooded cloak over her head, and drew her sword. It glinted in the sunlight as she ran forward and engaged the nearest man. Her sword clashed with his as he whirled in surprise at this unexpected interference. She undercut his next blow and delivered a disabling kick to his head, as he collapsed onto the ground. Following her senses, Eleni twisted her sword and thrust backwards, feeling a satisfying grunt from the killer behind her. He would not bother her again.

Eleni caught a questioning glance from the dark-haired warrior. She sent a word of comfort using a fragment of power....friend. The woman arched her eyebrow in surprise, but didnít have time for anything else as another attacker came forward. The blonde woman seemed to take her cues from the other, and nodded briefly toward Eleni before resuming her own efforts. Eleni also became otherwise occupied.

As Eleni fought, she felt a sense of familiarity for the dark warrior, but could not put her finger on it. The three women formed a triad of defense as wave after wave of attackers came toward them. Eleni parried and thrust as swords clashed and glinted in the light. She was bruised and had some superficial cuts from various attackers. But she did not allow these to affect her abilities.

Finally, the men had had enough. They retreated and fled back into the woods, carrying their dead and wounded with them. The three women stood silently for a moment, catching their breath and sizing each other up. Eleni put her sword back in its scabbard on her back, in order to demonstrate she meant no harm. However, she kept her hood on her head, not ready to divulge her identity.

Suddenly, the dark-haired womanís blue eyes glared and she swung her sword up to Ellenís neck. Eleni kept her gaze cool even though she could feel the bite of the sharp blade.

"Xena..." the blonde-haired woman put a gentle hand on the warriorís sword arm.

"Who are you?" The one called Xena didnít waver despite her partners objections.

Eleni met the ice blue gaze. "I mean you no harm. I am Eleni. I was traveling through these woods when I heard the sound of your battle. It appeared to me that you needed some I did."

"Xena," said the blonde woman, "she did help us. Please, donít hurt her."

Xena slowly lowered her sword, but did not take her gaze off Eleni. "Thank you for your help."

The blonde woman smiled at Eleni. "I am Gabrielle, and this is my friend Xena. We appreciate the help...things were kind of hairy there for a moment."

Eleni knew her mouth was visible beneath the hood, so she smiled in return. She relaxed slightly, although she could feel the gaze of Xena still upon her. Xena...I thought I recognized you. You havenít changes that much over the years. Eleni kept her thoughts to herself, unsure whether or not she wanted to share them. She decided it would be safest to remain silent and anonymous for now.

Almost as if she had read Eleniís mind, Xena looked the hooded figure up and down.

She could tell it was a woman, but that was all she could tell. Although from seeing her fight, Xena knew she was a skilled warrior. And there was something else...although she could not put her finger on it.

"Remove your hood." Xena did not make this a request, but a demand.

Eleni glared at Xena through her hood. "I aided you in your time of need, warrior. Now I ask that you respect my privacy."

Gabrielle could sense the tension growing between he two women, and decided to interfere. "Hey, I have an idea. We are all tired and I donít know about you guys, but I am starving. How about we continue this conversation over a campfire and some food?"

Xena glared at Gabrielle momentarily, and then her expression softened. She glanced at Eleni and then back at Gabrielle.

"Fine. But Iíll tell you now, I donít like it. We donít know who she is or why sheís here."

Eleni spoke up. "I already told you warrior. I was traveling through the woods. I am no threat to you."

Xena turned to Eleni and moved close to her. "Weíll see about that. Iíll be watching you."

Eleni held her ground against the accusing stare from Xena. Xena turned and stomped off toward a clearing in the woods that seemed suitable for a campsite. Gabrielle watched her go, and then turned toward the hooded woman.

"Sorry about that." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly. "Xena isnít what you might call the trusting type. She is a very cautious person. Please donít take offense."

Again, Eleni smiled at the beautiful blonde. She also send a tendril of comfort to put the woman at ease. "I do not take offense. She is only doing what comes naturally."

Gabrielle seemed relieved and gestured toward the campsite that Xena was now intently making. However, Eleni could sense that the woman was still watching her very carefully. She made her way over to the site, and wordlessly began gathering firewood. Before long the women had a fairly comfortable campsite set up. Gabrielle placed a pot on the fire, and added dried meat, water and various spices to it. Then, she began cutting up vegetables.

Eleni sat opposite Gabrielle at the fire. Xena sat between them, purposely sharpening her sword. The long strokes made a distinct scraping sound. Eleni smirked, and took out her own sword and began her own ministrations. The sword had a faint glow to it, and she could see Xena glancing at it as inconspicuously as possible.

"The sword was a gift from a...friend." Eleni spoke softly.

Xena glanced at it more openly. "Nice blade."

Gabrielle smiled to herself. It was almost humorous the way the two warriors were posturing for each other. She had to admit, she was curious about this new stranger. She did not understand why the woman would not remove her hood so that they could see her face. She knew Xena was not comfortable with the womanís secrecy.

Xena was carefully watching the woman seated near her. She did not like the fact that Eleni would not take off her hood. She did not trust what she could not see. And something else was bothering her. She was certain the woman had somehow spoken to her during the fight without using words. Almost as if she had spoken to her mind to mind. Her instincts told her to be careful but that this woman would not harm them. However, Xena was not going to take any chances. And one other thing...this woman had a sense of familiarity to her. To Xena could not place her finger on it.

Gabrielle decided to make some conversation...the silence was becoming too deafening.

"So, Eleni where are you from?"

Eleni paused in her ministrations. She eyed Gabrielle for a moment and then resumed working on her sword.

"I am from a place very far from here. It is called Rendalar."

"Rendalar. Iíve never heard of it. Is it near Athens?" Gabrielle began stirring the contents of the pot as she talked.

"No." Eleni began wiping her blade with a soft cloth from her pack. "It is much farther away. Over the Serenar Mountains. It would be southeast of Athens, but a great distance southeast."

Gabrielle nodded. " I am from Potedia, and Xena is from Amphipolis."

Eleni stopped what she was doing and looked over at Xena. It is her. "Then you are the one known as the Warrior Princess ?? The Slayer of Nations?"

Xena glared at Eleni. "That is who I was...once. That was a long time ago."

Eleni nodded. "So it has been said. I had heard rumors that the mighty Xena was no longer the warlord of legend."

Xena said nothing, but Gabrielle could sense the tension growing between the two women. If things continued, the consequences might turn deadly.

"That was years ago." Gabrielle directed a gaze at Eleni, trying to penetrate the hooded face. "Xena has changed. She fights for the rights of others now. There are many who owe her their lives."

"Change is admirable," said Eleni. "It is not always easy to turn from the embrace of darkness."

"And what would you know of darkness?" Xena growled at her.

Eleni didnít flinch. "I know much of darkness, Warrior. I too have fought my demons. They were not always easy to conquer. Hate is a powerful foe."

Suddenly Xena felt threatened, and her muscles tensed in readiness. "And do you now still hate?"

Eleni grew quiet, and Gabrielle felt a sense of uneasiness. But then Eleni put her sword back in its scabbard, and folded her hands in a gesture of peace.

"I have vanquished my demons, warrior. Much in the same way you vanquished yours." Eleni removed her hood, revealing dark hair and eyes. She was a darkly beautiful woman.

It took Xena a moment before the woman before her registered with her memory. She couldnít hide the look of shock that came over her. Sitting next to her was an image from her past that was once long forgotten.

" it truly you?"

A look of sadness passed over the now unmasked woman. Gabrielle kept glancing back and forth between he two, trying to understand what was happening.

"It is I." Eleniís voice became soft. "Although I am quite different from the young girl you once knew."

Xenaís expression changed from shock to wariness. "I thought...."

"That I was dead." Eleni finished the sentence for her. "And that is exactly how I wanted it. I could not afford to let you know I was alive, for fear you would hunt me down."

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "Xena, is she someone from your past? What does she mean Ďhunt her downí?"

Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Elenora was once squad leader in my army. She had great promise and I had plans to make her one of my chief lieutenants. Until she betrayed me."

Eleni averted her eyes. Still ashamed of betraying Xenaís trust, but not regretting her decision. She could not meet Gabrielleís stare.

"How did she betray you?" Asked Gabrielle.

"We were massing outside a village known as Pelota," Xena began. " I had ordered several units to recon the area and after conferring with my lieutenants, it was decided we would attack. We gave the villagers one day to give us the supplies and shelter we wanted or get out. After the day was over, the people of Pelota hadnít moved. They decided to stay and fight. I ordered our troops to attack at moonrise. "

"What about the women and children ? Surely they were evacuated?" Gabrielle looked at Xena, feeling like she already knew the answer.

"They were not." Eleni spoke up.

Xena glanced at Eleni, and then continued. "No, they werenít. I ordered Elenoraís squad to lead the advance. She refused. I demoted her on the spot, and chose a successor. I figured Iíd deal with her once the village was taken. But instead of staying in her tent as ordered, she snuck out and went to the villagers. She helped them organize, knowing our plan of attack. When my people and I attacked, she stood by the villagers fighting by their side. It was one of the few battles I ever lost. Later that night, she foolishly returned to my camp. I had ordered some men to look for her, but I also ordered that she be taken alive. I wanted to be the one to deal with her. She walked right into my tent."

Eleni sighed. "I knew what I had done, and I was willing to take responsibility for it. I was tired of the killing. And I couldnít allow women and children to be victims any more. But you had taken me under your wing. You had taught me so much. I considered you a friend, and I felt I owed you an explanation."

Xenaís eyes softened, and a look of regret tinged her face. "I did not want to hear any explanations. I felt she had betrayed me. So I ordered her...punished."

Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on Xenaís shoulder.

Xena continued her story. "I was furious that she disobeyed my direct order. And as a point of discipline, I could not ignore that. But in addition, she had fought against me. To me, that was unforgivable. I had her tied to stakes in the camp, and I personally delivered her punishment. She was whipped repeatedly over the next three days. I told her if she begged for mercy perhaps I would put her out of her misery. I was determined to break her. But she was strong. After three days, I cut her down and dragged her out of the camp. I figured no one could survive what she had endured. I left her in a clearing to die, figuring she would either bleed to death or be eaten by something."

Eleniís eyes darkened with memory. "I was certain that I was going to die. But I wouldnít give you the satisfaction of hearing that. I was sorry that I had betrayed you, but I had no regrets. After you and your army moved on, I lay in that clearing waiting to die. But a short time after you left, I was rescued. I spent the next few years healing and...well that is another story."

Xena stared at Eleni for a few moments. She didnít really know what to say. Gabrielle took that time to try and process what she had just heard. She had dealt with things from Xenaís past before. There was a dark side to Xena that was an unfortunate part of her, and Gabrielle knew that this would not be the last time she was confronted with this.

Eleni decided to speak first. "I have wanted to find you for some time now. I had heard that you had turned your life around soon after Pelota. And I had heard that you were now spending your days trying to make up for all the death and pain you had caused. That is what I had been doing myself. I was on my way to Athens hoping to hear some word of you. I was not sure how you would react to seeing me alive, but I figured that you wouldnít kill me out of hand. I was rather surprised to run into you out here."

Xena nodded. She felt a swirl of emotions inside of her. She had been so angry at this young woman. But after she had made the changes in her life, she had always regretted her actions. She had finally understood what had driven Elenora to her decision. But she had thought it too late to do anything about it.

"It took me a while to understand why you did what you did." Xena began, her voice trembling a bit. "By the time I turned my life was too late. Or so I thought. I never forgot what I did to you. But I never thought I would ever have the chance to do anything about it. You neednít regret your decision. You did the right thing, though at the time I couldnít see that."

Eleni felt tears welling up in her eyes. She had waited so long to tell Xena how she felt. She had waited so long for forgiveness. So long to bring some peace to her memories. "Xena...I never meant to hurt you. I just couldnít go through with it..."

Xena reached over and placed her arms on Eleniís shoulders. Tears starting to form in her own eyes. "You donít need to ask my forgiveness. You did nothing wrong. Do you hear me? You did what you did for the right reasons...for the greater good. I just couldnít understand that or see it. If anyone needs to ask for forgiveness...its me."

Eleni allowed the tears to flow freely down her cheeks. She closed her eyes, overwhelmed by the intense relief she felt. Old wounds seemed to be healing inside of her. "Xena, you had your reasons as well. I forgave you a long time ago."

Xena pulled Eleni into an embrace. She could feel the warmth of Eleniís skin against her. "Iím not proud of who I was or what I did. The woman who hurt you all those years ago is no longer. I cannot deny my past, but I do what I can to make up for it. I am so sorry for hurting you. I can only ask that you give me a chance do prove this to you."

Eleni began to sob as Xena held her. The pain and anger melted away as she cried. After a while, she felt calm returning to her and she was able to stop. Slowly, she pulled away. "There is nothing to prove Xena. You have changed. If you hadnít you probably would have killed me on sight. Perhaps now is not the time for regrets...but for healing."

Xena smiled. "Agreed."

Gabrielle felt a tremendous sense of relief. She could tell that the tension had passed. Whatever had happened between the two women was a good thing. And Eleni was right. It was now the time to heal. Gabrielle sighed contentedly and returned to finishing their supper. She had a lot of questions for Xena and Eleni. But those would have to wait. For now.

To Be Continued

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