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LEGAL DISCLAIMERS: The characters (you know who they are) all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended etc etc. All other characters and story/poetry lines are mine, so...um...don't do anything nasty to them please.
I'd also like to note that the characters referred to as the 'Huns' belong to Eimajj, but there's only a small reference to them and no copyright infringement is intended.
VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER: Well, it wouldn't really be Xena without it now would it? This story may have a sweet title, but be warned: there's some graphic violence and death, so if that's not you're scene, I suggest you reconsider reading further. Sorry.
SUBTEXT/LOVE/HURT DISCLAIMER: If you want to read between the lines, it's your journey; I guess we all see the friendship of Xena and Gab in different ways. I will, however, say that this story isn't all happy bunnies and smilie-faced suns.
THE HOPEFUL BARD: All comments/criticisms are welcome, so if you end this travel with any thoughts, don't hesitate to send them (...please!)
'Maybe Angels' is Copyright of Trey 1998
There are but two things we can be truly be certain of in this existence; one is life and the other death. What happens in-between we leave to a mixture of Fate and Choice. This story is thus written for Kay, my Amazon sister, without who's halo of saint-hood I might not have fallen onto this side of the story. I thank her with all my heart for her encouragement and support: may the gods grant her happiness always.
A howl echoed down into the valley below, calling mournfully to the night as the wisps of first-light began to edge into the sky. The wolf lowered its head and listened intently as his cry was reincarnated across the distant horizon, announcing the new day to the wakening forest.
The animal's ears suddenly caught the sound of soft, rhythmic hoof-beats upon the autumn leaves. He merged his being adeptly into his surroundings, blending his streaked coat into the mosaic of shadows, and watched.
He cocked his head slightly, observing the grace and strength with which both horse and rider moved - in itself, an awing sight. The Amazon, revealed by her constant vigilance, her acute awareness of the forest, was young. The new dawn reflected off her blonde hair, which trailed, golden, to her shoulders. Her clothes were typical of her kind, practical yet well-fitting, and her sword gleamed from its scabbard at her waist. Her mount was equally stunning, if not unique. It bore a velvet pelt darker than the eyes of Aries, yet its mane and tail glowed with the pureness of angels. Their contrast was startling to behold, the magnificence and individuality of each, complimenting the other.
They paused at the crest of the ridge, the wolf acknowledging their wonderment and respect for the dawn to be the same as his, the same as any creatures that lived within the forests of nature.
The girl stared at the swirls of gold and red which now entangled themselves with the hue of sapphire azure. She could feel the presence of the wolf, she knew him to be curious of their company, but saw no threat and let him remain hidden.
'We're almost there,' she whispered to the stallion, 'I think we're close now.'
The wolf watched as the horse snorted in reply, and the two disappeared from sight. He hesitated momentarily, before tracing their path to the ridge. He lifted his head once more, and gave a low call of caution to the travellers.
It was known to Amazons that wolves had a higher perception of life than man had yet evolved, and the girl took heed of his warning, but trekked onwards - knowing her task was close to completion.
She spurred her mount to a steady canter and kept her eyes fixedly on the stony path ahead.
Xena glared at the bottom of her empty mug and drummed her fingers on the bar counter in impatience. There were few others in the tavern at this time of day, and all was quiet.
'Too quiet,' she mused.
The insistent chatter of her best friend made her turn to the stairs, where Gabrielle was conjuring some fantasy tale to the inn keeper as she descended. A slight smile tugged at the corners of the warrior's mouth as she saw the man in obvious suspense - a compliment to the bard's skill.
'And then what?' he prompted the red-haired girl, 'Icas was sacrificed?'
'Ah ahh,' she replied, waving a finger at him, 'we had a deal. You'll just have to wait 'til this evening like the rest of the village to hear the ending...and in return you'll let us stay another night free of charge.'
He sighed with defeat at her innocent grin and shrugged, walking behind the bar to attend to a customer.
She chuckled quietly and dropped a pouch on the counter in front of Xena.
'Hey, you didn't stay up long enough to see all the dinars we collected last night,' she mocked, 'that's unlike the Warrior Princess I know...'
'I was tired,' came the blunt reply.
Gabrielle lowered her eyes.
'You mean you were bored,' she thought to herself.
Xena noticed her reaction, and was about to add a light joke when a scream rang out from beyond the tavern walls. It was joined by others as the thunder of hooves accompanied the grate of metal as swords were drawn.
The warrior's dark eyes sparkled with excitement, the anticipation of battle coursing through her blood as she rose and sprang to the door.
'At last!' she thought, 'A chance for some real action!'
Gabrielle grabbed her staff, the pouch and a small loaf of bread as she followed her friend with slightly more reluctance.
'Just when things were starting to settle down...'
Outside they saw this would be a challenge of a fight, there were almost two dozen Raiders brandishing a variety of unpleasant weaponry, against a village of panic-stricken villagers. Xena bathed in the atmosphere for several seconds, relishing the feeling of power as it surged through her soul. She laughed immorally and joined the fray...
The Amazon had only made it half way down the ridge before she saw the commotion plaguing the village below her. Smoke rose high into the air as fires added horror to chaos, and screams of pain summoned Hades to the scene.
If Xena was in this valley, that was where she'd be...
The stallion gave a cry of confirmation and galloped down the slope. The wolf sat on its hunches and regarded their movements with concern, but made no attempt to follow.
Xena felt more alive than she had in weeks, shaking off the doziness which had inhabited her spirit, she now radiated strength. Bandits fell as she fought against their tides of contempt, this wasn't as much a battle with them as it was a rebellion against the part of her which had enjoyed the relaxation of the easy life. She rejoiced at the sight of her foes' blood and swung her sword higher, harder, releasing the energy which had been penned up, and immersing herself in the feeling of freedom.
Still, if there was one thing she had learned through her tormented life, it was that there was no such thing as easy combat, and this turned to be no exception. Far from retreating, the Raiders pressed on, pushing Xena and Gabrielle back towards the inn with sheer numbers. There was a yelp from beside her as the bard was struck in the head and fell to the ground. Xena blocked desperately as a blade lashed towards her friend's anguished form, and bolted her free arm to her hip where her chakram hung. She grabbed the deathly ring and flicked her wrist, sending it spinning with fatal accuracy to take out three assailants. Gabrielle had regained her composure and was now on her feet, but Xena could see she was badly hurt.
'We have to get out of here,' she thought. Every warrior knew when to admit defeat and withdraw, after all, he could always find another chance to fight - a dead man wouldn't have that option.
She caught her chakram on its return and hastily stepped in front of her friend.
'When I say, run for Argo,' she commanded between parries.
Gabrielle weakly tried to argue, '...but - '
Xena faced a new flurry of swords, using her tightly-clutched chakram as an added blade.
'GO!' she ordered, and Gabrielle obeyed.
The Amazon rider pursued a fleeing warrior as he vainly attempted to make it to the safety of his comrades with loot. She spurred the dark horse faster, unsheathing her sword and swinging it at his retreat, hastily departing him to the next world before he hit the ground. A child shrieked with fear as he landed by its 'sleeping' relative, but the Harlot hardly noticed. She rounded a corner and was faced with the main fight.
She grinned, her horse grunting with effort as it exceeded its capable speed, acknowledging what his master was about to do.
Fire blazed angrier on all sides, and the young warrior uttered a soul-wrenching battle cry as her hands tugged at the reins, forcing the stallion to a skid while catapulting her over its head. She somersaulted mid-flight as only an Amazon knew how, and kicked both legs forward so they caught a Raider squarely in the shoulder-blades. He fell with a crack, and she landed cat-like on his unresisting form.
Her sword flew across countless opponents as she aided the lone Princess in her battle. They fought simultaneously, side-by-side, back-to-back, with such unnerving zest that within minutes those who had been spared had absconded, and those who were seriously wounded were shown the mercy of a quick death by the villagers.
As the last man fled, they observed the carnage. Buildings - deformed skeletons, black and charred with malevolence - smouldered sombrely as the backdrop of a terrifying scene. The village square was littered with bodies from both sides, their frozen expressions akin in their trepidation while their weapons lay discarded, the only ones who would fight again.
The surviving peasants stirred gingerly from hiding, blinking in stunned disbelief at the dismal sight. The Amazon recognised the child among them, a girl no older than seven, as she wept openly in the dirt, and for one fleeting moment she saw herself. She was thrown back in time to that one day, that one hour, when her life had shattered around her.
The nightmare she had fought so viciously through her past; the vision of red which had cost her a lifetime's peace, reared up and confronted its repressor. It demanded her to face it, forcing her to encounter her phobia - the one thing she truly feared.
'NO!' she screamed to herself, lifting her face to the sky and screwing her eyes closed as she was forced to see it again, 'no...no...NO...'
'Are you all right?'
The spell was broken, the memory receded to its prison and she slammed the cell door shut.
She opened her eyes, trying to calm her ragged breaths while hugging her arms tightly round her ribs in an attempt to stop her body from shaking. She suddenly realised that Xena thought she was injured, and promptly flashed a tense smile.
'I'm fine,' she lied, breathing deeply and averting her gaze from the child.
The warrior whipped round in response to the cry, 'Gabrielle!'
The bard stumbled into her arms and was caught comfortingly.
'Your head...' Xena muttered, tracing the wound with her fingers.
Gabrielle cringed slightly at the pain of the touch, but refused to let it show, 'I'll be okay...you had us worried there for a while.'
Argo, Xena's chestnut mare, trotted over and nuzzled the warrior's neck.
'Of course, how could I forget you?' she laughed.
The Amazon watched this reunion with controlled emotion, and called for her companion who appeared through the smoke with a soft whinny.
The two women turned to her and were met with an even stare. The girl's eyes were of the deepest emerald-green Gabrielle had ever beheld, appearing to bear all the questions of the Universe in their gaze, while curious - almost begging - for someone to answer them. Her hair was streaked with blood, the red fluid toning the blonde and smearing her face. It trickled down her arms, staining her hands and clothes, proclaiming her deeds to the world while seeming not to feel any remorse.
Xena saw no cuts whatsoever on the girl - the blood was that of the Raiders, not her own. It amazed her that she had come through the battle unscathed - she was so young...
The Amazon turned and began to walk slowly out of the village, she had no desire to stay here - the Memory was growing too strong...she had to get away...
'You'd better take Argo and go with her,' Xena said, cocking her head after the girl, 'I'll stay here and see what I can do for the wounded.'
Under normal circumstances Gabrielle would have objected to leaving her friend, believing that she was being over-protective, but these weren't normal circumstances. The bard was sickened by the sight of so much death, and her head throbbed with agony and exhaustion.
She nodded sullenly and didn't argue as the warrior boosted her up into the saddle. These were anything but 'normal circumstances.'
An hour or so later the bard was sitting on a rock in a small clearing of forest. She listened to the soothing tumble of water in the distance and busied herself repairing a tear in her skirt. Her eyes refused to look into the burning fire - she knew it would only remind her of the day's earlier events.
Xena's jaded figure finally trudged through the trees and sank thankfully down beside her, taking the water-skin offered her and grinning wearily.
'Where's the girl?' she asked, taking a long gulp of water and rubbing the muscles in her arms.
'She went to clean up.' Gabrielle replied absently, waving vaguely in the direction of the river while concentrating all thought on her needle.
Xena studied her friend, noting the soaked bandage around her head.
'Here, let me see that...' she leant closer and reached out.
'Xena, I'm fine.'
'You didn't seem fine in the village today,' came the reply, as the warrior eased the bandage off and took a clean rag from her healing pouch.
'You're doing that "protect Gabrielle" thing again...' the bard complained, rolling her eyes, 'you know, if I had a dinar for every time you did this, I'd be living in a palace in Athens by now.'
'And if I had a dinar for every time I thought you needed protecting - '
'You'd be begging in the gutter,' Gabrielle finished.
Their humour broke the icy wall between them and they grinned at each other.
'I was proud of you today.' Xena mused.
'What, proud of the fact that I almost got us both killed?' came the reply, with raised eyebrows.
Xena considered this remark for a moment, 'Yep.'
Gabrielle punched her jestingly, and the warrior was about to retaliate when the young Amazon stepped into the clearing, her hair dripping and her skin cleansed of blood.
The two friends rose and the bard exchanged a smile with the younger girl, 'Xena, this is Rel. Rel, Xena.'
Rel bowed her head slightly to the warrior.
'You fight like a Hun.' was all Xena could think of saying.
The girl looked up sharply, 'I'm an Amazon!' she retorted offendedly.
'It was meant to be a compliment,' came the amused reply.
'Oh. Sorry,' Rel blushed and changed the subject swiftly, 'Queen Melosa sent me to find you.'
'She sent you?'
As soon as the words were out, Xena regretted them. Rel had undoubtedly saved her life, as well as Gabrielle's.
'You must be highly thought of in the tribe,' she added quickly.
The bard threw her a glance which said "good recovery" and turned back to the girl.
'What's wrong, the Amazons aren't involved in another war are they...?'
'Ah, no - for once,' Rel replied, 'it's nothing like that. At the next full moon the Vindasha is due, you're presence is requested, being the Amazon Princess.'
'The festival of Artemis,' Xena explained.
'Ooh, festival?' images of a party-goers danced through Gabrielle's mind, 'lead on!'
The Raider took a deep breath as the guards nodded him into the tent. Rift wasn't going to like the news he brought, and he pulled his mind together earnestly for the task ahead.
'Knol!' the leader greeted him, 'Come!'
The Second in Command obliged, taking the glass of wine presented to him and standing in front of the oak desk, behind which sat the authoritative figure of the camp's dictator. Whether "Rift" was, in fact, his real name no one knew, no one had ever asked, but Knol found his mind wandering away from the subject at hand.
'About the village...'
'Ah yes, the village,' the Leader leered, 'you did well for your first raid in command - I could see the smoke rising above the hills from here.'
His sneer served only to tense the Lieutenant further.
'I swear I could even hear the peasants screams...' he continued.
He raised his glass and was about to propose a toast, when he saw the younger man was still staring at the ground.
'Look at me when I talk!' he ordered, his voice snapping Knol's eyes from the floor.
The older man analysed his comrade carefully.
'I know that look,' he resounded, 'you didn't bring back much loot, did you?'
Knol didn't answer directly, 'We tried but - '
The Commander tilted his head back and roared, his laughter rumbling through the tent as he shook.
'You have a lot to learn,' he scoffed, shaking his head, 'you can't expect to succeed overnight. To be honest, I didn't think you'd do as well as you did. Credit is due.'
Knol saw a slight glimmer of hope, a possibility of escaping the shroud of his cloak...
'There were only a handful left...' he chimed.
'That's more like it!' Rift clasped his Second's shoulder, 'we'll make a strong warrior of you yet...'
'No, he'll burn in Tartarius before he becomes a real warrior.'
Both men looked up to see Rift's son, Sallos, standing in the tent's entrance. His broad-shouldered figure was silhouetted against the late-afternoon light.
'Sallos, leave us! This is business for the commanding officers only, I do not intend favouritism towards you simply because of your heritage...'
'Oh I don't doubt your intentions, father.' came the reply, 'I only bring - how shall I put it - "alternative information" on this morning's raid.'
Knol squirmed in his seat.
'Sallos...' Rift's voice was edged with warning, he knew of his son's attempts to become Second so as he might earn the right of Leadership on his death.
The man stepped further into the tent, letting the canvas drop behind him so that his face became lit by torch light.
'Trust, father - you once told me that the key to command was trust, did you not?'
'I did.' the Leader replied, 'get to the point Sallos.'
'Did you not also tell me that honesty by all led to a successful army, and that deception was not to be tolerated?'
'I did.' Rift repeated.
'Then surely you would not insult your fellow men by appointing a deceiver as your Lieutenant, would you?'
'And what,' Rift moved to within an arm's length of his son, 'would you mean by that?'
'Why not let Knol explain?' came the challenge.
By this time Knol himself was desperately searching for an escape route, the dagger at his side seeming to shrink into nothingness compared to the blade his antagonist possessed.
'Yes Knol, explain to your Commander how you were defeated by three women this morning,' Sallos stepped past his father and faced his rival, 'explain how they killed eighteen of your brave warriors while you ran from them - do explain Knol.'
Rift looked as his Second avoided his gaze, 'Is this true?'
The old warrior had fought many times on the battlefield of life, he knew how men conspired against each other for rank, he wanted to give the boy a chance of defence against the accusations.
'That's not how it happened,' Knol began, 'there was - '
'He admits it!' Sallos reached for his sword, 'what more do you need to hear father?'
'Let him SPEAK!' Rift bellowed.
He refused to believe Knol would show cowardice in a fight, he had watched him grow up, watched him become the most competent warrior he had ever trained. No, there would be an explanation, he had grown to cherish the level-headed boy more than his own son, grown to trust in his word above anything, there would be an explanation...
'There were only three women.' he confessed.
Sallos opened his mouth to comment, but was silenced by a look of hatred from Knol and a sharp hand raised hand from Rift.
'But one was the Warrior Princess herself.'
Knol praised Aries for the woman's fearsome reputation as both father and son were stoned onto silence.
'Xena.' Rift hissed.
'And the other two were...?' Sallos pursued, not wishing to be beaten.
'One was the girl she travels with - '
'The one with the staff,' Rift nodded.
'The bard,' Sallos added.
'While the other was a Harlot, a girl who fought with no mercy and was covered from head to toe in the blood of our warriors. I swear on the name of Zeus this is the truth, Rift, and though we fought valiantly, there was no hope of victory against such foes. We stood our ground for as long as could have been hoped, and would have succeeded had it not been for the latter's appearance.'
Rift considered this information intensely for several minutes, taking the time to sink down into the chair behind his desk and ponder his decision fully. He wanted to be sure of what he concluded. He couldn't take this defeat lightly, eighteen out of twenty-four was a high percentage of loss, he couldn't afford such mistakes to be repeated. However, for any to survive at all against an opponent such as Xena....he furrowed his brow. He didn't believe Knol to be exaggerating as he told of the Amazon, he himself had faced their kind once, and knew their capabilities, but to deny his son the Challenge could be a fatal mistake. He was aware of Sallos' influence among the men, and knew he could well cause mutiny amidst them should he have cause to do so.
Both men looked expectantly at their leader.
He sighed, praying for mercy upon his decision, 'Sallos, son of Rift, you have challenged the authority and rank of Knol, son of Tann, for the position of Lieutenant of this camp and rightful air to the title of Commander. Do you wish to confirm this challenge?'
Sallos scorned, placing his left hand on his father's outstretched sword and clenching his fist tightly round its edge, causing the blood to trickle through his fingers, 'I do.'
'Do you accept?' the elder asked Knol, not that he has much choice.
Knoll stepped closer, reaching his hand out and seizing the blade, letting it cut deeply into his flesh. The blood of the two rivals mixed and dripped from the metal to the earth below.
Rift turned his gaze from the blood, to the face of each man.
'Then your challenge is set. The one to kill the Warrior Princess will succeed me, and will earn the right of deciding the fate of the other.'
Both warriors reeled back mentally as they realised the dare they had accepted, kill Xena? Still, neither showed their fear, and both began planning the latter part of their prize...
Continued Part II