Convert this page to Pilot DOC FormatDISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and the Amazons are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The story however is mine. There are scenes of violence, and though not graphic in nature may upset those with a sensitive nature.
This is the second part of a story called That Road Once Trodden, that started out as something to keep me awake when on night duty and has turned into a personal quest.
Thank you to all that sent me e-mail after reading the first installment, this is not the first story I have ever written, but it is the only one I have shared with anyone other than my teddybear. I hope you enjoy part two.
all comments are welcome to SURTEES1@aol.com
THAT ROAD ONCE TRODDEN -- PART TWO
by Karen Surtees
The inn was hot and smoky; the evening crowd had built to its peak and had not yet started to wane. Cyrene was winding her way through the busy throng with ease, greeting those she knew, dispensing ale and cider from the large jugs she carried without effort in her muscular arms. Stopping to refill at one table she kindly refused the offer of a seat. Leaving she pushed her way through the crowd to the door at the back of the inn, handing the ale and cider to one of the serving girls before leaving the room. The rear passage was cool and dark, the only light a small glow beneath the door at the end of passageway. Cyrene took a couple of seconds to enjoy the change in temperature and, wipe the sweat from her brow, before proceeding to the door at the end of the corridor.
Gabrielle lifted her head from her hands as the door opened and managed a faint smile as Xena’s mother crept into the room.
" How’s she doing?" Gabrielle’s tired eyes returned to the warrior and the blanket tossed cot in front of her.
"No change really. She’s woken a few times but hasn’t really known where she is." Cyrene had woken the bard two nights ago in Lyceus’s tomb. Xena’s fever had grown; throwing the warrior into delirium induced nightmares. They had both struggled with the thrashing warrior trying to prevent her wounds from reopening. They’d only been partially successful, Gabrielle had spent what was left of the night restitching and dressing Xena’s shoulder. It was then that they decided to make a dash for Amphipolis. Between them they had managed to get the unconscious warrior onto Argo with Gabrielle sat behind holding her on. The short journey back had taken longer than expected as the warrior alternated between bouts of fevered sweating and shivering. Cyrene had ridden ahead as the village came into view. When Gabrielle arrived with her charge, several of the village men were there to carry Xena to her room, and Marris the local healer was already setting out her equipment. In the last two days Gabrielle had only left Xena’s side when Cyrene had physically forced her too. Exhaustion seemed permanently etched into the young bard’s features as she fretted over her friend. Cyrene sat next to the bard closely watching her face.
"Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"No thank you. I’m afraid the legendary appetite seems to have deserted me." It was an understatement, she’d hardly eaten anything since they’d returned, but she just didn’t feel hungry anymore. Cyrene leaned back into the chair worriedly; the young bard was wasting away right in front of her very eyes.
"She’ll be all right Gabrielle, Marris said the wounds were healing and the fever has started to lessen." The bard sighed and rubbed her eyes.
"Yeah, and then the hard part really begins." Her shoulders slumped forward and she returned her head to her hands. Cyrene rubbed the tired shoulders feeling the tense knots in the muscles.
"I want you to go get some sleep. The girls are seeing to the inn, so I’ll watch her for a while."
" No, I want to stay. I’m okay."
"You misunderstand me Gabrielle. I’m not giving you a choice in the matter. It’s bad enough Xena being ill, I’ll not have you making yourself ill as well. Now go to bed."
"Okay, okay. You win mom." Came the exasperated reply.
" You better believe it, now scat." The bard leant forward and kissed the warriors cheek, running her hand through the bedraggled ebony hair.
"I’ll be back soon." Sitting up she looked directly into Cyrene’s eyes " Promise to wake me if there’s any change."
"Only if I have to young lady. Now bed." The young girl stood and stretched slowly making her way to the door, sending a last wistful look back towards the warrior before leaving.
Xena had been here many times before. The dark foreboding rocky landscape was as familiar to her as a lover’s caress. She stood silently, patiently, watching, listening, and waiting for the inevitable. The crunch of a footstep alerted her to his presence. An evil smile flashed across her face.
"Ares," the dark god of war walked around her right shoulder, " I thought I smelt your stench hanging around."
" Ah, Xena, my dear warrior princess. So good of you to remember me. Not going quite as you planned is it my dear?" Xena studied the chillingly handsome God before her. "If I’d known all I had to do to knock you from this road of atonement you’ve put yourself on, was to get you to threaten your mother and that pesky tagalong. Well..."
"I’d rather die than return to you Ares, and you know that. So what do you want?"
" Yes, you have told me that on several occasions, but I’d rather not see that happen, at least not when I can’t take the credit for it." The God of War looked around. " I never could understand why you liked this place so much. Change of scene I think." He clicked his fingers.
Xena suddenly found herself stood in a room she had visited on numerous occasions during her time as a warlord, Slowly wandering around the room, she picked up and discarded various multicolored silks.
" I see your taste hasn’t changed much." She glanced over at the pillow strewn bed that Ares lounged on."
" Never where your concerned my dear."
" So," Xena slowly leant over the bed, directing her piercing gaze into the Gods eyes, " what game are we playing this time?"
"Game? I’m not playing games, Princess. I wish I’d thought of this one, but I really can’t take the credit for somebody else’s work." Xena’s gaze darkened.
" If not you, who else?" she asked pointedly.
"Ah, there’s the rub, you see." He pushed himself up onto his elbow; his face so close Xena could feel his breath as he slowly exhaled. " I’m not quite sure, but he’s good. Very good in fact."
" So you know what’s going on?" the warrior lowered herself onto the bed next to the God, their faces still intimate.
" I believe I’ve managed to find that out yes."
" Care to share?" Ares slowly pulled away and rolled off the bed, his gazed still fixed on Xena.
" Let’s say I give you a little clue," he picked up a carafe of wine, pouring two glasses, handing one to the warrior still lounged on the bed. " Unfortunately there are certain conditions. You are my chosen Xena, the best I’ve ever had in fact, but you don’t follow my path anymore, so I’m limited in what I can do." Xena let out a short laugh
" Are you sure, you’re not behind this? It seems so like you."
" I assure you my dear, this isn’t one of mine. You do know what’s happening to you, don’t you?" He took a drink and sat watching the warrior as she stood and began to pace.
" I’m loosing control. Even when I followed you, I could control my hate and anger. I didn’t want to most of the time, but I still had the ability."
"Well, I do like my chosen to have that certain edge to them. But taking away control makes you harder to influence, as you no doubt remember from our little head to head with the furies. You have an incredible capacity for destruction princess, not even I want to see it let loose to that extent, after all just where would you stop?"
" I most probably wouldn’t." Xena drained her glass and sat before him.
" Exactly. So either somebody wants you on the rampage, or is hoping you’ll bow out before you let that happen, bearing in mind your insufferable need to make up for your glorious past."
" I’d rather bow out."
" So it seems, you’re not doing a bad job of it either. It’s been nearly a week now hasn’t it. Wasting away doesn’t seem your style."
" Gabrielle and mother would try to stop me if I tried anything more direct. They’d get hurt."
" Then you’ve got a choice coming up Xena. I think I know which road you’re going to take... When you do remember me, call my name. I’ll be able to give you some semblance of control for a short time, but only for a short time. And afterwards you’ll owe me."
" I’m not coming back to you Ares."
" I’m not asking you to Xena. You’ll do that all by yourself. Oh.. One more thing... we didn’t have this conversation. I’ve put my neck out enough as it is. You won’t remember this little chat of ours. When the time comes you’ll remember enough. Good-bye my dear." He clicked his fingers.
Cyrene’s patience had worn thin, her nerves were frayed. It had now been a week since they’d brought Xena back to the inn. At first things had seemed fine. Xena’s fever had broken and her wounds healed, and that’s where it had ended. She’d not moved from the cot, rarely became conscious of her surroundings, only drank because she was forced and refused to eat. She was dying that much was obvious, but nobody knew why. Gabrielle had said in one of their many conversations, that Xena was able to accomplish such incredible feats merely because she believed she could, nobody ever told her daughter that she couldn’t and therefore it was possible, her mind was a very powerful weapon. Now it had turned in on itself and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it. Cyrene was willing to let her daughter make that decision for herself, the problem was she was taking the bard with her and, Cyrene wasn’t willing to let that happen. Walking briskly into Xena’s room Cyrene went to the sleeping bard. The strawberry blonde hair lay lank on the chair, her pale face marred by the dark smudges of exhaustion beneath her eyes. She’d lost weight through worry and the fact she hardly ate the food she was given. The innkeeper was loath to wake her when at last she seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but she wanted her out of the room while she talked to Xena. The warrior may have been uncommunicative but Cyrene was positive that her daughter could hear. Cyrene gently shook the bards shoulder. Gabrielle was awake in an instant, her eyes immediately going to her partner.
"She’s okay, she’s still with us." Calmed Cyrene, rubbing her shoulder she continued. " Go to bed Gabrielle you’ll rest easier."
" You always seem to be telling me to do that these days." A small tired smile graced that bards face.
" That’s because you don’t have the sense to go without me telling you to. I’ve left some bread and cheese in your room if you’re hungry."
" Thank you, I don’t know what I’d have done without you."
" There’s no need to thank me Gabrielle your family. I call you if she wakes." Gabrielle kissed the innkeepers cheek and left the room. Cyrene sat back her eyes on her daughter waiting for those ice blue wells to open.
It was several candlemarks, later but eventually those once crystalline eyes now faded dull opened. They didn’t look or focus on anything just stared. It had been happening for a few days now, but emotion still caught in Cyrene’s throat. Today though she wasn’t going to let it overwhelm her. Moving to the edge of her seat she took Xena’s hand in her own and squeezed tightly, before she spoke.
" I never thought I’d see the day when the mighty warrior princess, would give up, but that day is drawing closer. I understand you’ve made a decision and that you have the right to do that. If death is what you want, then so be it. I don’t expect you to heed my wishes, we’ve been strangers for so long, and I have no hold over you." Cyrene rose and shifted herself over onto the cot next to her daughter. One hand still holding her daughters tight, her other clasped Xena’s jaw and turned her head until she was facing her mother. " You’ve had precious few friends in your life Xena, none more precious I think than your Gabrielle." The blue eyes blinked, but opened again unlike they had so many times before. Cyrene knew she was listening. " I’m willing to let you go daughter if that is truly your desire, but I will not let you take Gabrielle with you. Because that is what is happening she sits in here candlemark after candlemark, day after day. Waiting for you to snap out of this, but even she has come to the conclusion that won’t happen. She’s not eating, she has horrendous nightmares when she sleeps at all." Dark pupils contracted in the ice like eyes. " You have a choice to make daughter. You can carry on the way you are at the moment and die, taking her along with you, or you can fight, you can fight for her Xena, just like she is for you. She has such a love for you, I don’t think there is anything in this or the next world that she wouldn’t do for you. Love can overcome impossible odds Xena; will you overcome these for her? Whatever the problem is Xena we can fix it. All we need is for you to start the fight." Xena’s eyes closed, Cyrene hung her head and squeezed her daughter’s hand again hoping that Xena had heard her. She stood intending to go and check on Gabrielle but a painful grip closed around her hand. Her eyes went straight to her daughter’s face.
" You have no idea of what your asking mother." The whispered voice was horse after a week of no use. Cyrene sat by her daughter returning the powerful grip.
" I think, I do Xena. But whatever it is we can work through it." Xena opened her eyes and, for the first time since the battle she saw reason in them instead of the blankness she had become use to. " Tell me Xena, tell me what is frightening you so?"
" I’m not frightened mother." Whispered her voice, " I’m terrified." Her eyes closed again as she looked deep inside herself not liking what she saw.
" What of?" Cyrene wondered what could have her violent daughter so scared she’d rather die than face it.
" Me, mother. I’m terrified of me." Her eyes opened once again and Cyrene saw horror within them. " I have been fighting this rage within me for nearly three years and, I’m loosing. Each time I use my sword or I fight it becomes that little bit harder to control the next time. It burns deep and fierce mother, but I have always been able to bend it to my will and use it. Now I have to fight every second of every day to keep it tethered. A few months ago if you’d grabbed me after a fight I would have reacted, but I’d never have gotten to a sword stroke before I knew you. Now somebody only has to look at me the wrong way and that rage almost consumes me."
"We can fight through this Xena, it may take time, but we can get through this. You just have to believe in yourself."
" We may be able to get through this mother but how many people would get hurt or die while we try? And what would happen if it were you or Gabrielle in my way at the wrong time, do you think you’d be safe?"
Gabrielle had been unable to sleep on her return to her room, at least when she was in Xena’s she knew immediately of any change. Although she was deathly tired sleep in this room at least eluded her, whenever she closed her eyes, endless questions and thoughts raced through her mind battering for her attention. So instead of inflicting that torment on herself she picked up her scrolls and parchments and began to write. Gabrielle had always found solace in her ability to express herself through her stories, both written and spoken. It helped her to detach herself from the situation and, think through it from the outside. In her years with Xena she had used the technique many times to reason through the actions the warrior had taken, that she thought had been wrong or unwise. She had learned to appreciate how Xena’s mind worked and this had enabled her to reason with the fighter on a few occasions. It also meant that now she knew Xena had made her mind up there would be little she could do to change it.
It was sometime later that Gabrielle finished her writing, to her surprise she had eaten most of what Cyrene had left for her. Stretching form the curled position she had adopted, she left for Xena’s room, stopping outside of the door when she heard voices from within.
" That won’t happen Xena." Desperation was clear in her voice.
" It already has mother. Gabrielle managed to stop me this time." She said in exasperation.
" You seem fine now, you’re controlling yourself now."
" Yes, I’m controlling it now, but you have no idea how hard it is. I could crush your fingers in my hand now. You couldn’t do anything to stop me. At the moment I have the strength to stop myself but it won’t last. Do you think you could handle me in a rage? Could you stop me? Could you? When not even I can control myself?" Xena’s eyes had started to burn. She raised her body from the cot. " Do you think this village could handle me ten times worse than what I became the first time?" Neither women heard the door open or Gabrielle enter. Cyrene stared at her daughter, feeling the pressure on her hand increase. Worry began to cloud her mind. What if Xena were right? What would happen if she lost control, nobody in the village had the power or skill to stop her.
" This village couldn’t," came the soft voice of the bard from the door way, ~" but the Amazons could." Xena fell back to the cot, dropping her mother’s hand, as Gabrielle approached the cot.
" No they couldn’t Gabrielle. They might be able to slow me down for a short while, Hades bell’s they might not even be able to do that."
" You could though couldn’t you? If this were happening to someone else, you’d figure out a way to at least restrain them until we figured out a way to stop them. Right?"
"Possibly." Came the reluctant reply.
" Then teach us. Show us how to stop you." Pleaded the bard
" Where would that get us Gabrielle." The bard knelt by her friend.
"It would give us time Xena. Time to find out why this is happening, time to stop it." Xena rolled to face Gabrielle, seeing for the first time how gaunt she’d become over the last week, how exhaustion shadowed those perfect green eyes. Xena raised a hand to her cheek
" I’d rather die than hurt you, you know that don’t you?" Gabrielle nodded tears falling down her face. " This is a no win situation. Either way I lose you. Either to death, or to the repulsion you will feel after seeing me with out that tiny piece of control I have over myself."
"You don’t know that Xena. At least give it a chance"
It had taken six days for the message Gabrielle had sent Ephiny to bear results. It had been six days that neither Cyrene nor Gabrielle would soon forget. After reluctantly agreeing to Gabrielle’s suggestion to ask the Amazons, Xena had turned back in on herself. She spoke rarely, and preferred her own company, just about tolerating the bards company during the evenings, when Gabrielle would sit next to the fire and recite poems and stories to the constantly pacing warrior. Sometimes the stories would work and Xena would find the simmering rage within had died enough to let her relax, but those moments were few and far between. The warrior had made her mother remove nearly all the furniture from the room and Gabrielle had taken her weapons. Occasionally Gabrielle or Cyrene would come to the door and find it barred to their entry, complete silence emanating from the room. Once Gabrielle had stood outside the door listening as Xena ripped the room apart with her bare hands, the walls of the room had shaken as she repeatedly hit them with clenched fists. When the door had eventually been unlocked she had taken in cloths and healing herb’s and had silently tended the bloody hands as Xena had sat and stared into the fireplace, her body shivering every now and again with barely suppressed rage.
It was a physical relief on the sixth day when one of the village boys ran into the inn.
" What is it Tolath?" inquired Cyrene, as the young boy slid to a halt beside the bar.
" Horse’s Cyrene, lot’s of horse’s. Coming up the road."
Gabrielle was waiting outside the inn as the Amazons rode into the village. Ephiny the tall blonde Amazon regent gracefully dismounted her horse, greeting her Queen with a bow, before embracing her in a hug.
" We came as soon as I got your message" the Amazon released the bard looking into the emerald eyes that had lost their sparkle to exhaustion. The normally mischievous bounce that invaded the bard’s body was missing; the tension at the inn was almost palpable. " You weren’t very specific, what’s the problem?" a thunderous impact echoed from behind the bard and Ephiny saw the green eyes darken almost flinch at the sound.
" Xena, Ephiny. Xena’s the problem."
Ephiny had always found sunset to be the most peaceful time of the day, the day’s work over the russet and gold blending in the skies never failed to relax her, even in times of war or tension sunset had always been her release valve. It had been two day’s now since she had found out this was one problem that wouldn’t fade with the going down of the sun. Ephiny had sat stunned in the bar with Eponin and Solari by her side as Gabrielle had explained the problem to them. Every now and again the recital would be interrupted by a howl from the back of the inn, at one point Gabrielle and Cyrene had disappeared through the door, returning moments later looking even more worried.
" Is everything okay out there?" asked Ephiny as Gabrielle seated herself at the table.
" She’s calmed down a little, give her a candlemark or so and she’ll have worn herself out enough to see you." The bard saw the apprehension in the regent’s face. " Don’t worry Ephiny. Nothing will happen, besides I’m sure Eponin and Solari will be stood outside the door weapons drawn when we go in. However, if we’re going to be able to help her we need to know how to restrain her, and she really is the only one who knows how to do that, isn’t she." So the two of them had gone to Xena’s room after eating the meal that Cyrene had prepared for the visiting Amazons. Ephiny noticed that not even Gabrielle strayed more than a couple of paces from the entrance to the room. The room was dark, Cyrene had not allowed a fire or lamps to be lit since the day Xena had awoken, and the only light was the pale moonlight reflected in through the window. The warrior could only be seen as a shadow, pacing feverishly along the back wall where the remains of the cot could be seen. Xena hadn’t even acknowledged their arrival before she started explaining to the regent how to construct a cell that could hold the enraged warrior. The idea seemed simple enough and knowing that it would be needed as soon as they arrived at the Amazon village Ephiny had sent Solari and one of the out riders back to the village so that construction could begin immediately. To be honest though Ephiny had been more worried about how they were going to get Xena back to the village, it seemed Xena had her own concerns about that and had asked Gabrielle to leave them. She didn’t begin talking until the door had closed.
"This is not going to work Ephiny. No matter what Mother and Gabrielle want to believe, your not going to be able to restrain me for long. I’ve already tried to end this, but Gabrielle wouldn’t let me go without her coming along and I won’t be responsible for her death. So on the journey back I want you to have at least three of your out riders with arrows notched at all times and if I even look at her funny you shoot to kill, no hesitations, because that will be the only chance you get. Understand?" Ephiny looked deeply into those harrowed eyes before replying.
"I understand, we will defend her to the last, even against you. But Gabrielle will insist that you not be killed. I will only go against her orders if I’m sure that is the only way to stop you."
"I guess that will have to do. I want your oath on it Ephiny."
"You have my oath as the Amazon regent, and as your friend, I will not allow you to harm Gabrielle."
With the Amazon village less than a days journey away, Ephiny was more confident about reaching it without incident. Xena rode Argo as normal but had insisted that Gabrielle ride behind the regent rather than herself. Each night several of the out riders had ridden ahead to scout for a camp site, and would have the fire burning and dinner cooking by the time the main group rode in. Tonight was no different, and the weary travelers rode in just as dusk settled into night. At first Ephiny had wondered how they were going to keep watch on Xena at night when they would need to sleep, but Gabrielle had sorted that out on the first night by using a sleeping draft that Xena’s mother had prepared for them. Xena had kept to herself for most of the journey only ever speaking to Gabrielle on the infrequent times she actually needed to speak, the entire Amazon group gave her plenty of space, not even looking at her if at all possible. She seemed to be handling herself better than any of them had hoped for, but every now and again she would look desperately at Gabrielle, the bard would then quietly urge Ephiny to ride alongside the warrior so that she could talk to her, telling stories and poems until she felt the tension ease in her partner. Ephiny’s respect for the young bard grew immensely, she no longer thought of her as the little girl from Potetdia, or as Xena’s tagalong. In the last few seasons traveling with Xena she had matured and grown in many ways, and she was obviously the only one that Xena trusted and listened to.
It was a quiet camp, Xena and Gabrielle sat slightly apart from the rest of them, four of the outriders constantly patroling the perimeter of the camp arrows notched as requested by Xena. Eponin sat next to Ephiny legs stretched towards the fire back propped up against her saddle. She glanced over at the regent seeing her gaze cast on the warrior and bard.
"It’s not going as bad as we expected it to, is it?" she asked. Ephiny removed her gaze from her queen and looked at the weapons master.
"Not for us, no. I think it’s worse for Xena though. Did you see the way Gabrielle grabbed hold of her when Lissa took Argo’s reigns? I honestly thought Xena was going to tear her head off from the way she was looking at her." This time it was Eponin’s gaze that turned to the bard.
"Yeah, I did. We’re going to have to watch that though. Xena’s definitely on the edge at the moment and I know that Gabrielle seems to be the one keeping her there, but I don’t want her near her when she goes."
"You and me both, but you try and keep her away. Anyway....." she paused as several birds calls came in from the scouts. Activity in the camp stopped as the Amazons recognized the calls for intruders. The Amazons picked up their weapons and moved out to the perimeter as one of the scouts appeared beside Ephiny.
"A group of about ten riders heading this way. All armed, and they don’t look to friendly either."
"Have they seen us?"
"I don’t know, but they seem to be heading straight for us."
"I find it really hard to believe that this lot are going to attack an armed group of Amazons." said Eponin as she fastened her daggers into place.
"Yeah, well I’ve heard of stupider things, so let’s prepare for the worst. Get Gabrielle away from Xena, even unarmed she won’t sit this out if they attack, then make sure our four archers have the correct arrows handy just in case."
Gabrielle had known something was wrong even before the Amazon birdcalls had come in. Xena always seemed to have a sixth sense where danger was concerned; Gabrielle had seen her tense just before the first call. As soon as the Amazons had started to collect their weapons and fan out Xena had risen to her feet and scanned the area. She didn’t move even when Ephiny and Eponin approached.
"What’s going on?" whispered Gabrielle as Eponin took hold of her arm.
"Looks like a bunch of raiders are heading our way. Though only Armetis knows how they know we’re here. Ephiny wants you over by the horse’s just in case."
"In case of what?"
"In case they really are stupid enough to attack fourteen armed Amazons, with Xena traveling with them. Come on." Eponin grasp hold of her arm and steered her away from Xena in the direction of the horses. Ephiny had watched the exchange carefully and was glad when Gabrielle had left with little argument.
"You gonna be okay." she inquired to the still watchful warrior.
"How many are there?" Xena stepped forward and slowly began walking away from the camp. Ephiny matched her pace and walked alongside.
"The scout says ten, but there may be more that we haven’t seen. Look Xena I know there is no point me asking you to stay out of this, but...." Xena stopped and pierced the Regent with her cold eyes. Ephiny could see no trace of the Xena she once knew, this was pure ice, the Warlord she had so hoped would never reappear.
"No Ephiny, there is no point at all. Make sure none of your warriors gets in front of me." With that she took of at a sprint into the darkness. A shiver ran down Ephiny’s back as she realized that she hadn’t even heard her leave. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand clasped her shoulder in a tight grip.
"Hey, hey, calm down. It’s only me." Eponin hugged the Regent close as she felt her shivers. Turning the Regent gazed into her friends concerned face.
"‘Pony, have you ever looked into someone’s face and seen death staring back at you?"
"I’ve been in some pretty nasty battle’s and seen some fierce fighter’s, but no I wouldn’t say I’ve seen death staring back. Why?"
"I’m sure that those that fought Xena before she changed saw exactly that, I just did." shaking herself to get rid of the chill that seemed to have invaded her body, she turned back towards the camp. " Make sure everybody, and I do mean everybody stays within the confines of the camp."
"But what about the raid...."
"Eponin. I’ll be very surprised if anybody gets passed Xena."
Xena loved the dark, when she had, had her army she would stay awake most of the night just to feel it wrapped around her. She liked to practice at night because anybody could learn to be a good fighter during the day, but at night you needed to use the other senses, rather than your eyes. You had to be able to hear your opponent approach, smell him, feel him. You had to be so at one with your surroundings that the slightest intrusion into your sphere of sense would immediately bring you to battle readiness without thought. The Warrior Princess had long ago mastered that art, she had mastered it to the extent that she could merge with her surroundings to the point that even masters of the hunt would find it impossible to see her. The raiders didn’t stand a chance.
The raiders galloped across the meadow enmass, on the farside just within the treeline; they could see the fire in the Amazon camp blazing. The Amazon warriors that the leader of the raiders knew would be there stayed within its autumn glow. This puzzled the raider; he’d felt sure that when they attacked, the Amazons would swarm out to battle. This would allow his second team to grab the Amazon Queen that the priest had promised would be with this group. He was positive the Amazon nation would pay a fine ransom to see their Queen returned in one piece, but he couldn’t see what the priest would gain from her disappearance for a few days. The failure of the Amazons to react as all the previous victims had bothered him slightly, however they still out numbered them. Afterall how much damage could a group of women do to his finely trained men? The leader looked over his shoulder satisfied that all his soldiers were keeping up and in position, he felt himself relax, a small grin appeared on his grimy weather beaten face, nothing would go wrong. Had the leader waited another heartbeat to check on his men, he would have seen one toward the rear fall from his horse, to be replaced by another shadowed form.
Xena watched the raiders through battlefevered eyes; she had chosen her victim carefully. He rode just at the rear of the pack, so she could dispose of him without notice, but close enough to two of the other raiders that meant taking them out wouldn’t be too much of a problem. Crouched in the tall grass she was unseen as they thundered past. As her victim neared she leapt from her hiding place onto the horse behind him, quickly snapping his neck, silencing any alarm he may have raised, before throwing his lifeless body from the horse. She settled into the saddle checking the surrounding raiders to ensure her attack had not been witnessed. Silently she maneuvered the horse amongst the raiding party and began picking them off one by one.
The first the raider leader knew of the silent erosion of his troops was when he glanced behind and saw that most of the horses that followed him were riderless. He hurriedly reigned his mount slowly to a halt with the remaining four riders that still sat atop of their horses.
Ephiny and Eponin stood in flanking positions around Gabrielle, the Amazon outriders had created an outer wall of defense, but as per the Regents orders none of them moved from the confines of the camp. The thundering beat of the approaching horses could be heard, but the covering darkness did not show them their enemy. As the beat drew closer, Ephiny was beginning to wonder whether or not she should have sent the Amazons out to attack rather than heed Xena’s warning. Then the drumbeat of hooves began to falter.
"They’re pulling up." Eponin took a step forward, straining to see the attacking raiders who’d stopped just beyond the throw of their firelight. She could just make out the prancing of the horses when the first blood-curdling scream ripped through the air. The sounds of battle emerged from the night but none of the Amazons moved to engage. A lone blood soaked raider staggered from the darkness towards the light of the fire; he had not made it ten paces when he was brought to his knees and then the ground, a dagger protruding from his back.
The Amazons stood unsure; Gabrielle was clutching hard on Ephiny’s arm, knowing that it was Xena who had stopped the raiders. Another scream ripped through the night, this one erupting from the forest close to the right of the camp, it was closely followed by an evil laugh. Yet another scream, this time cut off mid-flow.
For a candlemark nobody moved, then slowly the normal sounds of the forest night began to reappear. Carefully the Amazons began to relax their guard. Ephiny looked towards Eponin and gave a quick flick of her head towards the perimeter.
"Go check, keep them alert until she’s back with us, and we know she’s okay." Eponin nodded and moved off. " Come on Gabrielle, let’s get back to the fire and get you warm." Ephiny put her arm around the young Queen’s shoulders giving her a hug, knowing that her charge wouldn’t settle until her partner was back safely.
It was several candlemarks later; Ephiny and Eponin were just discussing sending out a search party when Xena appeared on the opposite side of the fire. None of the Amazons still on perimeter guard had raised the alarm at her approach, because none of them had seen her enter the camp. Ephiny and Eponin knew it would be a futile act to berate the guards, even on a bad day spotting Xena if she didn’t want to be seen would be almost impossible.
"Xena!" a startled Gabrielle sat up reaching toward her as she lowered her self to the ground. Eponin grabbed hold of her arm stopping her from touching the still agitated warrior.
" Gently Gabrielle, gently." said the Amazon quietly as she lowered the Queens arm to her side. Gabrielle’s initial excitement at seeing her partner now tempered, studied the warrior noting the still glazed eyes, blood stained arms and leathers, and by her side on the ground rested an unfamiliar blood coated sword. She sat silently her knees drawn up to her chest, arms clasped tight around them staring into the fire not seeing either of the Amazons or Gabrielle. Every now and then her fists would clench tight and the muscles along her arm would bunch into tense knots. Gabrielle sank back into Ephiny’s welcome arm knowing it would take Xena some time to return to her completely.
Time seemed to stand still in the camp, the only movement was to occasionally add more fuel to the fire, other than that everyone seemed content to sit and wait.
Eponin strolled the perimeter of the camp as the golden sunlight of dawn graced the sky, her eyes ever intent as she scanned the area. A shy smile touched her face as her gaze came to rest on the young Amazon Queen wrapped in a blanket curled up against the Regent fast asleep. Ephiny had convinced her in the early morning that she would be woken if Xena needed her. All the Amazons that had been awake at varying stages of the night had kept a watchful eye on the still tense warrior but she had not moved, she just sat staring into the flames of the fire. Just before dawn, as the dew was forming Eponin had dared to throw a blanket around her shoulders, but she hadn’t appeared to notice, lost wherever her mind had taken her in that deep darkness she had buried inside her. The weapons master had also removed the bloodied sword that had returned with her. That sword had killed many last night, but dawn shed very little light on the battlefield. Several bodies could be seen but not enough to account for the number of horses that grazed in the field. Eponin made a mental note to get a couple of the outriders to round them up before they left; they might come in useful. Returning to the fire she shot a rueful smile at the Regent as she sat down next to her.
" I see our Queen is a bit of a snuggler." Ephiny smiled down at the young girl as she softly stroked her strawberry blonde hair.
" I think she needs a little reassurance, what with our friend over there not being herself. The last few weeks has taken its toll on them."
"Yeah, I can see it in her eyes, she’s lost weight as well. At least we’ll reach the village today, a little more support will do her good."
"Oh, I hope so ‘Pony, cause Armetis knows’s how we’re going to control Xena if she loses it completely."
"Something will come to mind Eph’, it always does."
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