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"Gabrielle! Wait! Please wait!" Xena chased Gabrielle with much desperation after her initial hesitation. "Please, let me explain!" Xena's longer strides enabled her to easily catch up with her young bard, she grabbed hold and stopped Gabrielle. Xena swung her back so that they could both face each other.
"Can we please talk back in the tent?" Xena pleaded with Gabrielle but Gabrielle just looked back at her accusingly and wordlessly. She nodded her head and Xena quickly pulled her into their shared tent.
Once inside, Gabrielle shook off Xena's firm grip and walked over to their bed and sat down there, never once looking back at Xena and not saying a word to Xena.
Xena silently stared at Gabrielle's form in great dismay that she, she was the one who had hurt her Gabrielle, just what was I thinking? She berated herself severely for her indiscretion with Kay. She walked slowly towards Gabrielle and knelt down right in front of Gabrielle, "I... I didn't mean it the way it sounded, Gabrielle..."
"I KNOW what I heard, Xena." Gabrielle answered coldly.
"NO! You didn't hear... Gabrielle, we... we used to say that to one another the whole time..."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gabrielle demanded.
Xena captured Gabrielle's smaller and trembling hands into her own as she reached down and gently planted a series of tender kisses on Gabrielle's hand, "She was a kid who lost her loves, her parents, her adopted parents, Cilia... I was a slightly older kid who had also lost her loves. We always said it before every battle, it did help keep me alive at times. Her 'love' was all I had left that was worth anything."
Gabrielle's eyes misted, her kind heart beginning to break for her love and Kiko but she removed her hand from Xena's gentle attentions.
Xena looked at her lover despairingly but understanding at once what Gabrielle is feeling right now. She looked deep into the water-drenched eyes of Gabrielle; she then started to rise, she kissed Gabrielle quickly on her lips. "I'm sorry. I'll be riding Argo, when I come back, maybe we can talk about this again?"
Gabrielle managed to nod her head in agreement before flopping herself on the pillows on the bed, almost all the anger gone, all that was left was her body still wrecking with tears. Xena stared at Gabrielle for a long time before reluctantly moving back and head out of the tent, "I won't be gone long. I promise I'll be back soon."
She never saw Gabrielle raising her head back towards Xena's departing form, whispering "I'll be right here waiting for you, my love. Nothing will tear us apart."
"Oh Gods! What have I done? What have I done? How could I have screwed up so badly? Urghh!!" Kay muttered under her breath angry with herself. "How can I do this to Gabrielle? She saved my life, she brought Xena back to my life and this is what I give her back in return? Why did she have to show up at THAT moment? Urghh!
"By the Gods, what have I done? Think Kay! Think! What are you going to do now? Think!" With each 'think' she slapped herself on her forehead.
She remained in that same position until a timid, "Grand Marshal?" broke her senseless train of thoughts.
"What now?!!" she shouted as she stood up and walked towards the entrance of her tent. She opened the covering and looked irritably at the young soldier at the entrance, the soldier fell to the ground, visibly trembling in some fright. "What?" Kiko softened her tone, slightly.
"Err, I... I... just came from the front gates. We... um... we thought that you might want to know that the Warrior Princess had just ridden out of the camp on her horse at high speed." He stammered out the last part in a rush.
"Send a soldier out to follow her trail. Do NOT, I repeat, DO NOT follow her too closely. Keep at a very safe distance and tell whoever's going out, do not bring any weapons. Just follow the Warrior Princess and make sure she's safe. Understood?" she barked out at the same time thinking to herself, 'Damn the Gods, Xena. Don't you go anywhere without taking Gabrielle with you. You'll regret it if you do Xena. Oh, forgive me... what have I done?'
The young soldier nodded but still remained in his kneeling position. "What's your name, soldier?"
"Han, Grand Marshal." He replied, still in a very small voice.
"Han, I'm depending on you to pass on my message, before the Warrior Princess rides too far for anyone to follow. So, go NOW." Kiko said, stressing on the word 'depending'.
"At once, Grand Marshal." Han stood up immediately and marched away, the Grand Marshal, depending on him.
Kiko sighed, "A few choice words and they will move heaven and earth for me." She turned back to her table and her thoughts back to the touchy issue of Xena and Gabrielle again but soon her thoughts led her to think of Janis really for the first time since her lovers' death had truly sunk in.
"Oh Janis, I know you can hear my thoughts, if you were here, you'll be able to tell me what I should do. No, what am I saying? If you were here, I wouldn't BE in this mess. Not that I'm blaming you, love. I would never say that. I would never even think that. I love you too much. Master used to teach me, 'The greatest love is knowing when to let go.' She's so right. I'm going to try that.
"Hades, I hope you're ready for me again. Boy, did I keep you busy for a while there, huh? Kinda makes up for Xena turning good, doesn't it? This is gonna be..." her thoughts were disrupted by Ming calling out for her,
"Grand Marshal! Grand Marshal!" she turned at once and ran out of her tent, knowing that Ming would not call her in this way unless there really was an emergency. And what she saw chilled her to her bone, stunning her in every sense.
Xena's body draped across a horse that was being led in with Argo following behind.
"Call for Gabrielle, Ming. Call her. NOW!" Kiko raises her voice when Ming hesitates.
"At once, Grand Marshal."
"What happened, Han? What happened?" she turned to see the same young soldier from earlier, leading Argo back into the camp.
"She had another 'blackout', my leader. She's just unconscious, she's not otherwise hurt." Nantra said in her usual calm voice, emerging from behind.
"Nantra! Nantra? Where? How?" Kiko was stunned by this turn of events.
"I saw her at the clearing, I was going to greet her but she fainted. Her head injury's still not fully healed yet. Why did you let her to go out alone? I know you sent Han to follow her, but still she could have fallen off her horse and none would know..." Nantra reprimanded Kiko.
Kiko shook her head and laughed ruefully, "And where have you been Nantra?" she asked quietly. Nantra looked away, not looking into Kiko's eyes. Kiko turned her attention back to seeing that her soldiers were lowering Xena down the horse with the utmost care. Once Xena was laid down on the hard ground, Kiko moved to kneel next to her.
By this time, Xena had started to regain some degree of consciousness. Kiko stroked her head carefully, "Xena? Are you in there?"
Xena mumbled, "Gabrielle. Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry..."
Kiko shook her head again, "Gabrielle's coming, Xena. Just hang on for a mo..."
Meanwhile, Ming had dutifully followed his Grand Marshal's orders and ran to Xena and Gabrielle's tent to call Gabrielle, even though he doesn't really like her because she had made his Grand Marshal angry that morning at breakfast. He remembered back to a time when anyone who angered the Grand Marshal would find himself or herself without a head by sundown.
He shook his head in amazement that this young lady called Gabrielle had gotten off with only as much as what could be qualified as a slight tick-off. The Warrior Princess must mean a lot to the Grand Marshal. He had already thought as much from the stories the Grand Marshal used to tell the soldiers at campfire every night, but this just proved to show him just how much of that is true.
Very soon Ming arrived at the entrance to the tent. He called out, "Gabrielle! Xena is..." Hmm, just how is Xena? He realised that he has no idea what so ever. "Xena needs you, Gabrielle. Would you please go to her?" He waited for a moment; unsure if he should just go in and drag Gabrielle out by force, for there was no way he was going to defy his Grand Marshal's direct order.
But just as he was deciding what to do, Gabrielle raised the flap of the tent. "What exactly do you mean by 'Xena needs me'? She went off riding not too long ago. Is this some kind of a trick?"
"No, Gabrielle. No tricks. Xena has just been brought into the camp. I'm sorry, I don't really know what..." he had not finished but Gabrielle already roughly shoved him aside after hearing the words 'brought into'. The Xena she know would never allow herself to be 'brought into' a camp willingly.
Gabrielle broke into a frantic run towards the gates as she guessed that was where Xena would have to be at. What she saw sent chills up her spine, Xena's limp body being cradled by the kneeling Kiko, her hair gently stroked. Kiko seemed to be saying something quietly but Xena's eyes were still closed.
"Xena!" she screamed and everyone turned to look at her, including Kiko who mouths at Gabrielle the words, "She's okay." With that Gabrielle found herself breathing better, 'Xena's all right. She's gonna be all right, she got to be all right.' She literally flies to be next to her Xena. Her Xena.
"Xena! Xena! I'm here, Xena." Gabrielle reached down and when Kiko transferred Xena's body, Gabrielle took over cradling Xena, hugging her tightly and rocking her to and fro, "It's okay, Xena. I'm right here, I was waiting for you and I want you to know that everything's okay."
She repeated that softly, over and over again, crying all the time. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. I will never..." Xena's eyes finally flicker open, she tried to tell Gabrielle but coughed and was unable to continue.
Gabrielle looked at Kiko with her already puffy eyes, silently asking. Kiko nodded, standing up, she ordered, "Get me a water skin and as for the rest of you, move along. Nothing to see here. Move along." She waved the slowly gathering soldiers away, even her companions.
Theresa and Melanis had rushed out of their tent at the first shout, looking decidedly disheveled. Kiko looked at them up and down, raising her eyebrow, and said critically, "A little early for a roll in the hay, ain't it?" Then she broke into a wide smile, "You guys deserve it."
She slapped Theresa hard on her shoulder, "Go back to what you two were doing. There's nothing to do here. Go on, shoo..." she chased Theresa and Melanis back to their tent.
"Thanks, Kiko. We, err..." Theresa was starting to say before the grinning Melanis dragged her back towards their tent.
Ming silently passed a water skin to Gabrielle who gently pressed it to Xena's mouth. Xena managed to swallow a couple of mouthfuls before moving her head away. She couldn't make herself look into Gabrielle's green eyes, knowing that she'll just lose herself in there.
Gabrielle was now just cradling Xena limply in her arms, not letting go but also not hugging too tightly. Kiko nodded to dismiss Ming, who bowed deeply towards Kiko and walked away, leaving Kiko and Nantra standing and Xena and Gabrielle still on the ground.
"Hey," Kiko knelt down, "you two want my help to get back to your tent?" Xena nodded without looking at either of them. "Look, guys. If it means anything, I'm sorry. I just..."
"No, Kay. It wasn't your fault." Xena finally looked at Kiko in the eyes, "You didn't do anything." She allowed herself to be lifted off the ground by the strong arms of Kiko but as she righted herself, she leaned towards Gabrielle for more support.
That brought a small smile to Gabrielle's otherwise sad little face. Xena finally turned to Gabrielle and gave her love a dry smile. She looked to Gabrielle side and noticed Nantra walking alongside Gabrielle, "Thank you very much Nantra. If you hadn't..."
"Then the soldier my leader had sent following behind you would have found you..."
After hearing this Xena snapped her head round to confront Kiko. "You did what?"
"Now, look Xena. I..." Kiko glared back at Nantra angrily.
"Thank you." Gabrielle quipped in to defuse the situation, she succeeded.
Kiko looked at Gabrielle gratefully before looking forward, her own inner emotional walls building up fast and furiously. Xena quickly found her anger disappearing, she looked back at Gabrielle with as much love as she could communicate with her blue eyes.
Gabrielle looked back with adoration in her still puffy eyes and she gave Xena a slight encouraging nudge, followed by a soft, "Say sorry to Kiko, Xena." That did not escape Kiko even though it was spoken almost into Xena's ear.
"Kay." Xena waited for Kiko to look at her, but Kiko still stared straight forward, unwilling to look at the obvious love Xena and Gabrielle have for one another. A kind of love she had not too long ago. "Kay, sorry, I should have known you'd still look out for me..." Xena sounded a little angry now, "Kay? Look at me. Please?"
Kiko took a deep breath and finally looked at Xena. Xena looked into those brown eyes and was struck by something that was all too familiar to her, she removed herself from Gabrielle's hold and placed both of her arms around Kiko's neck.
"No. Oh no you don't, Kay. No. Don't build up those walls! Don't. There are still people who love and care about you. I care about you. You'll never have to be alone again. Please don't... just don't build up those walls again. I... can't bear to see you like that again... please?"
Kiko remained silent, the walls continuing to build and stack, she almost failing to hear what Xena had said, but the words, "You'll never be alone again" echoed through her mind. She had almost never been alone, but she had always felt that she was alone, when did that feeling start? Oh yeah, ever since she left Xena. All the years of fighting epic battles and wars, all the atrocities that she had to do in order to show her soldiers that she was more than capable to lead them into victory.
All the times she ordered someone to be beheaded or to kill themselves for something or another. Those walls were the key factor in preventing a lot of the inevitable pain and guilt to flood her senses. She actually welcomed these walls because she knew that she need them to fight Portia and Callisto.
She looked deep into Xena's eyes, happily seeing that Xena's own walls were almost completely broken down by Gabrielle. Her own walls were once completely broken down after facing up against the combined might of Janis and Tarsi.
"Kay is coming back. I'm afraid you're already too late, Xena. I need these walls in place before I crush Portia like I would a cockroach. Any sort of love now would just serve as nothing but a distraction. And I don't need any further distractions." Kiko explained to Xena softly, even though she knew that Xena would still fight against that.
"No, you have no need for those walls, Kay. Please, you have to start believing in..."
"Xena, if there's anyone who can break through these walls, it's you. And you know it. I know that this was going to happen. That's why I asked for you not to leave me. Once Kay is fully back to the fore, I will be Kay. And this Kay, is NOT the Kay you know. This Kay is very cold and emotionless. This Kay will be merciless. Only you would be able to break through to this Kay. No one else here knows how. Only you would know how."
Xena nodded in agreement, "I won't leave you. I've already given you my word. But would you please think about what you're about to do carefully?"
"My leader, you're going down the same path again! If you think I'm just going to stand here and wait for Kay to resurface from whatever dark corner Janis and Tarsi helped you chain her into, you're so wrong! You're Kiko now and don't you dare forget that!" Nantra could no longer hold her tongue.
Kiko carefully extracted a shocked Xena's arms from her neck and gently led her to an equally surprised Gabrielle, appearing for all the world that Nantra hadn't said a word. She turned and noticed Ping standing nearby, "Ping!"
Ping turned around and walked to Kiko, "Yes, Kiko?"
"Please escort Xena and Gabrielle back to their tent. I'm going back to mine. I still have a mountain of parchments to go through, I'm not to be disturbed unless it's a matter of life or death. Just tell everyone to spar with one another, better yet, set up a friendly competition. And let me know who won tonight during campfire. I'll also be having lunch at my tent, have food sent to me."
She smiled at Ping who looked as unflustered as ever, "No problem, Kiko. You can depend on me." Ping smiled back at her leader and her saviour.
"I wouldn't give you so many instructions but Theresa and Melanis are, ahem, a little, let's just say, busy at the moment. Wouldn't want to disturb the so recently bonded ones, now do we?" Kiko arched one eyebrow, still smiling at Ping, she continued her instructions, "Give them another few hours then gently remind Theresa that she's still in-charge of the final details of the pyre. Inform me when it's time."
Her smile evaporated and she turned to talk to Xena, Gabrielle and Nantra with a very solemn expression, "Xena, please rest up. Gabrielle, please take care of Xena and yourself. Your presence at the funeral pyre will be most welcomed. Nantra, don't you dare go anywhere without letting anyone know again."
Kiko walked back to her nearby tent and immediately two soldiers marched up to stand guard at the entrance, she stopped just long enough to say, "I do not wish to be disturbed by anyone. My lunch will be served to me and one of you will bring it in to me."
"Yes, Grand Marshal."
"Oh, tell Commander Ming that I wish to see him after lunch."
"Yes, Grand Marshal." Was again the reply.
Gabrielle couldn't hold her questions anymore, she had to know. "Ping?"
"Um, Theresa and Melanis are bonded?" When Ping nodded her head, Gabrielle asked again, "May I ask when and where?"
Ping smiles, "At Queen Ephiny's Amazon village, 10 sunrises ago and 5 after I had bonded with Tami."
"Wow! You're bonded with Tami? Well, congratulations! But how..."
"I know, we're not Amazons, right? I don't know how our leader did it, but she and Queen Ephiny prayed to Artemis to seek the goddess' blessings and well, as you can see, they got Artemis' blessings. I thought that our leader would also take the opportunity to bond with Janis and Tarsi as well, but she didn't. Maybe she just thought she can't ask for blessing for two bond mates and she didn't want to pick just one."
"Your leader has never prayed to the gods as far as I know. She doesn't believe in them... all of you must mean a lot to her for her to even go to a temple." Xena added thoughtfully as they reached their destination.
"I know that, Warrior Princess. We do mean a lot to her and she means even more to the rest of us. We've all blood sworn to follow her until our deaths. Because she saved us from a fate worse than death. Well, here we are. My first duty is done, I will have to fulfil the rest of my duties. If you'll all excuse me. And Nantra, please promise not to leave the camp without telling anyone again."
Nantra nodded and proceeded to help Gabrielle get Xena to lay down on the bed. Xena started to protest that she's feeling all better already. But both Gabrielle and Nantra would hear none of it. Nantra did a thorough check on Xena, satisfying herself (and at the same time Gabrielle) that Xena was really all better. Xena was the key, nothing untoward can happen to her or all would be lost.
"You have to be more careful. Try not to go on any journeys without a companion again. You, more than anyone else here, should know that head injuries are most unpredictable. Do take care of yourself, or else, who's gonna take care of your Kay?" Nantra finished checking on Xena and sighed deeply, sitting down on a chair nearby, "And it so appears Kay is coming back. Not your Kay, Xena. A different Kay, a VERY different Kay."
Gabrielle seated herself next to Xena on the bed and gently held Xena's right hand. Xena squeezed back, happy for the contact.
"Where did you go, Nantra?" Xena asked, curious.
"A temple, Warrior Princess. I went to pray for guidance. I went to ask why things that I did not predict has happened."
"Tarsi wasn't supposed to die. The blonde goddess isn't supposed to be helping Portia. Many are going to die in this upcoming battle. It is by now unavoidable. Can you just imagine Ares' glee in all of this?" Xena sprang up at the mention of that particular gods' name.
"Ares," she hissed, "what has he got to do with this? Does he claim Kay as well?"
"Oh no, Warrior Princess. My leader is 'claimed' by someone even more powerful than Ares but the god wants to see if my leader is indeed worthy of the god's attention."
"And if this god deems Kiko unworthy?" this time Gabrielle was the one who asked. "She will lose this battle and in all probability die with it. Because either she will die physically or her soul will die." Nantra stated flatly.
"What will happen when Kiko's soul dies?" Xena asked softly.
"She will become what you used to be. (pause) No, she would be even worse than you've ever been. Her darkness, that Janis and Tarsi had so successfully thwarted time and time again, will win her over one last time. Even you, the mighty Warrior Princess, would not be able to stop it.
"Your own darkness is not... 'natural', it was fighting the warlord Cortese that ultimately twisted you into what you became, it was the betrayal of Caesar and the death of the young girl who saved your life that cemented that darkness. But, Kay's darkness... her darkness is within, it's inborn. She has had to constantly fight the battle for her soul. The eternal battle between the darkness and the light in her soul and for a long time, darkness won.
"But when she was with you, the darkness was shared. With you beside her, she knew she wasn't alone in the darkness. She made her first crucial mistake when she left you. That changed so many things, so much so that the god that claims her felt it necessary for me to intervene and in someway try to guide her back.
"When she saved Princess Wan and was forced to join the Imperial army, I thought I would definitely fail. But, surprisingly, I didn't. The Princess was very good for her, tender and playful and at times, spoilt.
"She was hard, she was violent, she did what she had to do but the darkness didn't win her over totally. Then, she got too successful too fast. Lots of people got jealous of her and plotted against her. I got a warning from the god and tried very hard to warn her, but... it was too late. I've always felt that there were other gods working against her, those gods who wanted and still want my leader on their side.
"She was betrayed and the Princess could do nothing to help her. The Princess was forced to marry Juan only because the Emperor had threatened to torture Kay to death if she didn't. But my leader took this as a sign of betrayal and the darkness won and for once took complete control over her.
"Like when we were fleeing, there was this group of about 50 soldiers who chased us; she killed them all, single-handedly. She didn't just kill them; she literally cut them into pieces. And some of these soldiers were once loyal to her. I thought she only did that to survive, which was true. But throughout our escape towards Greece, if anyone who bothered us, she killed. No questions asked and with absolutely no remorse. I was terrified for her but I couldn't reach her. The darkness that she found herself in was so great, I doubt that even you, Warrior Princess, would have been able to reach her then.
"Just when I thought that all was lost, Janis and Tarsi and the rest of her companions stumbled into my leader's life. Janis and Tarsi slowly worked on those walls and the darkness. With their combined strength, they succeeded. And Kiko was reborn. As for the rest, I'm sure you know by now." Nantra finished her tale. Both Xena and Gabrielle take a look at one another. "Nantra, which god are we talking about here?" Xena asked.
"I cannot say. I am sworn. It is crucial she not lose this battle. And I do not mean just in the battlefield, I mean, the battle for her soul as well. Xena, you were a big part of her life and you would know what she's going through right now, I fear she'll lose her way if you're not around to help her chase those demons away. Therefore, it is very important that you rest up and be well."
"But, Nantra, by leaving her alone right now, aren't we giving those same demons a chance to stake its claim on Kiko's soul?" Gabrielle asked, "Maybe I should go talk to her..."
"No, Gabrielle. Do not go. Now is not the time. The time will come very soon. Let us see if Princess Wan can change Kiko..."
"But didn't Kay forbid the Princess to come into the camp?"
"I came across a messenger from Kiko, summoning the Princess here. She seemed to have changed her mind. At least, I hope she really has. (pause) I should really leave now and let you rest, Warrior Princess." And without another word Nantra left Xena and Gabrielle alone.
Gabrielle absent-mindedly twirled the dark bangs of Xena. Xena couldn't help but grin up at her bard. Finally, Gabrielle noticed the grin on Xena's face, "What's so funny? I thought that you would be worried out of your mind for Kiko."
"I am, but, I'm just so happy that you're not angry with me anymore."
"Who says I'm not?" Gabrielle retorted and Xena looked down at Gabrielle's fingers still playing with her hair, "Oh!" Gabrielle removed her wayward fingers at once and Xena was disappointed, "Okay, so maybe, you're still angry at me." She shifted her head such that she no longer faced Gabrielle.
"Xena! Don't... I've forgiven you already. Hey, look at me, please?" Gabrielle added with a slightly pleading tone to her voice. Xena turned her head back, her beautiful blue eyes a little watery with tears that would not shed. Gabrielle leaned down and kissed Xena full on the lips, after a long and delicious moment, she withdrew, drawing a disappointed moan from the warrior.
"I know, it's just words. Words that you and I exchanged long before we admitted our feelings to one another. I mean, I shouldn't over-react like that. I..."
"No, no, no. You were right to be angry, I..." Xena could not continue because the bard had placed her right index finger over her mouth, effectively stopping her words.
"Please, let me finish first, love. Nothing can divide us, not even gods or even death. So why should I let some words..." it was now Gabrielle's turn at not being able to continue. The cause? Xena had skillfully maneuvered Gabrielle's finger into her mouth and was now sucking on the fingertip.
Gabrielle shuddered involuntarily, thinking "Gods, I've missed this so..." When she finally looked back down at Xena, both eyes were filled with the same unspoken desire. Gabrielle lowered herself on top of Xena, slowly removing her finger from the wondrous place that it had been in, she kissed Xena again, moving her free hands to unbuckle Xena's breastplate and leathers, while Xena's hands are just as busy untying the laces that hold her lover's top.
They broke for a breath but just before they kissed again, Xena looked deep into her lover's eyes and pledges, "My love, I will not let anything come between us again. Never again." Gabrielle just nodded in agreement and they kissed again, their hands moving to wherever their hands what to as they make slow and delicious love together.
Several hours later, a soft voice interrupted the two spent naked lovers wrapped in each other's arms. "Xena? Gabrielle?" Xena looks at her half-slumbering lover; she reluctantly extracted herself from the comfort of Gabrielle's arms and stood up slowly. She silently stretched her limbs as she walked towards the tent entrance; she slowly lifted the flap up, just enough to pop her head out, squinting against the bright sunlight outside. She took a moment to focus her eyes on the person outside the tent. It was a smiling-widely Melanis.
"Hi, Xena. Chow time at the meal tent. Want to come or would you rather prefer that I ask someone to bring a tray to you and Gabrielle?"
"I think we'll go. Give us a minute or two."
"No problem. See you both there." She gave Xena a wave and then turned back towards the big meal tent and actually skipped her way there. Xena observed it all with a smile, 'Oh boy. Skipping. Hope love will not make ME skip." She shuddered slightly at the thought.
"Xena? Is there anything wrong?" Gabrielle had fully woken up after Xena had left the bed therefore she saw Xena's slight shudder. Xena turned back to face her Gabrielle, love all evident on her face. "Nope. Nothing's wrong."
Just then, Gabrielle's stomach began its noisy protest at being ignored and she blushed while Xena laughed heartily. "C'mon, before you starve." She picked up their clothes on the floor and roughly threw Gabrielle's to her before quickly dressing herself. Just as she was picking up her breastplate, she felt arms encircling her. Warm, loving arms that could only belong to Gabrielle.
"I believe that's my job, Warrior Princess." Gabrielle took the breastplate from Xena's hands and started to put it on her warrior. As soon as it was done, Xena swung around and grabbed hold of Gabrielle, kissing her fully and passionately on the lips and having the kiss fully returned. At last, they broke off when Gabrielle's stomach decided to make itself known to the two lovers again. Xena laughed again as she pulled her bard out of the tent and towards the meal tent.
Together hand-in-hand, they entered the crowded meal tent. Xena and Gabrielle glanced to the front of the huge table, the centre chair is empty. On its right sat Ming. To it's left, two empty chairs that served only to remind everyone of their previous occupants.
And to the chairs left are two more empty seats that Melanis is waving them to. Xena nodded in acknowledgement and they made their way there. Theresa had one arm draped over Melanis' shoulders and the other alternating between feeding herself and Melanis. They both smiled widely at Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle seated herself in one of the chairs, glancing sadly at the two other chairs she looked down, remembering the short time she knew Janis and Tarsi. Hearing laughter she looked over and noticed Xena sharing a joke with both Theresa and Melanis.
When the three of them erupted in laughter at the same time again, Gabrielle asked, "Hey! What's so funny that has not one, not two but THREE warriors laughing oh-so-merrily?"
"Nothing..." the three said warriors each managed to stammer out finally. They had to make a real effort to keep their eyes from one another. As they did that, the only direction they could face was the front and they immediately noticed Ming giving instructions to two soldiers, one of them carrying a large tray of food. The soldiers saluted Ming and left the meal tent, all this time watched by four pairs of interested eyes.
"The Grand Marshal had issued orders for food to be taken to her tent." Ming explained once he noticed the attentions of Xena, Gabrielle, Theresa and Melanis. The four of them nodded towards Ming.
"Kay tells me..." Xena was interrupted by two hot steaming plates of food being placed in front of her and Gabrielle. Gabrielle immediately tucked in while Xena continued, "She tells me that you served her from the very beginning..."
"Yes, Warrior Princess. Right from the beginning. I will never forget that battle, everyone had called it a 'suicide mission' and all the soldiers had volunteered to go. To die fighting for your King is considered the greatest honour any soldier can achieve. No one counted on our new, strange woman Commander.
"She led us, an army of barely 3,000, against an army almost five times our size. Against all the odds, she succeeded and we routed the enemy army. She and her army came back heroes and to a mountain of glory and fame. Tales of her killing a thousand men alone were not exaggerated. It seemed to us that she killed at least three thousand. And she also had laid numerous traps and ambushes that also accounted for so many of the enemies' deaths.
"But what amazed me the most was the fact that this was all accomplished with less than a thousand deaths on our side." Ming paused to take a sip of his drink while all in the tent remained silent, the soldiers remembering back to the old days and the companions amazed at the story.
Minister Li, seating next to Ming, picked up the story, "As her reputation grew, so did her rank, from merely a Commander to General to Head General to Marshal and finally Grand Marshal in less than two and a half years. After every victory, the then King would reward her handsomely, she in turn would reward her soldiers.
"But it was always what she did before every battle, big or small, regardless if she's leading the army or not, that would remain firmly in my mind. For she would walk around the camp, now please understand that ours was no small camp, it can't be small with the number of soldiers alone amounting to some 100,000. She would walk around every individual campfire and join the common soldiers in drinks and indulge them with some stories. She would talk to as many as soldiers she could and..."
Ming interrupted, "And that did wonders for moral and it did wonders for her. For slowly, the soldiers, I myself included, started to believe that to die fighting for HER was an even greater honour than to die fighting for the King. Most of us still believe that, even today.
"She will never be far from our hearts and minds. Of course, the fact that she had always sent a lot of money to families of her dead soldiers would make the soldiers that much more willing to die for her. She would make sure that that soldier's families were all well taken care of and sometimes even visited the families themselves."
Minister Li picked up the story again, "The only things that she would not tolerate were betrayal and disobedience to her, unnecessary killing of civilians, especially the unarmed ones and the children, raping women and the setting of any fires, in any conquered or soon-to-be conquered territories, be it in a city, town or village. No fires..."
Xena almost choked on her mouthful of food but just managed to stop in time and glancing down she noticed the concerned look at Gabrielle. She mouthed, 'I'm fine' to her. She picked up her goblet, taking a deep drink and willing herself to breathe properly. She placed the goblet down and listened to the story again, this time it was back to Ming.
"...told to discipline us more by the King himself. She soon became a harsh disciplinarian. At least to the Prime Minister, the other Ministers and the generals not under her charge, yet. We could put on quite an act, until of course, someone was foolish enough to try her patience and anger.
"And if any one was found to have broken her rules, punishment was swift in coming and long in ending. Those times, she had to steel her heart and build up her walls, at least that was what I remembered her telling me once, and be merciless. She can be merciless when she chooses to be. All the soldiers' whose lives and loyalties who belong to her never gave her any reason to doubt or punish them.
"It always happened to the soldiers who had generals who were not exactly loyal to her. Once she was finally so tired of having to show this particular general who was the one in charge, she ordered him to kill himself. When he refused, she snapped and ordered him to be drawn and quartered immediately instead. She berated herself to me and her other loyal lieutenants privately for days after."
"In front of others and in the Imperial Court, she would put on her tough act and I think the King actually praised her for her action. And told her that she had his blessings to 'do more such punishments'. From that instance on, no other generals not under her charge would dare to speak against or question her again. Her reputation grew ten-fold.
"Then when she finally reunited the entire country, the King proclaimed himself the First Emperor. Grand Marshal was given the title, 'Grand Marshal, Supreme Commanding General of the Imperial Army, Undefeated Lord of a thousand years', how she hated that title.
"Grand Marshal was also given, besides more money than anyone can possibly spend in ten lifetimes, the Emperor's old palace, the honour of wearing the royal colour of yellow on her new armour and an army of 200,000. On top of that, and how she hated this part, when anyone greeted her, they now had to wish that she would live for a thousand years. How she cringed when she first heard that from us..." Minister Li added, trying very hard not to laugh himself.
The rest of the soldiers in the meal tent failed miserably but Ming succeeded pretty well, "She told us that she wouldn't WANT to live a thousand years." Ming sobered up quickly as do the rest of the soldiers and Minister Li for now came the part that still haunted many of them.
Their Grand Marshal was betrayed. "Didn't last that long. The Emperor sent Grand Marshal to the borders, supposedly to oversee the construction of the wall, but in reality, it was a scheme to topple the Grand Marshal. He succeeded. With my stupid help!" Ming banged his fist on the table, shaking the huge table right down to its foundation.
"You also rescued the Grand Marshal, Commander." Minister Li pointed out.
"Yeah, it was the least I could do after what I had done to her... she forgives me, that I know, but she'll never forget what I did, even though it was done unwittingly." Ming's voice trailed off.
"The Grand Marshal I know never forgets anything that anyone has ever done for her or to her." Minister Li added.
A soldier entered the all too silent tent, everyone thinking deeply about what they had heard from the two whom knew the Grand Marshal/Kiko/Kay more than anyone else from those days that were kept away from them for so long. A side of her that no one else in the camp had previously known, not even Xena herself.
The soldier saluted Ming, "Commander, the Grand Marshal asks if you have finished your lunch."
"Oh yes, the meeting. I almost forgot. I'll be there in a minute." He nodded to the soldier, dismissing him. He stood up from his seat, "When I first saw the Grand Marshal's eyes years ago, she seemed at once haunted, at another peaceful. Then they alternated from not so dark to really, really light, especially when Princess Wan was around. Her eyes now... they remind me of another time..."
"What other time?" Xena asked.
"The time when I released her broken body from those chains..." he looked into Xena's eyes, "it's the same dark, determined, scary look. I had prayed that I would never have to see them again, but no matter what happens, I'll still die for her, I owe her that much..." he trailed off as he walked out of the tent to his meeting with his Grand Marshal.
Most of the soldiers too left soon after him, even Minister Li also excused himself. Very soon, the meal tent only had Kiko's companions left.
"Well, like Ming said, no matter what happens, I'll still die for her. We all owe her that much." Theresa finally said after a very long silence.
"Yeah, we owe her our very lives." Brutus added.
The rest of the squad leaders present nodded their heads, in complete agreement with one another. Xena looked on thoughtfully, processing each bit of information.
Meanwhile at Kiko's tent, Ming had just entered and greeted Kiko, "You may rise, Ming. You know you don't have to do this."
"Yes, I do know, but... in any case, what may your orders be, Grand Marshal?" Ming replied.
"Did you bring my armours along?" Kiko asked.
"Yes, we did, Grand Marshal." Was the reply.
"All of them?" Kiko wanted to be sure.
"All of them, Grand Marshal." Ming answered firmly.
Kiko grinned a little as she ordered Ming, "Good, bring me my black one and the newest one."
"The one with the yellow dragon?"
"Yes, that one. That one to meet the Head General, should be quite impressive, wouldn't it?" Kiko smirked.
"Yes, it would, Grand Marshal. You always do look 'impressive' in your ceremonial armour..."
"Yeah, I know. That's what ceremonial armours are supposed to do, isn't it? Make the wearer more impressive then they are. (pause) I want to wear my black piece for the pyre later and I want you to make sure the good Prince and his soldiers to attend the pyre for my dead companions."
"As you command, Grand Marshal. I'll take your leave now, your armour will be delivered to you very soon... will you require a servant to help you get ready?"
"I'm not sure if I remember how the armour works, so send a servant outside. I may need help. And yes, that'll be all. You may go." Kiko dismissed Ming.
Ming left the tent and Kiko was alone again. She looked down at her table; where a small red pouch rested. She untied the pouch and dropped the contents down on the table. Three identical, simple gold bands drop onto the table. She picked one up and slipped it onto her left pinkie. She picked up the other two and placed them back into the pouch. She closed her eyes as one lone tear found its way down her face.
A while later, Xena and Gabrielle made their way out of the bath tent where they had spent the better part of the afternoon, making them both feel really clean now. They made their way slowly to the centre of the camp. Most of the bodies have already been brought out and placed on their individual pyre. One of them was placed slightly away from the rest and Xena guessed that that one was going to be for Janis.
They saw Melanis standing alone, with Theresa supervising the placement of the bodies, and they moved to join her. Gabrielle noticed that Melanis had already shed a few tears and so had many others around them. Melanis noticed them and said, "Tarsi doesn't have a body for us to..."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded sadly and then Xena also noticed the prisoners out of their cages and kneeling very near the area.
"What about them?" she asked Melanis.
"Kiko's orders, Ming said. She wants them to see." Was the terse reply.
"Where's Kiko herself? Is she saying her goodbye as well?" Gabrielle asked.
Melanis shakes her head, "Not that I've heard of. No one has seen her..." The silence and solemnity of the affair was broken by the sound of a horse thundering in and stopping right in front of Ming.
"Commander, communicative from the Head General." The soldier knelt down before Ming and presented a bamboo letter to him. Ming dismissed him with a wave and removed the ribbon hurriedly. He exclaimed loudly in his native language and signalled for Minister Li.
"He'll be here by noon tomorrow and he has the Princess with him?!! This is not good, Ming..."
"Don't I know it?" Ming replied, "The Grand Marshal made it clear that she didn't wish to see the Princess and now she's coming. We have to think of..."
"It's perfectly all right, Ming. I had summoned for her." Was Kiko's voice before anyone could spot her.
And once she was seen, an audible gasp could be heard all round the camp. Kiko was wearing a highly polished suit of black armour with a long-flowing black cape behind her and black boots. She wore her sword on her belt to her right and the only colour she had was a small red pouch that could be seen hanging from the belt.
She had made her appearance just in time to see Janis' body being carried out by Brutus, Antonio, Theresa and Ping. Kiko turned her head towards the prisoners, "Bring forth the Prince." She turned her attention back to Janis' body which had been placed on her pyre. She gently removed the sheet covering Janis and flung it to the side.
Addressing the Prince, she said loudly while removing something from the pouch, "Take a good look Prince. Take a good look all around you. And most of all take a good look at her." The guard forced Prince Manis to look at the other bodies and then at Janis'.
Kiko lifted Janis' right hand, gently kissing it. She looked viciously back at the Prince, moving her own right arm up, showing him, and everyone else, the ring she held in her hand. "She and her sister were to have been my bond mates for life," the camp gasped in surprise again, "but you helped cut their lives short!" Kiko turned her attention back to Janis, now gently using her left hand to hold Janis' right, she slipped the ring into Janis' finger and raising to kiss it again.
She replaced the hand and leaned down to kiss Janis on the lips. Kiko then took the other ring out of the pouch and gently closed Janis' hands over it, she said, "Give this to your sister for me cause I can't. You're both my loves and the saviours of Kiko's soul."
Then she whispered something that not everyone could catch but with Xena's amazing hearing she managed, Kiko said, "For all eternity. Always and forever." She gently stroked Janis' hair and collapsed to her knees, seemingly forgetting everyone else's presence.
Then with a flash of her darken eyes, she stood and strode towards the already quivering Prince. "Prince Manis of Portia, hear me well for then you may let your father know. Your life is already forfeit, that I'm sure you know by now. So is your father's life. Not now, no, no. Not now. But soon, I can promise you that. I will have my fun with both of you first. After I'm done, I'll tear the two of you apart with my bare hands. Heed this for I GUARANTEE it!"
She stared deep into Prince Manis' eyes and continued saying something chilled the listening Nantra, Xena and Gabrielle, "The kind-hearted, generous bandit Kiko is dead. You killed her when you killed her lights. She cannot exist without her lights, therefore Kay lives again. As she did before! In all her glory!"
Kay turned away from Prince Manis and walked back towards Janis again, once again, she reached down to kiss Janis and after one last lingering look, "Cover her up." Ming immediately sprung to action before Theresa could even react.
Kay raised her hand for a torch and when given one, brought it down and on to the woodpile, setting it on fire. Soon, one by one, the rest of the pyres were lit. And Xena's haunting song could be heard over the hissing of the fire.
Kay continued to stand right beside, oblivious to Janis' burning pyre until Theresa had to pull her away to relative safety. She removed Theresa's hold on her arm and moved to the group of prisoners.
She surveyed the prisoners with a deadly look in her eyes. She easily picked out the lieutenants from the common soldiers. "You! You! You! And you!" she pointed to four soldiers, "Bring them next to their Prince." Her soldiers proceeded to carry put their orders.
Now, all that were left were the common soldiers. She addressed them in a calm and detached manner, "I know all of you were only following orders as good soldiers do. I can see in your eyes that you all never wanted to be part of this attack."
"No, Kiko! I... you saved my sister's village from starvation last winter." Said one soldier sadly.
"Yeah, you saved my wife's family..." shouted another.
"You helped my cousin..." yet another added.
Kay coldly raised her hand to stop the flow of speech. "Enough! (pause) I know what I did before, I don't need any of you to remind me. My name is Kay now, in case any of you didn't hear me the first time round. Not Kiko anymore. She no longer exists, her deeds will die with her." Gabrielle was about to jump in when Xena held her back, giving her a look of warning and a furious shake of her head.
Kay continued on, even though she had noticed the brief exchange between Xena and Gabrielle with the corner of her eye, after all she had expected such a reaction from the bard, "That is not what I want to say to you all. All of you are good soldiers, I'll always have use for more of such," all the captive soldiers look up at her with amazed looks for they had thought that they were all going to die.
"Theresa, Melanis," the two of them step forward, placing themselves between Kay. Kay addressed the captives again, "Those of you who would like to join me, report to your two section chiefs standing beside me now. Those who don't want to join me... you are free to leave the camp. But, remember this, I still have your Prince, how are any of you going to explain this to your commanders back at Portia? Better yet, how are you going to explain this to your King? Think about it before you make any decision. Cut them loose."
"Yes, Grand Marshal." And her soldiers proceeded to cut the prisoners' bindings loose. All of the former prisoners went without hesitation to stand in 2 lines in front of Theresa and Melanis.
"Now, as for the four of you..." Kay said as she walked towards the four lieutenants, kneeling beside their Prince, "what should I do with you? I can't let you join me as well, now can I? That would be wrong, so wrong of me, wouldn't you say? So, I think I shall have a little fun with you guys and your Prince can watch so that he will be able to learn."
She sneered at the shivering men. The sight of their leader so different from what they had been used to sent continuous shivers up some of her companions' spines, it was all that they could do to watch in amazement.
Kay turned round and faced her companions truly for the first time and all too clearly to them, her dark eyes seemed to lighten up a little as she smiled. A smile that her companions were well used to, it was the one that had always greeted them if any of them were injured or hurt. A warm and concerned smile meant to comfort those in distress, which was exactly what each and every one of them needed at the moment.
But all too soon the smile faded and her eyes turned back to its dark colour and Kay fixed her stare at first Gabrielle, who was given a cold and hard stare that seemed to Gabrielle to convey a kind of warning to stay out of this.
Kay then moved on to Nantra standing nearby, her look to Nantra was one of there's nothing more that Nantra could do, she has chosen her own road and if it would lead to her destruction than so be it.
Finally, Kay's eyes fall on her once mentor, it was one of unexpressed sorrow and resignation that Xena would be involved in this battle that was not hers by choice.
She looked away quickly and back to the prisoners, she called for soldiers nearby, "Return them to their cages, we'll have all the fun we want tomorrow. Jiang!" a huge man appeared, "You called for me, Grand Marshal?"
"Yes I did, I think I'll be needing your services tomorrow. Haven't tortured anyone in a while, not sure if I still remember how to..." Kay smiled evilly.
"All will be ready for you tomorrow, Grand Marshal."
"Good, you may go and start preparing now."
"Yes, Grand Marshal." Jiang turned back and called for some help from a few of the soldiers.
"Prince, you and your father had your ways with me once. But I must say, truly, you don't know the way to torturing someone. Don't worry, I'm about to give you a lesson. Call it, 'Torture 101'." Kay laughed at the sight of a trembling Prince Manis.
Kay turned back and was about to head back to her tent when she was pulled back by a furious Gabrielle who had gotten away from Xena's grasp. Without thinking, Gabrielle raised her right hand and slapped Kay hard. A slap that could be heard by all in the camp.
Almost immediately and even before Xena could react, Gabrielle found herself surrounded by a sea of swords belonging to the soldiers standing nearby. Kay waved them away with one hand, the other was on her face. But when the soldiers hesitated, she glared at them with barely disguised anger, the soldiers immediately sheathed their swords and moved a step back, heads bowed deeply.
"Don't_you_ever_do_that_again! Don't even think about it!" Kay spitted out through clenched teeth at Gabrielle. "Don't try my patience! The only thing that is keeping me from letting you being run through by a sword is the fact that without you Xena will definitely plunge into darkness again. I can't and I won't let that happen! But don't try your luck and my patience!" she took a deep breath and pushed Gabrielle back towards the fast-arriving Xena.
"You are no longer welcome in my camp. Make yourself scarce by breakfast tomorrow." Her angry dark eyes flashing dangerously the whole time. A look that scared even Xena herself and this was one warrior who had stared down on all the gods on Mount Olympus with no fear.
Then Kay's eyes softened all of a sudden and turned her head off to a distance and slowly everyone else in the camp followed her lead, finally hearing the sound of someone running quickly and calling, "Kay, no!"
As the figure drew closer, the soldiers in the camp fell on their knees in respect. When the figure could finally be seen clearly, it's a she. A delicate beauty, tall and slender (still shorter than Xena, though taller than Gabrielle), she was obviously someone who was not used to having to exert herself as she panted heavily from her running.
She headed straight for Kay and wrapped her arms tightly around Kay, "Calm down, Kay. It's all right. It'll be okay." She turned a slight glance at the kneeling soldiers and gave them all a knowing look. A not all uncommon signal.
Which Ming remembered instantly and started, "Please calm down, Grand Marshal. Be careful about your health." And the rest of the soldiers joined in and eventually Kay relaxed and smiled, her eyes sparkling all of a sudden.
She looked at the woman still firmly holding onto her with a tenderness that she had previously reserved for Janis alone. "You could always do this to me, Wan." Kay tenderly lifted Wan's face towards her and gently wiped away the tears that had found their way down the beautiful face. Unnoticed by all, Nantra smiled knowingly, thinking that maybe her leader would be able to turn back from this darkness in time after all.
"Our respects to the Royal Princess." The soldiers greeted their unexpected, but not at all unwelcome, visitor in unison. 'So, this is the Princess,' Xena thought to herself. 'Tall, long, black hair, only thing is she doesn't have blue eyes and the build of a warrior or else...' she thought back to her conversation with Kay earlier in the morning. 'I hope you'll accept her as your light, Kay. I really hope you do,' Xena continued with her thoughts.
Kay hugged Wan close to her again and as she gently led Wan to her tent. Once again, immediately after the flap was replaced, two burly soldiers take their positions guarding the entrance.
The sun had completely gone down by now and the pyres were burning down as well. The camp slowly buzzed into life again as the cooks start bringing rabbits, wild boars, quails and other kinds of animals out to cook at the campfires tonight.
Groups of soldiers started building these fires for the cooks, one group taking it upon themselves to make a larger one at the middle. Xena and Gabrielle found themselves being left completely alone with Gabrielle still in the protective embrace of Xena's.
Xena shook her head, trying to clear the dull throbbing pain that was starting again. She leaned down to Gabrielle, "Love, got to get back to the tent..." Gabrielle looked back at Xena with some degree of surprise because Xena's usually strong voice was quivering and soft. Gabrielle gasped involuntarily as she noticed Xena's pale pallor, "Let's go then." And slowly they made their way to their shared tent.
Once inside, Gabrielle quickly helped Xena onto the bed and removed her lover's breastplates, her eyes not leaving Xena's steadily paling face for a second. Once the breastplates, boots and bracers were removed, "Xena. I think I better go find Nantra..."
"No, love. It's okay. I just need a rest that's all."
"Xena! Will you please stop this? You need help and I'm going to ask Nantra..."
"And I said no. Gabrielle, there's nothing Nantra can do for me. There's nothing she can do but to remind me to rest. And I do agree with her, I do need to rest, but I need you beside me even more. Please?" 'Especially since you won't be here tomorrow,' she thought silently.
Gabrielle took off her boots as well and laid down beside her warrior, placing one arm around Xena's shoulders and the other drawing lazy patterns on her warrior's firm stomach. "I do love you so," Gabrielle said to the almost asleep warrior, she sighed, "What on earth possessed me to slap Kiko, I don't know."
Gabrielle glanced up at the now sleeping warrior, "I just hope you won't insist on leaving with me tomorrow, but I just can't stay here any longer, even if Kiko hadn't driven me out. You are still needed here..." soon she found herself drifting off to sleep as well.
"Warrior Princess?" a voice from outside the tent called, causing both Xena and Gabrielle to wake up at the same time, Xena sleepily called out, "Yes?"
"Dinner is ready, if you and your companion would like to join our Grand Marshal at the head table?" Xena exchanged a look of slight surprise with Gabrielle and then answered, "We'll be there in a couple of minutes..."
"I was ordered to escort you both to the table..."
"All right, we'll be out soon." Gabrielle was already putting on her boots but after putting one on, she stopped. Xena, who was also busy wearing her boots and bracers, noticed.
"Gabrielle? What's wrong?" was the concerned question. "Xena, I don't think I should be out there. I think it would be too awkward, I mean Kiko..."
"Well, I guess it would be a little awkward but she did mention you in the invitation and it's food. Lots and lots of food..."
"Just bring in a plate for me after you're done then."
"But..." Xena started to protest but Gabrielle stopped her, "Go on, have fun. I don't think you'll need your breastplates, do you?"
"No, I guess not. Are you sure you don't want to come with me?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." Gabrielle stood on her toes and kissed Xena, "Xena? Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, that nap sure did me a lot of good. I'll try to be back soon with your food." Gabrielle nodded and watched as Xena left the tent.
Outside the tent, the young soldier was waiting for Xena patiently. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"It's okay, Warrior Princess. This way please." He led Xena to the centre of the tent which was now one of music and dancing when it was just so recently a place of great sorrow. She marveled at the complete transformation.
"The Warrior Princess arrives!" was the call when she moved out of the shadows of darkness. The music and merriment suddenly stopped and the attention of the camp centred on the Warrior Princess.
Xena suddenly felt very uncomfortable with all the attention on her. She focused her attentions on Kay who was seated at the middle of the head table. On her right was the Princess, on her left were two empty chairs. Ming was seated at the head of the other table.
Kay raised from her seat, all prepared to greet Xena and Gabrielle, instead she found Xena by herself. "Xena! Where's Gabrielle?" Xena took her seat and the music started up again, "She thought it would be awkward... you know, you shouting at her and demanding that she leave your camp by tomorrow breakfast." Xena said with a chiding tone.
Kay was silent for a long time then she spoke up, "It's going to be ugly, Xena. Do you want her to be around to witness stuff like that?" Kay defended herself. Xena just stared deep into those dark eyes, what she saw gave her additional hope, the walls were no more higher than when she last saw them, maybe the Princess had done her some good.
"Oh! I haven't introduced you to the Warrior Princess yet, Wan."
"Hi, I'm Xena."
The Princess reached over the shake Xena's offered hand, "I'm Wan, Warrior Princess. It's so good to finally be able to meet you."
"Why is..." Xena's question was interrupted by the serving of her dinner and a server behind asking, "Wine or cider, Warrior Princess?" "Um, wine. Thanks." She held her goblet as the server poured the red liquid.
"Chun." Kay called out to a server.
"Your orders, Grand Marshal?"
"Send a large tray of all the different kinds of food we have here and deliver the tray to the Warrior Princess' tent."
"It'll be done, Grand Marshal." Kay dismissed him with a slight wave. "Thanks, Kay." Xena smiled.
"No problem, just enjoy yourself for tonight, I've a feeling that we won't be getting this kind of night for a while."
Chun was delivering the large tray of food when Gerias intercepted him, "Hi! I'm going to the Warrior Princess' tent; it's on my way, why don't I send this for you? In that way you can go back to serving your Grand Marshal." Chun thought for a moment before agreeing to the suggestion. Gerias took over the heavy tray and continued on the way to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was busy writing on her parchments when Gerias called to her from outside, "Hey, Gabrielle. It's me, Gerias. Gods, this tray is heavy..."
Gabrielle jumped up in a second to open the tent flap for Gerias. "Hi! Did Xena ask you to bring this for me?"
"Well, I intercepted the messenger. I thought you might want some company."
Gabrielle smiled widely as she and Gerias started tucking into the wide selection of meat and vegetables the tray had to offer.
Meanwhile, outside at the campfire, the air was also filled with sounds of laughter and the beginnings of drunken singing. It seemed that everyone could sense that this might be the last night of partying they would have in a while, but the mood is anything but solemn.
Theresa and Melanis soon sneaked away from the party for their own fun in their tent, Ping and Tami also soon followed them. Their sneaking away do not escape the eyes of Kay, but she pretended otherwise. Happy and totally enjoying Xena's company and Wan's calming influence beside her. And happy in the knowledge that her bard was keeping Gabrielle company.
"Ming," Ming looked at Kay, "make sure we put on a great show for the Head General tomorrow."
"Don't worry about that, Grand Marshal. Just make your regal appearance with your ceremonial armour. Li and I will take care of all the tiny details."
"Regal appearance?" Xena was very curious, "How often do you guys do this?"
"Quite a number of times, if only to make the Prime Minister think twice about opposing the Grand Marshal, or to impress any of the other Ministers that the Emperor or the Prime Minister sends to check on the Grand Marshal." Ming said even though Kay made a show of shaking her head and signaling 'no', making Wan and even Xena laugh with its exaggeration.
Finally after a long might of boozing and rowdy singing, Xena made her way back to her tent, Gabrielle was alone and already asleep on the bed. She pulled off her boots and snuggled into the bed beside Gabrielle who continued sleeping.
Xena then started to nuzzle Gabrielle's ear, moving down to her neck and then down to her breasts. Finally Gabrielle moaned, bringing a smile to Xena's face as she continued with her attentions.
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle opened one eye and met the teasing blue of her warrior's, "You're drunk!" she accused Xena. Xena did not try to defend herself, instead she moved her lips to Gabrielle's and finally Gabrielle was wide awake. Just as that happened, Xena pulled away and whispered, "Goodnight, love." And then she turned to face the other side, away from Gabrielle, a huge grin plastered on her face.
"Xena! You woke me up!" Gabrielle poked her warrior hard at her back to no avail, "Xena! How can you do this to me! Xena!" Xena could barely manage to keep herself from laughing out loud at the indignant tone of her young lover's.
She finally turned over to face an increasingly angry Gabrielle, "Oh, all right. Since you're so insistent... What do you want to do for our last night for a while? Something special?" Xena was able to keep herself from bursting out in mirth but she could not stop her blue eyes from sparkling and twinkling in delight.
"Oh, you..." Xena prevented Gabrielle from saying anything more by kissing her passionately again, one thing led to another before they both finally drifted off to sleep, contented and satisfied.
The next morning, Gabrielle woke up and immediately knew that Xena was already up and gone. She moved to the basin of water to wash the night's sleep away from her face.
"You're up early." It was Xena; she had gone to the meal tent to get Gabrielle breakfast. Gabrielle turned and flashed Xena a wide smile. Xena returned the smile readily as she placed the tray on the table and leaned down to give Gabrielle a kiss which Gabrielle eagerly returned. Breaking off the kiss, Xena led Gabrielle to the table and the food. Watching her lover eagerly tuck in the delicious and warm broth and fresh nutbread, Xena could not help but smile.
Xena was about to caution Gabrielle on being safe on route to Amazon lands when, "Xena? Gabrielle? You guys up yet?" It was Kay. Xena raised an eyebrow towards Gabrielle who shrugged.
"Yeah, Kay. C'mon in."
Kay peeked into the tent as if to be doubly sure she wasn't interrupting anything. Slowly, she entered the tent, looking down at her feet, seemingly unsure or Xena could even swear, embarrassed. Kay shuffled her feet in a gesture that so reminded Xena of the Kay she knew back then, one that was going to... Xena grinned, apologise and admit that she was wrong.
"Stop smirking Xena." Kay said without looking up from her booted feet.
Xena's grin now turned into a full-fledged smirk as she arched her eyebrow, "Yes, Kay? What can we do for the mighty Grand Marshal?"
Kay took a deep breath, sighed dramatically, "That was a stupid thing you did last night, Gabrielle. An action that in the past would have cost that person his or her head in less than a minute. And anyone would have been willing to do it. Don't ever do it again. I know I deserve a slap for some of the things I'm about to do today.
"It's not pretty but I have to convince those soldiers that their Grand Marshal is back. Because I need them to attack Portia for me. My companions, highly skilled as they are, they have never attacked a kingdom before while these soldiers here are as battle-hardened as they come. I NEED them for my revenge." She raised a hand to stop Gabrielle's protests.
She gentled her voice, "Gabrielle, I'm not you. I don't have a capacity to forgive and forget. I can forgive but I'll never forget. Like I'll never forget how I've failed my loves and my reasons to live. This is something I have to do."
Kay looked up for the first time since entering the tent, "Guess what I'm trying to say is, if you still want to head off Amazon lands, I'll send an escort with you. If you want to stay, I won't be angry if only you promise not to be angry at the things I'm about to do. And stay in the tent when the Head General arrives, I still don't know his intentions and I don't want you hurt in any way."
She walked towards Gabrielle and gently stroked her cheek, "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if anything happened to you because of me." She dropped her hand and turned back, "Xena, I'll send someone for you once he's here. Until then..." Kay walked out of the tent.
Gabrielle felt Xena's strong, reassuring arm encircled her shoulders and she looked up into the eyes of her love, "I guess I'll be staying then..." Xena smiled and nodded.
After breakfast, Xena decided to go to the stables to check on Argo and maybe groom her personally. Leaving Gabrielle to do some catching up on her writing, she made another stop at the meal tent to grab a few apples to treat Argo with.
The morning passed quickly with Xena deciding to change Argo's shoes as well as treating Argo to a slow and complete grooming that she could never afford to do when out in the open with Gabrielle. Outside the stable, she could hear sounds of wood being hammered into place and sounds of heavy objects being moved and orders shouted out in the foreign language.
When Xena had finally finished with Argo, she stepped out of the stables and found herself in the midst of a scene of organised chaos. While slowly making her way back to her tent, she noticed a kind of a temporary throne of sorts being placed on top of a slightly raised platform. Two other wooden chairs were placed on either side of the 'throne'. Xena could guess easily who would be sitting on that throne.
As she reached her tent, she noticed Minister Li standing nearby. Minister Li saw her and set out to speak with Xena, "Ah, Warrior Princess. The Grand Marshal has requested that you attend the welcoming, um, party for the Head General and if you could wear your armour, sword and chakram."
"Okay, I will. Part of the grand show?" Xena grinned.
"Yes, Warrior Princess. I shall send for someone to call for you when the army arrives."
"Sure, but I'm sure I'll be able to hear an army of that kind of size..."
"But, no, Warrior Princess. Please come out only when I send someone for you." Xena still didn't quite understand why but she nodded her head anyway and entered her tent.
There was a fresh basin of water on the table. And the sight of her heart wiping herself with a piece of damp cloth greeted her. Xena's grin turned into a full fledged smile. Silently, she eased out of her leathers and walked towards Gabrielle. She whispered into her love's ear, "Need some help?"
Gabrielle gasped slightly and simply nodded her head. And the rest of the morning became a blur to both women.
Shortly after Kay had sent over a hearty lunch tray for both of them, the army finally entered the camp with great fan fare. Xena swung out of bed where she and Gabrielle were lazing around in and strapped on her sword and chakram. She looked down, "Gabrielle, you're staying here, right?"
"Yeah..." Gabrielle mocked sighed, "...and miss the command performance and I bet I'll not get a very good description of the action from a certain someone who is going to have a front row seat..." Xena smiled as she leaned down and gave Gabrielle a kiss, "Be careful. And don't come out no matter what you hear, understand?"
Gabrielle nodded her head as they turned their heads to the direction of the entrance, someone was there, "Warrior Princess? Are you ready?" the voice asked. Xena took a deep breath and bounced on her feet a little to settle her armour and weapons, she strode towards the entrance of the tent, growing in confidence with every step.
Before leaving the tent she looked back towards the bed and towards her soulmate's slight nod. She walked out of her tent and was surprised to see a six-soldier 'escort' for her, "Is this really necessary?"
"By the orders of the Grand Marshal."
She sighed a little and allowed herself to be surrounded by her escort. She noticed that the soldiers' armours and weapons all seem to be shining even more brightly then usual. 'Must be some kind of show...' she thought.
Xena was not disappointed. The newly-arrived army of 8,000 is already on their knees, their commanding officers at the front. Xena turned her attention to the raised platform and sure enough, seated upon the makeshift 'throne' was Kay. Kay was dressed in her most 'regal' looking armour, a yellow dragon embroidered on the crest of her black and gold armour.
Behind her stood all of her companions, while Ming's soldiers were all standing such that they surrounded the new army. Princess Wan was seated on the chair at Kay's right with her four personal servants standing around her. Xena was then led to the chair on Kay's left, much to her surprise. Kay raised herself from her seat to acknowledge Xena, her eyes twinkling but her face well under control.
"This is the Warrior Princess I had spoken off many times before," Kay said as she sat back down on her seat, "Ching, Tian, it's good to see you two again."
"Thank you, Grand Marshal." The two of the Commanders kneeling at the front said in unison.
"Good to see that the two of you survived..." Silence. The sound of the Head General clearing his throat brought Kay's attention back to the man whom when she last saw him was only barely 20 years old. Now he's a Head General. 'Let's see if he's as stupid as his brother.' Kay thought to herself.
"Grand Marshal, I was so glad to hear that you've accepted the Imperial Edict. We must start preparing for your glorious journey home. The Emperor would be so pleased to see you again."
'Hmm, that artificial in his voice...' Kay thought to herself as she caught Tian's eyes silently reading the message in them, she nodded slightly, causing Tian to twitch a small smile, 'his Grand Marshal had understood!' Kay turned her eyes to look at Ching's; they too conveyed a silent message to his Grand Marshal... a warning. Kay nodded again, to all it seemed as if she was agreeing to what the Head General was saying.
"I'm sure he will, Yang. But... I'm not going back. At least not yet anyway, there are some things that I have to do first."
"As you wish, Grand Marshal." The Head General's tone was even but Kay caught the flash that went through his eyes. 'Yes, so like his brother.' She turned to look at Xena who had seen everything, including the silent communication between Kay and her Commanders. Xena looked at Kay straight in the eyes, eyes that warned her to be prepared to fight and soon. Xena gave a tiny nod and Kay smiled, showing her teeth a little menacingly.
"Do you have a problem with that, Yang?" Kay said, one of her eyebrows raised slightly in question.
"No, of course not, Grand Marshal. I wouldn't dare to defy your wishes..." but suddenly from his knelt position he withdrew a small dagger concealed in his boots, he flung it towards Kay. And just as Kay was readying herself to make a catch, she felt someone push her to the ground and then from the ground and she heard the sickening sound of metal piercing flesh.
"Seize the traitors for His Majesty!" Yang shouted as he raised himself from the ground, many more soldiers followed his lead and started to attack the soldiers who were standing around them, but even more soldiers around them rose from their positions and started to attack them instead.
Kay looked up and saw a lifeless Nantra collapsing to the ground, Yang's dagger sticking out of her chest, she turned again to her left and saw Xena being attacked by 5 soldiers loyal to the Head General. 'No problem there,' she thought.
She next turned to her right and saw Princess Wan being stabbed by Yang himself, her servants all lying dead around her already. She found her darkness spilling forth with a vengeance, as she screamed, "No, Wan!"
She spared a quick glance to the battlefield and saw that her companions were already fully immersed in the battle happening in front of her. Kay pulled out her sword and started to cut and slash her way to Wan but by the time she got there, Wan was already dead. And the Head General was gone.
Just as the tide of the battle turned its way to Kay and the warriors loyal to her, a large group of Portian soldiers and other mercenaries entered the fray. 'Portia again' was the first thing that came into both Xena and Kay's minds.
Kay looked back towards Xena's direction again and satisfied that Xena would not be needing her help yet as the number of dead bodies around would attest, she turned to the task of searching for Yang who seemed to have all but disappeared after stabbing Wan.
It was a long and bloody battle, both sides almost equally matched in all areas, except Kay's side had not only her and her highly skilled companions but also Xena, the Warrior Princess herself. It was only a matter of time before the alliance between Yang and Portia would lose.
Unfortunately, victory did not happen before several devastating losses to Kay. Melanis was struck at the back of her head viciously by an enormous axe borne by a soldier twice her size. Tami had her right leg crushed by failing to avoid a blow by a mace in time. Antonio was killed instantly when he placed himself in front of a sword thrust meant for his love, Steffi who was a healer. It was to no avail because soon after Steffi herself was killed by the same soldier. Wang, Ming's second, was also killed when he pushed a distracted Theresa, who had heard her bond mate's screams, aside and had taken an arrow meant for her heart.
Kay saw it all happening, she saw her companions going down, protecting one another and the others. She grimly remembered the soldiers who had dealt the blows to her beloved companions and swore that if they were still alive after this battle, it will not be for long.
She grabbed hold of Ming, ordering him to, "Spread the word, kill as few of the traitors as possible. I want to deal with them myself. Concentrate on eliminating the Portians and the useless mercenaries instead." Ming nodded his understanding and fought on.
Xena, in the meantime, was enjoying herself tremendously as soldier after soldier throw themselves at her, obviously not knowing what she was capable of. She noted with a chuckle that no Portian soldier or any of the hired mercenaries had even tried to get anywhere near her, preferring instead to give her the wide berth.
And as she had expected, Gabrielle had grabbed hold of her staff at the first hint of trouble, rushing out and leaving in her wake a whole slew of unconscious bodies as the bard determinedly fought her way towards her heart.
Xena smiled but pushed away those wayward thoughts as she continued fighting against the soldiers, her deadly chakram doing its share of damage. She had also seen what happened with Melanis but she was powerless to help but she did manage to throw her chakram and prevented the hulk of a soldier from delivering a second blow to Melanis by slicing his ax into two.
She caught the chakram in the air with ease, hoping against all hope that Melanis was still alive. She blocked a blow by one of the soldiers easily, but just as she was going to apply the finishing blow on the hapless soldier, she found herself a little light-headed.
'No, not now,' Xena thought, 'not in the middle of a fight.' She braced herself and continued to parry and slash, now intent on finishing her opponent off and getting away before she placed anyone in danger. 'There,' she thought, as she thrust her sword into her opponent's chest.
As she was trying to get her bearings back and stagger away, she heard a voice, "Going somewhere, great Warrior Princess?" Xena looked up and tried to focus on the voice she knew belonged to the Head General. She smiled wickedly, though inside she knew she would be in trouble, "No. Not when there's a good fight going on." She sneered.
"Oh, good. I was hoping to pit my skills against the person who taught the Grand Marshal how to wield a sword in the first place."
"Do you want to talk or fight?" Xena taunted her adversary and as she finished, she moved to block the first thrust of Yang's sword and countered with one of her own. They exchanged thrusts and slashes, Xena managing to cut him on his left side. But Xena's vision had started to go in circles again as she fight to stay conscious and not succeeding.
Yang had exposed himself yet again on his left side and as Xena reached out to stab him but she failed to connect and lost consciousness before she even hit the ground.
Yang was stunned for the moment as he didn't even remember hitting Xena once and yet, there she was, laying face down on the ground, out cold.
Kay looked back at Xena again, she was now fighting Yang. 'That shouldn't be too much of a problem for Xena,' she thought, then she noticed in horror that Xena's blue eyes were not clear as they usually were but clouded and unfocused. 'Xena's in trouble!'
Kay immediately flipped her way over several still fighting soldiers and several more dead bodies, just as she touched the ground, she saw Xena falling on the ground and ran as fast as she could to reach Xena before Yang could harm Xena.
She saw Yang's sword raised high above his head and without thinking, she launched herself in the air with a scream, distracting Yang enough such that his balance was off and he swung his sword and caught Kay on the right side of her face instead.
Kay howled in pain as she dropped her already bloody sword and immediately clutched her face with both hands, blood streaming down between her fingers. She positioned herself protectively over Xena's prone figure and waited for the deathblow to come. It never came.
Theresa, Ming and Gabrielle had also managed to make their way towards Xena. Ming quickly engaged the surprised Yang to a fight. Gabrielle flew to her love's unconcious side, Theresa, seeing that Ming had Yang under control, knelt by Kay, "Kay? Are you all right? Let me see that."
"NO! See to Xena first." And Kay pushed herself off Xena and Theresa towards Xena. Theresa felt her way up and down Xena with an anxious Gabrielle looking over her, "Kay, Xena has no broken bones or anything, just some cuts and bruises, a bigger bruise where she fall on the ground, other than that, she seems fine. But you... you're bleeding. I better..." her words were cut off by the sound of a sword dropping on the ground.
Ming had disarmed Yang and had his sword placed at Yang's throat. He signaled for two loyal soldiers and they tied the Head General's hands behind his back and led him away.
Ming turned to survey the battlefield, his Grand Marshal had won again. Grand Marshal! He turned worriedly back at Kay and saw her being supported by Theresa. "Grand Marshal! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Ming, gather everyone together." Kay said evenly.
"But..." both Ming and Theresa had started to protest, Kay just waved them aside, "Now!" and Ming resigned himself to following orders again, "Yes, Grand Marshal." He moved off and barked out orders to his aides.
"Theresa, I want a status report from you too. Go." Kay ordered Theresa away.
"Yes, Kay." Theresa moved off to fulfill her given orders. Gabrielle, having been satisfied that Xena was not otherwise hurt, turned towards Kay.
"Ki... Kay," Gabrielle corrected herself, "I should really take a look at your face..." she reached out towards Kay but Kay withdrew and moved away, "I'm fine." Kay hissed but allowed Gabrielle to gently move her hand away from the horrible injury.
Theresa meanwhile had reached the fallen Melanis, Joanis was already kneeling beside her, "How is she?" Theresa asked in a small voice, terrified of the answer. "Threez, she doesn't look all too good. Have you seen Nantra? She should look at this instead..."
"Nantra's dead, Jo. She saved Kay." Theresa said sadly.
"But... but I can't handle all the wounded here! I'm not experienced enough yet, how about Xena? I've heard that she's quite a healer herself." Joanis started to panic.
"Yes, Xena is, but she's also unconscious. You may need to have a look at her later as well, don't worry, I'm confident you can handle this. In any case, I'm sure Ming brought along some healers. I'll go and ask him." Before she stood up, Theresa gently kissed Melanis whispering, "Don't leave me, love. Don't you dare. I'll be back soon. I promise. I love you."
Theresa reluctantly left her unconscious love and Joanis behind and she found Ping cradling Tami a short distance away. Two other soldiers were gently making a split for Tami's shattered leg while Ping was offering her whispered words of comfort.
Theresa moved in to help wrap the bandages around the wooden splits. But finally the pain caused Tami to pass out. Ping slowly and carefully placed her bondmate's head back on the ground. The two soldiers moved away silently, looking around and seeing if they can be of any help to anyone.
Theresa placed one hand gently on Ping's shoulder, "Tami will be fine. I'm sure of it." Ping nodded her head sadly, tears starting to fall freely from her face as she embraced Theresa, well aware that Melanis was also severely injured. "How's Mel?" Ping asked.
"Don't look too good." Theresa's own tears seem to start as well, but she held them back, knowing that she still had to get some things done, she pulled away from the welcoming and comforting embrace with Ping and rose to leave and check on others. She noticed Ping kissing Tami gently on the lips before getting back up on her feet as well.
"What do you need me to do, Threez?" Ping asked.
"Just look around and see where you can help out, I have to get a status report for Kiko." Ping nodded her head and looked around her, then for the first time, she noticed her own left arm bleeding quite badly, she picked up a cloth and applies pressure to her own wound while walking around.
Theresa checked round the bloody battlefield, completely littered with corpses. Wasn't all too bad for a surprise attack, they had lost around 800 soldiers, but the enemies lost approximately 3,000 over men, including three-quarters of the Portian garrison who had helped and most of the mercenaries. The rest had fled, soldiers loyal to the Grand Marshal hadn't bothered to go after the fleeing Portian soldiers and mercenaries, focusing instead on their comrades who had betrayed the Grand Marshal instead.
Kay leaned over to allow Gabrielle a better look at her wound. As Gabrielle examined the ugly wound, she looked down at Xena's form, 'I'm so sorry for placing you in danger. I should have sent you and Gabrielle away. But I was too selfish, wasn't I? I needed you and that was it. Everyone else takes second place. What am I going to do? I've lost Nantra AND Wan. Who's going to keep my darkness away now? You can't. You're hurt, so don't you try and argue with me.' Her mouth twitched a little and she sighed deeply, her face hurt like Hades.
She could feel the blood flowing out of the open wound and Gabrielle's gentle ministrations, but she was aware that infection would set in soon and she also knew that she could hardly afford to let that happen.
She needed herself to be at full strength in order to show the King of Portia once and for all that he should never have messed with her. "I can't do much without water, medicine and bandages. I'm going to get Xena's... stay right here." Gabrielle gently ordered Kay.
As Gabrielle walked away, Kay slowly stood up, feeling someone gently helping her up on her momentarily blind right side. "Who's that?" she demanded.
"Han, Grand Marshal. I thought I would help..."
"Good, come over the other side so I can see you," Han complied, "were you hurt?" Kay asked, feeling oddly concerned over who should be just another soldier to her.
"No, Grand Marshal, just a bruise where someone kicked me." Kay nodded as she quickly adjusted to her new one-eyed vision. She panned round her camp and noticed with great comfort that her companions and soldiers were working together very well and great number of prisoners being held at one side.
She turned and found Nantra's lifeless body still lying at the foot of the platform and Wan's body being tended to by Ching. Ching lifted his eyes and caught his Grand Marshal's left, he shook his head and stood up, carrying the Princess. Kay's eye followed his every movement and watched as Ching gently placed Wan down near several other dead bodies. He turned and looked back at Kay's direction and bowing deeply, he next moved to Nantra and laid Nantra's body next to Wan's. Kay nodded her approval. Ching walked towards her.
"Grand Marshal, I'm sorry that me and Tian couldn't give you more warning and it put you on a disadvantage. I will accept any punishment that you deem fit."
"Don't be silly, you did warn me, though the fact that he was foolish enough to try this so soon did surprise me."
"Me as well, the original plan was for us to settle down and rest for a few days before forcing you to leave with us."
"Ching, you've had some healing experience. I want you to have a look at Xena here, is she hurt too badly? Can she be moved at all? Would she be able to withstand a half day journey on a wagon?"
Ching knelt down beside Xena and slowly and carefully examines her, 'so this is the Warrior Princess herself,' he thought, 'no broken bones, a scratch here, pretty nasty, bruise here, big bruise here, hmm, she should be fine. Grand Marshal should be asking me to take a look at her face...' He spoke up, "Grand Marshal, the Warrior Princess isn't hurt too badly, couple of scratches and bruises, nothing very worrying, except for a small bump on her head that is liking to give her just a headache. She should be able to take a short journey. Should I now take a look at your wounds..."
"Good. My wounds can wait. Ahh, Ming has gathered everyone, go stand at your place, Ching. Han, stay beside me, make sure I don't trip over anything."
"Yes, Grand Marshal!" Han's face was about to burst with pride that his Grand Marshal's request. Ching moved to his place with the other Commanders, including Ming and the section leaders. Kay sat down wearily at her chair, Han standing by her side, "Theresa, status report."
Theresa stepped forward, "Nantra's dead. Antonio and his love, Steffi, dead by the same hand. 20 other fighters died. Melanis suffered a severe head injury, Tami's leg was shattered and Brutus was stabbed in the gut. Almost all of us got some cuts or bruises or a broken limb or two."
Kay shook her head, "How's Joanis handling it all?"
"As well as she can but she's our only healer left. Now that Nantra and Steffi are gone. Luckily Ming brought along several healers, but I fear they would not be able to handle everyone in time. Even the prisoners."
"You're right. I've already thought of something, but I want to hear Ming's report first. Ming?"
"Yes, Grand Marshal. 802 soldiers loyal to you died. Over 1,000 more injured, in various conditions. Most of them not serious. The only one of note to die is my second, Wang. As for the traitors, over 1,500 died, over 500 injured and an additional 100 captured, including the Head General. As for the number of enemy deaths, over 1,600 dead. Several hundred fled, we did not give chase. We still have an army of over 6,000 healthy soldiers. But amidst all the commotion, the Prince escaped." Ming lowered his eyes, fearing the wrath of his Grand Marshal.
Kay waved her hand slightly, not giving that piece of news much thought. "That's okay, Portia is as good as gone. This will give him some time to instill panic onto his father.
She took a deep breath and quickly played through her plans over in her head, she nodded slightly, "Ching, Tian, once you've helped to bury some of the bodies, I want the two of you to lead half the remaining army to start a siege on Portia. Theresa's second, Lesi will go with you. Use whichever way possible to draw soldiers out and slowly eliminate them from the upcoming battle. Bring those Portian soldiers who have sworn their loyalty to me with you. Ask them to see me a little later, I'll give them some specific instructions and try to learn all about the battlements from them." She shifted in her chair, trying to stifle a groan that was making itself heard. Midway through her orders, Gabrielle came back with bandages and water, as well as a stitching kit.
Gabrielle moved to start cleaning Kay's wound but Kay's hand stopped her, "Gabrielle, that can wait, first I got to ask something of you, Theresa and Ping. I need you guys to make a trip to the Amazon Nation. Gabrielle, you'll lead the way and Theerz and Ping will escort the wounded to the village and seek help from the Amazon healers.
Kay looked into Gabrielle's eyes, "I'm sure in such times, the Amazons would help even men. Bring along some cloth, food and dinars so that the injured won't have to totally rely on the Amazons. Xena, Melanis and Tami are three who most definitely have to be moved there. Also bring along those who have broken limbs since they won't be able to fight in any more battles for a while. Ming, I need you to stay in the camp with me. Gabrielle, how does that sound to you?"
Gabrielle patted Kay's hand reassuringly, "Of course we'll help. I'll even ask Ephiny to send a squad to..."
Kay shook her head, "No. I'll not have the deaths of Amazon warriors on my head as well. But thank you for the offer." Kay squeezed Gabrielle's hand gratefully, "Theerz, Ping, start getting everything organised. Inform me when any of you are ready to leave. Now, if you guys would go and do your duties, Gabrielle here is going to clean up my face. I know the right side of my face is a complete mess." The soldiers and her companions saluted and left.
The next couple of hours were ones filled with activity, the various groups preparing themselves for their tasks ahead. Gabrielle had quietly knelt down beside the all-observing Kay and started to clean the wound. It was an ugly and rather deep slash, that would leave a permanent scar, but the right eye was indeed saved.
Han stayed nearby to assist Gabrielle, Kay showed no emotion except of a little wincing when the alcohol that Gabrielle used to kill off any possible infection did its work. Kay continued to cast worried glances at the still unconscious Xena lying in a litter, wrapped in blankets, next to her. At least Xena is regaining some of her colour. Finally, Gabrielle finished cleaning the wound and prepared to stitch the wound up. The cut on the eyelid was causing her some measure of concern and she hesitated.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle?" Kay asked kindly, wishing that Gabrielle didn't have to deal with her obviously horrific wound but... she had no choice.
"Well, Kay. Your eyelid was also cut, I don't know how I'm going to sew it up." Gabrielle hesitated.
Kay thought for a moment and then, "Sew up my right eye then."
"What?" both Gabrielle and Han exclaimed.
"Well, only with my right eye sewn closed, then you can stitch the cut on the eyelid and then the cut on the eyelid will be able to heal properly. Right?" Gabrielle had to nod at the logic of Kay's explanation but it didn't mean that she liked doing it. "Kay, I'm sure there's some other way..."
Kay smiled, "Gabrielle, it's okay. I'm used to the feeling of pain. Don't worry about hurting me even more than I already am..." Gabrielle gave her a tiny smile as she lifted her needle and did the unpleasant work as gently as she could.
Once Gabrielle had finished, Kay told her to take a short rest before going to help the others. She and Gabrielle moved to seat next to Xena. They both cast worried glances at Xena. Kay frowned. 'Was that a twitch?' She asked herself, then she spoke up, "Gabrielle, did you see..." Gabrielle nodded her head excitedly.
Deciding to have a closer look at Xena, she noticed another twitch. "Xena? Xena?" Finally, Xena's blue eyes flicker open and slowly focused on the face right in front of her, a face half-covered by a bandage, but somewhat familiar. "Hey, Xena. It's me, Kay. Gabrielle's here too." And Gabrielle gently took hold of Xena's right hand, "Hey."
Xena moved her head slightly to take a good look at her love then she frowned slightly as she looked back at Kay, "What..."
Kay put her hands in front of her, "I know, I know, I look like a mess..." Xena shook her head which caused Kay to grin and in turn getting a tiny lop-sided grin of Xena's as well. "What happened? We were so worried about you..."
"Blackout." Was Xena's hardly audible answer.
"Oh. Well, want some water?" Xena nodded her head, Kay helped Xena lift her head up as Gabrielle reached out for the water skin and pressed the opening to Xena's mouth. Xena gratefully gulped several mouthfuls before Gabrielle gently pulled it away, "I think that's enough for the moment, love."
Xena nodded her head again and she felt herself drifting off once again, the last she heard was Kay's voice telling her, "Rest up, don't worry, I'll take care of everything." Kay slowly lowered Xena's head gently back on the litter. Gabrielle retucked the blankets around Xena as Kay stared for a long time at the one person who meant more to her than anyone else in the world.
Her thoughts however were interrupted by Theresa, "Kay, we're ready to move." Kay nodded and she stood up with a helpful hand from the still hovering about Han. She took a deep breath and refused to think of the possibility of never seeing Xena or Gabrielle again.
Theresa signaled for four soldiers to carry Xena's litter to the leading wagon nearby. Kay and Gabrielle slowly made their way there. Gabrielle guiding Kay over some rocks and stones in the path, Kay smiled at Gabrielle's thoughtfulness.
Tami was conscious but was in tremendous pain as Kay whispered a few words of encouragement to her and squeezed her hand tightly, she promised Tami to keep Ping safe. Then she moved to the pale and unmoving Melanis, her head all bandaged up, Kay leaned down to whisper a few words in her ears, "Remember you still have a bond mate over here." Slowly Kay made her way down the wagons, saying good bye to everyone lying in there, closely followed by Theresa and Gabrielle who was slightly amazed at how tender Kay could be.
Kay helped lift Gabrielle up the front wagon where Xena had been placed in, "Take care of yourselves. I'll see you guys soon." She said, faking optimism. Gabrielle was not fooled, she knew the odds, "Be safe, Kay or Xena would never forgive herself." Kay lowered her eyes to Xena's prone body, "I promise. I'll stay alive." She vowed as she looked back into Gabrielle's green-eyes. Kay took a step back.
"We'll be back by tomorrow sundown, Kay!" Theresa shouted as she rode off on horseback, leading the wagons while Ping covered the back. Several healthy soldiers also followed as additional escorts. Kay turned to walk back to her chair, she almost tripped over a loose stone but for Han's steady hand. "Thanks, Han."
"Just doing my duty, Grand Marshal." Kay nodded, she found the former soldiers of Portia standing near her chair, ready for their special briefing. Kay motioned for the nearby Tian to listen in. "Now, this is what I want you guys to do..." and Kay briefed them for almost an hour.
Dinner was a warm and filling affair, most of the cooks having survived without a scratch. After dinner, Kay sent half of her army off to siege Portia. "Lesi, please take care of yourself, okay?" Lesi nodded, "I will. I promise." Kay pulled Lesi into a slight embrace and then clasped Ching's and then Tian's hands.
"We will be resting here for a few days, then I will lead the rest of the army to meet you and together we will attack Portia. Send a report to me every six hours. Do well. Be prepared for anything and every scenario." "Yes, Grand Marshal." The Generals saluted her and the army moved off to begin their siege.
With the departure of the army and after making sure that Ming had rested a little before dinner, Kay headed off to her own tent for a well-deserved rest. "We'll take care of the traitors tomorrow, Ming." Was her final instruction to Ming whose eyes gleamed as he listened. He would forever remember the face of the soon-to-be-dead soldier who had killed his second, Wang.
Before entering her tent, Kay dismissed Han, telling him that she would need him to be alert the next day. Han excused himself and Kay walked into her tent, feeling so alone. In a camp filled with soldiers who were more than willing to die for her, she had never felt more alone.
Slightly before dawn, Xena stirred from her makeshift bed, feeling at once the motion of moving. She opened her eyes in panic and realised that she was in a wagon, she looked around her and saw Melanis lying next to her and Tami on the other side. And Gabrielle was curled up next to her, fingers intertwined. She smiled.
Then she tried to lift herself up to see if they're in any danger and that was when she noticed several more wagons behind her. The driver of the next wagon had noticed Xena stirring and was calling out for someone in front, Xena couldn't quite make out the name, but the wagon stopped. And Gabrielle stirred awake.
And she broke into a huge grin, "Hey. How are you feeling?" But before Xena could answer, Theresa appeared at the opening with a water skin, "Thought you might want this." She said simply, handing the water skin to Gabrielle, "We should be there soon." Gabrielle nodded as she took the skin.
"Where?" Xena asked faintly, "Shh, here have some water." And Gabrielle helped Xena to lift her head up a little for a sip. Xena fell back to sleep almost immediately after that. Gabrielle tenderly placed Xena's head back onto the litter, contented to watch her love sleep.
Having already reached the beginning of Amazon lands in the middle of last night, Theresa had left their extra male escorts to camp there and proceed on. They were now finally within sight of the village. Signs of activity already preceded them, with the Amazon healers and Ephiny being warned of their approach and their purpose by an advance scout.
"What's this all about, Ephiny?" Eponin asked with a yawn. "I'm not too sure, Eponin. Apparently, very late last night, or very early this morning I should say, 8 wagons made its way to Amazon lands. The wagons were led by Theresa, one of Kiko's companions and she requested help from our healers. So here we are."
The wagons slowly entered the village. Their drivers carefully alighted from their seats and stretched themselves, Theresa and Ping swung down from their horses and approached one of the wagons, helping someone down. That someone turned and walked towards Ephiny, it was Gabrielle.
Ephiny found herself breathing a sigh of relief, "Thank the Gods, you're alright, Gabrielle. Where's Xena?"
"Xena's been hurt. So has many others, I've agreed to help Kay look after her wounded." Gabrielle said simply.
"Kay?" Eponin quizzed.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, "Much has happened, I'll fill you guys in later. Let Theresa and Ping settle the wounded and let them leave. They're in a hurry."
"Of course, my Queen." Eponin saluted and called for several other pairs of hands to help unload the wounded. She directed Xena's litter straight to the Queen's hut. Soon everything was settled and Gabrielle filled Ephiny, Eponin and Solari about the recent events.
Ephiny was deeply saddened, "Kiko or Kay had asked Artemis for a special bonding with both Janis and Tarsi, Artemis said yes but only at next moon. I guess..." she sighed. "Kay must be in such a dark place right now." Gabrielle nodded her head, agreeing.
After resting for a while, Theresa and Ping decided to head back to the camp. They bide farewell to the Amazons with promises to return soon with Gerias. They too refused to think that they would never see their loved ones again.
It was well after the sun had gone up that Xena woke up again. This time, her senses told her that she was no longer on that wagon, she didn't feel like she was at the camp and then she slowly became aware of a soft, melodic voice, that could only belong to one person, humming to her.
She felt herself being slowly and carefully cleaned by the familiar pair of hands and she smiled inwardly. Xena decided to try and open her eyes to see those beautiful green eyes and that shining face again. She slowly creaked opened an eye and feeling no pain and she gingerly opened the other.
"Xena? Hey, you're awake! I'm just cleaning you up a little, you're a mess, you know? What are you going to do without me, huh?" Gabrielle smiled in relief as Xena's eyes slowly regained their sharp focus. "Guess I won't find that out, huh?"
"Want something to eat? Want something to drink?"
"Drink, yes. Eat, not now, maybe later." Xena replied, still a little weak, then broke into a huge grin and Gabrielle followed suit, both knowing that Xena was going to be all right. Like always.
The days go by and Xena started to regain more and more of her legendary strength. She also stopped getting those dizzy spells. Tami was getting better though, it would be a long time before she could even think about walking again. Melanis was the only one who had shown no change in her condition. Gabrielle tried to spoke to Melanis at every chance she got, remembering fondly the warrior that she knew from the camp.
She even helped the healers to clean Melanis up, it wasn't easy to see someone she knew being so useless. At times, Gabrielle's kind heart broke for both Theresa and Melanis and she would appreciate her own warrior's lucky escape yet again even more. She owed Kay for saving Xena's life twice now. Speaking of Kay, one wonders what she's doing now?
The same question flashed across Xena's mind. Many, many times. She desperately wanted to return to Kay's camp to help and support her. But, she was unsure of her own recovery and she could not be totally sure that she won't 'blackout' again while fighting. She wasn't going to risk Kay's life again.
Gabrielle had told her about Kay saving her life after one of their lovemaking sessions, saying that Xena had to remind her to thank Kay when they see her again. No one had heard of any news from the camp ever since Theresa and Ping left. And Xena was getting increasingly worried by the day. And silently, so were Gabrielle, Ephiny and many of the Amazons.
Two weeks had now gone by without any word, Xena had almost reached the end of her patience. She was determined to find out what happened until Gabrielle and Ephiny convinced her to stay and instead sent Eponin out to seek word. A day came and went. Xena was resting in the Queen's hut when Eponin came back.
She headed straight for the Council room, knowing that that was where she would find Ephiny and Gabrielle. "My Queens," Eponin greeted them. "Eponin! What news?" Gabrielle asked anxiously. "I don't know, your Majesty. The camp was deserted. No one was there, there were a few large graves and a few smaller ones, but... no living person and no dead bodies either." Gabrielle and Ephiny both looked at one another in surprise. Their worries, increasing by the hour.
At the same time the Amazons were talking, in the kingdom of Portia, "The Chief Commander, your Majesty."
"Yes, send her in." The ruler rose from the bed to greet the new Chief Commander of the Elite Guards. The Chief Commander strode in, dressed in new armour, she knelt down in front of the ruler, "My respects to your Majesty."
"You may rise." The ruler said.
"Thank you, your Majesty." The ruler tried to stand up by herself, but failed and was immediately helped by both the Chief Commander and the ruler's personal aide, the ruler reluctantly sat back down again, frustrated by her continued weakness.
"I've sent for you because I think it's time for a visit to the Amazons. Call it the first official visit of the new reign." The ruler looked intently at the person standing still in front of her, " Most of all, bring them back home, Theresa. Bring them here safely. I have a letter here for either Ephiny or Gabrielle. And a letter for Xena." Han passed the two letters to Theresa.
"Would that be all, your Majesty?" Theresa enquired.
"Yes. Oh wait! Bring an 'official' escort. And Gerias, if you want to avoid telling stories. Also remember that you are now a representative of the kingdom of Portia and her ruler visiting another sovereign nation, accord yourself as such. And Threez? Be prepared." Kay used her one good eye to look at Theresa intently.
Theresa understood the last words, to be prepared for bad news about Melanis. She nodded her head, "Yes, your Majesty." and after taking a few steps back, turns and quickly left the room, eager to begin her journey.
After Theresa's departure, Kay slid back into her huge four-poster bed and stared out the window, letting the sun shine on her scar and eye-patch over the right side of her face. She closed her other eye and allowed herself to drift back to sleep, knowing that her meeting with her new Ministers and Generals would not be for another few hours. Han stood guard near the bed, neither intruding nor too far away from his ruler.
A while later, Kay was woken up by the sounds of horses thundering past the drawbridge and she knew she was going to see her Warrior Princess soon again. "Your Majesty?" Han called her quietly, she looked at him, "It's time for your meeting, your Majesty." Sighing inwardly, Kay wondered for the thousandth time this past week, why did she agree to become Queen of Portia?
"Nothing? You found nothing?" Gabrielle had to be sure of what she had just heard from Eponin.
"Yes, my queen. Nothing, no signs of life." Eponin reaffirmed.
"This is not good, not good at all. I should have sent an Amazonian force out to assist them, I should have known..." Ephiny started berating herself.
"Ephiny, you could not have known that anything like this was going to happen..." Gabrielle started, but Ephiny raised her hand to stop her.
"Gabrielle, you don't understand. I never even thought to ask if they needed more help than just looking after their severely wounded. That should not... Kiko, no, Kay, has always been so good to us. Last year, when our harvest was poorer than usual, especially after the mess Velaska had left behind, not a week went by without her or any of her companions coming to us with wagonloads of food and other essentials. Even when I reassured her repeatedly that we were able to provide for ourselves, she still gave generously. Of course, I could pretty much guess where the stuff came from."
"I also remember the time when she and her companions first arrived. Our scouts had spotted them and I was sent to find out if they had come with good intentions. She said she had and was even willing to go back to the Amazon Village with me, alone and unarmed. Her companions were understandably uncomfortable with that idea... But they were silenced with a glance..."
Eponin added. "I remember it well. She was alone, but she carried herself with such dignity. Now I know where that came from, though at the time, she was a total enigma. Her eyes had this sparkle to them, though you could see that there was a great darkness beyond. To me they conveyed a deep sense of honour, and I trusted her. She has been a great friend of the Amazons, Gabrielle."
"There has never been any doubt in my mind that she's capable of some pretty awful things but it is her innate goodness that you have to see. You don't know her as well or for as long as we have done. With her, nothing is done carelessly, or in the heat of the moment, but only after carefully considering the consequences and weighing all the options. She does things with the greater good in mind and only because she has to, not because she wants to. She is a leader, and sometimes leaders have to do things they wouldn't normally do. You have to trust me on this, Gabrielle."
"Ephiny's right, Gabrielle." Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin all turned round to see Xena leaning against the doorframe, none of them having any idea how long Xena had been there.
"Xena..." Gabrielle could not continue as Xena lovingly kissed her into silence. After a long and awkward moment, for the watching Ephiny and Eponin at least, the lovers broke off reluctantly.
Xena got herself seated at Gabrielle's right and said smoothly, "I missed the part of what you found at Kay's camp, Eponin. Care to fill me in now that I'm here?"
Eponin cast an unsure glance at both her queens, and only after Gabrielle had nodded in consent, as did Ephiny, did she answer, "Nothing. There was nothing in the camp, or should I say, where the camp used to be, there is now just a huge, empty space."
'The drawbridge needs some oiling' Kay thought as it screeched to close after the thunderous departure of Theresa, Ping and their 100 strong escort. 'About time I sent them to fetch their loved ones; they should have reminded me earlier...' Kay continued with her thoughts as she carefully raised her battered body out of bed with Han hovering nearby as usual. She nodded and the four women standing nearby stepped forward to help her get ready for the Council meeting.
"You're dismissed for today, Han."
"Yes, your Majesty," he said, bowing low and backtracking several steps before finally turning to leave the huge room.
Waiting until she was left alone with the four women, she allowed one to remove her robe, while another rinsed a cloth in the nearby basin, and the third prepared to remove the bandages around her body. The last one placed a clean set of clothes on a nearby chair.
"Mei, who did you send to accompany the Chief Commander and her deputy?"
The one who was gingerly removing the bandages answered, "Chin and Dan, Protected."
"Told them about Amazon customs?" Kay asked.
This time the one rinsing the cloth answered, "Please do not worry, Protected, I gave them a thorough lecture last night."
"Thought you would, Wei." Kay gave her a small smile, then suddenly grimaced.
"I'm sorry, Protected. I'll be more careful and...." The one cleaning Kay started apologizing before Kay stopped her.
"Nothing to be sorry about, Fen. I'll be fine... eventually... I think."
"Of course you'll be fine. As long as you do not overwork..." The last one added.
"Yes, as long as I don't overwork, Fang. But that's easier said than done, is it not?"
All four lowered their heads as Wei answered, "You have many willing helpers..."
Kay sighed deeply, "But how many can I really trust? Like at this upcoming meeting, without the Chief Commander and the Deputy Chief?"
"You still has Ming, Lesi, Li, Brutus, Tian, Long and Geni to count but few." Fen pointed out.
"Don't forget Master and us, Protected," Fang added softly.
"That's true..." Kay agreed with a smile.
"This might sting a little, Protected, I'll try to be as gentle as I can," Mei warned her queen before applying a layer of healing salve on the still-raw wounds around her queen's body. Even with the warning Kay had to take a deep breath and grit her teeth to keep in the groan that threatened to escape.
At this sign of distress from the normally stoic woman, the three other women looked away from the sight in discomfort, their anger building for the ones who had caused her such pain. 'I don't care what Protected said, I'm glad Master managed to kill most of those bastards...'
This thought, shared by all four women, were the very same sentiments of Chin and Dan, who were already several leagues away from the castle and still riding fast. Meanwhile, outrage at the injustice done to their Master's Protected was sweeping like a wave through the hearts and minds of the several thousand warrior women in the castle and its surrounding areas...
"So, there are tracks around the area..."
"Yes, Xena. Quite a few, and all around the entire camp area. It's hard to tell in which direction they went."
"Whichever direction Portia is." Xena and Gabrielle said in unison. Xena paced nervously about the hut, anxiety growing by the minute.
"I have to go," Xena announced.
"I'll go with you." was Gabrielle's not all-unexpected reply.
"Eponin will go along with you, together with a small squad." Ephiny decided, while Eponin nodded her agreement.
"It's too late to set off now. We'll only arrive sometime after the sun has set, even if we leave at this moment. So I propose an early morning departure. Gives us enough time to gather the squad and ask Tami about the area," Eponin put forth her suggestion, which was quickly agreed upon by the Amazon queens and with slight hesitation by Xena, who would have much preferred to set off immediately.
"All right, but we start off first thing in the morning," Xena grumbled, to Gabrielle's amusement.
"Okay, then make sure you don't wear me down tonight, love." her eyes sparkled.
Xena offered her a lopsided grin. "We'll see who behaves tonight, Gabrielle."
Just as both Ephiny and Eponin were about to burst into laughter and with Gabrielle opening her mouth to retort but Xena just kissed her silent.
"Her Majesty, the Queen," the soldier on duty announced to the room. The generals, commanders and the various ministers quickly stood up and when Kay entered, immediately fell on their knees, some feeling less awkward than others. Kay limped in slowly, one hand holding on to a walking stick and the other arm held by Wei. Mei, Fen and Fang followed behind closely.
"Our deepest respects to your Majesty," the generals, commanders and ministers said in a jagged unison. Kay smiled slightly, as she made her way to her throne at the front of the state room.
Kay recalled that the first time she had seen this room, she had thought it excessive with its gold throne, gaudy drapes and red carpets. But her jaw had dropped when she heard from Theresa that the throne was 'only' gold-plated.
The 'actual' throne in the throne room is made of solid gold. What amazed her even more was when she ordered the ostentatious chair to be melted down and the gold distributed to the kingdom's many poor citizens, Geni, her new Chief Minister, had told her that it was unnecessary, for the treasury had more than enough.
She shook herself from her stray thoughts and continued her long walk to the throne, 'Hmm, got to find another entrance for me, this is too far for me to go in my present condition. Well, serves me right for not holding this at one of my meeting rooms. Got to get into the habit of listening to Wei and Mei again.'
She shook her head again, remembering how she was almost lost in her own rooms once. She had woken up two days ago, with no one by her bed for once, and needing to relieve herself. The water closet - as the ministers had called it - was nearly impossible to find.
She was told later that The Royal Chambers, as her rooms were called, had five bedrooms, a hot spring, two baths, two dining rooms, three meeting rooms, two libraries, and several other chambers all interconnected. 'This place is huge, and they're rich, but not most of their people. No wonder they can afford to pay for all the best mercenaries around,' Kay thought to herself.
Finally, she reached her throne, carefully sitting herself down and then, "You may all rise."
"Thank you, your Majesty." The voices sounded more together this time, and, with a slight shuffling of feet, everyone was in place, seated in lush chairs that faced the throne.
Kay glanced down at the first seat on her left where her Head General of the Royal Army sat.
"Ming, I was thinking about Han. I think he's wasting his talents by just being my personal aide especially now that I have them." She looked pointedly at the four women standing around her. "Now, I know he's young and all, but I think he should become at the very least, a junior minister. What do you think?"
"Your Majesty, I object!" The former chief minister of Portia during Manis' reign, Stevanos, now a rather meaningless Minister of Security, butted in. "Han may be your personal aide but he is not qualified enough to be even a junior minister. There are many that are more deserving than he is. Please reconsider." And as always, several of his cronies mumbled their agreement.
Kay eyed him warily, not liking or trusting him one bit, but too tired today for any drawn out quarrel. "Stevanos, the last I heard, your name is not Ming. If I want your opinion, I'll ask for it. Sit down and shut up. Remember who the queen is right now." The last sentence was said slowly and deliberately, making sure that he and his associates heard every word.
Ming quickly answered. "Your Majesty, Han is indeed young, but very bright and on top of that, he has proven his loyalty to your Majesty. He should be rewarded. And I do agree that he will be better suited for a junior ministerial position rather than a military one. Though, he would be a loss to the Royal Army."
"Your Majesty, may I be so bold as to suggest a possible position for Han?" Lesi, the First Commander of the Elite Guards asked, in the absence of both Theresa and Ping, their Acting Chief Commander.
"Of course, Lesi, you may." Kay had to smile at the ease in which her companions had slipped into the necessary protocol.
"I would like to suggest that he be placed under Geni, in the Treasury department. Or under Li and Gerias, in the Information department."
"Very good suggestions, Lesi. What say you, Geni?"
"Han will be a great asset to my department, your Majesty."
"All right, so it's settled then. Li, please inform Han officially that with effect from tomorrow, he will be the new junior minister in the Treasury department, answerable directly to Chief Minister Geni herself and no other ministers."
"It'll be done, your Majesty."
With the first thing on her mind done, Kay leaned back carefully on her throne, feeling quite spent already. "Status reports."
"Your Majesty, with your permission, I would like the generals themselves to report for each of their individual departments," Ming said as he glanced up at his queen and immediately caught sight of the wary and slightly pained expression on her face. He quickly added, "From the next meeting on."
Kay knew that Ming had added the last part but was grateful that he could still read her so well, so she simply nodded her consent. Ming presented a fast but informative report and was followed by Lesi who also made her report equally brief and to the point.
Geni was next and she was concise regarding the status of the kingdom's Treasury (overflowing with dinars), the success of the distribution of gold to the needy of the kingdom and other miscellaneous affairs.
Unfortunately, the one following Geni was Stevanos. And his 'report' was especially long and drawn out, complaining of many things and in each instance, insisted that the queen herself must handle the problem. But with Geni, Li, Ming and Lesi combined, Stevanos found formidable opponents to his so-called major issues.
Each point and matter that he brought up was systematically brought down by the fearsome foursome. And he thought today would be better with the absence of Theresa, Ping, Gerias (the extremely talkative one) and Larissa.
Kay, listened silently most of the time, but found his report so boring that she took the opportunity to take a good look around the opulent room. She smiled inwardly when she realised that the throne room was even more extravagant than this, if that were possible, 'Whatever would Xena think?' she thought.
Then her eyes spotted several of the shadowy figures hiding behind the pillars or up at the ceiling beams. This time her smile was quite obvious and she felt safe and protected as always whenever she knew her Master and the Shadow Warriors are around.
Many of the Shadow Warriors, like Mei, Wei, Fen, Fang, Chin and Dan to name but a few, had been blood-sworn to live and die serving their Master and her Chosen and/or Protected ones. And since Kay happened to be a Protected...
Her memory of the day the Shadow Warriors returned to her life would never be forgotten because it was that very night after she sent Xena to the safety of the Amazon Village and after the funeral pyre had claimed the bodies of Wan and Nantra.
She had never felt more alone than at that time and it was then that the Shadow Warriors chose to reappear in her life. She was only vaguely aware of Stevanos' endless drone and the arguments placed forth by Geni, Li, Ming and Lesi, as her mind drifted back to that black night...
'Alone. After so long, so many battles, so many loves, yet still I end up alone. Why? Why let me find my lights only to take one away and force me to leave the other? Gods! This is some kind of game played by the ones on Mt Olympus, isn't it? Why did Wan have to die? Her only fault was that she loved me... Was that so bad that she had to pay for it with her life?
'Why? Why did I summon her here? Why couldn't I have steeled my heart and sent her away? I summoned her here to her death. As I did with Janis and Tarsi. I thought I was doing it for their safety, instead my actions caused their deaths.' Kay started to cry bitterly, disregarding the intense pain this caused to the wound on the right side of her face.
"We've never seen you cry before, Protected." Kay's head snapped up at the interruption as she hastily wiped away the tears, focusing her single eye on the figure that dared to disturb her. What she saw brought a huge smile to her face. 'Shadow Warriors! That means Master can't be far away...'
She was about to ask when Mei stepped forward and forestalled her question.
"Master will only be able to come a week later with the rest of the Shadow Warriors. She says to tell you to trust your instincts and make full use of the hundred of us here." Kay could only nod her head in silent agreement, knowing that tomorrow would be a bloody day indeed. The Shadow Warriors would blend into the violence that would ensue...
True to Kay's thoughts, the next day was indeed a bloody one. With her loyal soldiers crying out to avenge their comrades' deaths, she gave in. Much as all the blood and gore sickened her especially when she'd ordered it, she knew she could not let any one of them get away with what they had done.
Especially Yang as he had killed the Royal Princess and that act in itself would warrant an immediate death sentence. Then, he had also caused the death of Nantra. He would not be able to escape his punishment
She also had to hand out death sentences to all the soldiers who had fought for Yang. She did so with a heavy heart. Many of them were once loyal to her and had fought bravely for her in the past. These soldiers did not beg for mercy, instead they apologised for betraying her.
For solely the fact that Yang was the Head General, Kay decided to order him to drink poison rather than face the executioners' blade like the rest of the common soldiers. He accepted the drink and died within a minute.
Several unfortunate ones were picked out from amongst the traitors and tortured before being executed. They were the ones who had hurt Melanis, Tami and killed Wang, Antonio and Steffi. Those particular soldiers were shown no mercy, Ming personally saw to it.
Kay decided to trust her gut, which told her that if she let any of these soldiers live, the chances of a similar attempt being made would be too high and such risk could not be afforded at such a crucial time. She was going to lead them into battle once again and she needed soldiers who were absolutely loyal and unquestioning of her leadership. If it meant that she would have to order the execution of all the traitors, then she would have to do it.
Kay shuddered at the series of bloody images that flashed through her mind, her mood darkening by the minute. She had finally had enough of the long-winded Stevanos. He had already spoken for more than an hour but Stevanos still hadn't finished with his 'report'.
"ENOUGH!" She slammed her fist on the arm of her throne, stunning almost everyone in the room. "I have heard quite enough from you, Stevanos. From the next meeting on, you will only speak when spoken to or you will be severely punished. Consider this as a warning to you and your 'colleagues', don't mess with me, Stevanos. You don't want to see me angry and for that you should thank Geni, Li, Ming and Lesi today. Who is next? Since I already have a headache, why not you, Maiandra?" Maiandra, the Minister for Protocol, stood up, feeling a little indignant.
"Your Majesty, with all due respect, I do resent that. I do not believe I give you a headache like some others invariably do to everyone." Maiandra's warm grey eyes moved from Kay to give a cold hard stare to Stevanos who was shell-shocked and still rooted to his spot. Josef, one of Stevanos' 'colleagues' reached out to pull Stevanos back to his chair as Maiandra prepared to give her report.
"Well, your Majesty, your new crowns are almost ready, weapons as well as armour and leathers too. Mustn't forget the leathers. Um, you have to give me two guest lists for your coronations as soon as possible. The first coronation must be held within a week's time, the second, by the next moon so that the guests on the longer list can make it in time... I'm suggesting that your Majesty invite everyone, as it would be highly improper to miss anyone out. Some might take that as a slap on the face, you never know, your Majesty. Better safe than sorry, that's what I always say..."
"Wait a minute, first of all, why 'crowns' and secondly, why can't I wait until next moon for one single coronation ceremony. Why must I have two ceremonies?"
"'Crowns' because you'll have three. One for ceremonial functions, this is the so-called 'biggie', one for daily wear and the third, when you have to lead the army or ride a horse or hunt or..."
"Okay, I get it. Heavy, light, lightest. I get it. Go on, why two ceremonies..."
"Two coronation ceremonies because, like I said, the first one, is a smaller one, with only your closest friends and family. Specially invited guests. In fact for this one, you can choose the one who will place the crown on your head for the first time. It is more intimate and no ordinary people are allowed to watch.
"The other one, is the big fuss one, your Majesty. Royalty from the various other kingdoms will all receive automatic invitations. The common people will also be welcomed to witness the ceremony. The High Priests and Priestesses of all our major temples will be there to bless your Majesty and the crown. Many say that when Minis chose Ares... The writing was already on the wall. Choose wisely... Your Majesty will have a moon to decide. Legend has it that the Gods themselves will appear before the rulers."
"Yes, your Majesty. That particular legend is very well-known and widely believed." Leto, the elderly Minister for Trade agreed.
"And, it is also good if your Majesty could name your heir at the main ceremony, so that he or she could be properly anointed as well." Tobias, the Minister for Mines, added.
At this Stevanos and his cronies, which included the Ministers for Grain, Transport, Fuel and Water and several other junior ministers, snorted rudely, but stopped short of bursting out in mirth when they noticed angry stares from the others. One of them was Johan, the experienced Minister for Supplies.
"Your Majesty, I have already started stocking up food and other essential supplies and ordered those that we do not have in preparation for the festivities."
"Very good, Johan. Thank you." Kay pretended not to have noticed the behavior of Stevanos and gang. "All right, Maiandra. I agree to follow the necessary protocols. And prepare the royal armory, I want another set of armour to be made soon and as fast as possible."
"Your Majesty, I have already arranged for you to have five new sets of leathers and armour. Didn't you say that was enough for now?" Maiandra was puzzled, for the queen had jumped when told the actual number in the making, ten suits in all, and now the queen wanted another one?
"No, Maiandra. It'll not be for me. This new set will be for the person whom I want to crown me in the first ceremony."
"That will be done, of course. May I know who that person is? At least I can ask the royal armory to start their job at once..."
"Unfortunately, I do not really know her exact size and she'll only be here at the earliest tomorrow."
"Oh? That's pushing it a little, your Majesty."
"I know, but I have absolute faith in you and the royal armory. By the way, the new suit will be for the Warrior Princess herself, Xena. And I want it to be the most magnificent piece of armour that she has ever seen."
"Of course, your Majesty. Of course." Maiandra bowed.
Dinner was a quiet affair back at the Amazon village. Xena and Gabrielle together with Ephiny, Eponin and Solari were all in the Queen's hut and talking. About the upcoming trip and about Kay.
"Sure sounds like she's changed a whole lot. I don't understand..." Ephiny said, sadly and shaking her head.
"Join the club. I've known her for so long, but she has changed so much that I don't really feel that I know her anymore. She has been through a lot, I just wish you had known her the first time round. I guess that part of her is still there... somewhere. We've just got to find it and help her bring it out again. Like Ephiny said, it'll be worth it. I have this feeling..." Xena trailed off.
"What kind of feeling?" Gabrielle asked, Ephiny and Eponin were also listening intently to Xena.
"The Gods are involved in this, somehow. And not just Callisto, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Ares is involved. It's not beneath him. Besides, I can't imagine Ares leaving Kay alone. And remember Nantra said that a God above Ares 'claimed' Kay? Who do you think that is?" Xena wanted to know what Gabrielle thought.
"I remember what Nantra said about this being a big test for Kay's worthiness, and so on. I just hope this God would start helping Kay out, I mean, how many more people are going to have to die before it all ends?"
"It could have already ended, Gabrielle." Ephiny said solemnly, both Xena and Eponin could only their heads in agreement.
"Tian, I want you and your banner to move up our northern borders to the point where my camp used to be. That'll give us more territory for the necessary expansion of several of the overcrowded towns that Li had just reported."
"Yes, your Majesty." Tian answered.
"Move out as soon as possible. Anything else to report, Li?"
"Yes, one of the outlying towns, Pontan, has informed the department that they have torn down their two temples dedicated to Ares, God of War."
"This is outrageous!" Stevanos jumped up from his seat, "I demand that the miscreants be brought forth for a trial, your Majesty."
"No matter," Kay raised her hand to forestall any immediate protests, "I was going to decree that all of Ares' temples be torn down anyway. Pontan just saved me some trouble."
"What do you think you're doing? This will bring forth Ares' wrath upon us," Stevanos was almost white in his rage, "You can't do this..."
"I am the Queen of Portia and that gives me the right. I have already made up my mind, end of discussion. Anything else, Li?"
"Your Majesty, you cannot simply ignore the advice of your Council of Ministers." Stevanos persisted before Li could say anything.
"What advice from the Council of Ministers? As I can hear, only one Minister seems to have a problem with my decision. Anyone else here have any problems with my decision?" Kay demanded.
Kay waited for a while but no one spoke up, not even Stevanos' cronies who were even at this point being prodded by Stevanos to say something, anything. None dared, having seen the angry flash of the queen's one good eye. "Stevanos, I'll give you another warning. Do not irritate me any further. My patience with you is wearing very thin." Kay waved her index finger at Stevanos.
"I don't need any excuse for having your head detached from your neck. And don't even think about betraying me, I don't take that kindly at all." 'Not anymore,' Kay thought to herself, remembering Ching.
"You've sent for me, Grand Marshal?"
"Yes, Ching. Sit." Kay was outwardly calm, inside her emotions were running amok. Her rejoined army was camped inside the lands of Portia itself, barely a day's march from the castle proper.
She had just gotten word from her Shadow Warriors that Ching, who had led the initial advance, had been in personal contact with Portia. 'Another one who had been so loyal to me in the past,' she thought to herself, 'Do I execute this one as well?' she wondered, wishing that she didn't have to make such a decision. She finally decided.
"Ching, this urn contains the ashes of the Royal Princess. I want you to escort it back to Qing."
Ching's eyes flashed in quiet comprehension, 'she knows.' He was sure he had never felt worse in his life.
"As you command, Grand Marshal. It has been my greatest honour to serve you, I must now beg leave of you." He said this formally, head bowed low, unable to make eye contact with his Grand Marshal.
"Go. I wish you a safe trip back home." Ching left the camp and made his way silently to Portia, having no other place else to go. The Shadow Warriors reported back to Kay less than two hours after he had entered the castle. It filled Kay with a deep sorrow. Letting Ching leave was to be a crucial mistake.
"Your Majesty?" Geni gently prodded after the room had been silent for a while.
Kay snapped out of her unpleasant thoughts immediately, "Yes, Geni?"
"What seems to be troubling your Majesty?"
Kay twitched the corners of her mouth, Geni's concern for her oddly touching her, considering... "Memories, Geni. Just some old memories..."
And that got the attentions of Ming, Lesi and Li and when Kay noticed their concerned gaze, she stifled a chuckle, "Guys... better to have memories now than when I'm supposed to be resting, wouldn't you think so?"
She hesitated for a moment before continuing, "In any case that's not the issue right now. Geni, Ming, Lesi and Li, here are my instructions for today. Send the necessary decrees out. It has come to my attention that the women here in Portia are not considered as full citizens.
"To me, that is absurd. From now on, women are to be looked upon as full and equal citizens. Women will now be allowed to join the military and fight in combat. Women will now be able to inherit property and fortune. Education will now be compulsory for all, boys and girls. Anyone who cannot afford to send their children to school should inform their respective royal representatives and aid will be provided.
"All temples dedicated to Ares are to be torn down. The resulting stones will be used to build new schools and a college for the teachings of the healing arts. I think that's about it for today, I'll examine the rest of the laws today. I'm sure there will be more such decrees to come in the coming weeks."
"I see you're getting the hang of it..." a deep voice said, startling everyone in the room, even Kay. The dark-clad figure stepped out of the corner where she had been standing quietly.
"Master..." Kay, said, her head bowed in deep respect. Mei, Wei, Fen and Fang went one step further and went down on their knees while the rest of the room found themselves in various stages of surprise, respect, awe and most of all, fear.
Surprise from the Stevanos' camp, as they have never seen Kay bow her head to anyone, not even to the Gods.
Respect from the other ministers such as Geni, Maiandra and Tobias, as they had heard much about the dark-clad one.
Awe from Ming, Lesi and the generals, because their queen and leader called her 'Master'.
And fear as they have all witnessed, first hand, the true capabilities of the Master.
"Don't you think your meeting today has gone on long enough? You still need plenty of rest, Kay." She said sternly to Kay.
Kay just nodded, "You're all dismissed. Tomorrow's meeting will be at one of my meeting rooms, I'll have Li inform you all by sundown."
With a resounding, "Thank you, your Majesty." the room emptied quickly, leaving Kay, her four 'servants' and the Master behind. Kay looked expectantly at her Master.
The Master sighed, "Your body took a lot of punishment, Kay... why do you persist in over-extending yourself? I want you to be resting for the rest of the day. And I came to tell you that I've decided to go to the Amazon Nation and see how Melanis and Tami are doing."
"Will you be all right for a day or two?" the Master asked, a little concerned.
"I'm sure everything will be okay, Master. Please do not worry about me." Kay replied.
"Hmm, I trust the Shadow Warriors will keep you and your hard fought kingdom safe until I return. Kay, who protects this Amazon Nation?"
"Good, wasn't looking forward to meeting Hera any time soon... again. Any new messages you want me to pass on to anyone there?"
"Well, there's the coronation about a week from now. I sure would like Queen Ephiny to attend."
"Okay, I'll pass the message. I'll be going now. Be safe." She said to Kay, "Be vigilant." She ordered her Shadow Warriors.
"I will" and "Yes, Master." Were the answers at the same time. Satisfied, the Master faded back into the shadows.
Kay slowly made her way back to her chambers, every step sending one part of her body in pain. 'Master,' she thought to herself, 'I'm so glad you found me in time... if you hadn't...' she shuddered involuntarily.
The message had been a complete surprise to both Kay and her commanders. Portia wanted to negotiate a possible surrender. The siege had been in place for less than a week and Portia was already willing to surrender?
That was totally unexpected and it made Theresa suspicious. Kay though felt that maybe Ching had managed to somehow convince the king that any resistance would be futile. Ming advised extreme caution, especially since the king had requested that the truce to be discussed at a town located midway from their siege camp and the castle proper.
That town was known to be a royalist town, unlike several others that her army had been through. Those 'rebel' towns had welcomed Kay and her army with their arms wide open and with complete hospitality.
"This may be a trap." Ming had advised. Theresa agreed and so did Kay. But she wanted to give the king another chance to save many of his people, for she had no desire to kill any innocent people. The innocents are always the ones who suffer the most in any type of war, whichever side they supported.
It was then decided that Ming would stay behind at the main camp and await further developments and Theresa would accompany Kay together with her squad. Plus some of the Shadow Warriors will also be around to provide additional security undercover.
Unfortunately, it had been a trap. The moment Kay stepped into the town, her senses were on high alert. Many things about the town just did not add up. Too many curious villagers milling around and the majority of them were sturdy, young men. It just did not look right to her. And there were not many concealed places where her Shadow Warriors could hide.
It did not take too long. The enemy had replaced the entire population of the town with well-paid mercenaries who vastly outnumbered the too small squad that she had brought along with her. In the resulting fight, she was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and struck from behind and captured. Her Shadow Warriors were too busy helping Theresa and her squad fight off the mercenaries to be able to prevent it from happening.
The next thing Kay remembered was pain, tremendous pain. She was suspended on chains and was being whipped mercilessly even though she was unconscious. What finally woke her was salt being thrown onto her raw back.
She realised instantly that she had lost her sight in her right eye. The bandage covering her right cheek was removed and the stitches ripped open and the blood steadily seeping down her face. And the right eye itself was missing.
She couldn't tell how long she had been unconscious, she couldn't tell how long they had been whipping her and she couldn't tell who was whipping her. What she could tell was that she was in deep trouble.
She had just prayed that Theresa and her squad had made it out of that blasted town, relatively intact. If she had the strength, she would have blamed herself for not bringing a larger squad and for not asking her Shadow Warriors to look over that town first before agreeing to meet the king. That was her last regret before she thankfully lost consciousness again.
And after that, the next thing that Kay remembered was the pain that coursed through her body as someone was lowering her down from the chains. Muffled voices and then silence.
She focused her mind and slowly willed opened her remaining eye to see if it was friend or foe. It was her Master. Kay tried to smile but couldn't move her facial muscles, or any other muscles. Her Master removed her black cape and carefully wrapped it round Kay's bloody and battered body, all the time whispering softly.
Kay couldn't catch much of what was said she just knew that everything was going to be all right now, especially with the Master around. What she could catch was that her Master said something like, "You'll be the queen by sundown today and I will personally make them pay for this."
Kay was comforted by the sheer presence of her Master as she felt herself being gently carried out of her cell by several hands. She thankfully lost consciousness again.
The next time Kay woke up, she knew she was in a bed. A very big and a very comfortable bed. She creaked her good eye open and as she slowly focused her now one-eyed vision, the first face she saw was that of her Master, smiling at her. Very good sign, she had thought at that time.
Soon, as she cast her eye round, what she saw comforted her even more. Practically everyone was standing around the bed. "How..." she had croaked out. Joanis immediately helped to ease some liquid down her throat as Gerias answered as cheerfully as she could, "Congratulations! You are now the new Queen of Portia. Long live the queen!" she grinned from ear to ear. Then she heard the chiding voice of Theresa, "Gerias..."
"Okay, okay. Well, your Majesty, you have Master Ling to thank. She, err, defeated King Minis and Prince Manis and, umm, announced that you're the new queen. That's the short and very sweet version. I'll tell you the whole story when you're feeling better."
"Defeated?" Kay turned her questioning eye towards her Master and asked quietly.
"Yes, Kay. 'Defeated'. They won't be bothering you again and as for Ching..." At the mention of Ching, Kay could almost catch Ming swearing under his breath. Feeling tired and knowing that all the answers to her questions would come soon, she allowed herself back into the darkness and away from all the pain.
Mei carefully covered her Master's Protected with the blanket and then settled herself down on a chair right beside the bed. Her other fellow Shadow Warriors were each at different places around the room.
Kay had settled in and decided to follow her Master's command and rested for the almost the rest of the day. She only woke up briefly to take in more fluids with her medicine and told Fang to find a suitable room amongst her chambers for the next day's meeting and to inform Li. She was already feeling much stronger.
"Shall we rest or press on, Threez?" Ping asked her Chief Commander, knowing in her heart what her own answer would be. The Chief Commander looked at her Deputy Chief and the four other leading members of her party, Chin and Dan; the two highly-skilled Shadow Warriors, Larissa; a Second Commander and Gerias; the bard, no, the new co-Minister for Information.
Theresa felt a tiny grin escape as she glanced up at the fast darkening sky, adjusting the strap that held the uncomfortable helmet that covered most of her features. They had done good time today and had already passed, without stopping, their former camp an hour ago. Furthermore, she had already sent two of her fastest riders forward to alert the Amazon border patrols of their presence.
If they pressed on, they would reach the Amazon village by sunrise tomorrow. And she would see if Melanis again... she then made her decision, "We'll press on. Will you be okay, Gerias? I can have a guard wait with you..." Theresa was slightly concerned with Gerias even though she knew that Gerias was now made of sterner stuff then she had previously.
Gerias nodded her head, "Don't worry about me. I'm anxious to see how everyone is as well." With that the party spurred their horses on into the night. Hidden amongst the trees, a dark figure observed with an approving nod and a smile.
"Dinar for your thoughts." A familiar and comforting voice breathed into the Amazon Queen's right ear as even more familiar arms closed around her waist and gently drew her into the owner of the voice's chest. They were finally alone in their quarters.
Gabrielle was telling Xena about the battle again. And how brave Kay was in diving in to protect Xena.
Xena only half-listened, she had heard this particular tale many times this past week. she was more interested with the way her bard's chest rose and fell and her hands waving around excitedly as she strove to make her point. Slowly, Xena felt her control leave her and she turned her bard around to face her and leaned down for a kiss. Gabrielle's words were effectively ended as her breath was taken. Slowly, and without breaking off the kiss, Xena manoeuvred them towards the bed and gently pushed the unprotesting Gabrielle down.
The squad of Amazon warriors, specially hand-picked by Xena and Eponin were already saddling up their horses. Eponin directed some of them with regards to the supplies they had to carry when Xena strode up. Gabrielle was no where in sight.
Eponin glanced at Xena quizzically, Xena shrugged, "She's awake, grumpy but at least she's awake. She'll be here soon."
Eponin grinned, "So guess you did wear her out last night, huh?" as she dodged the playful slap Xena aimed at her shoulder.
And soon enough, the still yawning Amazon Queen walked up to the small party, lazily greeting everyone. Xena and Eponin stood at the side, wiping off traces of their beaming smiles before Gabrielle reached them. Just as Gabrielle was pulling Xena down for a quick kiss, a breathless Amazon rushed into the village.
"Solari! What's up?" Eponin asked, as she rushed to her lover's side, worried.
Solari took a few moments to regain her breath and managed to say, "We've got visitors. Where are the queens?"
"We're right here, Solari. Take your time. What visitors?" Ephiny had appeared from seemingly nowhere. Xena grabbed hold of Gabrielle and led her towards where Solari was still hunched over.
"Royal representative from the kingdom of Portia." She handed a scroll to Gabrielle. Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin all looked at each other in astonishment. Xena started to have a sick, sinking feeling in her stomach.
Gabrielle tore the scroll open, willing her hands to be steady, she read, "'Representing the kingdom of Portia, the Chief Commander of the Elite Guards hereby request an audience with the Amazon Queens, Gabrielle and Ephiny. The Chief Commander will be accompanied by 20 Guards, the rest in the party would be camping outside of Amazon lands.' That's it. Nothing else..."
"Doesn't say who they are..." Ephiny was worried.
Eponin looked at Solari, "Did you recognise the person who handed you this scroll?"
Solari shook her head, "Nope, I've never seen him before. Actually them, two of them. They just rode up, did the Amazon peace greeting, introduced themselves as being from Portia and left the scroll." She had emphasized the word 'him'.
Xena looked absolutely stricken and she walked away before Gabrielle could stop her. Gabrielle was about to follow when Eponin restrained her, "Gabrielle, maybe you should leave Xena alone for a while. She needs to think."
Ephiny agreed, "Yes, and we do need to prepare."
"Prepare?" Gabrielle questioned.
Ephiny, Eponin and Solari exchanged looks before the co-Amazon queen answered, "Well, whoever is coming is a royal representative of a kingdom. We have to accord them with the respect befitting their status."
"In other words, Gabrielle, we need to give them a proper Amazonian welcome. You have to change into your Amazon Queen outfit." Solari added. Gabrielle nodded, almost miserably, and took one last longing glance at the direction her love had gone.
"For Gods sake, Stevanos! Don't try to anger the queen today. She seemed serious..." Josef tried to tell Stevanos who brushed his concerns off.
"Do you know how much Portia is worth? And that bitch knows that I know all about the Treasury that's why she stuck this meaningless Security position on me! Every single person in this kingdom knows that the army and Ming control the security of the kingdom and here in the castle, the Elite Guards under Theresa are the ones in charge. I have no more power and to think I was the first one to pledge my loyalty to her! Not Geni and Geni got to be in charge of the Treasury and on top of that she got my old position as Chief Minister as well. That's not fair!"
"Yes, but there's nothing you can do. Even the old army has sworn their allegiance to her..." Bellus, a fellow sympathiser, especially since being 'downgraded' to Minister of Roads and he had to witness his former junior Minister, Tobias being given charge of his all powerful Ministry of Mines.
"That may be true, but there's bound to be some dissatisfaction. And how about the wealthy? I have a feeling that the good queen may be abolishing slavery soon..." Stevanos added wickedly.
"That will stir up a lot of discontent amongst the rich here." Bellus had begun to see light in Stevanos' plans.
"That's right. We can then take the opportunity to create even more unhappiness, bribe the old soldiers back and hire several warlords to attack and create mayhem and general havoc. Portia will then be ours for the taking... you know, I never thought I'll be King, but now... King Stevanos does have a nice ring around it, doesn't it?" Stevanos laughed. The rest of the room laughed with him, except for the few whom only observed the proceedings in the shadows.
The air was thick with nervous tension. A platform had been constructed hastily and on it, two thrones, side by side, occupied by Ephiny and Gabrielle. Both wore their Queen's masks and their Queen outfits. Eponin had arranged for two rows of Amazon guards to line the path towards the platform, while Solari busied herself running between the main gate and the village centre, updating everyone of the latest news.
"They're about 10 minutes away now." She reported, a little out of breath. Eponin gently took her by the arm and led her to stand directly under the platform, she took the other end herself.
A hand grasped Gabrielle on her shoulders tightly and Gabrielle looked up, "Xena! I was so worried about you."
Xena looked down, love evident in those sad eyes, "I'm sorry. Just had to prepare myself for the worst." She closed her eyes and turned away from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle sighed and noticed Tami out of bed, supported by two other Amazons and holding onto her crutches.
"She begged and pleaded, Gabrielle. She wanted to see for herself. I couldn't deny her..." Ephiny explained after she noticed Gabrielle's shocked expression. Gabrielle just nodded, not trusting herself to say anything.
Sounds of hoof beats were heard just before the lookout cried out, "They're here!"
Every Amazon braced themselves, unsure if they would be confronted with friends or foe. 'Artemis, if they turn out to be foe, I swear I'll avenge our friends, even if Gabrielle disapproves.' Ephiny made a silent vow.
'Ah, you are indeed a good friend, Ephiny. Artemis, you have chosen well.' The dark figure hidden amongst the trees thought, Xena, so troubled, so guilty, so powerful. Remove your guilt and vanquish your rage, only then will you be able to fulfill your rightful destiny. Ares, you and I have a score to settle. Gabrielle, still so innocent, so many principles. Artemis, this is your future for the Amazons? Well, I'll reserve my judgement.'
The Master looked over the heads of the waiting Amazons, instantly knowing all their names and hearing their thoughts. And after hearing so many silent vows of vengeance, the Master allowed herself a wide smile, now knowing for sure that these Amazons are as trustworthy as the other ones at... she forced herself to stop this train of thought.
The exhausted riders entered the village. The leading riders seem to hesitate when they took in the village. Gerias entered last and audibly gasped at the preparations, and blurted out loudly, "Wow! Hey! You guys never treated us to this whenever we came with goodies."
The lead rider hissed at her, "Gerias! Where are your manners? Remember what Maiandra said..."
"Yeah, yeah. I remember very clearly, proper protocol." Gerias grumbled as she got off her horse.
The Amazons were amazed and relieved. 'If only the lead riders would take off their helmets.' Many of them thought. The group positioned themselves in front of the guard of honour, the leader slowly unclasping the helmet strap, the rest followed the lead. Soon, with one smooth motion, they removed their helmets in one motion, revealing to all their faces. And there before the Amazons eyes, stood Theresa, Ping, Gerias (who hadn't worn a helmet) and several others whom they did not recognise.
Theresa led her group towards their target, the platform where the two stunned and very relieved Amazon queens and the seemingly stoic Warrior Princess now stood, a huge grin plastered on her face and the helmet under her arm. She had enjoyed the looks of complete surprise and astonishment, coupled with, was that relief? Theresa wondered to herself but as she neared the platform, she removed the grin off her face.
Xena's inner emotions ran wild, from wariness to careful hope to total shock to worry and wonderment. 'They all seemed to have aged at least 10 years, Theresa and Gerias especially. What on earth happened? And where's Kay? How is she?' thousands of questions ran through her mind but she knew she would have her answers, she just hoped the answers were what she needed to hear so desperately.
Having decided to follow what the protocol demanded of them, the group went down on one knee and Theresa said, "Our respects to the Amazon Queens."
"Theresa! What's going on?" Ephiny had finally found her voice as she removed her Queen's mask. When the group did not answer Ephiny looked slightly surprised, then remembered, "Umm, you may rise, friends."
Theresa broke into a smile again as she said, "Thank you, your Majesty." And they rose, in one fluid, practiced motion.
"Ping!" Tami shouted, wishing that she were able to run up to her bond mate.
Ping heard but still stood silently by Theresa's side, not even making eye contact towards her love. It broke her heart but she had to do her duty.
Theresa heard as well, she turned to Ping, "Ping, go on. I know you want to and I would too if I could..." she said hoarsely.
Ping looked up and nodded once and then handing her helmet over to her second, she ran over to Tami, gently lifting her love up and squeezing tightly, never wanting to let go. Tears of happiness and relief streamed down both of their faces.
Theresa witnessed the scene and felt a huge lump in her throat, she cleared it, "Eph? Is Mel..." she asked.
Ephiny walked towards Theresa, giving her a huge hug, "No change. She hasn't woken up but she isn't..."
"Dead." Theresa finished for Ephiny, "At least I can still hope and dream." She added in a small voice, only Ephiny caught that. She shrugged Ephiny off as she continued, her formal tone returning, masking her deep felt pain, "Queen Ephiny, Queen Gabrielle..." she bowed slightly towards Gabrielle who had by that time removed her mask and also stood near her. Xena was not far behind, she wanted to ask Theresa for questions, but knew that she had to be patient a little longer. "...Our queen would like to extend her thanks to the entire Amazon Nation for your hospitalities..."
"Queen?" Xena felt that she had to know straight out.
"Yes, the new queen of Portia... Kay."
Continued Chapters 39 - 56
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