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Xena, Gabrielle, etc., are not mine. Delta is mine. The socks I have on right now are mine. The whip is Minya’s. The frying pan is Gabrielle’s. I think we’re clear on ownership.
Remember that violence I promised ya? Here it comes. Filippa, you’re gonna hate this part.
|Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8|
Morning dawned hotter than any Xena could recall in a long time. She dressed quickly and left before Autolycus even stirred.
As she made her way through the village towards the queen’s hut, she drew more than one suspicious glare from the Amazon sentries making their early morning rounds. Xena ignored them. As long as they stayed out of her way, they were no concern of hers.
The guards posted outside the queen’s hut made no attempt to block her entry. More of Gabrielle’s influence, no doubt. Inside, Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen. Instead Xena found only Ephiny.
"I figured you’d be showing up before very long." Ephiny said. "Gabrielle’s not here."
Xena felt her chest tighten briefly. "Where is she?" she asked sharply.
"She went with Solari to observe the girls’ battle drills." Ephiny informed her. As Xena drew a relieved breath, a hint of disgust crept across Ephiny’s face. "We wouldn’t just misplace her, Xena." the Amazon said coldly. "She’s our queen. We’ll take care of her here."
Xena swallowed an angry reply. "I know that." she said.
"Good. If you want to worry about someone, worry about that hormonal pickpocket you brought with you. He’s the one who’s going to get into trouble."
Let it go, Xena, the warrior ordered herself silently. She’s not the enemy, and now’s not the time.
"I’m going to go find Gabrielle." Xena excused herself.
"Of course. I’m sure she’ll be much safer with you."
It was one step too far. Xena turned on Ephiny, her eyes icy, and the Amazon drew back just a little.
"I am trying very hard to keep the peace between us, Ephiny." she said in a dangerously quiet voice. "I’m not foolish enough to expect friendship from you. But we’re not enemies. The enemy is out there with the power to destroy everything we both love. Now are you going to set your feelings aside long enough for us to work together or not?"
The Amazon studied her silently for a long moment."If Velaska’s really come back," Ephiny said coldly, "I will work with you long enough to stop her."
"Good." Xena said, and turned on her heel to go.
"Xena," Ephiny’s voice stopped her, "If you’re wrong about this, there’s no reason for you to stay here."
Xena’s voice was emotionless when she replied. "Believe me, I know." With that she left, leaving Ephiny to stare after her in brooding silence.
"It’s amazing." Gabrielle observed. "Most of them are younger than me and yet they can handle weapons as well as Xena."
Solari laughed. "Not that well, little queen. Though I’m sure they’d be flattered to hear you say so."
The two of them stood watching a group of young Amazons engaged in swordplay. Despite Solari’s words, Gabrielle was impressed. The girls, none of them older than eighteen, wielded their blades better than many of the soldiers and mercenaries Gabrielle had encountered in her travels with Xena.
"Don’t confuse practice with experience. Remember that none of these girls have ever set foot on a battlefield." Solari reminded her.
"There’s a big difference between learning how to use a sword and actually having to kill with one."Gabrielle agreed softly. Then she straightened. "That’s something I wanted to talk to you about, Solari." She said, suddenly serious. "If the worst happens and we have to fight Velaska, I don’t want these girls going into battle."
Solari stopped short, raising her eyebrows. "Gabrielle, they are Amazon warriors, not defenseless schoolgirls. If we find ourselves in a war —"
"You said yourself they’ve never seen a battlefield. This is not going to be their first look. They’d be slaughtered, Amazons or not."
Solari sighed. "They won’t like it."
"They don’t have to." Gabrielle said firmly. "Not if it keeps them alive. Velaska will be a formidable enough enemy for the rest of us. What do you honestly expect a bunch of kids to do against her?"
After a long moment, Solari nodded. "You have a point. Still, it won’t go over well with many. And not just the girls, the older warriors as well."
Gabrielle half-smiled. "Consider it the queen’s command."
"You’re getting the hang of this ‘regal thing’, you know that?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "I’ve only been at it for a day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves."
"Seriously, Gabrielle. You’re a good leader." Solari’s tone became hopeful. "Have you considered accepting the position full-time?"
Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to be startled. "You mean stay here? Permanently? I couldn’t, Solari." she insisted, shaking her head.
"But why not? Deny you love it here."
"I can’t. I do love it. But there’s too much I’d miss."
"Xena, you mean." Solari said. "Gabrielle, despite everything...she would be made welcome here."
"I’m not sure Ephiny would agree with you." Gabrielle noted sadly.
"She’ll come around, Gabrielle." Solari said reassuringly, putting a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "You know Ephiny. She has a hard time letting her grudges go. If that’s what’s stopping you, don’t let it."
"No, it’s more than that. I would worry about Xena, but I’d miss life on the move, too." She shrugged, grinning. "I’ve been a vagabond for too long to give it up now. I like wandering. I’m afraid I’d get restless staying in one place."
"And so bard beats queen again." Solari laughed, gesturing dramatically with her arms. "Roaming the countryside with warriors and thieves, spreading her tales far and away."
Gabrielle gave her a shove. "You’re so weird." she said fondly.
The two women walked around the training ring, watching the students. The skill of the girls really was incredible.
Well, most of them, Gabrielle thought, frowning, as she spotted Delta being knocked off her feet for about the fourth time that morning. At first she’d thought the girl just hadn’t been warmed up yet, but she was beginning to have her doubts. Delta’s opponent reached down to help her up, an exasperated look on her face. Delta brushed the help away in irritation and regained her feet, her face flushed.
"Forgive me for saying so, but that girl is no warrior." Gabrielle observed. Solari followed her gaze.
"Ah, little Delta. Don’t feel bad; you’re not the first to voice that opinion." Solari shook her head. "I don’t know about her myself. No one has the heart to tell her she’s a hopeless case in combat."
"Well, maybe she’s just not meant for the path of a warrior." Gabrielle defended. "Maybe she should study to be a healer, or a teacher, or even a priestess of Artemis. I know not every Amazon sleeps with a sword under her pillow."
"True, but I don’t think Delta’s problem is simply a matter of being in the wrong vocation. She’s a strange one."
"In what way?"
"In many ways. She’s so withdrawn."
"Being shy doesn’t mean she’s strange," Gabrielle chided, but Solari went on.
"It’s not shyness, Gabrielle. It’s more like reclusiveness."
"Well," Gabrielle considered, "she didn’t seem all that friendly when I spoke to her yesterday. I figured it was because she didn’t know how to react to me."
"She’s like that with everybody. The other girls finally just tired of trying to befriend her and being ignored or snapped at. And she absolutely refuses to have anything to do with the centaurs. To hear her talk you’d think they were lower than dirt."
"That’s sad." Gabrielle mused, flinching as Delta once again found herself face down in the dust.
"She reminds a lot of a girl I knew growing up. She had the same attitude. It didn’t serve her well in the end."
"What happened to her?"
An unreadable expression passed over the Amazon’s face. "Somebody gave her a hard lesson in humility."
Gabrielle frowned, but before she could ask Solari anything else, she heard Xena calling to her. She turned and saw her friend approaching from the village.
"I wish I could get you up this early." Xena teased, but Gabrielle could see the tension in her eyes.
"Well, it was too hot to sleep in." Gabrielle explained. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, I just wanted to talk to you. I think it would be a good idea if we all stayed within the village itself today, until the scouts report back."
"Has something happened?" Solari asked.
"No." Xena assured her. "I just have a feeling."
Gabrielle wondered briefly if Solari was going to give her a hard time. But the Amazon just nodded in agreement. She entered the training arena and called out loud enough for the entire group to hear her.
"Alright, Amazons, pack it up. We’re heading back into town."
A confused murmur at the unexpected change in routine passed through the students. The teachers looked baffled as well, but only briefly. "You heard her. Let’s go." one of the elder Amazons ordered."What’s going on, Solari?" the woman asked quietly as she passed.
"I’ll explain later, Kalika." Solari promised. "Get the girls back to the village."
"Let’s go." Xena said. She took a searching look at the land beyond the arena. If anything watched them from the darkness of the forest surrounding the village, it didn’t reveal itself to her. And yet the air seemed heavy with a weight that had nothing to do with the oppressive heat.
Xena stiffened, then made herself relax. She did walk a bit faster, though, taking hold of Gabrielle’s arm to cue the girl to increase her pace as well.
"Xena —" Gabrielle began, but Xena shook her head.
"Just move, Gabrielle." she commanded. And in the air, the land, the heat, it echoed back to her again, a papery whispered promise spoken not to her ears, but to her mind.
Autolycus woke with a groan, his head throbbing from the indulgences of the previous night. He sat up slowly, squinting against the sunlight pouring in through the windows.
"Oh, Zeus, how much did I drink last night?" he asked aloud, not putting the question to anyone in particular. He looked around. "Xena?" There was no answer. "Great." he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "She’s worried we’ll all be slaughtered like sheep but she lets me sleep ‘til noon."
Groggily, he got dressed. As he fastened his gauntlets in place, a small scrap of parchment on Xena’s pillow caught his eye. It was a note, hastily written, for him.
COME TO THE STABLE AT THE NORTH END OF THE VILLAGE AS SOON AS YOU’RE AWAKE. IT’S URGENT.
"Not so urgent you needed to wake me up, apparently." he grumbled, letting it flutter back to the bed. "Alright, fine, I’m coming."
He paused only long enough to slip his dagger into its place at his hip.
"You’re awfully spooky today." Gabrielle said as she and Xena headed back to the hut.
"Like I said, I’ve got a feeling." Xena justified. "Gabrielle, I want you to stick close to —" she was suddenly painfully aware of Ephiny’s presence, making her way over. "Stick close to me, Ephiny, or Solari today. Don’t go anywhere by yourself."
Gabrielle nodded. "I can do that."
Ephiny came up beside them. "The scouts to the centaur village have returned." she informed them. "I’m going to go speak with them now, if you want to be there. Either of you." she stressed.
"I’ll be right there." Xena replied, giving the Amazon a small, grateful smile.
"I’ll be along with Xena." Gabrielle said. "Go on, see what they found out."
Ephiny left them, and Xena and Gabrielle went quickly to Xena’s hut.
"Oh, fabulous." Xena growled as they entered and found it empty. "He was practically unconscious when I left this morning, and now he’s nowhere to be found. I swear, I can’t leave him alone for a second..."
Gabrielle picked up a discarded piece of parchment from the bed. She scanned it quickly, and drew a sharp breath. "Xena," she said.
"What?" Xena asked, annoyed.
"I think I know where he is." Gabrielle handed her friend the note. Xena read it, her frown deepening.
"I didn’t write this." she said.
"No kidding." Gabrielle mused. Xena’s eyes widened.
"Gods DAMN it!" she burst out, rushing past Gabrielle.
"I’ll get Ephiny!" Gabrielle called to her back.
Xena’s heart hammered painfully in her chest, and she ran for all she was worth.
"What a convenient meeting place you choose, Xena." Autolycus grumbled. "What in Tartarus is so special about here?"
He walked towards the barn, irritated. This seemed stupid; why she couldn’t have given him urgent news in town was beyond him. The Amazons didn’t even use this barn anymore. But he’d learned not to question Xena’s methods. The woman never did anything without a reason. Have to love that about her, he thought, grinning to himself.
Just then a gust of wind hit him in the face, and he gasped involuntarily, recoiling. The wind carried a smell foul enough to stop him in his tracks. He eyed the barn, now only about forty or so paces away, and swallowed hard. That was the source of the stench, and suddenly he didn’t want to go there anymore.
But that smell...
Slowly, Autolycus walked to the barn. He stopped outside the doors, every fiber of his being screaming at him to stop, turn around, not go another step. Oh, gods, that smell. He could taste it in the back of his throat: metallic, overwhelming. Turn around, now!
He pulled open the door and went in. Inside, the smell hit him so hard he felt his stomach clench. His eyes adjusted to the dim light. They went to the floor and widened.
There was a heavy swath of blood across the dusty, straw-ridden floor. As if something large had been dragged along as it bled to death. Autolycus followed the gory trail to one of the old stalls, keeping his boots away from the mess. He didn’t want to see it. Whatever was in that stall, he didn’t want to look at it. He closed his eyes, jerked the door open, and forced himself to look down.
The beautiful chestnut stallion he’d stolen laid mutilated on the floor, muscular neck nearly severed, dark, long-lashed eyes glazed over.
Autolycus pressed a fist to his lips, fighting nausea, and backed away. Just a few steps and you’ll be outside, he told himself. He couldn’t take his eyes off the terrible lifeless gaze of the stallion. He had to get out now or he was going to be sick. Autolycus tore himself free and whirled around.
He choked on a horrified cry, frozen in place.
A dead Amazon hung from the rafters in the empty loft, swaying slightly, like a pendulum. Her face was twisted into a silent scream. Her eyes had been clawed out, and she’d been eviscerated. Autolycus could see the dull white gleam of her ribs peeking through ragged flesh.
Retching, Autolycus shot through the doors.
Xena was almost to the barn when she saw Autolycus stagger out and fall to his knees. Her first thought was that he was wounded, but as she rushed towards him she realized he was vomiting.
"Autolycus!" she cried out, dropping down beside him and grabbing hold of his shoulders. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
He struggled to catch his breath. "Dead — inside!" he gasped out. Xena released him and stood, drawing her sword. She entered the barn, and only a few moments had passed before she reemerged, shaken. Xena quickly composed herself and knelt beside the thief again, who was now seated in the grass, breathing hard. Xena felt relief wash over her as she recognized that he was unharmed, just scared witless.
"Take it easy, Autolycus." she said in a calming voice. "Breathe deeply."
"I got a...a note." he tried to explain. "I found it on your bed...I thought..."
"I know, I saw it." Xena said. "I didn’t write it. I don’t know who did."
"Sweet Zeus, was she in the village?" he wondered, horrified. "Was she in the village with no one ever knowing it?"
"I don’t know. Settle down." Xena urged. "You’re shaking like a leaf."
He laughed dryly. "I guess I failed the nerves test miserably, huh?"
"I don’t think anyone’s going to hold it against you." Xena assured him.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out, running up with Ephiny, Solari, and a handful of others. "What happened?" She spotted Autolycus. "Are you alright?"
He gave her a thumbs up. "Just peachy, Princess." he said hoarsely.
"It looks like Velaska’s decided to announce herself." Xena explained to the group. She looked at Ephiny, distressed. "Ephiny, there’s a body in there. An Amazon. I don’t know who it is."
Ephiny’s face hardened. She and Solari went in, then came out again looking grim. Ephiny walked over to one of the warriors accompanying them. "It’s Dara, Itoe." she said gently, reaching out to clasp the woman’s arm. Itoe paled, then straightened her back and walked straight into the barn. Ephiny followed.
"Itoe is Dara’s sister." Solari explained in a low voice to Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus. "Dara was one of the warriors sent to scout out the lava pit." she added quietly.
All three were silent, the ramifications of that fact clear to each of them. It was unlikely that Dara would have come to this end if the warriors had been there to defend each other.
Xena pulled Autolycus to his feet. "There’s nothing else we can do here." she said gently. "Let’s get back to the village."
"I’ll have someone come for...I’ll send someone to help." Gabrielle told Solari, then hurried to catch up with her friends.
Xena had her hand on Autolycus’ shoulder. "Are you alright?"
"Fine." he said, not sounding fine at all. "It’s just..."
"That poor horse followed me so trustingly when I stole him from his stable." he told her sadly.
Xena didn’t know what to say. There were no words to take the ugliness off of such a cruel act. Gabrielle just slipped her arm through his, and the three of them walked on in silence.
An hour later there was quite a crowd in and around the council hut. Word had spread of Dara’s death, and everyone had come to find out if it was true. The scouts sent to the centaur village had returned as well, bringing two centaurs with them, and their news was not good. Four centaurs had gone missing in the last three days, and the searches for them had yielded nothing.
Of the six other Amazons who’d been sent to the gorge, there was no word.
Gabrielle sat at her place at the long conference table, listening to the scouts’ report, listening to the centaurs’ story. Occasionally her eyes flickered to where Itoe stood off to the side, eyes red, face hard, hugging Alexis tightly with one arm. Gabrielle had learned Alexis was Itoe’s daughter. The girl looked dazed, as if the unfolding events were happening too fast for her.
Too fast for all of us, Gabrielle thought grimly.
Xena watched Gabrielle from where she stood with Autolycus a little way off. The young woman was clearly anxious, as they all were, but beneath that was an unflinching composure that struck Xena as being a new quality to her friend. Gabrielle had proven countless times that she could handle herself in a crisis, but Xena couldn’t remember her ever being so...steely. Gabrielle wasn’t just coping, she was deciding, leading. Even knowing the horrible reality of what was happening around them, Xena felt a surge of pride as she watched her dearest friend.
"We have to know for sure it’s Velaska we’re dealing with." Ephiny was saying.
"Be realistic, Ephiny," Xena cut in. "Who else could it be?"
"I don’t know, but we still haven’t seen whoever it is, and we have to know what we’re up against before we can plan our next move."
"The next move isn’t ours to make, Ephiny." Xena shot back, feeling her patience finally slipping away. "It’s Velaska’s."
"We can’t be certain it’s her, Xena!" Ephiny insisted.
"I’m sure." Xena said in a low voice.
"And if you’re wrong?"
"Wonderful. So we’re supposed to base our entire strategy on your hunch."
"For the love of the gods, Ephiny, I saw her go on a killing spree night after night!" Xena burst out, thinking only of convincing everyone of the danger. "I dreamed about this! I was warned!"
Ephiny stared at her in hostile silence, eyes narrowing. Xena sucked her breath in, realizing what she’d done.
Gabrielle stood up. "Leave us." she ordered the room in general. "Now. Solari and Autolycus, you stay."
Silenced by the intensity of the exchange, the other Amazons and the centaurs obediently filed outside. Autolycus and Solari stood tensely off to one side, quiet, both realizing they were there to run interference. When the hut emptied out, however, Itoe and Alexis remained.
"My sister was murdered today, Queen Gabrielle." the woman said in a tremulous voice. "I have a right to hear this."
After a moment, Gabrielle nodded. She turned nervous eyes on Xena and Ephiny. The Amazon was staring at Xena as if she was a poisonous snake.
"You dreamed about this?" Ephiny repeated. She looked accusingly at Gabrielle. "You told me —"
"I lied." Gabrielle said simply. "I didn’t know if you would take Xena’s word for it, but I knew you’d take mine."
Ephiny was beyond angry. She was livid. At the moment, Xena didn’t care. She knew. Not a hunch, not a suspicion. She knew. Ephiny had to understand that.
"You don’t trust me." she said to the Amazon. "Fine. I accept that. I didn’t come here expecting a warm reception. Whatever you feel towards me, Ephiny, get over it and open your eyes before more of your people die."
Ephiny’s dark eyes burned.
"Ephiny," a soft voice came, and Alexis stepped out of her mother’s embrace to approach the older woman. "Please. Please work with Xena. She is our queen’s best friend. She’s trying to help us. Please." Alexis’ eyes filled with tears. "My Aunt Dara is dead, and the others who were with her are probably dead as well."
Ephiny stared at the girl, and the angry fire died out, leaving only sorrow. She brushed a lock of hair away from Alexis’ face. "I’m sorry, Lexi. I’m so very sorry." She glanced over at Xena. "We’re going to do our best to see that no one else is lost that way." Ephiny promised, meeting the warrior’s blue glare in alliance.
Alexis nodded, forcing a smile. "Now you and your mother go home." Ephiny said gently. "Go on. Be together." she added when Itoe started to resist. The haggard Amazon sighed and took her daughter’s arm, leading her out.
Ephiny regarded Xena with a new reserve. "I said I would work with you, and so far I haven’t been holding up my end of the agreement. I just don’t want to go into this fight blindly."
Gabrielle, Autolycus, and Solari all seemed to heave a collective sigh of relief.
"I understand." Xena assured her softly. "But if you look at all that’s happened...there’s no one else with the power to do all this, Ephiny."
"You’re right. You are right, Xena."
Xena forced a smile. "If it’s any consolation, I would gladly be wrong."
Ephiny laughed mirthlessly. "So what do you think her next move will be?"
"She has our attention. That was the whole point of this morning. It was a wake-up call. Now she’ll want to wow us."
"I for one have been wowed." Autolycus piped up.
"No, she’s not done yet." Gabrielle agreed. "Velaska always was vain. She wanted an audience for everything she did."
Autolycus nodded, remembering. Someone should be present to witness the birth of a god. Xena thought of her dream, of Velaska on the platform. On stage. Putting on a show no one would ever forget.
"Well, now she has an audience." Gabrielle went on. "She’s not going to waste it."
"I don’t even want to imagine what she’ll come up with next." Solari said grimly.
"We know what her ultimate goal is." Gabrielle said. "Me." All eyes turned to her, and she shrugged. "It’s true. I have the honor of being the biggest thorn in her side. When it’s all said and done it’s my head she wants. And she’ll wipe out everything in between us to see it done."
"Gabrielle, don’t even think about it." Xena said sharply, reading her friend like a book.
"Xena, I will not watch everyone in this village get cut down by that monster for my sake." Gabrielle retorted. Xena opened her mouth, but the younger woman cut her off. "I don’t plan to roll over and play the sacrificial lamb, either. But if there’s a way I can stop a war, I’ll do it."
"She doesn’t just want you, Gabrielle." Ephiny said, siding with Xena. "She wants all of us. As far as she’s concerned we cast her out. Twice. She won’t let that go. This is not between you and her alone. It’s a fight for all of us."
"I think she’s trying to say it may be your team but you have to let everybody play." Solari spoke up, and Ephiny grinned at her.
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and looked around at them all. "Who’s the queen here, anyway?" she demanded, but knew she’d lost this particular battle.
"Don’t get cocky." Xena said. "I’m still bigger than you."
"So what should we be expecting from her next?" Autolycus asked. "Not like I can’t wait to find out or anything,"
"I don’t think she’ll make us wait long." Xena mused.
At that moment there came the sound of shouting from outside. I had to say that, didn’t I? Xena thought, and an instant later a single Amazon staggered into the hut. She was panting furiously, and from the look of her it was nothing short of miraculous that she’d made it this far. Solari moved quickly and caught the woman as she collapsed.
"Yasmina!" Ephiny gasped, rushing to the fallen Amazon’s side.
"For y-you —" Yasmina choked out, pushing a bloodied scrap of parchment into Ephiny’s hand.
"Good timing, there, Xena." Autolycus said quietly, and she gave him a dirty look.
Ephiny was reading the parchment with a stricken look on her face. "Ephiny, what does it say?" Gabrielle asked.
Ephiny said nothing. She held out the parchment. Gabrielle took it and read it out loud.
"Seven pawns don’t equal a queen. See you soon. V."
She raised wide eyes to Xena.
Shit, Xena thought. I wouldn’t have minded being wrong this once.
"Well?" Xena asked Ephiny as she emerged from the healer’s.
Ephiny ran a hand through her hair absently. "She might live. Philana’s optimistic. Even if she does she’ll have no use of her right arm ever again."
"What did she say about the others?" Gabrielle wondered.
Ephiny shook her head. "They’re all dead. Velaska killed them, maimed Yasmina and sent her back to deliver the message."
"Did she say anything else? Where this happened, or where Velaska’s headed?"
"Velaska’s headed here. Beyond that, nothing. She was pretty out of it. I don’t know if it was from her injuries or the painkillers Philana gave her. A little of both, I guess. She was delirious." Ephiny said. "She kept talking about drowning and fire. I couldn’t understand that. Velaska worked her over good, but there were no burns on her anywhere, and her clothes didn’t look like they’d been wet anytime recently."
"I can imagine she’d be confused." Xena said. "I’m amazed she survived the trip back here at all."
"It’s almost funny," Gabrielle said, not looking amused in the least, "While Yasmina was dragging herself back here to deliver a message that Velaska’s on her way, Velaska was here butchering ponies and showing off her handiwork."
"I’m not sure she was." Xena said, shaking her head. Ephiny and Gabrielle looked at her in shock.
"A little while ago you were swearing up one wall and down the other that you knew it was her!" Ephiny cried. "We have Yasmina to back that up now!"
"Oh, Velaska’s the driving force behind it, all right. And we know she was the one who killed Dara. But I don’t think she planted the note, or killed Autolycus’ horse."
Gabrielle and Ephiny looked at her dubiously.
"Think about it." Xena urged. "Would she be able to resist a strike on either of you when she was right in the village? She may be powerful, but self-control is not one of Velaska’s defining qualities. No, if she’d been here, we would have known it. She’ll make a grand entrance when she’s good and ready."
"If that’s true, it means she has someone helping her." Gabrielle said. Xena nodded, an expression of disgust on her face.
Gabrielle was silent momentarily, a thoughtful frown creasing her brow. "There were some Amazons who remained faithful to Velaska even after...everything. But only a handful, and they’ve all left the village."
"Maybe one of them is back." Xena suggested. "Or maybe it’s someone who never left."
"Now wait a minute!" Ephiny broke in. "You’re talking treason. That’s a heavy accusation."
"I don’t like it any more than you do, Eph, but it would fit." Gabrielle reasoned.
"So what do we do? Go around and ask every woman in the village if they’ve been conspiring with a maniac?"
"Don’t do anything just yet." Xena instructed. "There’s also the possibility that Velaska convinced someone outside the Amazon nation to help her. Someone who has a grudge against you."
"That’s a long list, Xena." Ephiny said with a wry smile. "The Amazons aren’t short on enemies."
"If it is someone in the village they’ll slip up sooner or later." Gabrielle said.
"We may not have the time to wait for that." Xena pointed out. "I don’t think Velaska’s going to be able to restrain herself much longer."
"How are we going to fight her?" Ephiny demanded. "How do we fight a goddess?"
"This is one of those moments when you really wish you had a spare hind’s blood dagger laying around." Gabrielle jibed, and found herself on the receiving end of The Look. "Just trying to add a little levity to an otherwise dismal situation." she defended.
"If we can’t kill her, we’ll have to contain her." Xena mused. "It would help if we knew how she got free in the first place. That could be the key to stopping her. Ephiny, can you think of anyone who would have any reason to ally with Velaska?"
"I can’t think of anyone crazy enough to try." Ephiny responded.
"It’s got to be someone powerful." Gabrielle reasoned. "I can’t see another god doing it."
"Maybe a priest or priestess who’s fallen out of favor with their own god." Xena suggested. "Someone looking to use her as an instrument of revenge."
"No one uses Velaska." Ephiny said grimly.
"Then someone who had something to offer her. Something to make a deal with. She can’t be controlled, but she could be bribed."
"But who would have anything that tempting to Velaska?" Gabrielle wondered.
Xena shook her head, frustrated. "I don’t know."
"I have a suggestion." Ephiny broke in, her voice much gentler than before. "Let’s stop looking so hard for the answer. You said it yourself, Xena, the next move is Velaska’s. We’ve got nothing to do but wait. Maybe instead of using up what time we do have struggling with a puzzle we don’t have all the pieces to, we should spend it preparing ourselves for what we know is coming." She sighed tiredly. "Besides, I want to see Xenan. Goddess knows what he’s up to."
"He’s fine. Last I saw Autolycus was teaching him how to pick locks." Xena told her.
Ephiny’s eyebrows shot up. "My son is being babysat by a known felon? Oh, this day just keeps getting better and better."
"He’s probably having a blast." Gabrielle said with a wave of her hand.
"Never?" Xenan’s blue eyes were wide.
"Never." Autolycus informed him firmly.
"Even if they hit you first?"
"Not even then."
"Not even if they hit you with a fist?"
"Never hit girls, Xenan."
"What about if they hit you with a club?"
Autolycus paused, narrowing his eyes. "What kind of girls do you play with?"
"Girls like mom. Amazon girls."
"Well then, let me elaborate. Never hit girls when you’re playing." Xenan started to open his mouth. "Even if they have clubs. If they’re not playing, however, and they have clubs —"
"Thank you, Autolycus." Ephiny said suddenly, entering the hut. "You’re relieved of your duties here."
"No trouble at all. I was just answering some of the kid’s questions about women." Autolycus said lightly.
"Deliver me from Tartarus," Ephiny groaned.
"What did you do, Autolycus?" Gabrielle asked, poking her head in.
"Nothing." Autolycus assured her. "Xenan and I were just having some guy time. You wouldn’t understand."
"So there’s this kid Tobias who lives across the river," Xenan went on to the thief brightly, "and he kissed this girl with his tongue, and he said that’s how grown-ups kiss, and he’s fourteen and really smart. So is it? How grown-ups kiss?"
"Okay, that’s enough guy time." Autolycus said, jumping abruptly to his feet. "Ephiny, you probably want to spend some time alone with your son, so I’ll just be going."
Ephiny caught his arm as he hurried by her. "If you ever answer any of my child’s questions about sex I will cut your head off and mount it on a tall spike overlooking the square." she whispered with a sweet smile.
"Have no fear, Ephiny, this is strictly mom territory." Autolycus conceded. The Amazon nodded and patted his arm.
Xena was leaning against the outside of the hut grinning when he came out. She’d obviously heard quite a bit.
"So what pearls of larcenous wisdom did you pass on to the little scamp?" she inquired.
"Well, he can pick three different types of locks now."
"Oh, he’s learning a trade! Ephiny will be thrilled."
"He’s a cute kid. Smart, too."
"I don’t think it’s going to be much longer before Velaska attacks." Xena said, turning the conversation serious. "I just wish I knew how the attack was going to come."
"That woman Yasmina couldn’t give you any idea?"
"She was half dead when she got here. No," Xena said, grimacing, "as much as I hate to admit it, we’re just going to have to take whatever she throws at us."
"As plans go, you’ve had better." Autolycus mused. Xena glared at him. "Of course I have complete confidence you’ll save all our hides now as you have done countless times in the past." he added.
Xena silently wished she shared that confidence.
Continues in Part 7
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