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DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: This story occurs in a hard, violent time and my writing reflects that. If you are sensitive to that, you may want to skip some of the battle scenes.
SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.
Author's notes: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
How does one count the worth of a friend? Priceless? Invaluable? Incalculable? They all apply to Karen Surtees, but my word of choice is "cherished." Thank you, my friend, for "holding my hand" as I write, and for keeping me motivated. You are a treasure!
And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.
© Copyright 1999
Learning the Hard Way
The stampede worked perfectly. Almost too perfectly. The only thing that saved the command tent from going down was a bunch of pikes that someone had stuck into the ground in a circle with their poles entwined. In the dim light, the horses could see the structure and veered around it, bypassing the less solid tent.
In the ensuing melee, Xena crept to the back of the tent and sliced along one seam with her dagger, just enough to see into the tent. The furnishings were sparse, as befitted a field headquarters. Against one wall stood a narrow cot with a small trunk at its base. A hole dug in one corner apparently served as a crude latrine. A table and four chairs shared the rest of the space with a central pole that held clothing on a peg. A large oil lamp on the table threw light in the center of the tent, leaving the edges in shadow. The tent's occupant, a warlord Xena did not recognize, ran outside after the horses had passed, shouting orders to his men.
Taking advantage of his absence, Xena deftly loosened the seam enough to allow her to squirm under the cloth wall and enter the tent. Tuning her ears to the warlord's exact position, she hurried to the table, which held a large map.
A quick examination of the map showed, as she had suspected, the route of a second army traveling outside the mountain range to the east. A date was written below the pass, surely the date the army was expected to arrive in that position. The map also showed the route of attack planned against the Amazon territory.
Perfect! Shows the whole plan. Though that's kind of a strange formation. She mused on the situation for a moment. The army to the west is going to attack from the southwest and the army from the northern pass is supposed to swing and attack from the northeast. Alarm bells went off in the warrior's mind. SOMETHING is attacking from the northwest. But the map didn't show what.
A movement outside the tent alerted Xena to the warlord's imminent return and she threw herself across the tent onto the ground, and squirmed back out. Quickly, she pulled the loosened threads tight and peered through the original small slit. The warlord came in by himself and flopped down on the bed. Since there was no conversation to eavesdrop on, the Warrior Princess silently crept back to the forest.
She ran toward where Argo was waiting, flipped onto her back and rode away. Her mind was working hard throughout the ride, trying to figure what might be in store for the battle ahead. We're going to need help, that's for sure.
What Gabrielle and Ephiny thought was going to be an open and shut council meeting had proven to be a headache instead. When the regent proposed that Xena be put in charge of the Amazons in light of the impending battle, a few of the women were vociferously reluctant.
Peraka, surprisingly for an Amazon, always seemed loath to fight. Her voice rose almost immediately. "I know we already voted to fight if necessary, but we don't even know if this warlord is going to attack us. If he hears that Xena is in charge, he may come just for the challenge. I would feel better if she weren't even here." Black-haired and olive-skinned, Peraka was of medium height and sturdily built. Right now, her bottom lip stood out in an unattractive pout.
A rumble of agreement met this outburst. Ephiny stood up, her eyes blazing. "Seems to me, I heard almost those same words from you awhile back, Peraka, just before we fought Mictinos. If Xena hadn't been around then, we might not be here today." She swept the dissenters with her eyes. "Are your memories so short?"
Another Amazon spoke up. "That was then, Ephiny, this is now. I don't have anything against Xena. I know she helped us in the past. But I think Peraka has a point. Why should we put the Warrior Princess in charge at this time? Why don't we wait and see what this warlord is going to do? We have scouts watching him. If the army makes a move to come toward us, then we can address the issue. Until then, I say let's keep things as they are."
Ephiny shook her head in disbelief. "You people seem to think that Xena will just stand on the sidelines waiting for us to make up our minds. Well, I've got news for you; that's not her style. If we don't ask for her help now, she may not be here when we need it."
Open argument broke out among the ten women present. Then Gabrielle stood up and rapped the table with her staff and the arguing ceased. The bard stood tall, her face stern with intensity. "Xena is scouting the army right now, together with Eponin and Solari, and Leese is scouting another area that Xena pointed out to her. I propose we meet here after breakfast tomorrow, when we may have further news that will give us a clearer picture of where we stand. This meeting is adjourned."
The women started chattering as they rose and left, still arguing the point among themselves. Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and shrugged in frustration. "I guess some of them have to be seeing the army coming down the trail before they will believe that we are in danger."
"Humph," Ephiny replied. "Seems that way doesn't it. Surprised the Tartarus out of me. I was so happy to see you and Xena, I figured everyone else would be, too. I can't believe they think having the Warrior Princess on our side is a handicap."
"I'm anxious to hear what Xena has found out. Why don't you come on over to my hut and wait with me?"
"Be glad to." Ephiny grinned at Gabrielle and accompanied her to her home. On the way, she stopped one of the Amazons and asked her to fetch some ale and mugs for the Queen's hut.
"And some fruit and cheese if you can find some," Gabrielle called after her.
The two women entered the hut and headed toward seats at the table. Gabrielle had flint and a striking stone on the table next to the oil lamp and she quickly had the lamp glowing.
Ephiny looked around as she sat down. She smiled as her eye caught the pallet standing against the wall opposite the larger one meant for the queen. "I remember the day you ordered that pallet moved in here. You were trying so hard to be friendly and Xena was mad as Tartarus at me for acting like she was an intruder. Then you touched her arm and calmed her down and said, 'Put an extra cot in the Queen's hut. Xena goes where I go.' And she's been a big part of the picture here ever since."
"Yeah, she has, hasn't she?" Gabrielle grinned and nodded. Both women sat up straighter as they heard a signaling birdcall.
"It's Eponin and Solari," Ephiny said. "Those are their signs being whistled in."
"Xena's not with them?"
"Apparently not." Ephiny saw Gabrielle's features tighten. "She's probably right behind them, Gabrielle. C'mon, let's go out on the porch and watch for them."
A short while later, Eponin and Solari rode into the middle of the Village Square, lit by a central bonfire. They swerved toward the Queen's hut, jumped from their horses and ran up the steps onto the porch.
"Where's Xena?" Gabrielle and Ephiny asked together. "Coming soon behind us," Eponin answered. "She sent us on ahead. We started a stampede of the army's horses to cause a distraction, and she wanted to make sure we weren't caught."
"A distraction for what?" The bard thought she could probably guess.
"She wanted to get close to the command tent. See if she could find out anything about their plans." Solari didn't feel comfortable when the Queen looked so uneasy.
"How many men do you think there are now?" Ephiny inquired. She wondered if they had been reinforced.
Eponin looked at the regent. "Still about 300."
"Three hundred men there and you went off and left her?" Gabrielle was more than uneasy, she was getting downright disturbed.
"Gabrielle, she told us to leave. Neither one of us is crazy enough to disregard a direct order from the Warrior Princess." Eponin retorted, then looked at her partner who was nodding agreement. Especially when I wasn't exactly in her good graces as it was.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to retort, when another distinctive birdcall sounded through the trees. All three Amazons relaxed in relief. Ephiny smiled and put her hand on the young Queen's shoulder. "It's Xena. And she's fine."
A few minutes later, Gabrielle thrilled with the sight of her friend steering Argo past the bonfire and up to the steps. Not satisfied to dismount in the usual way, Xena threw herself in the air, flipped over, twisted and landed on the porch alongside the bard.
"Hi," she said nonchalantly. She was soaking wet but she put her arm over the bard's shoulders and pulled her close for a quick hug. She could feel the remnants of tension in the golden-haired woman's body. "Miss me?" her low voice teased.
"Were you gone somewhere?" Gabrielle asked coolly, but her arm went around Xena's waist and squeezed. They both chuckled, and the Amazons smiled, too. "C'mon inside, I'll pour you some ale. And get you a towel," she grinned.
"I was filthy after crawling all over that camp. Took a side trip to the river coming in." Xena shook her head and the others ducked as she sprayed them with droplets of water.
Everyone went back into the hut and settled themselves. Gabrielle and the Amazons sat at the table with their chairs turned to face Xena. She removed her armor, bracers and boots, and toweled herself down quickly. Pushing her wet hair back from her face, she sat crosswise on her cot, with her feet against the table's crossbar.
The flickering light from the oil lamp softly stroked her face, casting shadows in the hollows of her cheeks and chin, emphasizing both her fascinating eyes and her full lips. She made such a striking picture that for a moment there was silence while everyone admired her beauty.
The bard cleared her throat and raised her eyebrows. "So, what did you find out?" she prompted the warrior. She doesn't know how beautiful she is. Or how it clutches my heart.
"I got into the tent and was able to see the map of their battle plans." Everyone's attention swerved to business at this news.
Xena looked directly at Eponin. "Another army is coming up on the other side of the mountains, just as I suspected." The weapons master swerved her eyes away and frowned as a flush moved up into her cheeks. Damn. Is she always right?
Except for Solari, the others didn't know what this byplay signified, but were too anxious to hear the rest of Xena's report to question it.
"They will come to or through the northern pass in two weeks. When Leese gets back, maybe she can give us some numbers and more information. It also looks like they have something else planned, but I don't have any details on that yet."
"We're going to need some help." Ephiny's somber brown eyes reflected her concern for the Amazon Nation.
"We can address that at the meeting tomorrow," Gabrielle responded. "Xena, the council couldn't reach agreement on whether to name you as leader of our troops or not. They won't face the fact that we are on the brink of war. I called them to another meeting after breakfast tomorrow. Leese should be back by then and you can fill them and us in on anything further."
"Sounds good to me. Now, if you all will excuse us, I am ready to hit the sack. Tomorrow is going to be a long day." The other women rose, said their goodbyes and left.
Gabrielle crawled up onto the pallet next to Xena, put her arm around the warrior's waist and laid her head on the bronzed shoulder, with her bent knees allowing her feet to stay on the cot.
Xena automatically slipped her long arm behind the bard's head and across her shoulders, resting her hand lightly on Gabrielle's upper arm. "So you did miss me, huh?"
"Ummmm. I always miss you. You know that."
"Yeah, but it's always nice to hear that someone cares."
"Well, then, I care. How about Eponin? Does she LIKE you, too?" the bard grinned.
Xena snorted. "No, she didn't like me at all for awhile there, today. Not that I think that's changed."
"She was a little bent out of shape that no one seemed to be listening to her, but they were willing to listen to me."
"Looks like you got her straightened out."
"Not exactly, but at least I didn't have to hurt her."
Gabrielle jerked her head up and stared at Xena's profile. The warrior had closed her eyes and was falling asleep. The bard grabbed her arm and shook it and Xena's eyelids opened halfway. She turned her head slightly toward her friend and slanted softly smiling eyes at her. "What?" she inquired gently.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to berate Xena, then paused. "Nothing. Go back to sleep." How can anyone who looks like that be callous enough to hurt a friend for disagreeing with her? I forget sometimes that you are two very different people, Xena. The sweet, caring, gentle woman that I know and the hard-as-nails ex-warlord that the rest of the world sees.
The bard got off the pallet, eased her sleeping friend's torso down onto it, swung her legs up and covered her with a blanket that was lying across the bottom of the cot. She pulled the blanket up around the warrior's shoulders, then leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Goodnight, Xena." She was rewarded with a sleepy smile. Xena tonight, Warrior Princess tomorrow. No wonder you confuse me, sometimes.
Gabrielle washed, changed into a shift and climbed into bed.
Three hours later, four horses cantered into the village. The lead palomino turned toward the Queen's hut and came to a halt at the bottom of the porch steps. Elisa slipped off and ran up the steps, almost bumping into Xena who stood at the top. "Hi," the young woman grinned wearily.
"You found them?"
"Yeah. They still have more than a week's travel before they get to the pass, but there are about 200 of them. Most are on foot, about 20 on horseback."
"Good job, Leese. There's a council meeting right after breakfast and I needed that information for the meeting. I'll get a full report from you later. Go get some sleep; I'll take Viktor to the stable for you." The Warrior Princess clapped Elisa on the shoulder and sent her off. The young Amazon slipped into the trees behind the Queen's hut. Guess Gwynna hasn't been able to get her to sleep in a hut, yet. The grinning warrior flipped off the porch onto Viktor's back and took him to the stable.
Breakfast was finished and it was time for the council meeting. Gabrielle put her arm through Xena's to walk with her to the council chambers. She could feel the surge of energy coursing through her friend's muscles as a result of her usual predawn drills.
When they visited Amazon territory, Elisa joined the warrior for the drills and they sparred afterward, giving both of them a real workout. Though the young Amazon didn't have Xena's strength, she had superb timing and agility and her constant improvement was developing her into a fitting adversary. This morning's outing had afforded time for Xena to get Elisa's full report on her scouting trip.
The bard and the warrior walked into the council hut, then parted ways. Gabrielle took the Queen's chair at the head of the table next to Ephiny. Xena leaned against the opposite wall, one foot propped against it, waiting for all the council members to arrive and be seated.
Finally, everyone was there and Gabrielle called the meeting to order. "Before we do anything else, Xena has a report to give you. It's going to put a whole new complexion on the situation." She nodded to Xena who stepped up to the table.
"You are all aware of the army camped west of here. Perhaps you've wondered why it is just sitting there, waiting. Last night, we found out the answer. I saw a map of their plans, and Leese, Gwynna and a couple other Amazons tracked it down and verified it."
She looked from face to face, her cobalt-blue eyes boring into theirs. "The army is waiting to be joined by another army that is moving up on the other side of the eastern range of mountains." An audible gasp sounded through the room, then everyone tried to speak at once. Xena raised her hand and they quieted.
"That army is planning to move north, swing west as the mountains do, then come through the pass that is 20 miles north of here and attack. I suspect they plan to coordinate their attack with the army west of here, so that you are fully engaged with the western army when the northern one hits your flank."
The Warrior Princess paused, to emphasize her next point. "The map did show one curious thing. The western army is planning to swing down and hit you from the southwest and the northern army will swing east and hit you from the northeast. Something else is planned to attack you from the northwest, but we haven't clarified that yet."
"The army to the west is 300 strong and the one moving up is 200 strong. That's 500 swords to be turned away. And they are planning on being here three weeks from today." Now the council members sat in shocked silence, visualizing the devastation that threatened them.
An Amazon stood up slowly, her forehead wrinkled in thought. She addressed the regent. "Ephiny, why don't we follow what Eponin has wanted to do all along and attack the army to the west? We could hit them before the other army gets here."
Eponin's consternation was evident as her gravely voice cut in. "Because we waited too damn long, that's why. That army is so entrenched they would cut us to ribbons if we tried anything now."
"What do you think we should do?"
"We're gonna need help, if we can find some." Eponin took a deep breath.
Another voice came from the group. "Maybe the surrounding villages would help us. We helped them, before. Besides, if we fall, they will, too."
Eponin blew her breath out and shook her head. "Those people aren't soldiers. Sure, they fought for their homes. But they were fighting for their own lives and in their own territory, and we were able to control some of the conditions. If we brought them out here, against a well-organized army, they would be more hindrance than help. It would be a slaughter. I can't see even asking them."
Xena had stepped back from the table and was standing at ease, just listening to the conversation.
"How about one of our sister Amazon tribes?" another voice suggested.
Ephiny answered this inquirer. "Most are too far away to get there and back in time."
Gabrielle spoke up. "The northern tribe, led by Fidalia, is the only one close enough. We intend to seek their aid."
Ephiny raised her voice. "Look, I could lead our forces in battle. The gods know I've done it before. But this is not your usual ordinary battle against an arrogant warlord who makes dumb mistakes. Someone has united two armies and has set up a strategy that is more sophisticated than what any of us are used to." As she swept the group with her eyes, she could see Xena standing back, apparently aloof.
"The best way to beat a general is to think like that general. Here we have Xena, the Warrior Princess, the woman who conquered half of Greece. She took a look at our scouting maps and figured out right away what was going on. Personally, I would welcome someone of her expertise leading our forces..."
A voice from the group interrupted. "Then, what are we going to do, Xena?"
"We?" The Warrior Princess elevated a dark eyebrow over a frozen face. "I was told you didn't want me here."
Peraka stood up. Sad-faced and frowning, she obviously was deeply disturbed by the definite prospect of war. "I was the one who made that remark, Xena. I didn't mean we didn't want you. I thought there was a possibility that we wouldn't have to go to war, and I was afraid that putting you in charge of our forces would send a message that we WANTED to fight. I was wrong, and I apologize. I would like to be the one to nominate you for the leadership of our forces, if you would agree to that."
Xena hesitated, then nodded one time.
"Do we need to hold a secret ballot for this?" Gabrielle asked the group. "Or shall we just have a hand vote?" The question was barely out of her mouth when every hand in the room went up. Gabrielle smiled and said, for the record, "All in favor, raise their hand. I pronounce Xena, Warrior Princess, the general of the Amazon forces."
"All right, Xena, I'll ask the question this time." Ephiny gazed down the length of the table toward the woman they were all looking to for salvation. "What are we going to do?"
The warrior, standing at ease and slope shouldered through the preliminary explanations, now stood tall, squared her shoulders and took on her Warrior Princess persona. "As Eponin said, you can't go out and fight this army, it's too big and too entrenched. Your best bet is to wait here for them. You're going to need whatever weapons and fortifications you already have in the Amazon territory and anymore you have time to build."
"In the past, Eponin has shown me her plans for fortifying and defending this village. She has a unique grasp of the territory and how to make use of its advantages and disadvantages. So, the first thing I am going to do is put Eponin in charge of not only the fortifications but also the bulk of your Amazon forces." The weapons master almost fell out of her chair and Ephiny raised both eyebrows. Then the regent cast her eyes to the table to hide her disappointment.
"Secondly, Gabrielle and I are going north to enlist the help of Fidalia's tribe. They are strong and fierce fighters and I believe they will come if we ask them to. With their assistance, we will engage the army that is coming along the mountains and should be able to at least slow it down enough to disrupt their plans."
The Warrior Princess stepped up to Ephiny, grasped her shoulder and turned her toward herself. Ephiny raised her eyes and looked into Xena's and, for once, didn't flinch. "Ephiny, I want you to pick 30 Amazons to act as a special force, roving between the two Amazon groups. Keep their skills honed because I want you to be ready, at a moment's notice, to go wherever I need you."
Cobalt-blue eyes threatened to twinkle as they saw the gleam return to the regent's warm brown eyes. Ephiny's chin went up as her spirits lifted. She raised her hand and wrapped it around the forepart of the arm that Xena grasped her shoulder with. A mocking glint flitted across her eyes as she answered, "You know I'll go anywhere you need me. All you gotta do is say so."
"I know I can count on that, Eph." Xena grinned and squeezed her shoulder then let go of her.
She turned toward the council members. "I want to get on the trail as soon as possible. Gabrielle and I should be leaving within the hour. We'll advise you of our progress with Fidalia's Amazons as soon as we have any news. Any questions?"
An Amazon stood. "You're telling us we should just continue to sit here and wait?"
"Yeah, you should wait. But you won't be just sitting here. Eponin has some great ideas on defensive fortifications and you will be building them. The longer the army sits there, doing nothing, the more opportunity you have to strengthen this area. By the time they decide to move, we hope to be back with the other Amazons."
"What if the other Amazons can't come?" another council member asked.
Xena looked from the questioner to the regent. "Then Ephiny's force is going to have one very tough battle on its hands." The warrior's intense blue eyes swept the sobered faces at the table. "Anyone else?"
No one else spoke, so Queen Gabrielle wrapped the meeting up. "Be guided by what Eponin tells you in relation to the war. Everything else, as regent, Ephiny will still be in charge of. Meeting adjourned."
The buzzing group filed out, leaving the queen, the regent, Eponin and Xena.
The Warrior Princess turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, I'd like to ask Leese and Gwynna..."
"Uh-uh." Ephiny interrupted. "You said I get to pick the 30 I want and those two are my first choices."
Frowning, and looking a little exasperated, Xena swung her gaze to the regent. "I want those two with me."
Ephiny was mad at herself that she was getting somewhat emotionally rattled, but she stood her ground. "Xena, thanks to you they have become two of the best fighters in the village. You've been teaching Leese and she's been teaching Gwynna. I'm gonna need them worse than you do."
But I need them to protect the bard! screamed inside the warrior's head. With reluctance, she admitted to herself that Ephiny had the better argument, at least from a strategic point of view. "OK, you're right. I'll leave them with you."
"Xena." Eponin had joined them. The Warrior Princess, her mood deteriorating, swung to the weapons master.
"What?" she growled.
Eponin's jaw tightened. Her irritation with the way everyone kowtowed to Xena just wouldn't leave her. Xena's commanding attitude didn't help matters any, either. "I just wanted to say I'm glad to be in charge of our forces," she growled back.
The Warrior Princess shrugged as if it was of no consequence, further stepping on Eponin's bruised ego. "You were the best person available for the job."
Available? Without Solari's calming presence, Eponin's temper flared. "You don't give a damn inch, do you?" she snorted. "I know I'm no blood-covered ex-warlord, but I'm no amateur, either. I'll do as good a job as anyone else could, and you know it!"
Xena's lips twisted and her angry eyes turned silver-blue. Gabrielle saw, and as Xena stepped toward Eponin, the bard grabbed a staff from against the wall and hurriedly swung it against Xena's chest to stop her progress. She hit the warrior harder than intended, since her purpose had been just to block her way toward Eponin.
Reflexively, Xena grabbed the staff and pushed back, throwing a surprised Gabrielle off balance. The bard staggered back and sat down on the floor. The Warrior Princess, now armed, took another step toward Eponin, who was too stubborn to retreat. Ephiny, her face white, jumped in front of the weapons master.
"Xena!" she shouted and put her bare hands up as if to ward off a blow. "Stop!"
The warrior hesitated a split-second and Gabrielle, who had clambered up quickly in spite of her heart thudding in her chest, grabbed her friend's arm. "Xena, calm down. It's all right. Calm down. Please, calm down." The bard's soothing voice and touch finally got through to the formidable woman and the haze of anger began to lift.
The golden-haired queen lifted the staff from Xena's grasp and handed it to Ephiny. The regent looked like a statue, frozen into a defensive position. Behind her, Eponin was still seething. Ephiny relaxed a bit, accepted the staff and returned it to its former resting place against the wall.
Gabrielle looked from the warrior to Eponin. "We're all on the same side, you know."
"Yeah," agreed Ephiny, supporting Gabrielle, albeit with a shaky voice. She looked pointedly at the weapons master. "Remember, Xena's here because we've asked her to be here. C'mon, let's put some of that energy to work beefing up our defenses." She took hold of Eponin's arm and, after a slight tug-of-war, led the still angry Amazon away.
Gabrielle turned around to Xena, whose whole demeanor shouted ferocity. The bard's words reproached her friend. "You could have taken it easy on her, you know. She's right, you don't give an inch."
"I wouldn't be who I am, if I let subordinates insult me," Xena's cold voice came out of a darkened visage.
Subordinates? Gabrielle looked into the warrior's fierce blue eyes and felt a chill. She moved closer to this stranger and put a hand on her arm. "And who are you, Xena?" she asked gently. The formidable Warrior Princess looked down at the bard, her face showing angry arrogance.
"I'm who you all want me to be," she retorted.
The truth of her words cut into Gabrielle's heart. Her eyes blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm sorry that all of us need to lean on you. We want Xena the Warrior Princess, but sometimes forget that the Destroyer of Nations is part of you, too. We ask you to call on your dark side to solve our problems and then we hate your reactions to it."
She stepped closer and put her free hand against the bronzed cheek. "But it is just the reactions we hate, Xena," she whispered. "Not you. Never you."
The warrior's chest heaved and her lips twisted as she struggled against the darkness in her soul. Finally, the bard saw her eyes slowly start to change.
A shiver shook the Warrior Princess' long body and her expression lightened. She put her own hand over the bard's that rested on her cheek. Turning her head, she kissed the bard's palm, then pressed the palm back against her cheek. "I'm sorry, too," she said hoarsely.
Gabrielle smiled, though her mist-green eyes still held concern for her friend. "Welcome back."
Xena moved Gabrielle's hand away, slowly uncurled her long fingers and let go. She turned so her eyes were averted from the golden-haired woman's. "There's a very fine line there, you know. Between the warrior and the destroyer."
Gabrielle put her hand against Xena's back, not wanting to lose contact with her in such a potentially dangerous situation. "I'm more aware of that now. I don't remember ever seeing you cross that line outside of battle."
"Eponin got under my skin... a lot." Xena paused and took a deep breath. "I show up here, the Amazons are about to be attacked, and right away everyone expects me to save them. They expect me to have all the damn answers. Do you have any idea what that's like?" She turned enough to slant her steel-blue eyes back towards the bard. "Do you?"
Gabrielle slowly shook her head. We all look to you to have all the answers. I'm just as guilty as everyone else. We give no thought to what a burden it is for you.
"Then, to top it all off, Eponin sits around here for weeks, getting angry and surly and frustrated because no one will do as she says, then turns all that onto me when I offer to help her tribe." The warrior shook her dark head. "Talk about ungrateful! I tell you, Gabrielle, if you weren't the queen here, I'd walk away and let them all rot." Xena's anger was still there, but the arrogant sneer was gone.
Gabrielle's hand started patting her friend's back. "I know you don't really mean that. What about Leese and Gwynna? And Ephiny and Solari? And Claris? And all the rest of the Amazons who like and respect you?"
Time to give humor a try. "I hear that some of them even love you." Gabrielle's cheeks dimpled as Xena crooked another look back at her. This time her eyes held for a long moment on the bard's expressive face.
Slowly but surely, the Warrior Princess' lopsided grin appeared as Gabrielle's sunny disposition worked its magic on her. "Whoever told you that?"
The bard turned Xena toward her and threw her arms around her neck. "A dear friend."
Xena's long arms pulled Gabrielle into a tighter embrace. She kissed the top of the golden head and leaned her cheek against it. "And you're an even dearer friend. No matter how miserable I act, you're always there for me."
Elisa stuck her head through the door of the council chamber. A big grin settled on her face and she loudly cleared her throat. Xena and Gabrielle looked toward her. "Just thought I'd let you know that Argo is all packed and saddled. So, when you two are finished, uh... taking counsel with each other... she's ready for your journey."
The two friends laughed and stepped apart. "Thanks, Leese. We'll be leaving as soon as we pick up a few things from the Queen's hut." Xena smiled at her protégé. "Sure wish you were going with us, but Ephiny insists that she needs you more than we do."
Elisa's face showed her disappointment. "Yeah, she just told me. I'm sorry, too, that I'm not going with you, but Ephiny convinced me that I will be more valuable to the Amazons here. Guess you taught me too well."
Xena walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "This is gonna be one tough battle, Leese. You and Gwynna be careful, you hear?"
"We will, Xena. And you take care of the queen, OK?" Leese smiled toward Gabrielle. "I have to say goodbye, now. It's time for me to be on scout duty again."
Xena pulled the girl to her and hugged her, then Gabrielle hugged her, too. They walked outside the council hut and, waving, parted company.
Gabrielle and her warrior headed toward the Queen's hut to prepare for the next phase of their journey.
Taking a trail that led to the northeast, Xena and Gabrielle left the Amazon territory. Xena wanted to get a closer look at the cleared area, near a bluff, that Elisa had told her about. They soon came within sight of the bluff and took a side trail that angled toward it.
Xena suddenly sat up straighter in the saddle and stopped Argo. "Single rider flying toward us." The dark-haired woman moved Argo to the side of the trail, just within the trees.
Soon Gabrielle heard the pounding hooves, also. Both women watched as a lathered horse came into view, a large, dark-haired man astride it. "Stevanos!" Xena steered Argo out of the trees and hailed him. He pulled his mount to a halt.
"Xena!" The metalworker's usually friendly face was taut with tension. "My little niece has fallen into a deep hole in the ground and we can't reach her. We'll have to dig her out. I'm going to get help."
The Warrior Princess absorbed this information in a flash. "Digging could be dangerous, Stevanos. You might collapse the earth above her and smother her. Take me there. Let me see what I can do." Stevanos quickly turned his horse around and headed it back up the trail with Argo following.
Riding steadily upward, Stevanos reached the top of the bluff that Xena and Gabrielle had been heading toward. They rode out of the forest into open fields dotted with trees. A patch of cleared farmland with a house, a barn and a corral came into view. At some distance from the house, beneath the overspread branches of a tree, a woman knelt on the ground. Stevanos headed straight for her.
When the riders reached the woman, they quickly dismounted and Xena ran to the hole next to her and stretched out onto the ground. She reached her arm in as far as she could, testing the size and consistency of the hole's sides.
"Xena, this is my sister, Zermada. Zermada, this is Xena the Warrior Princess I've told you about." The dark-haired sister looked at Xena with tear-reddened eyes. "My little girl is down there. Can you help her!"
Xena could hear a child's whimpering voice. She jumped up, dusted off her hands, and, reaching down, squeezed Zermada's shoulder. "We'll get her out of there. What's your daughter's name?"
"Bettia," the sister answered, hope beginning to creep into her eyes. "She's only five years old."
Taking a rope from one of Argo's saddlebags, Gabrielle tied it to the rope usually carried against the saddle. Xena removed her weapons and armor and laid them on the ground. "The top three feet of the opening is dirt, but then it becomes stone. That makes it safer for Bettia, but stone has no give. It's going to be a pretty tight fit to crawl down, but digging would never work."
"Maybe I should try, Xena." Gabrielle looked at her partner with concern. "I'm smaller than you are."
The warrior nodded. "Well, you are, but I think I can make it. Besides, it's going to take a lot of strength to pull a body down through there." She turned to Zermada. "Do you have some kind of lard or grease that I could use? That might help some. And some more rope."
Zermada nodded and got up. Stevanos ran to his horse. "I'll take you," he offered. Mounting, he reached down, pulled his sister up behind him and hurried to the house. Soon they returned with a coil of rope and a pail of lard.
Xena removed her leathers, reached to the bottom edge of her cotton shift undergarment and pulled it up above her thong underpants, tying it around her waist. Startled, Stevanos averted his eyes, but the focused warrior didn't even notice that her standing there in the barest of clothing disturbed anyone. She reached into the pail of lard and spread globs of it on her hips, thighs and shoulders.
"Gabrielle, tie the rope around my waist." The bard had already tied the third rope to the others and secured one end to the trunk of the tree. She tied the other end tightly to the Warrior Princess.
"Zermada, tell Bettia I am trying to come down and get her. Don't want her to be afraid of me." While the mother shouted that information to her child, Xena cleaned her hands off on the grass. Then she knelt down next to the hole and went in headfirst. Gabrielle and Stevanos payed out the rope as she descended.
Damn, this is tight. And made of sharp rock, not smooth. For about twelve feet, Xena made good progress, pushing against the sides with her boots and pulling with her hands. Nevertheless, the sharp rock cut into her skin and she could feel tiny rivulets of blood oozing from her hips and shoulders and trickling down over the rest of her body. The moisture dripping from her face and arms was half sweat and half blood. Good thing it's too dark for this kid to see me, I'd probably scare her to death.
Xena called to Bettia every few minutes to let her know she would soon be saved. Then, reaching ahead, Xena felt a slight narrowing of the sides and the texture became rougher. Well, m'girl, this is where they separate the wimps from the warriors.
Noticing Xena had halted, Gabrielle yelled down to her. "Are you there? Have you reached her?"
The returning voice was muffled but strong. "Not yet, The hole is narrowing. Gonna take a little longer than I thought."
"Xena!" Gabrielle was worried. "What if you get stuck?"
There was a moment's hesitation, then Gabrielle could hear the exasperation in Xena's shout. "Then, you'll just have to get Argo to pull me out!"
The bard's eyes twinkled at Stevanos and Zermada. "If she's getting mad at me, I guess she's OK."
OK was not an apt description. Xena shoved her arms against the rough stone and pushed as hard as she could with her powerful legs. Using every ounce of strength that was available to her, she strained her muscles over and over again until she had inched painfully through the narrowed section.
Tiny rivulets of blood had turned to thin, steady streams and the Warrior Princess had to blink her eyes repeatedly to clear them of the sanguine fluid. "Bettia!" she called. "Are you getting wet?"
"Yeah," came the answering voice which sounded much closer.
"Don't worry about it, OK? It won't hurt you. I'll be there in just a minute." Xena shoved hard one more time and her hands felt the end of the vertical tunnel. "Gabrielle! Give me about four feet of slack, then hold tight."
The warrior pulled, then pushed, on the lip of the exit until she had dragged her body clear. Swinging around to right herself, she hollered once more. "Let me down slowly." Her change of position reversed the streams of blood and Xena swiped a wet hand at her eyes to clear them. She could hear the youngster breathing about six feet below her.
"I'm almost there, Bettia."
Xena swerved her feet away from the girl's body and settled right next to her. The ground seemed to be cushioned with a heavy matting of some kind. Feels like woven material. "Here I am, Bettia, I'm going to touch you." Wiping her blood-covered hands on the matting below her, Xena reached out and felt Bettia's shoulder. The scared youngster practically threw herself into Xena's arms. Xena knelt down and pulled her close. "You're OK, now. I've got you," she soothed, caressing the girl's hair. "We'll have you out of here soon."
With both hands she checked the clinging youngster for any broken bones, but other than being wet with Xena's blood, the girl seemed to be without injury. "She's all right!" Xena hollered toward the opening. "I'm going to make a harness for her."
Untying the rope from her waist, the Warrior Princess fashioned a harness around the youngster. "Bettia, this rope will take you up to see your mother. You can hold on to it if you want, but it will pull you up by itself, OK?" Xena yelled once more. "OK, pull her up! Tell her mother not to be afraid, that's not Bettia's blood on her."
This last sentence jolted Gabrielle. It hadn't occurred to her that Xena might be injured. "Xena, are you all right?"
"Yeah, just some scrapes. Nothing to worry about. Pull the rope up."
Gabrielle and Stevanos pulled Bettia to the surface. As she appeared, Gabrielle gasped. The girl was covered with blood. Her mother gathered her into her arms and hurried toward the house. Just a few scrapes, huh? Nothing to worry about? Gotta get her up here and take care of those wounds.
Down at the bottom of the hole, Xena reached down again to touch the material she was standing on. This has to be manmade, so someone brought it in here. "Gabrielle, throw me down a candle and flint. Might be another way outta here."
"Xena, will you please come up here right now? We need to stop that bleeding. I'll throw the rope back down and we'll pull you back up."
"Look, I already left half my skin in that hole. I'm in no hurry to leave the other half there. Drop me the candle and I'll see what I can find."
There was a moment's delay, then Gabrielle came back. "Here comes the candle." She dropped it down the hole. Xena had untied her shift from around her waist and she held the bottom away from her body, forming a large pocket. First she caught the candle, then the flint.
She stuck the candle between her teeth, held the flint in one hand and struck it with the dagger she had pulled from her boot. When the candle ignited, she stuck the dagger and the flint into the scabbard and held the candle in the air.
The candle illuminated a fair-sized cave. Looking down, Xena saw she was standing on a pile of discarded tree branches with a large piece of torn, mud-colored, woven material immediately beneath her feet. The whole pile formed a padded area that had caught Bettia and saved her from injury and, possibly, death. There was a wide opening nearby in one wall of the cave.
The Warrior Princess jumped from the branches onto the dirt floor and walked through the opening. She caught her breath at the sight that appeared. Row on row of large catapults, formed no doubt from the trees of the cleared area of forest, stood silently waiting. Waiting to be hauled out and used to attack the Amazon village from the northwest. So that's what they have in mind!
A huge, heavy piece of the mud-colored material had been drawn across the opening that led outside. Xena crossed to it and, pulling aside one edge, she exited into the forest. They'll just have to knock down a few more trees between here and the trail and they'll have a clear path to the Amazon territory. Clever devils.
She blew out the candle and stuck it into a pocket on her boot. She grimaced when she saw what a mess she was. Her body was covered with blood and her shoulders and hips were still oozing. She kicked some loose earth over her tracks, then started to climb the easiest looking side of the bluff. Fortunately, there were numerous handholds and footholds and she was able to quickly get to the top.
Seeing Gabrielle and Stevanos in the distance, still kneeling near the hole, she loped over to them. They heard her coming and turned around. "By the gods, Xena," Gabrielle gasped. "You're covered with blood."
"C'mon up to the house, Xena. There's a rain barrel right outside the door. You can wash off there." Stevanos was as startled as the bard. He grabbed Argo's reins and brought her over to the warrior.
"Give Gabrielle the horse, Stevanos. If you don't mind, I'll run over. Don't want to get blood all over my saddle when there's no need to; it's had more than its share already." Xena turned and ran off toward the house before anyone could object.
Gabrielle picked up Xena's leathers, armor, bracers and weapons, piled them into a saddlebag, and climbed on Argo for the ride to the house. By the time she arrived, Xena was already there and had flushed most of the blood from her frame. Stevanos had given her a towel to dry herself with, then had gone inside to check on his niece.
Gabrielle slid down from Argo and fetched Xena's healing kit from one of the bags tied securely to the golden palomino. From another saddlebag, she grabbed a fresh cotton shift and walked over to warrior.
Xena pulled off her wet undergarment and donned the clean one. She performed the exchange quickly, but the bard had seen that the nasty gouges on her hips and thighs were even worse than the ones on her shoulders. "Come here, Xena. Let me put some of this ointment on you."
The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes, but dutifully allowed her concerned friend to treat the injuries. "Some of these really should be bandaged, Xena."
"Don't worry about it, Gabrielle. Guess what I found down there?" Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. Does she ever worry about herself? Every time she needs attention, she changes the subject.
"OK, I'll play that game. What did you find down there besides an easier way out?"
"Bettia dropped into a huge cave. And it was filled with catapults!"
"Catapults?" Gabrielle frowned, then her face cleared. "To use against our village!"
"What are we going to do about them?"
"Nothing at the moment. I don't want the army to realize that they've been discovered. I'll get Stevanos to take a note to Ephiny, warning her about them, but I'll tell her to hold off till she hears from me."
While she talked, Xena retrieved her leathers, armor, bracers, and weapons from their resting place and put them on. Gabrielle got out a scroll, quill and ink and Xena dictated the message for Ephiny.
Zermada came outside with Bettia in her arms, followed by Stevanos. "Xena, I don't know how to thank you for saving my daughter. Please, at least stay and have a meal with us."
"Thanks, Zermada, but we have to be going. Maybe some other time." The woman nodded and Xena turned to the metalworker. "Stevanos, I have an important message for the regent of the Amazons. If you would take it to the perimeter and pass it on to her, I would be very grateful. Just tell them it is from Xena."
"I'd be happy to, Xena. And thank you for helping Bettia. If you ever need anything that has to do with metal... shucks, if you ever need me for anything at all, just give me a call." The metalworker blushed as his own statement conjured up some wishful thinking.
Xena handed him the scroll, clasped arms with him, then turned and walked over to Zermada. She bent to look eye-level at the little girl. The Warrior Princess smiled at the shy little girl and kissed her on the cheek. "Bye, Bettia."
"Bye, Xena." The little one smiled back, then hid her head against her mother's neck.
Xena straightened up. "Goodbye, Zermada. If we come this way again, we'll stop in. Meantime, get your brother to cover that hole, OK?"
"Sure will, Xena. Thanks again. Goodbye."
The warrior climbed on Argo, lifted Gabrielle into her usual place behind her and they rode off.
"Nice day's work," said the bard, her arms around Xena's waist and head laid against her back.
"Yep. That was a good one."
Continues in Chapter 8
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