The large, dark forest across the river was immensely inviting to the Amazon sitting at the water's edge. All that was needed to reach Eternity was for her to swim through the River of Peace straight to the other side. Then she would be reunited with her fallen amazon sisters...and her husband.
Ephiny smiled, thinking of her beloved Phantes. So strong, so noble, so loving. The year they spent together was the happiest she'd ever known. And the day she told him she was having his child...Ephiny closed her eyes, reliving that precious moment. He was so happy.
A tear slid down her cheek. To think, all that joy and anticipation and he didn't live to see the birth of his own son. Cut down in the middle of a senseless war while trying to protect her. She shook the sad thoughts from her mind. Phantes was waiting for her now, and there would be no more sad thoughts once she was in his arms again.
Standing, she took a step into the cool water. Another step took her calf-deep, but she could go no further. Images of her son flashed before her eyes. His slick, wriggling body as he was lifted from her womb. His first awkward steps. His golden curls gleaming in the sun as he galloped around with other young centaurs. His happy laugh when she gave him the wooden wolf he'd named Lucas. The excitement and pride in his eyes when he was finally allowed to hunt with the older centaurs.
"Oh, Xenon!" she whispered, her heart aching for her son. How could she leave him? He needed her, almost as much as she needed him. But how could she go to him? She'd been slain in a battle with Caesar's men. Felt the burn of Brutus's sword. She'd had a proper Amazon funeral. The flames had released her spirit to this place. Eternity waited for her on the other side. Phantes waited for her. She could feel his love calling to her even now.
But she could not move. Her mind and heart were filled with her son.
She turned to see Queen Melosa standing behind her. The dark-haired woman smiled warmly at her.
"Melosa?" Ephiny was surprised. She'd figured the former Queen of the Amazons had crossed over to Eternity long ago. "Why are you here?"
Melosa raised an eyebrow, "You were born under my reign, Ephiny. It is a duty, and a pleasure as well, for Amazon Queens to greet those of her tribe when they come. Of course, it's usually on the other side of the River." She came closer and gently touched the young woman's shoulder, "Why do you hesitate to cross?"
Ephiny looked down into the water, not sure what to say. "It's... it's my son, Xenon. I'm concerned about him. He may think he's grown, but he's not. How can I enter Eternity when he still needs me?"
Melosa sighed and shook her head, "Ephiny... you are an Amazon. Not only that, you were the Regent Queen of your tribe. You had to lead your warriors into battle. You knew the risks; the possibilty of being killed. Many of your Amazon sisters have fallen as you did." She gripped Ephiny's shoulder tightly, "And your death spurred your warriors to fight in your name and defeat Caesar's army! Your death had purpose, Ephiny. You've left a fine legacy for your son." Seeing that Ephiny still wasn't convinced, she lifted her hand to her face, "And he isn't alone, you know. As yours and Phantes's son, he has the Amazon and Centaur Nations to care for him." She grinned, "You know they all adore him."
Ephiny nodded, "I know all that, Melosa, but still...," she frowned, unable to shake the troubling feeling. Her son needed her. The feeling was getting stronger, and the lonely ache for her child was slowly being replaced by something else.
Suddenly the water around her legs began to ripple and churn. Glimmers of light sparkled and flashed on the surface.
"Wha- what's going on?" Ephiny whispered, confused and even a little frightened.
Melosa frowned, "I'm not sure. I've never seen this happen!"
Before Ephiny could respond, the water quickly stilled. The circle of ripples faded until only one remained, with the glimmering light flashing inside. It was as if a window to the living world suddenly opened!
Within the circle, a blurred image appeared. Neither of the women could make out what it was until it slowly settled and came into focus.
"Xenon!" Ephiny cried out as she recognized her son. She reached down, wanting to touch him, to hold him and never let go, but her hands only met cold water. She could see he was terribly afraid, clenching his toy wolf.
Both of Ephiny's hands were in the water, holding the image of Xenon. Melosa tried to comfort her, but Ephiny couldn't hear her. All she could see was her boy, all she could feel was her love, her worry for him. The image in the circle backed away from Xenon and panned the area around him. What they saw made them stare in total horror.
Dozens of Amazons lay dead all around. Most of the huts were burned to the ground, leaving only filthy clouds of black smoke. Xenon stood there in the middle of it all, trembling, confused, and terribly, terribly scared. Ephiny let out an anguished moan at the sight of her son.
In the background, she saw a masked horseman heading straight for him at full gallop. Eyes wide, she glanced back and forth from her boy to the horseman. "Xenon... watch out! No!"
The image suddenly faded and the water became black. "NOOOOOO! Xenon! Xenon!" Ephiny screamed, slamming her hands in the water. She then felt a low rumbling under her feet beneath the tar black waters.
"What the..." Melosa looked all around, the ground began trembling violently and she had a hard time staying on her feet. A hard tremor shook her off her feet and she landed hard on her side. The rumbling was so loud, she had to cover her ears.
The River of Peace was anything but peaceful. The once quietly flowing water now rose in dangerous waves around Ephiny's legs. Her arms flailed around wildly to keep her balance, but it was from instinct only. Ephiny stared into the waters, willing it to show her son again.
"Ephiny... look out!"
Ephiny looked up and saw a huge wave about to crash down on her. She tried to move out of the way, but the water around her legs became thick and heavy. Struggling with all her might, she still couldn't pull her legs out.
The wave slammed down and all was black.
The darkness slowly pushed away and Ephiny came to feeling very groggy. The first thought in her mind was of her son.
"Xe...Xenon?" she called out and tried to open her eyes. Everything was spinning. Not able to focus, she squinted her eyes and looked again. She made an attempt to stand, but was too stunned to keep her balance and toppled forward. She closed her eyes again and took deep breaths, trying to center herself. Gently rubbing her eyes, she opened them again.
The burnt remains of a hut lay in front of her. Her heart skipped a beat as she immediately recognized it. A surge of fear rippled through her body.
"Xenon...XENON!" She tried getting to her feet again, but tumbled back down. Steadying herself on her knees, she looked around, searching frantically for her son. All she could see were fallen Amazons. Her heart raced, aching for her boy.
"XENON!" She bowed her head, her face driping with tears. Looking at the ground in front of her, she gasped. Trembling she reached out, her hand shaking wildly.
On the ground was Lucas.
Ephiny tried to pick up the toy, but her hands passed right through. Confused, she tried again, but they still went through. She felt her hands. They were solid. Her whole body was solid to her, but passed through other things.
"Great!" she cursed, "What am I gonna do now?" There had to be something she could do, even if she was a spirit.
She concentrated hard on the toy. Reaching for it, she tried to feel it beneath her fingers.
Closing her eyes tight, she pictured the toy in her mind. Pictured the toy in her hands, the cool texture of the wood against her fingers. Keeping the image in her mind, she reached again. The tips of her fingers bumped the toy.
She felt it! Hugging the toy to her bosom, she laughed and cried at the same time. Her smile faded quickly. She could hold her son's favorite toy, but she couldn't hold her son. He was gone!
Clutching Lucas, she searched the area again. Smoke. Ash. Death. She knew her tribe would fight to the death to protect her son. And they had. Although her heart cried out for her son, she felt a certain gratitude toward her fallen sisters. These were well-trained warriors. An army of incredible force must have attacked and taken Xenon.
What now? She headed toward the edge of the village to find some kind of trail to follow.
"By the gods!"
Ephiny turned to see Xena and Gabrielle running toward the burned huts. Trailing behind them were Amarice and Shelappa, the new Regent Queen. At the sight of all the dead amazons, Gabrielle's knees began to shake and she dropped to the ground. "No!" she whispered, shocked beyond belief. Her face screwed up in grief, and she covered her mouth to stop herself from screaming, but an anguished moan still escaped.
Gabrielle shook her head, "We're too late..." Turning tear-filled eyes to Xena, she whispered in a broken voice, "Xena, all of them...gone! How? Why!"
Xena closed her eyes and breathed a heavy sigh, "I don't know, Gabrielle, but we'll find out. I swear on my life we'll find out!" Gabrielle nodded, certain that her friend would get to the bottom of all this destruction.
Leaving Shelappa to comfort Gabrielle, Xena and Amarice walked slowly around the village stepping carefully over the scattered bodies, scanning everything. Fighting down the bile that rose in her throat, she fiercely blocked out the emotions that raged through her. Shock, sadness, anger. She'd have plenty of time to mourn later. Now, she had to focus.
"Xena! Look at that!" she heard Gabrielle cry. Spinning, she noticed a wide-eyed Gabrielle pointing off to the left. She looked, but saw nothing, just more burned huts and bodies. She was about to ask what was wrong, but then she saw it.
A toy was floating by itself in the air. And it was coming toward them.
Gabrielle began to tremble, not seeing any strings or ropes. She turned to Xena, who walked quickly and cautiously toward her, her attention focused on the floating toy. Amarice and Shelappa stood alongside, forming a small human wall. The toy continued toward them with no sign of slowing down. Having no weapon to defend herself, Gabrielle stepped back and stood slightly behind Xena. Amarice saw this and eyed the toy drawing her sword.
"No Amarice," Xena said, raising her hand calmly. The toy was now directly in front of her, just hovering in mid-air.
"Xena! XENA!" Ephiny was screaming at the top of her lungs, but the warrior stared aimlessly through her. Ephiny glanced wildy at Shelappa, Amarice and Gabrielle, but they only stared at the toy. Realizing she had showed Lucas to Gabrielle once before, she approached her.
Xena stepped aside as the toy passed her and floated in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle gasped when the toy came so close it bumped against her chest. "What?" she asked, confused. The toy bumped her again. Instictively, she grabbed the toy and turned it in her hands. Something nudged at her memory as she looked at it, and she suddenly began to shiver as she realized what it was.
"Gabrielle?" Xena put a hand on her friend's shoulder, wondering why she was so emotional.
"C'mon Gabrielle!" Ephiny stood there impatiently, "C'mon, it's Lucas! It's Lucas remember?" She wrung her hands together, wishing she could hear her.
Gabrielle was in tears when she looked up, "Xena, this is a toy Sentacles made. Ephiny bought it for Xenon. It was his favorite." She gave a small smile, "He named it Lucas."
Ephiny was in tears, as well. Finally her message was getting through. But she had more to explain. Reaching out, she concentrated hard and nudged Xena. Xena jumped slightly, startled by the sudden jab to her shoulder. She frowned, not understanding what it meant. How could she make her understand? "Think Ephiny..."she mumbled to herself. Quickly, she knelt down and tried hard to slip one of Xena's daggers out of her right boot.
"Wha-?" Xena watched, not sure if she was in danger. The dagger wandered on its own and dropped to the ground. It dragged deep into the hard earth. They all stood there, watching a image form in front of their eyes.
Shelappa suddenly gasped and stepped forward, her eyes wide. "EPHINY!" she cried out, dropping to her knees before the Amazon symbol of the royal falcon etched in the dirt. Each Amazon has their own special symbol, and she knew this one to be Ephiny's. Shelappa was bowed down, reaching out for her Queen.
"Oh, Shelappa!" Ephiny dropped the dagger and reached out to her beloved friend. Focusing her attention as hard as she could, she embraced her gently. Shelappa gasped in amazement at the feeling.
Gabrielle stepped up to the young Amazon and knelt next to her. Reaching out, she hoped to feel something, but her hand only passed through air. "Oh!" she was startled as she felt a warm energy embrace her. She couldn't quite explain how, but she knew...she just knew by the feeling that it was Ephiny. She tried to hug her back, but couldn't. The warmth pulled away, leaving her slightly chilled.
The dagger raised again and very slowly began etching into the dirt again. The message read: XENON...GONE...MAN...MASK
The dagger slipped through Ephiny's hands. She'd spent so much of her energy embracing her friends, it took the last bit of her strength of scratch those few words. She had to focus so hard, her head began to throb and her sight blurred. She tried to pick up the dagger again, but could barely move anymore. She was just too tired. Hopefully, the words would be enough for them to find out what happened here and find her son.
Cautiously, Gabrielle picked up the dagger, wanting to be sure Ephiny was finished with it. Reading the words again, she looked up at Xena, "Any ideas?"
Xena frowned, "Well, it looks like Xenon's been tken and some guy in a mask is responsible for that and probably this, too," She swept a hand in front of her, indicating all the death and destruction.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "Even I could figure that out, Xena. I mean ideas about who would do all this. Any masked man from your past?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I need to think. This...this is just too much..." her voice trailed off as she looked at all the bodies and the burned village. She'd seen scenes like this before. She'd been the cause of many. But this was different, these were her friends.
Gabrielle saw her pain and shared it, wrapping an arm around her, but before she could offer any real comfort Xena stepped away, shaking her head. "They deserve a proper Amazon funeral, but the ones responsible are so far ahead of us, the trail will get cold before too long. How can we leave them like this?"
Gabrielle grabbed her arms and looked her steadily in the eyes, "Go, Xena! Go after them and take Amarice with you. Shelappa and I will stay here and take care of the tribe." She looked down for a moment, then back up again, her eyes misty, "As their Queen, it's my duty."
Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes for many moments before she finally nodded, "Okay...Okay! I'll be back in a few days, if I find out anything or not." Gabrielle smiled and hugged her tightly. A hard sigh escaped Xena as she accepted that small bit of comfort and squeezed her back.
While Xena went for Argo, Gabrielle told Amarice to watch Xena closely. She would search tirelessly, not considering herself or her needs. Amarice was to make sure Xena ate and slept. Amarice agreed, and steeled herself for the tall task. getting the Warrior Princess to do anything wasn't going to be easy.
Ephiny watched it all while trying to gather her strength back. She knew that if they all went the search would go much faster, but in her heart she was grateful her sister Amazons would get their funeral.
After asking Shelappa to collect timber for the funeral pyres, Gabrielle turned the wooden toy wolf in her hands. Ephiny. She missed her friend so much. She was here in spirit, she knew, but it wasn't the same as having her there in the flesh. To hug her, talk to her, laugh with her as she did before.
But she couldn't think of that now. An entire tribe of fallen Amazons needed her help to send them through funeral flames toward Eternity. Her tribe. No, Gabrielle shook her head, I cannot call them mine. I haven't been here to live with them, laugh with them. dance with them, fight with them. I don't even know all their names! This was Ephiny's tribe. She was truly their Queen.
With these solemn thoughts, she went to help Shelappa collect the wood.
"Ready to go?" asked Xena, already seated on Argo. She reached down and helped pull Amarice up behind her. Amarice was amazed at Xena's strength, she practically lifted her with one arm! Xena took a last glance at Gabrielle and headed off.
Xena pushed Argo hard, she didn't want to lose the fading trail. Her eyes were fixed on the light tracks left behind by the vile sons of bacchae who had taken Xenon and killed those Amazons. An avergae person wouldn't have been able to spot the practicaly invisible trail at all. But Xena was no average person. It stood out bright as day to her.
"YAH!" she spurred Argo on, her face frozen in anger, even when her heart pounded in sorrow.
Amarice wasn't used to the jarring ride, and at the speed Argo was going, she had to hold tightly onto Xena or she would bounce right off. She tried to divert her attention from the cruel beating her bottom was getting by looking off to the side. Bad idea, she moaned. The trees were a green blur that wouldn't stay still. She quickly closed her eyes, feeling uneasy.
Xena's eyes frantically searched around, something wasn't right. She quickly brought Argo to a halt, completely forgetting about Amarice behind her. The momentum, and gravity, almost made them both topple over, but Xena steadied them. She quickly hopped down and ran back behind Argo. Amarice slowly crawled off, holding her stomach.
Crouching down, Xena saw the trail was still quite fresh. It branched off up ahead.
"What is it?" asked Amarice, her voice wavering.
"The trail. One horse, two paths." Xena looked around, smelling the air, but it was too late, the scent was gone.
"So they made two trails? How can they do that with one horse?"
Xena didn't answer, she was busy scanning the separate paths. One led into the thick trees to the left and the other continued down the dirt road. Amarice stayed quiet, admiring Xena's concentration.
"He's not working alone, someone was here waiting for him. Very smart, he's buying time." Xena studied the paths again. Very professional, she admired with her warrior's eye, both paths look identical.
Amarice frowned, "Buying time for what?"
"I don't know, but he knows we're coming and that's not good." Xena sighed and went back to Argo, pulling herself smothing into the saddle. Amarice groaned, not eager to ride again, but climbed back up behind her.
Xena's intincts told her to stick to the trail on the road. With the sun going down, she knew she had to hurry. Two paths, and time against her on two sides.
Working silently and steadily, Gabrielle and Shelappa piled what they could salvage from the burned huts into makeshift funeral pyres. Large bundles of dry sticks were placed around them, waiting to be lit.
Hours later, they had over two dozen pyres. It was barely enough.They gently lifted each Amazon onto one, covering their faces with a piece of cloth. Usually, their dead would be bound and sown into a finely woven shroud, but all they had was one blanket that was singed on one side. It had to be ripped into many pieces so each sister would have the dignity of having at least her face covered.
Grimy with sweat and soot, Gabrielle and Shelappa went to bathe before starting the funeral ceremony.
Amarice was still uneasy, but was becoming used to the constant speed of Argo. They had been riding for quite some time, and it was already getting dark.
"You can still see the hoofprints?" Amarice hollared to Xena over the heavy clomping of Argo.
"Barely," Xena wanted to say more, but she had to focus on watching the trail. It was becoming more and more difficult to see it. Amarice was getting tired from the hard ride and the rythmic sound of Argo.
Xena had to slow Argo down to a walk, it was getting too dark now. She could only see the trail if it was directly in front of her. Frustrated, she hopped down, and with Argo's reins in her hand, followed the trail on foot. Amarice jumped off, too, and walked along side her.
"Xena. Xena?" she could see the warrior's determination, but she also remember what Gabrielle told her. "Xena, we should stop and rest. We can search again first thing in the morning. Xena continued walking as though she didn't even hear her.
"Xena!" Amarice didn't know what else to do, so she ran in front of her and stopped. Xena paused and slowly looked up. It was so dark out, Amarice didn't see her tears until now. It shocked her to see this side of the warrior. "Xena?" she spoke softly as she stepped closer.
"I won't let anything happen to Xenon. I can't!" Xena's voice wavered. She felt so lost right now and wished Gabrielle was with her.
Amarice took the chance and hugged Xena, amazed to be this close to the Warrior Princess. "Xena, c'mon, we'll rest and head out in the morning." Xena nodded, and they walked off to the side of the road to make camp. Xena didn't want to rest, every minute she waited would be forever for that little boy, but she knew she could go no farther tonight.
In the gently lapping waters of a nearby river, Gabrielle and Shelappa washed the grime and soot from their bodies. They were silent in their task, both with too many thoughts and emotions running through them to speak. But one thought kept coming back to Gabrielle and, looking over at Shelappa, she knew she had to ask.
"Shelappa?" she waited for the other woman to look at her. Looking into her deep ebony eyes, so full of sadness, she almost decided to let it go, but still she had to have an answer to the burning question in her heart. "Shelappa, there's something I don't understand. You were the new Regent. You led this tribe. How can it be that you were the one that came to us for help? I mean, well, I always thought that Amazon leaders, well, you know--"
"Died with their tribe?" Shelappa finished softly. She looked down into the water, memories of fierce fighting flooding her mind.
When she didn't answer right away, Gabrielle was suddenly sorry for bringing it up. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't ask you something like that. Please, forgive me Shelappa."
But Shelappa didn't seem to have heard her. She was looking into the water as if looking into the past, seeing the battle in the small ripples. "The sentries didn't see them until they were practically on top of us. We had little time to prepare. The army was so big they just smarmed all over. I tried to hold us together, but they kept coming and coming. Warrior after warrior fell. And the fires... there were great explosions. I don't know how they did it. How they could destroy so much so fast. My sisters were falling all around me. We made a good dent in the army, but it was clear we were outnumbered. Soon, it seemed I was the only one able to go for help. So many were dead, the rest wounded. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, leaving my sisters," she looked up at Gabrielle, tears brimming in her eyes, "but I had to! Gabrielle we needed help! I had to find someone, anyone to help before it was too late. Before..." her voice trailed off, not wanting to say what had actually happend. Before they were all killed.
Gabrielle quickly swam over to her. "Of course you had to go! I'm so sorry Shelappa!" She gathered the now weeping woman into her arms. "You did what you had to do. What any good leader would do."
They stayed that way for a few moments until Shelappa nodded and pulled away. "Well, if I couldn't die with them, I'm going to give them one hell of a send-off!"
Gabrielle smiled gently, relieved to see the sadness in her eyes replaced by determination. "Come on, I'm sure we're clean enough now to begin the ceremony."
They waded out of the water and quickly changed back into their outfits that had been scrubbed and left to dry.
Xena and Amarice had set up camp and were just finishing off their late supper. Amarice grimaced while she nibbled on the last bit of her roasted rabbit. Now she understood why Gabrielle did all the cooking.
"Well, it's better than being hit over the head with one, I guess." She shrugged and threw the bone into the fire.
"What?" Xena was only paying half attention. She was thinking about Xenon, and deep down, about Solan, too.
Amarice licked her fingers clean, "Oh, nothing. So will the trail still be good enough to follow by morning?"
Xena hesitated, pushing the numbing tiredness out of her mind and concentrated, sensing which way the wind was blowing and how hard. "It should still be there by morning." Her heart ached, and she wished again that Gabrielle was with her. To have her emotional strength for comfort. Feeling alone and tired, she layed down across from Amarice.
"Xena? How do you know we're on the right trail?" The young Amazon was unconsciously digging lines in the dirt.
Xena couldn't explain it, it was a feeling deep inside. The same feeling she had when Ares was nearby or when Gabrielle was in danger. She really couldn't give a straight answer, so she just shrugged, "I just do."
Amarice wanted to know more. There was so much to learn from the Warrior Princess, but she had learned enough already to know she shouldn't ask any more questions when Xena was this tired. Shifting to get more comfortable, Amarice layed down and drifted off to sleep. Xena tried to relax, but couldn't close her eyes. Her body was exhausted, but her mind was busy planning and trying to anticipate everything that might happen. Knowing she needed her rest, she forced the rampaging thoughts away, and slowly fell asleep.
Xena gasped and sat up in her bedroll. She quickly scanned her surroundings, trying to figure out what woke her. Amarice wasn't in her bedroll. Argo was gone. She knew Amarice would never take Argo anywhere without her consent. Where were they?
"Amarice?" she sprang to her feet, her exhaustion refueled by fear. Something wasn't right. A closer look around made her realize she was nowhere near their camp, but in a totally different part of the forest.
"XENA!" a young boy's voice called from the surrounding trees. She quickly followed the sound, her heart aching inside. It was Xenon.
He continued to cry out, and she followed his voice to a small clearing. Her anger swelled up as she saw the centaur child bound to a tree by dozens of heavy chains. "Xenon!" she called out to him, but he just looked through her and continued to cry out her name. He didn't see her, he didn't hear her. He struggled against the chains, but couldn't move. Tears covered his face, though his chin trembled with the effort of trying to hold them back.
Xena ran toward him, but was stopped only a few yards from him, a force holding her back. She strained against it, unable to move, unable to help Xenon.
Suddenly a strange green glow began to envelope Xenon. She knew immediately this was not a good sign. Her struggle to free herself turned desperate. The glow burned brighter and brighter. "No! Xenon!" Xena screamed. The green glow burned so bright, Xena knew what was coming. She just knew. A chill slid down her back. "NO!" She screamed for Xenon until the glow exploded and sent her flying backward.
Xena gasped and sat up in her bedroll, her breath coming fast, her heart fluttering. She spun around and found herself back by the fire with Amarice. Argo whinnied softly, sensing her distress. Xena stared at the horse for a moment, trying to get her bearings. her body was so cold, dripping with sweat that froze in the cold winds. "That was no dream," she mumbled to herself. The image of Xenon was fresh in her mind. It had all felt so real. And familiar. She had been having visions of herself and Gabrielle. Visions of their deaths by being crucuified. That sickening feeling was common with both incidents, feeling far too real to be a dream. It felt more like Fate.
Gabrielle and Shelappa walked quietly back to the smoldering village. Stepping over the charred remains of the ceremonial supply hut, Gabrielle picked up a medium-sized drum that had barely escaped the fires. It was burnt black down one side, but was still intact and could be played. Shelappa found only half of one torch had survived. Shaking her head, she tossed it back. She'd have to make another one somehow.
Walking swiftly toward the edge of the village, she broke away three long, slim reeds from a cluster close to the river. Tearing up long pieces of grass, she tied them together. Ripping a small scrap of cloth from the bottom of her leather leggings, she tied that over the top of the reeds with another long strip of grass.
They were ready.
Gabrielle, on her knees before the many pyres, began pounding a steady beat on the drum: BUM DA-DUM BUM, BUM DA-DUM BUM, BUM DA-DUM BUM...
A spark from a flint rock lit Shelappa's torch and slowly she walked toward the large circle of pyres and knelt down. Holding her arms out, she closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer to Artemis. Then she stood and began to dance. Swaying slowly from side to side, she waved the torch in large circles.
Gabrielle watched her friend dance in slow circles while she continued to beat the drum. As Shelappa passed one pyre she touched it with her torch, seting it ablaze. She began leaping in wide turns from one pyre to another, lighting each as she passed. When they were all lit, Shelappa dragged herself with exaggerated steps to the center of the pyre circle. Falling to her knees, she slammed the end of the torch into the ground. That was Gabrielle's cue to beat faster: DA-DA DUM-DUM, DA-DA DUM-DUM, DA-DA DUM-DUM...
Getting to her feet, Shelappa began dancing frantically around the torch, arms swinging wildly in the air. Sweat poured from her face and beaded on her body as she leapt and twisted in the air
Gabrielle steadily beat out the faster rhythm, watching the Amazon dance in amazement and awe. Then she heard it. She almost skipped a beat in her playing to listen closer, but continued to beat on the drum. Yes, she heard it! Coming from only a few feet away from her, she heard a low voice singing.
Ephiny had watched them earlier while they prepared for the funeral, wishing she could help. And now, watching Shelappa's beautiful dancing among the burning pyres, her heart filled with so much emotion it was almost painful. Standing a few feet away from Gabrielle. she did the only thing she could think of to keep from breaking down into a sobbing mess. She began to sing the Amazon Funeral Dirge. Her voice sounded long and low through the song. She sang with her heart, her soul, her body. Everything that was Ephiny was now in her voice.
Gabrielle was in tears, but she kept beating the drum. Ephiny's voice echoed loud and clear from where she stood. Though her body could not be seen, her voice filled the air. Her mournful cries sounded as if they were wrenched from deep inside. Sorrow for her fallen sisters, as well as her missing son poured out of her and over Gabrielle as she started beating the slower rhythm again. She closed her eyes, losing herself in the sound.
If Shelappa heard the singing, she didn't show it. Slowing her dancing down to just a gentle rocking from foot to foot, she bowed her head and covered her eyes, the very image of sorrow.
Ephiny's voice began to drift off and Gabrielle knew the ceremony was coming to a close. the singing suddenly stopped, Shelappa fell to her knees once more, and Gabrielle gave one final bang on the drum. It was finished.
Getting to her feet, Gabrielle wiped the tears from her eyes and went to Shelappa, walking carefully between two of the burning pyres. Grasping her sweaty elbow, she helped the exhausted Amazon to her feet and led her away. They walked slowly toward the river. When they reached the bank Shelappa practically collapsed, overcome with weariness. Gabrielle made sure she was indeed all right, then helped her lay down comfortably. the night was warm and this was as good a place as any to rest for the night. She creapt quietly away to retrieve her pack.
Shelappa was already fast asleep when she returned. She didn't want to wake her and was too tired and emotionally spent to eat anyway. Knowing that the sweat on her friend's body would cool her as it dried, Gabrielle pulled a light blanket from her pack and spread it over her, not wanting her to get chilled. Taking out another for herself, she layed down only a couple feet away from her friend and covered up, falling quickly to sleep.
"C'mon get up!" Xena gave Amarice a gentle kick in the ribs, making her grunt, but she still didn't wake up. Xena rolled her eyes, "And I thought Gabrielle was bad." She'd just finished packing everything into the saddlebag on Argo, and she was getting crankier with every second wasted.
"AMARICE!" Xena screamed in a desperate voice, as if they were in danger. The young Amazon stumbled to her feet.
"Wha...where?" Amarice flaied her arms around wildly, her eyes not yet adjusted to the rising sun. Xena cracked a smile and rested a hand on Amarice, startling her. She spun around and frowned at Xena, "Y'know there ARE other ways to wake people up." She rubbed her eyes and walked sleepily over to Argo. Xena rolled her eyes again and strode over to the dirt road.
Shifting her fingers through the dirt, she saw the hoofprints were almost gone. They'd have to stop often to make sure they were on the right track, but she was glad they still had something to follow. Walking back to Argo, she swiftly seated herself in front of Amarice. A light tug on the reins and they were off.
The sun was shining directly in Xena's eyes but she showed no discomfort. Her gaze stayed on the tracks ahead. Behind Xena's towering body, Amarice was quite shielded from the heat. Argo slowed down and whinnied.
"Xena, what is-" Amarice fell silent when Xena raised her hand. She looked around slowly and silently slipped off Argo. "Stay here," she whispered to Amarice. Amarice watched as she stealthly walked across the dirt road and over to the edge of the forest where broken branches and dead leaves littered the ground. Her footsteps never made a sound.
Peering through the trees, Xena had to stifle a gasp. The clearing ahead was the same one from her dream! A figure knelt in the middle in front of a camfire, it's back toward her. A large cloak hung over him, and by the bulk of muscle underneath, he seemed to be a finely honed warlord. She closed her eyes and listened, She could hear the crackling of the fire and, somewhere, the rustling of chains. Someone or something was with him. Remembering her dream, she prayed it wasn't what she thought. Shifting slightly on to one foot, she glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, across from him was Xenon. She was only slightly relieved to see, instead of dozens of chains, only his hooves were shackled and chained to the tree behind him.
Taking a couple quiet steps back, she turned to Amarice and motioned with her hand for her to stay there. Gripping her sword tightly, she crept back through the trees.
He was about 30 feet in front of her, still in the same position before the fire. She thought it slightly odd, but watched him carefully in case he did move. She methodically walked, letting her toes touch the ground first, then rolling to the edge of her foot, not making a sound. She watched her shadow, making sure it was well out of view.
Only 20 feet in front of her now, and still he made no move. Xena held her breath, her heart beating faster, anticipation tingling across her skin. She glanced at Xenon again. He didn't seem to be hurt, just incredibly scared. She could see him trembling and shifting nervously in the shackles. Suddenly, she stepped on a small branch and winced at the soft snap it made. It barely made a noise, but it sounded like an explosion to her. She looked quickly to the warlord to see his reaction. Nothing. It was strange, him sitting there, not moving or making a sound.
Something wasn't right. With all her senses on full alert, she stopped. Too late to turn back, too far to attack, and with Xenon so close, she wouldn't risk throwing her chakram. What to do, what to do?
Taking extra care to be quiet, she continued creeping forward. Xena's back tingle and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. This was all wrong. Only 10 feet away now, she angled her sword in front of her.
"AAAARRGGGHH!" she screamed, leaping forward. With lighting speed, she ripped her sword right through the warlord. The cloak dropped, sliced in two, revealing a wooden dummy. Her eyes widened in shock and confusion.
The trees rustled and trembled all around. From high above, soldiers dropped down, arrows aimed and drawn. She reacted quickly, knowing only that she had to protect Xenan. She wanted to get him away, but they were quickly surrounded. She shielded him from the men with her body. One masked man stood apart from the rest.
He wore a long blood red cape and wielded a large, solid sword. The black leather mask covering his face had only two angled slits for his eyes and a cut-away slash for his mouth. He towered over Xena, which couldn't be said for many people. Xena thought fast. She knew if he'd wanted them dead, they'd be dead already, so she used that to her advantage.
"AMARICE RUN! GET OUT OF HERE NOW!" she screamed.
The masked man laughed, and though he was massive in size, he moved lightning fast, running off toward Amarice.
Amarice sat there. She'd clearly heard Xena, but wasn't sure what to do. If Xena was in trouble, the last thing she wanted to do was leave. She lifted her leg over Argo, about to hop off, when she spotted from the corner of her eye a huge figure approaching fast. Before she could even turn and draw her sword, he was upon her, a huge sword raised ready to strike. His eyes were wild as he let out a growling yell. Reacting from pure instinct, she yanked hard on Argo's reins and bolted.
The masked man's sword came crashing down, barely missing Argo's passing rump. Watching the frightened Amazon ride away, he stood there and smiled.
Gabrielle sat up with a gasp. Glancing around, she tried to find what could've woken her up. Shelappa was still sleeping, the funeral pyres were still burning, though not as highly, the air was cooler, the night was dark and quiet. Too quiet.
There was no sound of a breeze, no buzzing of night bugs, no rustle of the various nocturnal creatures hunting in the bushes. She saw the funeral fires, but did not hear the snaps and crackles that should follow. Covering her ears, she wondered if she'd suddenly gone deaf. No, she could hear the rustling of her own clothes. Snapping her fingers, she was relieved to hear that, too. "What's going on?" she whispered.
"You're dreaming, Gabrielle."
Whipping her head around, she was astonished to see Ephiny crouched down behind her. "Ephiny?" she couldn't believe her eyes! When the Amazon smiled and nodded, Gabrielle could not stop her tears. "Ephiny!"
Ephiny immediately dropped to her knees and gathered her friend into her arms. Gabrielle wept for joy at seeing her friend again, but when she felt Ephiny's solid arms around her, she began to sob uncontrolably. Ephiny just held her, her own tears falling as well. When Gabrielle was able to control herself, she pulled away. "Ephiny?" She looked all over her friend's face, as if making sure it was really her. Then she reached up and framed that face with her hands. Feeling the warm flesh under her fingers, she laughed through her tears. "Oh Ephiny, it's you! It's really you!"
Ephiny reached up and took Gabrielle's hands away from her face, holding them in her lap. "Yes, it's really me, Gabrielle. You're dreaming, you know, but I'm really here. I guess the line between the living and the dead gets a little fuzzy when we dream."
Gabrielle nodded, "Yeah, I know. Callisto was able to speak to Xena from Tarterus while she dreamed once. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's just so good to see you again!" She squeezed Ephiny's hands.
Ephiny squeezed them back, "I don't know how long we have, but I wanted to talk to you. To thank you."
"Yes. For so much, Gabrielle. First, I wanted to thank you for my funeral. It was really beautiful. No one could ask for a better send-off."
Gabrielle raised a hand, "It wasn't all me. Your Amazons loved you. They were a great help to me when putting everything together. They were very devoted to their Queen." She smiled and shook her head when Ephiny started to protest, "No, no, it's true. I may have had the Right of Caste, but you were their Queen. You."
Ephiny sighed, "Perhaps. Also, I wanted to thank you for tonight. Shelappa, too." She glanced at the sleeping woman and smiled. "I think tonight was the most beautiful ceremony I've ever seen. I know I speak for all our sisters when I thank you for giving them a proper Amazon funeral. They certainly deserved it."
Gabrielle bowed her head, tears threatening to fall once more just thinking of all those Amazons. "It was the least we could do. The very least, considering how little was left. Shelappa's dancing..." she shook her head, "I've never seen anyone so absorbed. What a tribute!" She squeezed Ephiny's hands again, "And you're singing, Ephiny! I'm sure Artemis herself heard you and wept. Oh, Ephiny! So many...gone. And Xenon! What will happen now?"
Ephiny released her hands and grasped her shoulders, "Xena will find him. She has to! You've got to believe that, Gabrielle." She let go and turned away from her, siiting cross-legged on the ground. "I know I'll never rest until he's safe. I can never cross over into Eternity until I know he'll be able to grow up into the man he's destined to be." She put her head in her hands, sighing heavily, "I'll never find peace."
Gabrielle leaned over and wrapped her arms around her shoulders, "You'll find peace, Ephiny. I swear it!" Ephiny glanced back at her, worry and sorrow in her eyes. Gabrielle placed an hand under her chin, lifting it gently, "By everything that's good and pure and noble. By everything the amazons stand for and live for and die for. By my life and my soul, Ephiny, I swear you will find peace!"
Ephiny smiled, a tear sliding down her cheek, "Thank you." Her face began to waver, her body slowly began to fade. Gabrielle frowned, "Ephiny?" Ephiny just shook her head, "It's all right. I think you're waking up." Her voice was just a whisper now, "Don't worry, I'll still be around." With a final smile, she was gone.
Gabrielle sat up with a gasp. Disoriented for a moment, she rubbed her eyes. Looking around, she almost covered her ears at all the sounds that suddenly assaulted them. The night breeze blowing softly against her skin. The rustling of the trees and bushes, the little squeaks from the prowling creature within. The softly lapping river nearby. Going from such a silent world in her dream to the suddenly alive, noise-filled world around her now was jarring. Ephiny. Everything from her dream seemed so real. Did it all really happen? Was Ephiny still there?
Almost as if her friend could read her thoughts, a few thumps from the drum told her that Ephiny was indeed still there. Gabrielle immediately felt relieved and comforted, knowing her friend was there to watch over them. Sliding back under her blanket, she scooted closer to Shelappa for extra warmth and fell into a light dreamless sleep.
Surrounded by soldiers, Xena calculated the chances of her chakram taking out every bow. It was impossible. Maybe half, but that wasn't good enough. She glanced down at the chains holding Xenon to the tree. It would take too long to break them.
"Xena, I'm scared," he whispered, his small hands clutching the leather strips of her skirt.
Xena turned slightly toward him, keeping an eye on the soldiers, and put an arm around him, "Don't worry, they won't hurt you. I won't let them." He gulped hard and nodded at her words, and she patted his shoulder.
Her attention shifted when the masked man came back through the trees. Slowly he stomped toward her, his body so massive there was no chance of him walking quietly. Xena didn't move or raise a weapon. The closer he came, the more he seemed to grow in size. Xena looked him over, searching for a weakness, but his armor left very few small openings. He loomed over her, his breathing slow and heavy. She peered deep into his eyes through the slits in his mask, but saw nothing in them. They were empty, lifeless.
"YOU!" he growled, his voice so low and angry she could feel it.
Xena didn't budge, mearly raised and mocking eyebrow. He turned and walked about 10 paces away from her. Xena's body began to tingle, something was about to happen, she could feel it.
"YAAAAHHHH!" he roared, raising his sword into the air. As he turned, she was startled to see his free hand glowing an eerie green. The same green glow from her dream! He pulled his hand back and, without warning, threw a ball of green flame straight at Xena.
She had to think fast. Grabbing Xenon, she lifted Xenon high in the air and lined up the chains with amazing accuracy. The flaming green ball screamed as it came at them and shattered through the chains, freeing the boy. Another ball came flying, and she dipped down, just missing it. It blasted the tree behind them, leaving a smoldering hole two feet wide.
Grabbing her chakram, she flung it at the soldiers taking out half the bows to her left. "Run!" she yelled at Xenon, pushing him ahead of her. Spinning around, she backfisted a soldier that had come up behind her. Another came and she flipped over him, elbowing him in the back of the head. Senses heightened, she knew another flaming ball was headed her way. Dropping down, it screamed above her and slammed into another soldier, sending him flying through the air.
"Xenon, RUN!" she pointed to the trees. Xenon took one last look at her and ran off. Two soldiers took off after him, and clutching her chakram, she whirled it at them. It grazed the first on his helmet and deflected directly to the next, sending them both to the ground. Snatching the chakram out of the air, she faced the masked man. Now that Xenon was safely out of harm's way for the moment, it was time to settle the score.
By mid-morning the funeral fires had died down to mere embers. When those had burned out and the ashes were cool enough, Gabrielle and Shelappa gathered one Amazon's ashes into a bowl from Gabrielle's pack and took them to the river. Wading knee-deep into the water, Gabrielle scattered the ashes while Shelappa whispered a prayer to Artemis for the fallen warrior's safe, easy journey into Eternity. They stood a few moments longer to say their own silent goodbyes.
One by one, each Amazon's ashes were taken to the river. Each was given a prayer and a tearful goodbye. It was well into the afternoon when they finished. Emotionally exhausted, Gabrielle and Shelappa only picked at their simple lunch of bread, cheese, and berries in silence. After a short nap, Gabrielle felt a little refreshed and found that she wanted to talk. Shelappa also wanted to talk, and soon they were discussing everything: Gabrielle's travels and adventures with Xena, Shelappa's childhood with the Amazons and her short reign as Regent, the different women who had made up their tribe, the battle that had killed them. So many stories. It made them both feel so much better to talk about them. To remember who they were. talking about the battle, realizing how little control she had over the outcome, relieved some of the guilt Shelappa felt.
Their amiable conversation was disrupted by a thunder of hooves.
Amarice rode Argo straight toward them, stopping only a few feet away. The way Argo was lathered in sweat and breathing heavily, told Gabrielle that they'd ridden hard for quite a while. Amarice was out of breath, too. She slid from the saddle and grabbed the waterbag that Shelappa offered. Gabrielle immediately led Argo to the river's edge to drink. When Amarice had drunk her fill, she handed back the waterbag.
"Xe...Xe..." she tried to speak, but had to slow down and take deep breaths. "Xena's in trouble... We gotta go!" She went over to Argo and tried to get back into the saddle, but Gabrielle stopped her.
"Amarice, stop! Argo is in no condition to go anywhere, at least not for a while." Her heart raced at the thought of Xena in trouble, but she knew there was no way of reaching her anytime soon without Argo. And Argo needed to rest if she was going to be ridden that hard again.
Amarice shook her head frantically, "But-but we have to go! She needs our help! I think she found that army. She probably found Xenon, too!"
Gabrielle suddenly felt a touch on her shoulder and knew it was Ephiny. Covering the spot with her own hand, she felt a warmth in the air above her skin. "I know, I know," she nodded. She knew how Ephiny must be feeling, hearing about her son, wondering about his safety. If Xena needed their help, how safe could her son be?
Amarice frowned for a moment at Gabrielle talking to the air, then remembered about Ephiny and looked down at her feet. She felt bad about upsetting her, but she couldn't take the words back.
Gabrielle sighed, "Look, since we have to wait for a while anyway, why don't you tell us what happened. Maybe we can work out a plan."
Amarice didn't like the idea of waiting, but nodded and sat down. Shelappa sat down beside her and offered her some bread and cheese to eat. Gabrielle sat across from them and could feel Ephiny's presence beside her. She found a small stick and placed it next to her in case Ephiny wanted to say something. She smoothed the dirt so Ephiny would have a clear surface to write on. She felt another on her shoulder and knew Ephiny was thanking her.
Half-circled by soldiers, Xena waited for anyone to make a move. The huge masked man raised his hand and the soldiers took a step back. Slowly, he paced up to her. Xena gripped the chakram still cradled in her hand as he came to stand inches from her. She raised her head slightly to meet his eyes.
"Do you know why you're here?" he spoke, his voice dark as death.
"For singing lessons?" She smiled. She wanted to get him angry, wanted his mind clouded so she could attack. He didn't rise to the bait, he was too smart for that. He began to walk around her, but Xena stayed fixed facing forawrd.
"You're actually here by accident." He kept revolving around her at a steady pace. "It's not you I'm after, though your head would be an honored prize." He stopped in front of her again.
"Well, it's not for sale," she smirked. She tried to get some kind of sense of him, but couldn't. It was like he wasn't there.
"If you care to know, I'm after the Amazons. All of them. Years ago, Ephiny's tribe and my army had a minor disagreement about my land." He looked down, remembering the damage that Amazon had done.
"You mean HER land."
"MY land now. And Ephiny herself did a fair amount of damage," his free hand formed a fist, the thought striking a nerve in him. Sensing a weakness, Xena pursued the thought further.
"A good leader never becomes emotionally attatched to his army," she listened carefully for his reaction.
"I didn't mean a fair amount of damage to my army, but to me! To MY FACE!" He turned away from her. His hands were clenched tight, his sword trembling from his anger. "Someone will pay for it, and being she's dead now..."
"You wanted her son. You had the chance to kill him, if you wanted."
"I don't want to kill him. That would be too easy. I want him to see what his mother had done, to understand the consequences! Say Hi to Ephiny for me..." He slowly walked away. Xena tensed, expecting another flaming green ball, but he just raised his hand. His soldiers immediately stood at attention, raising their bows at her. Without turning around, he dropped his hand, signaling the archers to let the arrows fly.
Xena knew she had nowhere to run or hide from the arrows, the area had been chosen for that. She stood sideways, allowing the smallest amount of her body exposed to the archers as they pulled back on their bows.
She whirled around, knocking the first slew of arrows away from her with the chakram. She couldn't get them all, some whizzing by her ear, one grazing her leg. Another wave of arrows came and the masked man finally turned to watch the excitement. Through the blur of arrows, Xena snapped back and fell to the ground. She lay there motionless. The soldiers stopped shooting, stunned. After a few moments they let out a cheer, the legendary Xena dead at their feet! The masked man stomped back, raising his hand for quiet. They immediately obeyed.
He held his sword before him as he walked over to her. She lay so still, she didn't even breathe. He jabbed at her chest with his sword, but she didn't twitch. He wanted to make sure of his victory, so he raised the sword, ready to run her through.
"Aahhhh!" Xena screamed as she suddenly lifted her arm up and plunged an arrow deep into his thigh.
"Aarrgggh!" he staggered back, dropping his sword to clutch his wound. Xena grabbed the sword and suddenly felt a strange warmth envelope her. She gasped as a surge of power ran through her body. The masked man scrambled backward, the once fearless leader now scared as a rabbit. Xena raised her free hand and it glowed bright green. A mischievous grin spread across her face as a flaming hot sphere formed in her palm. She flung it at him.
The ball landed at his feet, making a crater in the groung and sending him flying back. She wound up for another and flung it at the feet of the archers. It crashed to the ground, blowing them back like puppets.
"Retreat! RETREAT!" yelled the masked man, and he and his men ran away through the trees. Xena wanted throw another ball, but was exhausted. The ones she had thrown had sapped her energy.
Standing alone, she looked at the sword. It was nicely laced with rubies and in the center was a small, oddly shaped skull. It was quite heavy, almost ten times that of her own sword. Looking behind her, she headed into the trees in search for Xenon.
Amarice was grateful for something to eat, and in between bites she told the all she could about the events of the day before and this morning. How the shout from Xena had startled her and how she just managed to escape the masked man and come for help. "We should be going to help her," she pouted, chewing the last of her bread and taking another drink from the waterbag.
Shelappa rolled her eyes, "Gabrielle's right, we can't get to her soon enough without riding Argo. no matter if she needs help, do you think she'd appreciate our running her horse to death to get there?"
Amarice's eyes widened, imagining Xena's reaction, and gulped down the water hard. "Uh, yeah. I guess you got a point." Looking over at Argo, she got up and quickly began rubbing her down. As long as they were waiting, she might as well make sure Argo was comfortable. She didn't want Xena thinking she didn't know how to care for her horse.
Gabrielle bit her lip, trying to hide a smile. She knew how much Xena loved Argo. So did Amarice. She'd be worried, too, about how Xena would react if Argo was harmed in any way. Especially in an attempt to come to her aid. The mare would be rested enough in another hour, so she decided to get as much information out of Amarice as she could. "Amarice, tell me more about this masked man you saw."
Amarice shrugged, "Like what? I told you, he was a big guy with a mask and a long, red cloak. After Xena yelled for me to run, he came running out of the trees at me with this huge sword. I didn't stick around long enough to ask him his name, age, and rank, you know."
Gabrielle was about to respond to her sarcasm, but a scratching noise caught her attention. Next to her, the stick she'd laid aside for Ephiny was moving across the dirt. It was a strange thing watching the stick move without seeing the hand that held it, or the body it belonged to! Curious, Shelappa scooted over next to Gabrielle to see what was happening.
Scrawled in the dirt was the word TRAYLEK
Gabrielle addressed the air where she imagined Ephiny's head to be, "Traylek? Is that his name? The man Amarice saw?" A mark in the dirt confirmed it. Now we're getting somewhere, Gabrielle thought. "How do you know him?"
Again the stick lifted and more words were slowly spelled out: WINTER... TERRITORY... BATTLE...
The stick slipped through Ephiny's hand. The concentration it took to hold the stick and write those few words, together with her worry over her son and the anxiety of the whole situation, exhausted her. She could do no more now. She only hoped the words were enough to trigger Shelappa's memory.
Many winters ago, the village was attacked by Traylek and his army. He'd somehow gotten the idea into this head that the ancient hunting grounds to the east were his to claim. The battle didn't last very long. The sentries had alerted the tribe immediately and the army had been beaten back almost two miles away from Amazon land, with heavy casualties on his side. She'd fought Traylek herself. It was her right and duty as the leader to defend the tribe and land at the source of the threat. He held his own for a while, flaunting his fighting skills and his outrageous red cloak. Unfortunately, he'd underestimated the fighting ability and stamina of a tribe of Amazon warriors and their leader. He'd mistakenly thought he'd just be fighting a band of women. That the legendary Amazons were just that, a legend.
His overconfidence and ego led not only to his army's defeat, but his disfigurement as well. He fought Ephiny for almost half an hour when he began to tire. His steps faltered, his sword felt heavier, the swing became slower. A seasoned warrior, Ephiny wasn't even winded yet. She knew the instant he tired and took advantage. With a quick swipe of her sword, she knocked his own from his hand. While he stood surprised, she grabbed him by the shoulders, spun him around then locked an ankle around one of his, tripping him. He'd landed hard on the ground with his red cloak tangled around him.
Holding her sword only inches from his face, she told him not to waste anymore of her time. She had better things to do than answer threats from a second rate warlord with a pitiful excuse for an army. The land belonged to the Amazons, had for centuries, and would be defended to the death by every Amazon in the nation. She warned him never to forget that. To make sure he didn't, she planned on giving his face a nice swipe on the cheek. nothing big, just a small reminder that was deep enough to scar.
But as she lifted her sword, Traylek let out a furious growl and kicked her hard in the stomach. Knocked off balance, she bent forward and her arms came down quicker and closer than planned. her sword slashed down the middle of his forehead, bisected the top of his nose, and curved under his left eye. Blood gushed from the wound, spilling down his face and soaking his cloak, making it an even deeper red.
Horrified, she dropped her sword. The terrified soldiers grabbed their leader and threw him over a horse, riding off in a cloud of dust.
Now Traylek was back and even more powerful. Powerful enough to destroy her entire tribe and take her son. That had to be the reason why he took Xenon! Revenge for his defeat and what happened to his face. Although his disfigurement was really an accident, he obviously blamed her. She wished she could explain all this to Gabrielle, but it was too much to write and she just didn't have the strength.
Fortunately, she didn't have to. When Shelappa read the words in the dirt, she frowned. Amarice saw it and asked what was wrong. Shelappa was quiet for a few moments, thinking. Ephiny encouraged her silently, willing her to remember.
Shelappa's eyes lit up when the words triggered a memory from many winters in the past. She quickly explained to them the battle with Traylek's army, it's swift defeat, and his unfortunate meeting with Ephiny's sword. Gabrielle quickly and correctly dedeuced that Traylek wanted revenge.
Checking the position of the sun, Gabrielle decided Argo had gotten plenty of rest. "Argo's ready. Let's go." Taking the horse's reigns, she led her away from the river and toward the path that Xena had followed. Looking back at the two women, she frowned, "Uh, Argo can't take us all. At the pace we'll be riding, the most she can carry is two, and even then we'll have to rest ever so often.
Amarice folder her arms in front of her, "Well, I'm the one who knows the way, so you can't leave me behind."
Shelappa smiled, "No problem. You two ride and I'll follow on foot."
"On foot?" Gabrielle laughed, "Shelappa, we'll be riding hard and fast. How in the world will you keep up?"
Shelappa lifted her head proudly, "Gabrielle, in our tribe I was know as "Pegasus". I am a very fast, very capable runner. A gift Artemis blessed me with as a child. I can outrun any horse for quite a while. Not for an incredibly long time, of course, but I don't need to outrun Argo, just keep her in sight. That, and the stops we'll make will be fine."
Gabrielle was amazed. She'd never know anyone who could outrun a horse at full gallop! Well, she didn't have time to think about it now, so she took Shelappa at her word and climed into the saddle. Reaching down for Amarice, she helped her climb up behind her.
They rode away from the village with Shelappa trailing close behind. Ephiny watched them go, her heart aching to go with them. Walking over to the drum, she picked up Lucas from where she'd left him and cradled the toy in her arms.
Xena walked quickly, following the boy's small hoofprints. He'd covered a lot of area in such a short time. When she saw they led to a dense line of bushes, she smiled and slowed down, taking careful steps. She didn't want to frighten him anymore than he already was. He was smart to hide.
"Xenon?" she called out softly, listening for any movement, "Xenon, it's me Xena." She stepped lightly over to the small bush where she sensed he was hiding. The bush shook and he peered over the top, eyes wide.
Smiling, she held out her arms, "C'mon!" He ran to her, practically jumping into her arms. Xena tumbled back from the force. He gripped her tightly, burying his face in her stomach. He'd been through so much for someone so young.
"There there, it's okay. I'm here." Her eyes began to water, remembering when she had said almost the same thing to Solan. She hugged Xenon tight, the poor boy was trembling. She wanted to take his mind off the disturbing things that had happened, and knew they had to make camp soon. "Xenon, how about you and I go find some firewood?" she eased him away from her slightly so she could stand.
"Okay," he said in a small voice, letting her go but taking her hand in his. Xena gave it a gentle squeeze, reassuring him he was safe. Together they made camp.
Xena had started a fire and was cooking a couple rabbits she and Xenon had caught. He'd actually spotted the second one before she did. Seems he had some of his mother's great hunting skills. He now sat comfortably on all fours beside her as she turned the meat. He looked up at her, then away, as he had for the past half hour. She knew he wanted to say something so she waited, knowing it would be best for him to open up on his own.
"Xena? When was the last time you saw my mom?"
She hadn't expected that. She wasn't sure what to say, should she tell him his mother was here but not completely here? She didn't want to lie to the boy, but she figured it would be too much for him to handle right now. Looking over at him, she lightly rested her hand on his back, "Xenon, your mom... I last saw her when we met at the Centaur village for the meeting about the treaty between the Centaurs and Amazons." She thought it best to leave out the time she'd also seen her when she was wanting revenge on Gabrielle and broke Ephiny's arm when she tried to stop her. And, of course, the very last time she saw his mother was at her funeral. He didn't need to hear that.
Xenon nodded and looked into the fire, " I remember that day." He fell silent as he thought back. The day had started out nice, with him being able to play with so many centaurs after living in his mother's village for so long. But it didn't stay nice. A terrible blond goddess had come and tried to kill everybody. He remembered his mom gathering all the kids together and heading for the caves. He'd been so scared, but was glad to have his mom there to protect him. It was a sad time.
Xena fell silent, as well. It pained her terribly to remember that day. The day she'd lost her sweet Solan. She glanced at the boy beside her and realized he was trembling. "C'mere," she held her arms open and he turned to her, hugging her tightly. She could feel his tears on her skin. Lightly rocking him, she let him cry as long as he needed. In fact, it was deeply comforting to hold him. She missed the feel of a child in her arms.
It was quite a few minutes before he shuddered and sighed heavily. Xena held him a while longer until she was sure he was finished. Pulling him slightly away from her, she smiled when she saw he'd cried himself to sleep. Poor boy, she thought, all those feelings churning inside him just wiped him out. She gently wiped the tears from his cheeks.
Suddenly her ears perked up at the sound of hoofbeats in the distance. Her heart calmed when she recognized the timing of the hooves as Argo's. Smiling, she shook her head. Leave it to Gabrielle to come along when she most she needed her most. She was never good at dealing with her emotions alone.
"Looks like Argo and our friends are here," she whispered, lightly kissed him on the head, and laid him down on her bedroll near the fire.
Amarice immediately noticed the area where she'd last seen Xena go through the bushes and pointed it out to Gabrielle. Gabrielle nodded, reigned Argo to a halt, and scanned quickly for signs of trouble.
They had made remarkable time. Though Amarice was right that since she knew the way she couldn't be left behind, it turned out that she didn't need to give any directions at all. While riding away from the village, Gabrielle had whispered to Argo that they were going to find Xena. In a flash, they were off! Argo rode like the wind for miles and miles before Gabrielle halted her for a short rest.
True to her word, Shelappa had kept a good twenty feet behind the galloping horse. Her strong legs pumped furiously and her arms swung steadily at her sides while she ran. When they finally stopped to rest, she was breathing heavily and her face was shaded pink with effort, but her eyes were sparkling. She'd assured them she was fine and that it had felt good to run like that again.
They had stopped only long enough to stretch their legs and have a drink, including Argo, before setting off again. Miles and miles passed again before they rested for a second time. They had reached their destination after only a few hours travel.
All that was left was to catch their breath and find Xena.
Ephiny felt a tide of emotion welling up inside her. The idea that her son, her precious Xenon, was in the clutches of a hate-filled madman scared her and angered her at the same time. The very thought that the monster who'd murdered her Amazon sisters had even come near her son made her wish she'd done more than just accidentally slice his face. Much more. She wanted so desperately to be with her son, to hold him and protect him. But how could she? She obviously wasn't able to ride Argo with Gabrielle and Amarice, and she wasn't an incredible runner like Shelappa. It would take too long to try and follow their trail. Xenon needed her now.
Yes, he did need her! The more she thought of him, the more certain she was. She could feel it in her heart, in her bones. She could almost hear him crying out in her mind.
Clutching Lucas, she prayed to Artemis and the other gods, pleading with them to help her reach her son. The proud Amazon fell to her knees in a mother's desperation. Her eyes squeezed shut as she was claimed by a wave of dizziness. Bracing one hand against the ground, she tried to keep from falling over. She opened her eyes a bit, but her vision was blurred and the light was fading.
Then everything went black.
With Gabrielle in the lead, they searched through the bushes. She spotted Xenon's hoofprints and was relieved to see they were fairly fresh. Couldn't have better protection than being with Xena, she smiled.
"Hey look!" Amarice whispered loudly, pointing ahead. A tall figure was moving toward them. Everyone let out an audible sigh of relief when the saw it was Xena. Gabrielle sprinted toward her, almost tripped over a log, and grabbed her friend in a tight hug.
"Hey!" Xena was startled and a little embarassed, but smiled and hugged her back anyway.
Gabrielle pulled back and looked up anxiously into Xena's eyes, "Xenon... is he all right?"
"Yeah, he's back at camp. Safe and sound and fast asleep," She nodded in the direction of the campsite. Gabrielle could see the fire through the trees and almost make out Xenon's form. She was glad to know he was close by, in case of any danger.
Amarice and Shelappa looked at each other, worried over the quietly spoken words between the two friends, and quickly ran over to them. Shelappa, almost trembling now, had to know what happened. "Is Xe--"
Xena already knew what she wanted to hear, "He's just fine, Shelappa." She laid a hand on her shoulder, "Is Ephiny here?"
"No, but she told us about Traylek," Shelappa fidgeted nervously, wanting badly to see the boy.
"Traylek? You mean the guy with the mask?" Xena frowned. She'd never heard of him before. Shelappa nodded and quickly filled her in on the warlord.
Ephiny was dizzy. The darkness was fading away, but so slowly. At first she couldn't hear anything, but then, if she concentrated hard enough she could faintly hear the rustling of trees.
"C'mon," she thought to herself, concentrating. She felt so transparent, like she was fading in and out of reality. "C'MON!" she screamed and put her hands up to her temples, Lucas clutched tight in her left hand. Rocking back and forth, her vision finally returned and she saw trees all around. The sounds of nature gradually came back to her ears. Taking deep breaths, she finally felt solid enough to try standing up. Slowly, she tried balancing herself. She tilted about a bit, but she was back.
"Where am I?" she whispered, turning slowly around. Nothing was familiar. Off in the distance she could see the light of a campfire. Walking silently toward it, she noticed a small figure huddled in front of it. Looking closely, she noticed four small hooves peeking out from beneath a blanket.
Ephiny's heart leapt, Could it be?
Edging closer, she nearly melted at the sight of her son sleeping near the fire. She clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from shouting his name. All she wanted to do was run to him and hold him in her arms, but she was still a bit dizzy and didn't think she could manage it. She stood there for many moments trying to calm herself. Taking several deep breaths, she gazed lovingly at Xenon as he slept. Alone. He was alone! Where is Xena?!
Suddenly hearing hoofbeats, she followed the sound and looked through the bushes. SHe immediately relaxed, relieved to see Xena was within sight and earshot of her son. Argo had arrived with Gabrielle and Amarice. Shelappa followed close behind.
Ephiny grinned. She'd grown up with Shelappa and had always been amazed by her running ability. Her friend had quickly been asked not to run in any more footraces so that others would have a chance at winning. She'd been very gracious, though just a child, accepting the fact that she'd been given a gift and should be fair to those not similarly blessed. She played in other Amazon sports, and many of her sisters still tried to beat her running. But of course, no one ever succeeded.
A soft whimper distracted her and she turned back to her son. Xenon frowned and shifted umcomfortably in his sleep. He shook his head from side to side and reached out with his hands, trying to push away the nightmare images in his mind. "Mo-om!" his voice caught on a sob.
Kneeling next to him, Ephiny concentrated hard so she could brush the hair from his forehead. His golden curls felt silky against her fingers. It was a feeling she missed so much! "Shhh," she whispered, "it's all right, sweetheart. I'm right here."
He whimpered again, "Man! Big man!"
Rage, pure hot rage, shot through her at his words. Traylek! He'd sorely regret messing with her son. When she was through with him he'd have more than just a sliced face. The many forms of punishment she wished to dish out on him were driven from her mind by an anguished moan from Xenon. Tenderly she touched his face, her eyes tearing up. Ephiny felt so much love and worry for her son, it was a sweet heaviness in her heart and a sharp tingle on her skin. Her dear boy, he'd seen and been through so much!
"That man won't hurt you anymore," she swore, "Your momma's here. I'll make it all right." She leaned down and softly kissed his forehead. Her tears spilled down her cheeks and into his hair.
Xenon quickly calmed, soothed by his mother's kiss. Ephiny sat down next to him and watched him sleep.
While they were following Xena back to camp, Amarice noticed the strange sword in her scabbard. When asked about it, Xena just shrugged, "Got it off Traylek. It gives him some strange power. Here, watch."
She drew it out. Everyone gasped when her hands began to glow with a weird green light. Indicating a large stone in the distance, Xena concentrated. Holding the sword in her right hand, the green glow in her left formed a hot ball of power in her palm. Reaching back, she threw it with all her might. It sizzled through the air toward its target. With a BOOM the stone was reduced to smoking rubble.
"Wow," Amarice whispered in awe.
Xena sheathed the sword again and rubbed her hands. They ached from handling so much power. "I'm sure that's how he was able to destroy the Amazon village."
"And the Amazons." Gabrielle added quietly.
Xena nodded, "Yeah. Come on, let's get back to Xenon. I don't want to leave him for too long."
They walked through the bushes to the campsite. Xena led Argo over to a patch of grass to nibble on while she took off her saddle and rubbed her down. Shelappa went straight to Xenon and looked him over, reassuring herself that he was indeed all right. She knew, of course, that Xena would've taken good care of him, but he was so special to her and she felt responsible for all that happened to him. It was silly to feel that way, but she couldn't help it. She didn't think the heaviness in her heart would ever go away.
Amarice looked around the camp, nodding at the young centaur who slept, at Shelappa who was spreading the blanket closer around him, at Xena who was caring for Argo, at Gabrielle who was slowly preparing something to eat. They were all busy, but clearly had other things on their mind. So did she. Though she was tired from the hard ride, her body was still ready for action. She wanted to fight. To wreak some havoc on the army that had killed those Amazons. She wasn't worried at all, especially after seeing the new sword Xena had. Without a dount, they'd defeat Treylek and his army. But that was later. Pacing back and forth before the fire, she fidgeted with pent-up energy. She had to do something. All this waiting was getting to her.
Gabrielle noticed her agitation. The young Amazon clearly needed something to do to get her mind off whatever was bothering her. She planned on just stewing some raw vegtables, but some fresh meat wouldn't hurt. "Amarice," she whispered so as not to wake Xenon.
Amarice stopped pacing and looked at her, distracted from her thoughts, "Huh?"
Gabrielle smiled gently, "This stew could use some meat. Do you mind?"
"Oh," Amarice looked at the pot over the fire, then back at Gabrielle, "Yeah, sure. Be right back." She drew her sword and started walking off through the dense bushes.
"Wait!" Gabrielle whispered loudly. Amarice stopped and looked at her questioningly. "Uh, no more rabbits, okay? Anything but rabbits." Amarice smiled and almost laughed, but nodded and walked off again.
Gabrielle sat there waiting for the water to boil, thinking about all that had happened over the past couple of days. She soon sighed and shook her head, it was all too much. She felt someone sit beside her and looked up to see Xena smiling gently at her. "How you doing?" she asked.
Gabrielle shrugged. "As good as I can, I suppose, for someone who just lost her whole tribe." She closed her eyes when she felt Xena's arm around her shoulders. "I've said my goodbyes, Xena. I just never expected to say them so soon." She glanced at Shelappa, who was still watching over Xenon, "I'm worried about her, Xena. She was much closer to all of them than I was. She lived with them. I know she feels like she should've died with them, too."
Xena rubbed Gabrielle's arm, "She's a strong woman, Gabrielle, with a strong spirit. She'll find her way through this. It helps for her to have Xenon to look after. He's a connection to all she's lost."
Gabrielle knew she was right, but still felt sad for her friend, as well as herself. Leaning against Xena, she accepted the comfort only the warrior could offer.
Amarice came back with a large skinned possum. Gabrielle groaned inwardly,but accepted it with a small smile of thanks. It wasn't her favorite, not even close, but at least it wasn't rabbit. After it was roasted, she'd cut up the meat and add it to the stew. She was glad she'd sent Amarice after it. The young Amazon looked calmer and quite pleased with her catch.
After they ate, they each chose a place by the fire to lay down and sleep. They needed their rest so they'd be fresh enough to face whatever tomorow would bring. Shelappa snuggled next to Xenon, keeping an arm over him, while Xena and Gabrielle spread their blankets next to each other. Amarice slept on the opposite side of the fire with her arms folded comfortably under her head.
Ephiny watched them as they slept, so grateful for what they were doing for her and her son. She said a quick prayer to Artemis, asking the goddess to watch over her friends and help them with ther task tomorrow. She didn't need sleep, of course, but she curled up next to Xenon anyway, opposite Shelappa. How long would she be able to stay? Would she be able to help them in their fight and protect her son? Ephiny sighed heavily, she just didn't know.
Morning came but Xena had been up for at least an hour before the sun peeked above the horizon. Shelappa and Amarice were still sound asleep. Gabrielle, even in sleep, recognized the sounds of Xena saddling up Argo. She forced her eyes to open and yawned widely. Getting up, she wobbled sleepily over to Xena.
"Where are you going?" she rubbed the grittiness from her eyes.
Xena looked over to make sure Xenon was still asleep. "We're going to find Traylek and make sure he doesn't harm anyone else."
"We? As in you and me?" Gabrielle was confused. Although she wanted to help Xena, she didn't know how she could without betraying her vow not to fight. "What about them? You could use their help going up against Traylek."
Hearing this, Ephiny sat up and gently touched her son's face. Getting to her feet, she walked over to listen to Xena and Gabrielle talk.
Xena knew they could use all the help they could get, but she was more concerned with Xenon's safety. "Amarice and Shelappa should stay with Xenon. He needs their comfort and protection right now, and he seems very attached to Shelappa." She leaned her head close to Gabrielle, "And between you and me, I'd rather do this without the gung-ho attitude Amarice has during a fight. She'd wind up in the way."
Gabrielle nodded, "I see what you mean. But Xena, if I go with you--"
"Gabrielle, I don't need you to help me fight Traylek, I wouldn't ask you to do that. I just need you nearby in case something happens to me. So you can let them know and get them away." Xena turned away from her, not wanting to dwell on that possibility.
Ephiny agreed with Xena, but she wanted to go with them to face Traylek. Again, there was no way she could ride with them both on Argo. "Xena, just let me know where you're going," she said, but frowned, realizing they couldn't hear her. Being a spirit was not easy.
"Ready to go?" Xena smile, hands on her hips, seeing Gabrielle wasn't fully awake yet.
Gabrielle roughly brushed her hair back out of her eyes, "Yeah yeah, I'm ready." She was glad Xena hadn't asked her fight, but in truth, she'd want to go with her anyway. She'd want to be with Xena no matter what the outcome of this battle.
Xena raised and eybrow at her and rolled her eyes, knowing she was still half asleep. Walking over to Shelappa to tell her they were leaving, she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Seeing no one, she figured it was Ephiny. She turned to Gabrielle and motioned for her to come over.
Ephiny grinned at getting their attention and quickly picked up a stick to write with. When Gabrielle stood next to Xena, she knelt down and etched into the dirt: WHERE?
Xena knew Ephiny wanted to fight for her son, but wasn't sure how well she could fight being a spirit. Respecting her wish, though, Xena took a small dagger from her boot and carved a rough map in the ground. There were ruins of an old castle about twenty miles away and when she'd scouted earlier this morning she saw the smoke of a large campfire in the distance. He was there and wanted to get their attention. She knew it.
She went to Shelappa and gently shook her. She woke quickly, instinctively grabbing Xena's hand. Xena put a finger to her lips, silencing her. In a whisper she explained her plan. Shelappa agreed she should stay and protect Xenon. She was confident Xena could handle Traylek. After a quick warrior's handshake, Xena headed back to Argo.
After seeing them ride off, Ephiny memorized the map in the dirt. She took one last, long look at her son before following them.
Argo raced across the countryside, not slowing until they reached the perimeter of the old castle. The sun had reached its zenith high above. Xena quirked an eyebrow, What a nice sunny day for a battle. They made their way slowly through the trees and bushes surrounding the ruins and climbed off Argo when they reached the edge of the clearing.
"Looks well guarded," Gabrielle mused sarcastically, looking through the bushes. Four men guarded the front, shifting and looking around nervously. Only half of the castle tower remained and two archers where perched on top. They stood very still, as if afraid too much movement would cause the whole thing to fall beneath them.
"Well, he is expecting me, you know," Xena grinned and grabbed Traylek's sword. It was too bulky, too heavy, but she needed to use it. Her own sword didn't have it's power.
Gabrielle, having been through more than a few moments like these with Xena, figured she knew her plan. "So, we wait until nightfall and you sneak in quietly, right?"
Xena was still staring through the bushes and nodded absently, "Yeah, sounds good." Slowly she got up and walked straight out of the bushes, startling her friend. With the powerful sword in hand, she concentrated, her hand glowing. A green sphere emerged. "EEEIIYYAAAAA!" She threw the sphere with all her strength. It hit the ground in front of the guards, whamming them back against the stone tower. The impact of the blast made the already dilapidated tower crumbling under the archers feet.
Xena sheathed the sword and smiled casually over at Gabrielle, "Be right back!" Gabrielle just sighed and shook her head, watching Xena walk toward what was left of the castle. The instant Xena stepped inside the front door, she stepped away from the bushes and ran quickly to an opening along the side wall. There was no way she could stay hid away in the bushes. Her innate curiosity wouldn't allow it. She just had to see what happened between her friend and that madman. Traylek didn't know she was there, and she'd be out of harm's way like Xena wanted. Peeking through a large crack in the wall, she watched with bated breath.
Ephiny didn't seem to tire. It was hard for her to remember that she was more a part of the spiritual world than the physical. Halfway to the ruins, she'd heard the explosion and smiled, knowing Xena had already made it. How would she be able to help her? As a spirit what could she really do? If she couldn't fight, she could at least be there when the bastard got what was coming to him. Well, she'd worry about that when she got there. Turning her attention back to the path, she ran as fast as her Amazon legs could carry her.
Xena walked cautiously through the surprisingly intact doors of the old castle. They expected a whole slew of soldiers waiting to fight, but the place was empty. It was completely in shambles. When the tower had crumbled, it had taken most of the roof with it, but what was left was held up by huge stone columns. She could see the bright, cloudless sky above them and a crisp breeze was quickly sweeping away the musty odor that clung to the moldy rock. Many of the surrounding walls had cracks with vines growing through them. The floor itself was littered with large pieces of ceiling and broken rock.
The crunch of heavy footsteps caught their attention, Xena automatically tensing. Traylek stepped from the shadows across the room, hands clasped casually behind his back. Sunlight shining through the whole in the roof made his scarlet cloak practically glow.
Xena quickly grabbed the sword and raised her left hand, another green sphere instantly appearing. Gabrielle frowned behind the crack when she saw that Traylek made no move to get out of the way. Did he have a deathwish? She held her breath as Xena pitched the sphere at him.
Traylek merely raised his left arm, which glowed a eerie yellow. The sphere hit his arm and disappeared. Xena quickly launched another, but he calmy raised his arm again, absorbing the green ball. She knew it would do no good to try again and her arm was already beginning to burn from the effort.
Smiling grimly, Traylek brought his right hand from behind his back. He held a large sheild which bore a matching pattern to the sword. "We can play all day, Xena, but you'll tire out well before I will," he spoke calmly, assured of his advantage. Xena knew he was right and sheathed the sword again, stretching out her aching arm.
Traylek walked up to her as he spoke, "Obviously you don't recognize the sword, or you would have known it has a matching shield. Do you know where it came from?" Xena merely raised an eyebrow in response. He shrugged, "Call it a gift from the Amazons. As a child my village was raided by a tribe of the warrior sluts! They had no use for males, and I, along with the other boys were sold into slavery."
He gazed at the shield while he told his story, wincing at the reflection of his mask on its shiny surface. "We worked in the silver mines of Gelantros. It was dark and dirty and cold. We were never allowed out of those caves. We dug there, ate there, slept there... we did everything in that black abyss. At night we would tell each other stories to keep from going insane in the darkness. That's where I heard tales about the weapons of Helios. They fascinated me."
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up. She remembered the dagger of Helios, but had never heard of a sword and shield.
"I was there twelve long years before I was able to escape. I remembered the legends about how powerful the weapons were and that they were hidden. I wanted that power. I had a score to settle. Everyone I told thought I was crazy to follow a childhood legend, but I found them! When no one else could, I found them!" He eyed the sword on Xena's back and gritted his teeth, "Now give me back my sword."
Xena had no intention of giving it back. "How about I give you this!" she ran forward and did a jump side kick, legs perfectly aimed for his face. Traylek raised his arm, and as it glowed yellow Xena made only slight contact before bouncing back. She landed hard all the way across the room, where she lay dazed.
"No!" Gabrielle screamed and ran around the side wall, through the front door. She looked quickly at Traylek, but he merely raised his eyebrows at her and shrugged. He obviously didn't consider her a threat. Keeping an eye on him anyway, she ran over to Xena. Kneeling next to her, she gingerly touched her shoulder, "Xena! Are you okay?"
Slowly, Xena got to her feet. She frowned at Gabrielle, not at all pleased at the danger she put herself in. Standing in front of her friend, she stretched her back and stepped toward Traylek.
"By all means Xena, keep attacking. You'll notice my army isn't with me at the moment. That's because I no longer need them. I am quite powerful with this shield. Invincible, even. The harder you hit me, the harder it hits back," he smiled, completely confident in his power. "So I'll tell you again, GIVE ME MY SWORD!" His voice broke in an unnerving manner that made Gabrielle shiver. This man was past the line of insanity.
Xena grabbed her chakram. "Yah!" she roared, whirling it at him. It howled in the air toward his head, but he merely raised his arm again. It rebounded, flying back at twice its speed. Xena was barely able to catch it, but it jerked her arm back so hard her shoulder joint was wrenched out of place. She fell to one knee at the pain, unable to move her arm.
Traylek stepped closer to Xena with a maniacal gleam in his eyes. Gabrielle quickly stepped in front of her friend, she couldn't let him hurt her. Instinctively, she grabbed two large stones from the ground. In the face of this madman, the Way of Love would have to step aside for a moment.
"No, wait!" Xena yelled just as Gabrielle threw the stones. She threw them quickly, one after the other, hoping he couldn't block both. But the yellow field around his arm grew and easily protected him. The stones flew back and hit Gabrielle hard in her chest and stomach, sending her flying back against the wall beside the door. Gasping for breath, she slid to the floor.
"ALL RIGHT!" Xena screamed. With Gabrielle hurt, there was nothing else she could do. "I'll give you the blasted sword!" She stood, plunged the sword into the floor and stepped back.
Traylek smiled and began to laugh, delighted with his victory. He walked casually over to the sword.
Xena quickly stepped over to the wall where Gabrielle sat and slammed her shoulder against it, hearing it pop back into place. Rubbing the aching joint, she knelt next to her Gabrielle. Laying her gently on the floor, she checked her over. She was barely conscious, her eyes glazed over and her breath coming in painful gasps. Her head had thankfully escaped injury, but there were dark, bleeding bruises on her chest and stomach. Xena swore softly, praying there were no internal injuries. She glared at Traylek as he reached out for the sword.
"HEY!" he jumped back, completely startled. His shield popped out of his hand and floated in the air. While he was distracted, Xena lunged forward and grabbed the sword. Xena and his shield slowly circled him as he stood there in utter shock.
"Wha-? How?" he didn't know what to say.
Xena grinned, "Let's just say an old friend of yours has come to visit." Xena tossed the sword in the air. It arched high up, descended, then stopped in mid-air beside the sword. They floated together, a strange force holding them.
An eerie glowing wave appeared between the two weapons. A mixture of yellow and green ripples began flashing, vibrating. They swirled faster and faster until a bright flash of white pulsed and quickly faded. As Traylek's eyes adjusted, he looked in horror at the figure that appeared.
It was Ephiny.
She stood there, breathing heavily from the strain of being pressed into solid form. Her head felt dizzy and she swayed a little, but she still stood tall and proud. She held the sword and shield low in her hands, they were so heavy. She almost dropped them, but she didn't dare. She wouldn't let that madman get his hands on them again. Slowly, her strength came back and the dizzines faded.
Looking at the weapons in her hands, she felt a rush of reverence. They were legendary among the Amazons. As a child, she'd been told how Helios, the god who drove a fiery chariot of sunlight across the sky, was also a god who loved to make bets. He was forever challenging the other gods to see if they could drive his chariot as well as he. He'd made the challenge to Artemis one day, but she refused. She had her own job to do and didn't have time to waste on stupid bets. Helios didn't take the refusal well, snidely commenting how very difficult it must be to babysit a bunch of girls pretending to be men. All of Olympus fell quiet as Artemis glared at him. Standing toe to toe with him, she calmly accepted his challenge, providing he oversee her duties in return. He agreed with a laugh and they wagered their best weapons on the outcome. Artemis her silver quiver with its endless supply of silver arrows, and Helios his powerful sword and shield.
Artemis had taken over his job as charioteer the next morning. Every god and goddess on Olympus had been saddened by the death of Helios's son Bellarophon when he'd tried to do the same thing. It proved too much for the boy and he'd hurdled out of the sky to his doom. But he'd been just a boy, and half-mortal at that. He hadn't had the strength and divinity to handle such a task. Artemis was the Goddess of the Hunt and her abilities kept her strong and focused. Besides, she rode the moon into the sky every night, so she figured it couldn't be too different. As expected, she'd driven the chariot of sunlight across the sky with ease, even slowing it down a bit midday so mortals would have more light for their fields for good measure.
Helios, on the other hand, had a hard time keeping up with all of Artemis's duties. not only did he have to keep mortals from sneaking into her sacred forest for hunting, he had to watch over the world's virgins, protecting their chastity and punishing those who violated them. He had to listen to and answer thousands of prayers from hunters, virgins and Amazons, and keep track of the animals which were sacred to the goddess. If there was one duty he was unprepared for it was presiding over childbirth. He was eternally grateful for being a male god after seeing what mortal women went through. One job he performed well was getting the moon into the sky at night. That at least was familiar to him.
Returning to Olympus, he was only too glad to hand over his weapons to Artemis, apologizing profusely for demeaning her job and her brave Amazon women. He asked only that she keep the weapons among her Amazons, whom he gained a new respect for after seeing so many go through childbirth. Artemis had agreed, but decided to hide it among their vast territory. Whoever found them would be powerful indeed, and she enjoyed watching her warriors search for them year after year.
Ephiny could hardly believe she was holding the very same weapons. She glanced at the despicable man before her. Imagine such filth as him touching these sacred weapons! It was an insult to the Amazon Nation and Artemis herself! Furious, she took a step toward him, ready to cut him down, but stopped when he backed hastily away from her. UGH! What a pathetic excuse for a man, she thought. His blood wasn't fit to be spilled by this sword.
Walking over to Xena, she held the weapons out to her. Xena looked from them to where Gabrielle lay on the floor. Whistling loudly for Argo, she gathered Gabrielle in her arms. When the mare clopped into the room, she placed her friend gently into the saddle and climbed up behind her. Ephiny secured the weapons against the saddlebags and smiled at the warrior and asked her to take them to the nearest temple of Artemis. She would deal with Traylek herself.
Xena nodded, understanding that it was Ephiny's right. Traylek had commited great crimes against the Amazon Nation, not to mention the personal crime of kidnapping Ephiny's son. His life was in her hands. After a firm grasp of forearms, Xena tightened her hold on Gabrielle and rode Argo away.
Ephiny turned to face the man who'd caused such destruction and grief. he'd murdered her Amazon sisters, taken her son, and hurt her dearest friends. She stretched her arms in front of her and cracked her knuckles. Justice needed to be done and she was going to deliver it. Now that she was solid, it wouldn't take long.
"Come here," she whispered, almost smiling, beckoning him with a finger.
Traylek saw the patronizing gleam in the Amazon's eyes and became angry. How dare she treat him this way, like a child in need of a spanking! This woman had invaded his territory, defeated his army, destroyed his face! Oh, he wished he'd been the one to take down the harlot. He would've enjoyed running her through, but only after cutting up her pretty face. His hands clenched at his sides. A dark rage clouded his mind. Well, as long as she was here in the flesh, he'd have his chance. He'd have his revenge. Oh yes, he would!
With a sadistic light in his eyes and a feral smile, he obeyed her command.
With a growl, he charged at her. The floor rumbled as his feet slammed down, but Ephiny easily twirled out of the way. As he passed she delivered multiple blows to the back of his head. His mask came undone and fluttered to the ground. He slowly turned around, giving Ephiny a full view of his face. She froze. The wounds were worse than she thought.
He trembled with anger for her to see him like this, "See what you did? SEE WHAT YOU DID?"
Ephiny tore her gaze away from his face and straightened her shoulders. Jumping high into the air, she pivoted her hips and whirled her leg over to slam her foot in his face. His head snapped to the side and he staggered, tumbling forward. He reached out and locked his arms around her. Holding her high in the air, he squeezed her in a tight bearhug. Traylek might be slow, but he was extremely strong and Ephiny felt a twinge of fear when she thrashed about and couldn't free herself.
"You're not going anywhere!" He squeezed harder and she gasped as the air was forced form her lungs. She pushed at him but it did no good. Her body felt like it was being crushed in half. With all her might, she reared her head back and slammed her forehead into his. He didn't even flinch, just squeezed tighter. Ephiny's vision began to blur, her chest screamed for air, her ribs were beginning to crack.
Traylek smiled, he could feel the life draining from her. "You're dead, Amazon! When I'm done with you, I think I'll visit your son. Hate to leave things unfinished."
That was a mistake. Ephiny stared straight into his eyes as furious energy surged through her. Her mind quickly cleared and her vision focused. A primal growl escaped from the back of her throat as she swung her foot back with all her remaining energy and slammed it into his groin.
The smile slowly slipped from his face, but his grip remained locked tight. Time seemed frozen for Ephiny, the crushing feeling coming back to her, her mind blanking for lack of air. Her blood was pulsing, throbbing behind her eyes.
Then she slipped from his arms, crumpling to the floor. Traylek immediately grabbed his groin, falling to the ground in pain. His eyes widened and he whimpered like a child. Ephiny panted heavily, her mind rushing from the flow of fresh oxygen, her torso tingling from being released. She wanted to finish him off while he was down, but she needed to regain her strength. She took several deep breaths, before attempting to stand. Before she could move, Traylek crawled to his feet, one hand still holding his injured crotch.
Ephiny scrambled to her feet and assumed a wobbly fighting stance. He lunged at her, clumsily swinging his fist. She easily dipped out of reach and rolled forward back onto her feet delivering multiple punches to his face and chest. Even with his heavy chest armor on, she kept punching. A hard side kick to his stomach sent him flying back against a stone pillar. Ephiny knew she had to take this chance before he recovered.
She flipped backward, making room for a flying kick. Planting her feet on the ground, she ran forward. Leaping up, poised sideways, she aimed her foot right at his head. At impact, his head cracked hard against the pillar. She spun around, connecting the back of her fist with the side of his face. He dropped down and slumped against the pillar. Ephiny crouched and braced her hands on her knees. She'd fought with all she had and now tried to still her racing heart with deep breaths.
Traylek twitched and mechanically got to his feet.
He was getting up? Ephiny couldn't believe it. How could he be getting up?
He stood slowly, a dark empty look in his eyes that made her shiver. "Stupid Amazon! You think you can stop me?" He turned, grabbed the stone pillar, and with a low grunt, he leaned back.
Ephiny just shook her head, disbelieving. There was no way he was going to move that pillar. There was just no way.
But she heard a cracking sound and ducked as small shards of stone began raining down. Traylek's bulging arms shifted the pillar and it broke away, white dust filling the air. He lifted it high above his head with both arms, ready to throw it at her. "Stupid Amazon! STUPID AMAZON!" he screamed and pulled back.
Before Ephiny could move, a low rumbling echoed in the room. She took that as her cue to get out of there and backed away to stand just outside the doorway as the ceiling began to fall. One large piece landed on his right hand. Distracted, he lost hold of the pillar and it crashed down on top of him. Pinned underneath, he tried to wiggle free, but was out of time. "NOOOO!" he yelled as the rest of the ceiling completely gave way. In moments he was buried under the rubble.
Ephiny walked up the the pile, waiting for it to move, for him to rise yet again, but everything was still.
Xena came running into the room behind her. She'd layed Gabrielle down in a clearing close by and watched from the bushes. She wanted to be nearby in case Ephiny needed her help. She glanced at the missing roof and the mess below, "Are you all right?"
Ephiny didn't answer, she just stared at the pile. "Stupid Amazon, huh?" She shook out of her daze and glanced back at Xena. Xena could see she didn't wish to talk about anything right now, and knew she would want to be with her son. Without a word, they left the ruins.
It was over. All over. They were all quiet as they headed back to camp. Gabrielle had gotten her breath back and was able to sit up in the saddle as Xena led Argo. Her bruises throbbed but had stopped bleeding thanks to the salve Xena had applied. Xena's arm was aching, but she pushed the pain to the back of her mind like always. Ephiny's ribs and back were terribly sore from being squeezed, but she didn't complain. She led the way, three paces ahead, eager to be with her son. now that she was flesh and blood again all she wanted was to hold him in her arms.
Halfway there, though, it was as if a blast of wind hit her head-on. She stopped and sucked in a steadying breath. She tried to turn around, but couldn't move! Xena helped Gabrielle down from the saddle and they hurried oner to her.
Gabrielle grabbed her arms, "Ephiny, what is it? What's wrong?"
Ephiny tried to speak, but her voice came out as a hoarse whisper. She just shook her head and frowned, confused.
Gabrielle squeezed her arms, "It's okay, just stay calm. You're going to be okay." She glanced at Xena, questioning her with her eyes. Xena just shook her head, clueless about what was happening.
Gabrielle gasped as her hands began to pass through Ephiny's arms!
Ephiny shook her head wildy. No! Not now! I can't go now! I have to see Xenon!
Her vision blurred and darkened as she faded further and further away. Gabrielle grasped frantically at her, but her arms only met air. "No, wait! Ephiny!" she cried, but Xena stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
"Gabrielle, it's okay. She's probably just returning to her natural form. She is a spirit now, you know. The weapons made her solid long enough to deal with Traylek, that's all. She'd have to fade eventually, no matter how much we want her to stay whole."
Gabrielle sighed, "I know." She looked closely at the air where Ephiny had stood. "Ephiny? Are you there? Please, let us know you're okay?" She held out one of her hands and waited for her friend to take it. And waited. "Xena?" She was worried. Maybe Ephiny faded because she was gone. Really gone.
Xena took the outstretched hand in her own. "Don't worry. All that fighting and fading must have taken a lot out of her. When she's able, I'm sure she'll let us know she's around."
Gabrielle sighed and nodded. Xena led her back to Argo and helped her back into the saddle. They continued toward camp, but ever so often Gabrielle would look back, just in case.
They met a very upset, very pouty Amarice when they reached camp.
"You should've let me come with you! You know I can fight. Instead you leave me here," she waved and arm toward Shelappa, who was busy pointing out the different birds among the trees to Xenon, "to babysit with her!"
Xena rolled her eyes, "Look Amarice--"
Amarice crossed her arms in front of her, "What? Did you think I'd screw things up? Get someone hurt? Get scared or something? I can take care of myself and I'm as good a fighter as anyone here!" She paused, eyeing Xena, "Well, as good as them anyway. I could've helped you. Don't you trust me at all?" She felt angry and hurt and tapped one foot, waiting for an answer.
Xena walked calmly over to Argo, looking her over while she listened to the young Amazon fume, "I do trust you, Amarice. That's why I left you here."
Gabrielle smiled, realizing what Xena was getting at. "Of course! We needed you to stay here in case there was trouble. Traylek's men could've still been around. Shelappa couldn't defend herself and Xenon against them by herself, you know."
Shelappa's head snapped around when she heard that. Of course she could defend herself and Xenon! She almost protested, but when she caught Gabrielle's eye she understood what was going on, and was very glad for it. If she had to deal with any more of that girl's attitude, she wouldn't be responsible for her actions. Amarice had been stomping around, throwing sticks, kicking trees, and grumbling since she'd woken up this morning. She was sure Xena could straighten her out.
Amarice looked surprized, "You wanted me to stay here to defend them? To protect them?" She suddenly smiled as she realized the resposibility Xena had given her. "Wow! I, uh, I don't know what to say." She looked down at her shuffling feet, "I guess I should've realized that. I'm uh, you know, I'm..."
Xena raised an eyebrow, "Sorry?"
Amarice sighed, "Yeah."
Xena smirked, "Well, you can make up for it by collecting the firewood tonight."
Gabrielle chuckled under her breath, opening the jar of salve and rubbing some gently into her bruises, "You could catch us some dinner, too."
Amarice looked at them closely, then lifted one corner of her mouth in a grin. "Okay, okay." She was so glad they were going to forget about her outburst, she do the collecting and catching without complaint. "No rabbits, right Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle lay back on her pallet and laughed, "Right."
The darkness pushed back from Ephiny's mind, but without the usual blur and dizziness. Opening her eyes, she found herself standing again at the edge of the River of Peace. Shaking her head, she looked into the gently flowing waters.
"No...not now," she whispered. "I can't go now. Let me see my son!" she begged the River, searching its depths for Xenon's face. "Show him to me!"
"He's right here, Ephiny."
Spinning around, she saw Queen Melosa behind her, holding Xenon's hand. "Momma!" he smilled widely and quickly tore away from her, barreling into his mother.
Ephiny's jaw dropped in shock as she staggered against the force of her son's embrace, "Wha--? Xenon? How did you get here?" Fear sprang into her heart, "Oh gods, Melosa, he's not--?"
Melosa was quick to reassure her, "No, no, Ephiny, he's fine! He's only asleep in the mortal world. I was able to bring him here through his dreams." She stepped up to her and touched her arm, "I knew you'd want to say goodbye."
Ephiny blinked back sudden tears, "Thank you."
Nodding, Melosa knelt down next to the small centaur. "Now, remember what I told you about your mother, Xenon?"
Xenon pulled away slightly and looked sadly into Ephiny's eyes. "I know you died, Momma. She told me that across the River was a special place where you'd be happy. That you have to stay here and you can't come back with me."
Ephiny nodded, "That's right, honey." She knelt down and took his face in her hands, "I'm sorry I had to leave you so soon. I didn't want to. I never wanted to leave you, sweetheart."
Xenon threw himself against her again and hugged her tightly, "I missed you so much, Momma!"
Ephiny let the tears fall, "Oh baby, I missed you, too!"
Pointing back at Melosa, he rubbed his own teary eyes, "She said that I'm dreaming, that you won't be with me when I wake up. I don't ever want to forget this dream, Momma. You won't forget me when you cross the River, will you?"
The warrior woman shook her head fiercely, "No, Xenon! I could never forget you. Never!" She pulled back and studied her son, memorizing the shape of his face, the color of his eyes, the curl of his golden hair, the warm centaur scent of his skin.
As she tucked those memories deep in her heart, she felt a heavy weight lift from her soul. It was okay for her to let go. She could finally say goodbye to her son. He would be all right. He would be loved and cared for. Her friends would see to that.
Hugging him again, she took a deep breath and blew it out through her lips, letting all her worry and sorrow out with it. Glancing up, she saw Melosa looking at her questioningly. Ephiny smiled and nodded, letting her know she was ready.
Pulling back, she removed her necklace with the curved silver pendant. "This necklace has been passed down through my family for many generations. My mother gave this to me when I was a child and I wore it every day of my life. She told me that it carries the love and blessings of all who have worn it before."
Placing it around his neck, she framed his face with her hands, "I'm giving it to you now, along with all my love and a blessing for your life. May you always remember how much you are loved, my darling boy."
Xenon hugged her tightly, "I'll wear it my whole life, too! I promise!"
Standing, Ephiny held both of his hands, "I have to say goodbye to you now, sweetheart. It's time for me to cross over."
Xenon nodded, "Okay. I love you, Momma. Don't forget!"
Ephiny squeezed his hands, "Never! I love you, too." She looked up at Melosa for help.
Melosa smiled and nodded. She came and knelt beside Xenon, wrapping her arms around him. "Let's watch your mother cross the River, okay?" Xenon nodded, smiling.
Relieved, Ephiny turned and stepped up to the water's edge. Taking a deep breath, she stepped in.
Images of her son flashed through her mind again, but this time there was no sense of danger. As she stepped further into the River of Peace she could see flashes of Xenon as he grew. His future was filled with much love and happiness, surrounded by Amazons and Centaurs alike. As the water covered her body, she could see him become a man, ruling the Centaur Nation and taking an Amazon wife. His life would be blessed with many children and many good friends. Ducking her head under the water, Ephiny felt an amazing sense of peace and contentment flow over her. Everything would be fine. Her son would grow up and be happy. As a mother, she could ask for nothing more for her child.
Wading to the other side of the River, she rose from the water with a light heart and an easy smile. She looked back and saw Xenon waving happily at her from the other side. As she waved back she heard a crunching of leaves behind her. Turning around, her heart thudded in her chest.
He emerged from the Forest, his hand stretched toward her. His smile was warm and inviting, "It's been a while, my Amazon."
Ephiny's heart beat erratically at the sight of her beloved husband. The urge to be in his arms again was so strong, she quickly took his hand. Happily, she followed him into Eternity.
Gabrielle woke during the night to the call of nature. Careful of her injuries, she gingerly got up and made her way to the bushes. On her way back, she looked over at Xenon snuggled next to Shelappa and frowned. There was something different...
Her jaw dropped as she recognized Ephiny's pendant hanging from his neck. That must mean...
Feeling a hand on her shoulder, she glanced back and saw Xena looking concerned. She smiled to show she was fine and pointed to Xenon. Xena noticed the necklace and sighed. The weight of worry over Ephiny's fate lifted from her shoulders. Everything was okay now. The two women looked at each other and smiled in understanding.
Ephiny had found peace at last.
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