Xena Warrior Mother Series –Story 6
Legend of the Last Amazon-Part XI
The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, and Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and back-story are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. The story is written only for fun, and no profit is being made. All other characters such as Tarren, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. The story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. The story itself as well as the character created by the author may NOT be duplicated or archived without the author’s permission. All works remain the copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the authors consent. This story is a continuation of my first stories called SHE HAS MY EYES, ON THE ROAD AGAIN, NALA’S GIFTS, HOME SWEET HOME, and Little Thief of Hearts You really MUST read those stories first. Otherwise you will be lost as to who some of the characters I have created are. This story contains some violence, no subtext, and the use or reference of corporal punishment. I will be putting that statement in all of the Tarren series whether it exists or not in that particular story. Please understand that this does NOT reflect on my personal beliefs or politics. I am just trying to stay true to the characters and culture of that period of history. Feedback is ALWAYS appreciated and I am most grateful to all that have written and will hopefully continue to write me with your thoughts.
Chapter 34 – The Hunt
Just as the Argonians had disappeared…
Gabrielle rode fast through the unfamiliar woods following the wagon tracks just as Tarren had in search of Xena. The young woman did not stop until she came across the group of attacked Amazons that had left on a mission of rescue. Twice in an attempt to find little Tarren and reach Xena the young woman had fallen from her horse but each time quickly remounted and kept going. As she slid from her saddle in a frenzy of fear for the lost child she could not help but notice the battered and bruised bodies of her friends.
Seeing the great warrior standing alone and with her back to the group of fellow soldiers, Gabrielle ran toward her best friend. Her eyes traveled from face to face looking for an answer to the question that all seemed to know she was asking.
Eponon’s cheeks were moist and she lowered her head at the sight of the new queen.
Gabrielle ignored all others and reached for Xena’s arm. "Xena where’s Tarren? Where’s Tarren? She came after you and I rode as fast as I could but…."
Her words were cut short as the warrior mother turned and all answers were revealed.
Xena moved slowly and the queen could see that her friend’s face was a mixture of shock and rage. She held in her hands a small slingshot and the child’s still unopened bag of private treasures. "They have her." The words were filled with disbelief. "They have my child Gabrielle…They have my little Tarren."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she ran her hand gently over the side of the soft satchel that meant so much to the little one. "Gods no Xena, not the baby."
The warrior flinched at the sound of the spoken word that identified her child. She wiped a stray tear from her eye before it had a chance to make a public appearance and then with a deep breath and a fire in her blue blazon eyes that warned all to stay back, the mother moved forward.
Xena carefully put her child’s belongings inside her armor and walked over to the fallen Argonians on the trail. Letting her eyes close and her ears open to listen carefully to all the sounds around her, the legendary Warrior Princess reached to the ground suddenly and pulled one of the creatures that was still alive to his feet.
The bard stepped back at the horrible sight of this man-like-being that tried to cover its eyes from the blinding light of bare sun.
The warrior’s face was cold and without mercy. After knocking his protective hands from his eyes, Xena immediately placed her famed pinch on the Argonian and watched as he dropped back to his knees struggling for a single breath of air.
The mother’s words were cold and steady and filled with venom not even Gabrielle had ever heard. She leaned in close to her prisoner. "You have 30 seconds to tell me where my little girl was taken. I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain and if I don’t release it you will die slow and painfully." Those last words actually brought a slight smile to the warrior mother’s face.
The man tried to hold his throat but the warrior pushed his the extremities away and growled. "Talk!"
The Argonian nodded and with no effort Xena removed the pinch and pulled the man roughly to his feet. "Hurry up and tell me where they’ve taken my child," she ordered, ignoring the sights and sounds of all others around her.
For Xena the world had stopped.
The odd creature coughed and covered his eyes once again. He laughed a little at the sight of all the females that surrounded him "I will tell you what you ask woman but it will do you no good. My people will catch you before you ever make it there."
Xena placed her fingers around the man’s throat and with a squeeze gave him a sample of her great strength. "Try me," she seethed.
Again he coughed, nodded his submission and was released. He pointed behind them to a path that led straight through the woods. "Follow the trail to the mountain. There are caves that will lead you into the caverns below. It is there that we have taken our new women. Take the one closest to the rising fire in the sky and you will find what you seek and perhaps even die in that very spot."
After hearing those last words spoken, Gabrielle stepped forward. "New women?" she asked, wondering what purpose these creatures had indeed intended for the Amazons.
The Argonian smiled and licked his hairy lip as he stared at the blond before him. "Why yes we need breeders." He sneered at the young woman’s obvious look of disgust. "We were once dwellers of the top as you were woman…until that cursed Artemis sent us to the darkness below." He paused and held his chin as high as he could without facing the sun. "But we lived. We survived. We came back to get what should have been ours all the long…the Amazons and we will not stop until we have every last one of you," he said through tightened lips.
"By the gods." Gabrielle could see her large friend’s muscles tense at the threat. "Why did you take the child?" the younger woman asked, placing a calming hand on the warrior’s shoulder.
The man shrugged indifferently. "A mistake. A youngster is of no use to us. She will be killed," he said with not even a hint of emotion or remorse for who the youngster was or might belong to.
Xena glared at her prisoner. "You’re right it was a very big mistake." With a sudden flick of her hand and a slide of the edge of her chakrum the warrior cut the Argonian’s throat and watched the strange man fall to the ground. "It was a very big mistake," she growled, placing the still bloody weapon at her side as she turned to depart.
Gabrielle jumped back in horror. "Xena! You shouldn’t have done that. We could have gotten…more information out of him." She stared at the now still body at her feet. "And he was not even armed," she yelled wanting to believe that even a hideous creature such as this deserved more justice than a slit throat.
The warrior mother stopped and turned on her heals. "Neither was my little girl…." She took a deep calming breath and lowered her voice. "Besides I’ve heard all I need to hear." She said nothing more but merely walked quietly to her mount pausing for a moment to glance at the body of young Shalia. She closed her eyes in silent prayer before mounting Argo.
The new queen thought of words she might speak in an attempt to stop her warrior friend from making war on an entire race without so much as a thought, but she knew there was nothing that even she could speak to keep this mother from finding her child. As she stared at the warrior seated in the saddle all alone, the bard knew that there was something absent from her friend. There was a piece missing and until the mother found the child that completed her nothing and no one would be safe.
Eponon moved beside Argo and looked up at the great warrior.
The weapon’s master held the arm that still had a long arrow protruding from it. "Xena wait until I get this tugged out of my shoulder and I’ll ride with you to find Tarren and the others," she said still ready for action.
There were yells of unison offering the same from all the surrounding Amazons.
Xena lowered her head for a minute and then raised it quickly, her voice filled with hostility not intended for these people that were her friends. "No! I go alone!" She took a deep breath and tried to calm her words, as she looked over the sea of faces willing to offer their lives to save her child. "You must protect your people and I must find my daughter." She looked directly at Gabrielle. "That may not be the same path so we can not share the same road right now my friends."
Gabrielle moved forward suddenly grabbing the reigns hoping to make a last ditch effort at keeping the warrior from going on what she knew would be a bloody path. "Xena we can work together to find Tarren and the Amazons both."
The warrior glared at her best friend. "Gabrielle I don’t want to work together with anyone. I never should have left Tarren." She lowered her eyes and softened her voice. "Nala told me that we needed to share the same path and even Tarren knew that. Now I will cut down anything and anyone that stands between my child and me." She looked down the trail. "This just became very personal Gabrielle and there is not one god on Olympus that can save the lives of anyone that crosses my path."
The queen stared sadly up at her friend. While she heard the words of anger she could also feel the pain emanating from the concerned mother. "What about little Tarren?"
Xena closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "I’ll find my little girl Gabrielle. I will find her and I will kill the creature that so much as put a scratch on her," she replied, feeling her blood boil at the thought.
The young queen took a step back realizing that there was nothing she could or perhaps should say to stop her friend. "And what do we do?" she asked motioning to the people around her.
There seemed to be no leader amongst the group now.
Xena looked at the trail she was about to take and then leaned down out of the saddle to speak quietly to her best friend of many summers. "Lead your people Gabrielle. Follow your heart and lead your people."
With those words spoken the Warrior Princess kicked her heals into the sides of the Great War horse and headed after her kidnapped child.
Gabrielle stood straight as she watched her friend disappear in a fast gallop down the path that had been chosen. She felt a tear well at the corner of her eye and quickly wiped it away. The bard wanted to go with her friend but knew her presence would just slow Xena down. If the new queen were to aid her friends and her people then it would have to be from another position. "Good luck warrior. Find her Xena…Dear gods find her fast," she whispered.
Eponon moved slowly beside the young queen and bowed her head slightly. She too stared after the great warrior’s now fading image. "When will she come back?" she asked wishing she had been allowed to follow.
The young queen shook her head and closed her eyes. "When she finds Tarren alive and well and not ever before."
Gabrielle knew that the warrior mother would not allow this child to ever be without her again even if it meant they would cross to the other side together.
Eponon swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "So what do we do now Queen Gabrielle?"
The bard pushed her shoulders back and threw out her chest and turned ready to do what she must. "You Eponon, get back to the village right now and have a healer take care of that arm," she ordered, observing what must be an extremely painful wound.
The weapon’s master glanced at her shoulder and shrugged. "It’s not that bad I can help with…."
Gabrielle’s eyes grew wide. "That was not a request. It was an order. Now either mount your horse or I’ll have my guards take you back across mine. Move!"
Eponon was a bit taken back by her much smaller and usually gentle friend’s tone but recognized the sound of authority when she heard it. "Yes my queen." In an instant she was mounted and headed back toward the village.
Gabrielle nodded approvingly at the action and then looked to the confused faces of the remaining people. She took a deep breath and stared at the Amazons around her that were waiting for guidance and leadership. The bard took one last breath and addressed the group. "Ok I want all the wounded back to the village now." She pointed to the bodies of the dead Argonians. "Throw them in the back of the wagon. They’ll be of some use to us still." As she watched the Amazons scurry to obey their leader, the bard saw the lone figure of a familiar girl lying on the grass beside the crowd. "Oh no…Shalia," she said in a near whisper.
In the flurry of everything that had happened the young woman had not even noticed that Shalia had been missing from the group.
The new queen pushed her way through the group to the fallen form of the young girl who had been Tarren and Xena’s friend. She dropped to her knees beside the still form and bowed her head. "Gods not you too Shalia. It’s all so senseless." She ran her hand tenderly over the girl’s face. "I never got to know you as well as Xena and Tarren but I know how very special you were to them and Ephiny." She closed her eyes. "Such a gentle soul…Why?"
An Amazon approached quietly from behind. She was shorter than most and slightly overweight. "My queen?" she said in a soft tone.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned her head slightly to see the unfamiliar face of another young warrior. "Yes."
The Amazon pointed to the dead girl. "Shalia died taking an arrow for Xena. She stepped right in front of the Warrior Princess as if she felt her small body was a greater shield than the skills of…." Her words trailed off. "I thought you might like to know."
Gabrielle shook her head and closed her eyes at the thought of the unnecessary sacrifice this mere child had made. "Yes. Thank you for telling me. What is your name?"
The Amazon stood proudly. "I am Rellona. Shalia was my best friend. We worked with the horses together sometimes." She lowered her eyes. "I remember how proud she was when you asked her to be Xena’s attendant." The short and stout young girl looked at her now dead friend. "She was more special than anyone here ever knew. She had gifts from the gods but no one could see them because Shalia could not wield a blade. If not for Queen Ephiny…." She paused and lowered her head. "Shalia loved her very much."
Gabrielle listened to the heart felt words and tried with all her inner strength to keep her own emotions in check. She reached over and placed a hand on Rellona’s wrist and nodded. "They will know now. Everyone will know how special Shalia was. I promise you that." The words were filled with a new conviction.
It was becoming more and more obvious to the new queen that in this society of warriors there was a second class of those that were not born with the skills or the desire to fight or kill. This was something she vowed to change as she watched Rellona walk away.
Gabrielle took one last look at the form of the gentle girl at her feet and called to the nearest Amazon. "Get my horse and put Shalia on it. I will take her back to the village myself."
The Muscular warrior looked oddly at her new queen. "But my queen we can just throw her in the wagon with the Argonians and you need not be…."
The words cut though the bard’s heart like a knife. "No! Shalia will not be just tossed in with that trash." She glared at the Amazon Warrior. "Do as I say and don’t ever question me again," she said with a new force that all understood. She brought her staff closer to her body as if to let all no she was prepared to accept any challenges to her authority in true Amazon fashion
The Amazon warrior bowed her head and quickly ran to get her queen’s horse.
The bard let out a breath and turned looking down the now empty trail that Xena had followed. "You were right Xena. This is war and there is no place for my softness on the battleground so I’ll just have to put it aside…until this is over." She lowered her head. "Please find Tarren and come back to me soon. I can’t make it without my family." With those final words spoken the bard disappeared from sight and Gabrielle, queen of the Amazons stepped forward to take her place as leader.
Meanwhile in a very dark place far away…
The large metal door swung open and the Argonian guard tossed a small child onto the wet floor with a thud. This type of action had been the standard for a while now.
The key turning in the tumblers would be heard and then the entrance to some outside world would be exposed long enough to drop another captive in the hand made prison below the earth.
As soon as the door had slammed shut once again the Amazon prisoners quickly surrounded the unfamiliar child.
One Amazon of the southern tribes stared at the soft cheeks of the unconscious little girl. "Why she’s just a little one…a baby." She placed her hand on the youngster’s forehead. It was hot and sweaty. "She’s sick."
An Amazon from the eastern tribes moved a bit closer. "Perhaps it’s contagious. Maybe those creatures threw her in here to see who among us would get sick…as a way to separate the weak. We should kill her." There was a soft murmuring of agreement around the young woman, so she searched for a large rock to execute her words.
This cavern turned into a cell was dark. Only the light from a small caged fire in the center of the wet floor offered the Amazon’s any vision or warmth at all.
There was a brief silence and then the dripping sound of the water that ran along the heavy dirt walls was all that could be heard.
A tall and muscular figure stepped quickly out of the shadows. Her face was covered with dried blood from a day old battle but her voice was regal and full of force. "Whoever touches that youngster dies at my hand," she growled.
Hearing this threat made all the Amazons back to one side and stare at the figure that had just approached them.
This woman had proven herself a worthy opponent to any that had dared to challenge her. There were none left stupid enough to make that mistake again.
The crowd parted and the queen stepped forward.
Ephiny stood protectively in front of little Tarren ready to fight any that would dare to touch her very young and obviously sick little friend.
There was not one who approached.
Ephiny leaned down and cradled the sick child in her arms. "Tarren can you hear me?" she asked as softly as she could.
The little girl’s eyes flickered open and she tried to focus in the dim shadows on the woman now holding her. "Mommy?"
Ephiny grinned and closed her eyes grateful the youngster was alive. "No Junior…It’s me. It’s Ephiny," she replied.
Hearing that her mother was not the person whose arms she was in sent the very sick child into a fit of panic "Eph…iny. I want Momma. Where are my Mommy and Gabby?"
The Amazon held the child tight making sure the little one was not injured by her own small flailing limbs. "Shellopa get me a piece of cloth and run it under that damn drip," she ordered. "Finally that damn dripping sound will have some use," she yelled.
Shellopa nodded wondering if her queen could even see the gesture in the shadows of their prison but the Amazon warrior obediently ripped a piece of cloth from her own skirt and placed it below the water running down the wall and raced back to her queen. "Here Ephiny," she said handing the cloth to her friend and leader.
"Thanks." Ephiny ran the cold rag over the little girl’s head. "Shh I’m gonna take care of you until your Momma comes. Ok?" The queen bit her lip as she realized just how bad things must be back at her village if the child of the Warrior Princess had been taken captive.
Tarren clung to her friend’s arm as she felt the cold shivers run down her small body. The room was damp and wet. "Ephiny…I want Momma. Please get my Mommy," she begged. "I don’t wanna play Warrior Princess right now."
The queen glanced at Shellopa who took a deep breath at the pleading words of this small child. She turned back to the little girl. "I know Junior…I wish I could get her but I can't. I’m sorry." Ephiny could feel her insides melt as she spoke the words. She was not accustomed to feeling so helpless.
The small child ignored the statement and continued to fidget in the queen’s arms. "Momma needs me ya know?" She looked directly at her friend.
Ephiny nodded in complete understanding. "Yeah I know she does Junior."
The little girl coughed and Ephiny pulled the youngster as close as she could to offer some warmth. When the hacking fit passed the small child had a look of peace and understanding for a brief moment.
It was as if some great secret had been revealed to her in that one moment. She smiled and reached a hand out to touch her friend’s cheek. "Momma’s lookin awful hard for me and she’s gonna be real mad at me when she gets here." She thought of her mother’s words on the trail when the warrior had seen that her young daughter had followed. The child’s smile quickly faded. "I’m gonna get the really big one for sure."
Ephiny forced a smile as she continued to wipe the child’s forehead with the cloth. "Why is that youngster? What did you do now?" she asked hoping to keep the little one occupied with conversation.
Tarren coughed a bit and took a deep breath. "Momma left without me, I’m her army ya know so…I…sorta…followed after her cause she needs me." She paused and lowered her eyes. "I was bad and Momma was real mad. I’m tellin ya Ephiny it’s gonna be the really big one." Tears streamed down the little girl’s cheeks. "But…but…I don’t care…I just want Momma to come and take care of me. I just want my Momma."
"Shh Junior...It’s Ok." Ephiny lifted the little girl into her arms and carried the small child back toward the wall. "It’s Ok youngster. You’re Momma will come soon. Believe me if I know her she’ll be knocking down that door at any time now." She bit her lip. "If she can find it fast enough," she mumbled feeling the unnatural shivers crawling down the little girl’s body.
The queen knew that the youngster was already plagued with fever and if left unattended in these conditions would surely die. Ephiny was not going to let that happen. She placed the little girl on a small boulder to keep her off the cold and wet floor. "Solari!"
The Amazon warrior immediately stepped forward. "Yes my queen."
The queen ripped off part of her own skirt and removed her wrist cuffs and placed them on top of the child’s chest. She then faced her warrior. "Gather as many pieces of spare cloth as possible. We need to keep Tarren as warm as we can until Xena and the others get here."
The word, the name, sent a wave of murmurs through the prisoners on the other side of the cavern.
The familiar Amazon from the eastern tribe stepped forward. "That is Xena’s child?" she asked with a hard swallow pointing to the sick youngster.
Solari immediately stepped protectively in front of her queen and the small child immediately followed by Sheloppa and every other member of Ephiny’s tribe including an instructor named Gruella.
Ephiny ran her hand along the little ones face and then stepped through her warrior’s wall to face the strange young Amazon. "That’s right. Do you have a problem with that?" she asked, ready to solve any and all problems right then and there.
The young Amazon of the east remembered the great warrior from their short battle on the trail near the Amazon village. She thought of Tyrell, and how both this queen and the Warrior Princess had spared her friend even after the attempted assassination.
The young Amazon of the east shook her head and ripped some of the skins from her own body and offered them forward. "No I have no problem with that at all." She turned her head to the Amazons that had been standing with her. "Eastern tribe, give what you can," she ordered, before again turning to face Ephiny, bowing her head and returning again to her own people.
The queen stared at the cloth in her hand and grinned. "Thank you," she said to the group before returning to the sick child shivering in the back of the cave.
Ephiny piled cloth upon cloth until she had formed some semblance of a blanket to keep the little girl warm. She settled herself beside the child offering her own body as an additional source of heat. Without so much as an order Shellopa and Solari moved to the to the other side of the youngster to do the same with their own bodies.
Gruella kept a watchful eye on the foreign tribes sure that one would make some kind of attack.
The queen smiled at the actions of her people and cradled the little girl close to her.
Tarren opened her eyes and stared up at her friend. "I want Mommy. She really needs me. Where’s Gabby? Tell me a story Gabby… I don’t wanna bath…Sorry about the sword Momma." The youngster was delirious from fever and shock. "Ephiny…you’ll keep your promise about the picture…Momma needs that …I promised Nala…Gabby I’m hot. Let’s jump in the mud."
The queen wiped a few stray hairs from the child’s sweaty brow and nodded. "Shh Junior, I’ll take care of my promise and you and Gabrielle and your Momma will all enjoy Nala’s present." She forced a smile at the happy thought. "Then you can show them your pretty picture…Right?’
Tarren nodded and felt a wave of air pass through her lungs like a hurricane.
The queen held her tightly in place and the youngster soon calmed.
The child’s face turned red and she gripped the arm of her protector with all her might. "Gabby was real hurt I didn’t show it to her. You’ll tell her I wanted to…right? And you’ll tell my Momma I’m sorry I broke her sword. I miss her. She’s gonna be real mad…the big one…Where’s my Mommy?" The child sputtered bit and pieces of thought strung together as sentences that only made sense to her.
There was a respectful silence in the crowd of Amazons as the small child spoke in faint whispers.
Somewhere across a dark cave mixed only with shadows Ephiny knew there was a group of Amazons feeling the pain of this little girl’s words. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer to Artemis to watch over this child.
The queen again looked at the face of the youngster. "Shh you know your Momma will come and boy is she gonna be mad at you for getting so dirty. You really are gonna get the big one I bet," she said with a slight smile. Ephiny felt sure that any distraction was a good one.
The child nodded in agreement. "That’s what Momma said and so did Shalia…." Tarren’s words trailed off and her face again filled with tears. "Shalia’s gone too ya know. Those bad people took away Shalia forever...like Nala and Uncle Lyceus."
Ephiny swallowed hard at the words and pulled the little girl close enough to see the expression on the child’s face. "Tarren what are you saying? What happened to my…Shalia?" she asked nearly choking on the words.
The youngster coughed and closed her eyes as she tried to clear her mind. "Momma was fighting the bad men and she was really kickin butt." She paused realizing she had said the forbidden words. "Shalia wanted to come find you and we were hiding. I yelled for Momma to get out of the way and Shalia jumped out and then the arrow…They hurt Shalia. They took my friend away and she never hurt nobody."
The queen looked straight ahead as she pressed the sobbing little girl closer to her chest. "Shalia’s...gone," she whispered though a cracking voice.
Ephiny could feel the comforting hands of her friends reaching out to touch her but she shook them away. Now was not the time to mourn or question. She was the queen and she had a sick child and a cave full of Amazons to look after. "No not now my friends," she whispered, placing a gentle kiss on the little girl’s head. "Not now."
Tarren shivered at the mere thought of seeing her friend fall from the arrow. "Mommy’s hurting lots. I can feel it inside. She’s coming for me but she’s real scared. I gotta go find her." The youngster tried to rise only to be immediately pulled down by the grieving but still stoic queen.
Ephiny placed a firm arm around the little girl. "No Tarren. You’re mother would want you to wait right here for her and do what I tell you to do until she got here. If I were in as much trouble with my Momma as you already are with yours, I wouldn’t want to make it any worse," she said, hoping the youngster would here the command in her voice instead of feeling the tears that were now falling down the side of her own face.
The small child thought of her mother’s words about following ones gut. She knew Ephiny was a person they both trusted so the youngster eased back against her friend’s chest. "Ok…I’ll be good…but…I’ve never been without Momma or Gabby that long…since Momma found me in Rasa," she said with a muffled sob.
The queen brought her own legs closer to her chest to further cradle the child. "Well I’ll tell you what…Until your Momma gets here you can have me…I’ll be your Aunt Ephiny."
The frightened child let her small hand move around the darkness until she found her friend’s face. She could feel the wet tears on the woman’s cheeks. "You’ll be my Aunt Ephiny?" she asked in disbelief.
The queen looked at Solari and then Shellopa expecting to see a slight smirk at the new title. Instead what she found was a wealth of compassion and support in the eyes of her friends. She looked back at the youngster and grinned. "Yeah well your Momma and Gabrielle are like my sisters so I guess that makes me sort of like your aunt…if you want."
The youngster cleared her mind and thought for a moment. "I don’t have any aunts…I have a Grandma…a Gabby…My Mommy…You really wanna be my aunt?" the child asked, not sure why she was always treated so well by the person who’s village she had nearly broken.
Ephiny closed her eyes and swallowed hard trying to put the thoughts of Shalia out of her mind. "Sure Junior…I’d be honored," she stated proudly.
Again the child coughed but immediately calmed as she saw in her mind a vision of Argo with the Warrior Princess sitting straight in the saddle with the wind blowing through her hair as she rode closer. "Momma! I feel her. I see Momma." She arched her back a little and tried to reach out a hand to touch the image in her mind but it faded too quickly.
The youngster bit her lip and again touched the face of her friend. "I couldn’t reach her," she said sadly looking up at the compassionate expression of the queen. "Ok you can be my Aunt Eph, but when Momma comes I gotta go cause she really needs me. She’s real worried about me ya know."
The queen nodded and looked from one Amazon to the next as she addressed the child in her arms. "I know youngster and I promise you will be with her again very soon." She smiled. "If I know your Momma she’s tearing up half the trees in the forest looking for you. Nothing is going to keep her from finding you Junior."
For the first time the child grinned. "Momma doesn’t like it when people hurt me Aunt Eph." She coughed. "And that big hairy thing grabbed me and he wouldn’t let me go. I tried to vault away but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even kick him real good, so I called for Momma but he just jumped in a real deep hole and then it was so dark I couldn’t even see nothin."
The anxious queen listened as she heard the tale of an ordeal similar to her own. "I know Tarren. Shh it’s Ok. I promise we are going to get out of here. I’m going to take you to your Momma myself," she stated firmly.
The little girl felt the shivers run through her body once again and she clung to her friend for warmth. "How Aunt Eph? How are we gonna get out of here without Momma’s help?"
That was a very good question.
Back at the village…
Gabrielle rode quietly with the Amazons in a straight line behind her as they entered the village compound.
There was no reason to consider a rescue mission now that the Argonians knew of the one failed attempt to get close to the caves with a small group. The surprise aspect was gone so no small party would be able to penetrate whatever forces these creatures had in store for any future invaders. Besides Xena was on the path toward the enemy at that was not something even the Amazons dare interfere in.
This meant war and Gabrielle knew it.
The new Amazon queen smiled a bit knowing her warrior friend would surely clear a worthy path for them to follow when all the tribes had assembled.
Gabrielle lowered her eyes and looked at the group of half-beaten warriors that rode behind her. Even this small victory meant little to them in the face of failing to rescue their queen and the loss of little Tarren and the death of young Shalia. Where was the real victory?
The young queen closed her eyes and took a deep breath when she saw the approaching tribe of Amazons heading her way. "Follow your heart and lead your people," she whispered, repeating her warrior friend’s words of advice. She turned in her saddle and saw the weapon’s master approaching with her arm in a sling. "Eponon you should be resting," she said sternly.
The weapon’s master lowered her head a bit. "It’s really not that bad and…."
Gabrielle dismounted noting the ride back had not been nearly as painful on her seat as the fast ride with many falls had been. "That was an order weapon’s master or do you still make it a habit of questioning the orders of your queen?" she asked quietly.
Eponon took a step back and bowed her head. "No my Queen."
"Good then go." She paused and glanced at the body of a young Amazon draped over her saddle. Her voice softened a bit as she called to her friend. "Eponon?"
The weapons master stopped and turned. "Yes my Queen."
Gabrielle’s tone became gentle and for a moment the bard returned. "Please have someone see that Shalia is laid out in the royal mourning hut."
There was soft murmur over the crowd of gathering Amazons in the center of the compound.
That place was reserved for royalty only and Gabrielle knew it.
The new queen placed her hand in the air and addressed the crowd. "Shalia was a member of Ephiny’s house and saved the life of Xena." She shook her head as she looked at the faces of each warrior. "And gods know how many other good things she did when you weren’t looking at her simply because she could not swing a sword." She raised her chin. "I do not swing a sword but I am your queen and I will fight anyone who dares to challenge my word. Shalia will be placed in the royal mourning cottage and when all our people have safely returned home we shall honor this great warrior’s memory." The words were filled with a new authority that did not ask for respect but instead demanded it.
None spoke again.
Eponon grinned a bit and motioned two of her warriors toward the body. "You heard the queen. Take Shalia to the royal mourning hut and be gentle with her. If I see one of her feathers out of place so help me I’ll pluck you both clean," she yelled. Even with only one good arm the muscular woman was still quite intimidating.
The two warriors gently lifted the young Amazon off the horse and carried her to the cottage that had once been meant only for the leaders of the tribe.
Young Rellona bowed to her queen respectively. "Thank you."
Gabrielle smiled at the stout girl and then watched her disappear in the crowd of Amazons lost again in the faceless nation.
The young queen sighed hoping there would be no more need of that hut. She took a deep breath and thought of Xena and of little Tarren. It was all she could do to keep her tears from falling as she spoke reassuring words to herself. "Xena will be fine and she will find Tarren. They will both be fine," she whispered. "You must do as Xena said and be a leader. Follow your heart Gabrielle," she thought, staring out over the waiting faces of the tribe. She took another deep breath and again held her head high as she spoke. "The rescue mission failed. Xena’s group was attacked before they got near the caves."
There was another murmur over the crowd and again Gabrielle held up her hand to silence the people. "The good news is that Xena’s invention worked long enough to…" She paused as she thought about the words that were about toe leave her lips. "To kill some of the Argonians."
There was a loud cheer for which the bard was sorry.
The new queen raised her hands in the air one final time and there was again immediate silence. "As you can see we lost one of our warriors in the fight," she said motioning to the lifeless body of a young girl now being carried to the royal hut. "And...and…the Argonians took little Tarren as well." She felt her own heart sink at the mere saying of the words.
The bard in Gabrielle wanted to rush to a horse and trail after Xena in an attempt to help find this small child that now filled such a large part of her own heart. However the person she needed to be, the queen, knew she would be of no use to the great warrior as a mere sidekick. Gabrielle needed to offer a different and more formidable support for her people and for Tarren.
The crowd’s voices soon went from soft murmurs to angry cries.
Amazons reached for the reigns of their horses eager to fight alongside Xena in an attempt to get this small child back.
Gabrielle had to smile. Somehow this mischievous little moppet that was always getting in trouble of one kind or another had managed to win the hearts of an entire Amazon tribe.
The new queen took a deep breath knowing she had to put a stop to the chaos before it went any further. She stepped up onto a familiar stump that Ephiny had used when she first returned to her people. "Hear me all of you." There was quiet. "I would like nothing better than to ride out and help Xena bring Tarren and everyone else home. However she has asked…no demanded that she be left alone in her rescue of her daughter." She swallowed hard. "And that is how it shall be. Xena must put all her efforts into finding her little girl and we must put our efforts into finding everyone." She nodded. "Trust me. When the moment of truth comes we will be there to help Ephiny and Tarren and all the people that these evil creatures have taken."
The crowds came together as a group. They did not yell. They did not cheer but instead they knelt in front of their leader ready to do as she commanded.
Gabrielle closed her eyes wondering how she had gotten in so far over her head. In what was little more than a week she had gone from a princess bard to queen of the Amazons.
The new queen was in need of a plan. She thought of stories she had heard and retold where Xena had lead a small but mighty army from all sides and straight into the middle of the enemy knowing they would never expect such a brash maneuver.
Gabrielle nodded knowing that was exactly the type of approach they needed to use now with the Argonians. Finally in telling all those stories of Xena’s exploits the bard herself had learned something that would perhaps help these people.
The young woman looked at the heads bowed before her and smiled wishing her warrior friend was here to see this. "Thank you all for your support. Please get up. This is not a time for bowing to one another. It is a time for joining together as one people and fighting the common enemy. Please go to your homes and ready your children to depart. I will be sending all the children to the centaur village immediately."
The tribe quietly broke up and quickly went about their duties of following their new queen’s orders.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Ok that went well, " she murmured. "Next." She scanned the village compound until she spotted queens Penela and Mussona. "Ok now for the tough part," she thought as she walked eagerly to the spot they were both waiting.
There was a new air of dignity and strength about this young bard turned queen.
Gabrielle nodded to each of the queens but spoke to Mussona first. "How long before your people arrive?" she asked, wanting to gather as many Amazons together as possible before approaching the Argonians again.
"A half a day maybe less?" Mussona replied.
Gabrielle sighed heavily and looked to the other queen hoping for better news. "And yours?"
Penela threw her arms in the air. "Maybe the same." She looked passed the young queen at the bodies of the dead Argonians Gabrielle had ordered brought back. "Artemis be saved. So they really are here with us…the legend is true and the creatures of our darkest days have returned," Penela said in a voice mixed with fear and horror. There was distinct shiver in the old woman’s voice.
Gabrielle let out a quick breath and glanced back at the bodies of the men who had fallen victim to Xena’s great strategy and strength. "There here alright and they’re coming closer but we’re not going to wait for them to get this far." She looked at both queens again and allowed her voice to become firm. "I know you don’t have any faith in me and that’s Ok. I’m not quite sure how much I have in myself," she admitted. She stood as straight as she could and locked eyes with Penela deciding the older queen was more of an adversary than Mussona. "But I am the queen of these people and I will protect them with my life and I will lead them." She paused and swallowed. "I know you both would have followed Ephiny or Xena but I can’t force you to follow me. I can only hope you will."
Penela looked at Mussona and then both studied the young woman. "Just what did you have in mind child?" Penela asked at least willing to listen to a plan.
Gabrielle nodded and motioned toward the cottage that Xena had made into a general’s office. "Come with me and I’ll show you."
Somewhere out on the trail …
Xena blinked her eyes in attempt to remain focused on her most important task, finding Tarren.
It was a great effort to hold back the overwhelming pain and fear for her child. However the great warrior knew that if she was to save her young daughter she needed to be the Warrior Princess that lived in the minds of others. She kept her eyes trained as she rode slowly along the narrow trail glancing at the tall trees on either side of the dark path. There was only the sound of birds chirping and a gentle breeze blowing through the cool day.
The warrior mother kept her senses on all the sounds and sights around her as she made a steady line toward the place she knew her daughter was being held. With a deep breath she tossed her cape behind her shoulder and patted the side of Argo’s mane. "It’s gonna be cold tonight and I’ll bet that kid isn’t even wearing the heavy tunic like I told her too," she mumbled as a stray tear ran down her cheek. She glanced down at her faithful mount. "Can you believe she followed after me when I told her to stay behind. She never listens to a damn thing I say Argo. Tarren just goes along and does like she pleases as if nothing I say means anything."
The horse whinnied in agreement.
Xena kept moving still studying her surroundings and conversing with her horse. "Well ya know Argo that all stops right now. I’m tired of her never doing what she’s told. When I find her she’s gonna get a spanking that will keep her on her feet for a month. She’ll not disobey me again like that. That is an oath to the gods themselves," she said, her face filled with angst. The mother gave a gentle tug on the reigns. "When I find her…." The parental anger suddenly turned to a cracking voice of fear. "Gods Argo, I’ve got to find her. She’s my…baby. I can’t make it without her…I’m her mother and she needs me." The warrior stopped and stared up at the sky closing her eyes for a second. "Help me please," she said to whatever force would guide her to her small child.
The moment was interrupted by a cracking in the trees just to the right of the trail.
Xena did not even turn her head but merely clenched her teeth and with a loud growl tossed her chakrum in that direction.
The round weapon sliced through the air marking it’s targets with bloody memories that would not last longer than the final breath of the victims.
After seeing three Argonian spies fall to the ground the warrior effortlessly caught her weapon and continued on her way. She sniffled a bit as she tried to continue her conversation. "So Argo where were we before those bastards interrupted us? Oh yeah finding Tarren…I’m her mother you know. Me Argo? Me!" The words were spoken as if for the first time.
Xena smiled a bit at the title she had come to love as much as the child who used it. "I swear there are times I could just paddle that kids little behind all day for the way she gets in trouble." Her voice became soft and low. "And then there are other times when she looks at me with that innocent stare of wonder and her little mischievous glint." She patted the horse. "You know what I mean girl?"
The horse again whinnied.
The warrior nodded. "Yeah I knew you did. At those times I just want to hold her and never let go. She can be a handful but I wouldn’t have her any other way." Xena gave the reigns a yank and ran her fingers over her eyes to dry them.
The warrior mother addressed the child she knew was absent in body but hoped could hear her words anyway. "Damn it Tarren why didn’t you stay behind like I told you?" she yelled to the prying eyes that filled the forest. She shook her head as if trying to regain control of her thoughts and her voice softened as she heard the answer she knew the little girl would give echo in her thoughts. "I know it’s because you love me and you want to be with me. Not good enough. You have to learn that you can’t...always…be with me."
Xena took a deep breath and reached into her armor pulling out a drawing the child had given her days earlier.
The mother stared at the child’s portrait of a warrior with a sword of fire and the little girl with slingshot in hand being held tightly in the warrior mother’s arms. She smiled as a tear raced down her cheek. "Argo girl…I can’t worry about what she did wrong now. I just have to get my baby girl back and fast."
Xena thought of how ill the child was and looked again up at the sky. "I don’t know who of you, if any, watch over little kids, but I am asking, no begging, you to watch over Tarren. Don’t let the fact that she’s my daughter change how you see things. She’s a good little girl and if you give her back to me I promise that I’ll do…anything."
The Warrior Princess waited for a minute sure Ares would appear to try and make some deal with her but much to her surprise there was nothing.
Xena’s face turned cold as she thought of the arrogant gods of Olympus. "Fine then …I’ll get my child back myself…just don’t get in my way."
With those final words spoken she kicked her heals into Argo’s side and started down the trail at a faster pace more determined than ever to rescue her child alone.
Chapter 34 – Changes
Back in the darkness…
The black shadows seemed to envelop the weary captives of this underground cage.
Ephiny sat with the now sleeping child nestled in her arms. The members of her own tribe surrounded her eager to make sure that both their queen and the child were protected at all times.
On the other of the darkness were Amazons from different tribes each segregated by the location they had ridden from rather than the heritage they all shared as one people.
The queen took a deep breath and glanced at the sick child in her hold. "Damn it! Why can’t we all just work together?" she whispered, knowing there would be no response to the question.
Ephiny’s thoughts of unity were halted by the sound of the large metal door that kept them prisoners in this world of darkness again creaking open.
All immediately jumped to their feet.
The only time this door ever opened was to toss in scraps of food or another unfortunate captive. In any case one needed to be prepared for anything.
The queen gently placed the sick little girl down on the large rock beside her and stood. "Sheloppa you and Solari stay with Tarren. If anyone comes within a pace of her…kill them," she said loud enough for all to hear.
The two warriors nodded in understanding knowing that they would have to do so with their bare hands.
As the metal hinges clanked and the door swung open a bit of filtered light gave way and a tall figure moved into the center of the cavern. The shape was Argonian but he was larger and more muscular than the other men and on his arm he wore the symbol of a sword being pushed through a stone.
That single mark made him the leader, the king.
Seeing the shadow of the symbol the queen stepped forward already knowing who had just joined them. "You are Barlon," she growled, remembering the legend she had been told since birth.
This was the man who was responsible for all that had happened to her people. This was the creature that had deceived queen Reea and ordered the attack on the Amazon nation forever splitting it into smaller tribes and bringing down the great nation of once peaceful warriors.
Barlon stepped forward. He had an air of intellect and regal presence about him but his appearance and demeanor were no different then the other Argonian animals. "Very good woman. Yes I am King Barlon and what is your name?" he asked with a smirk.
The queen held her head high. "I am Ephiny. Why have you brought us here?" she demanded to know. She allowed no sign of fear but instead kept a regal poise that she knew would send the message that these creatures had not broken the spirit of the Amazons
The man laughed. "You know who we are and who I am and yet you ask that question." He looked around the room at the collection of women. "I am your new master." He reached out to touch one of the Amazons and the young woman stepped back repulsed by the gesture. Again he laughed but brought his attention back to Ephiny. "I guess you wonder where we went? What happened to us? How we are here now? Is that right Amazon Woman?" he asked with an eerie smile.
He spoke the last words as if they were a curse to be whispered in private.
The queen nodded. "Yes we would like to know why we are being cursed with your presence twice in our history?" she replied through clenched teeth.
Barlon grinned with an evil twist of his lips. "Of course you should know and I will be very happy to tell you." He smiled and looked around the room wanting to be sure that all his prisoners were paying close attention. "You all know of the great battle between the Amazons of long ago and the mighty Argonians I am sure," he said loud enough for all to hear.
Ephiny again nodded. "We know that you were untrustworthy and low life trash that attacked our people while flying a flag of peace," she replied still feeling her teeth grinding against each other.
The man spat on the ground and moved closer to Ephiny. "Well then you know we were cheated from a rightful victory by that spirited tramp Artemis." He stood so close that the queen could now feel the hot and vile breath of this man blowing against her skin but she said nothing
There was a rustling of feet behind the queen and she knew that her warriors were eager to step forward and defend the name of their goddess but Ephiny raised a hand in the air to stop them and stop they did.
Barlon allowed himself a loud belly laugh at the action. "Very good Woman." He looked deep into her eyes. "You just saved their lives," he hissed, motioning around the cavern to indicate the figures that would have dared to attack him.
Barlon started moving slowly around the cave as if inspecting his stock. "Well I should continue my story. Shouldn’t I? After Artemis interfered we were sent into this dark pit you now call home as well." He paused and stared at the sick little girl and then moved on. "That was so many summers ago. I do not even know for sure just how many it has been. Your Artemis offered us eternity here. That meant we would not die of any natural causes," he said in a tone that was becoming more feral with every breath.
Ephiny shrugged. "Doesn’t sound like such a bad offer for a handsome group like yours," she replied, deciding that words would be her greatest weapon now. She smiled knowing her bardly friend would be proud of the effort.
There was a low chuckle across the darkness of the cavern.
Barlon immediately turned and the queen could see the fury in his little pupils. "Careful woman there are those here that would kill you all just for the fun of it," he growled.
The man took a deep breath and tried to regain his regal pose. "You see Artemis knew that our ways as true warriors did not allow us to kill one another or take our own lives. To do so meant an eternity of dishonor and never being allowed to cross to the other side and be with our fathers and brothers." His voice became vengeful and filled with hatred for all around him. "She damned us here to a 100 lifetimes of never ending madness and…." Realizing he was no longer in control of his words Barlon paused and his voice softened a bit.
For the first time the queen could hear the age of the man in front of her.
Barlon took a breath and began again, trying to find strength in his own words. "Still over the years many of my people chose to fall on their own swords and take their chances with the fates." He glared at the queen and she could see the small slits that held his red eyes growing brighter. "I on the other hand managed to keep a small group together and we dug through these walls using nothing more than our bare hands." He shook his rough and leather like fists to the queen. "We ate the flesh of those of my brothers that chose the cowards way." He smiled a bit and let his muscles ease.
Barlon waited for a reaction from Ephiny but the queen kept her eyes trained on her adversary and her face cold.
The king nodded approvingly at his prisoner’s demeanor. "Very good woman." He flashed an evil smile and continued. "But then one day we found a stream with fish in it. You see Artemis really didn’t want us to die…so she provided all we needed just to survive and to suffer." He began again with new venom. "She did not realize that giving us that stream was a way of showing us a path out of this blackness…We knew the water began somewhere and ended here with us…We moved with only one purpose in mind…seeing the light of day again." He paused and ran his rough fingers over the stoic Amazon’s soft cheek. "And then one day we broke through to the surface only to find that the darkness had turned us into these hideous creatures you see before you." He pulled his hand back and took a deep breath.
The queen closed her eyes relieved to have the large hand distant from her form. She raised a brow as she stared at the man before her. "You are damn ugly."
The king immediately slapped Ephiny across the face. She did not fall but only snapped her head to one side and smiled. "And you’re an animal too but we both knew that already didn’t we?"
Barlon shook his head and gnashed his teeth. "You should show more respect to your king." He smiled wickedly as he again ran his hand over the queen’s cheek. "And the man you will be breeding with Amazon."
Ephiny forced a smile. "How did I get so lucky?" she asked, not allowing the size of the bruise forming on her face to affect her demeanor. She shoved his hand away.
The king merely grinned. "There is that fire and that same look in your eyes that my little Reea had in hers. She was a foolish child. She believed in love and peace. You know better than that Amazon. You’re people are as bloodthirsty as we are. We will make wonderful new race together," he said in a low and teasing voice.
Ephiny thought of Gabrielle’s words about the killing and the blood shed. The bard had been right. The Amazon people had become too eager to fight rather than ever consider talking with an enemy.
The brave queen held her chin high in the air and spit at the feet of her warden. "If you know what I am then you know that I would rather die then let you touch me," she said with a such venom that even Barlon took a step back.
With the wave of an arm he motioned around the room. "And them? Would you watch each of your women die for the price of your virtue?" He took a step toward the sleeping child only to have his path blocked by a half dozen warriors. He smiled and pointed to the youngster. "And this little one? Would you have me kill her now just as an example?" he asked with a smile.
Barlon motioned to one of his guards standing in the doorway to approach and the man drew his sword and moved in the direction of his king.
Ephiny and every Amazon in the dreary cell immediately formed a wall of bodies between the men and little Tarren.
"Stay back." The mighty queen folded her arms against her chest and glared at both Barlon and his followers. "I will kill you with my bare hands if you even so much as look at that youngster," she warned in the most threatening tone she could muster.
The words were filled with venom and hate for a figure from another Amazon queen’s nightmare that had returned to haunt both she and her people.
The king looked from woman to woman joined in this band of unity beside the queen and laughed. "Do you know who you are speaking too woman? I am Barlon. I am King of the Argonians. I command the very clouds in the sky you live under." He paused and stared at his chosen mate. "I could just kill you all…."
He stepped back realizing that there were nearly 60 Amazons now surrounding him. Even unarmed that could endanger him, so he moved back toward the door. "But my dear Ephiny that would not be practical…my dear you will be mine. There will be a new race of Argonians and they shall conquer your world," he said so quietly and with such sincerity that it sent a shiver down the queen’s back.
Barlon was about to leave when he turned and gave Ephiny the oddest smile. "Oh and if you are wondering about your horses…They were…delicious."
There was a murmur through the crowd as the words were spoken. Some had wondered what had happened to their mounts and now the facts had been told.
Ephiny swallowed hard as she watched the door slam shut and darkness overtake them again. All that could be heard was the familiar dripping of the water down the side of the wall mixed with the evil laugh of a demented king from another time and another place.
The mighty queen took a breath and closed her eyes trying to make the darkness seem more bearable. She glanced back at the small form on the sick child and then the band of Amazons now surrounding her and let her muscles tighten and her fists clench tightly against her sides. "Ok Amazon it’s time we get the hell out of here."
Back at the village…
Gabrielle pointed to the marked spots on the map in front of her that Xena had set up in the royal cottage. "Xena said these caves were probably an entrance and the Argonian she captured told her the same thing." She paused and looked at the now empty pallet a large warrior and a small child had once shared.
The young woman swallowed hard and forced her attention back to the map. "And I think if we take a large group straight in that way we won’t have a chance." She pointed to an open clearing just beside the caves. "This is where we will have to make our stand."
Mussona stared at the spot. "But how will we draw them out of their dark hiding spot?" she asked noting the distance between the caves and the large field.
Gabrielle grinned. "I think we can trust that Xena and Ephiny will be doing that for us and when they do we will be right there to support them."
Penela nodded her approval at the strategy. "It is a good plan and when the rest of our warrior’s arrive…."
"No we won’t wait." Gabrielle turned her head and motioned to her weapon’s master who had just joined them in the meeting. "Eponon you will take all the children, the elderly and wounded to the centaurs immediately." She held up a hand before the woman could protest the assignment. "They need to arrive safely and you are the one I trust to get them there. Besides you’re already wounded and Ephiny would skin me alive if I let you fight with one arm." Gabrielle smiled at her friend to show that this was not just the action of a queen but a caring friend as well.
Eponon swallowed hard and lowered her eyes. "We will leave immediately my Queen."
The weapons master bowed as she remembered Xena’s words adding her own to them. "A leader must know when to step down…and a warrior must know when not to fight," she thought as she left the cottage to do the job that at that moment she was most suited for.
Gabrielle turned back to Mussona. "Everyone else that’s here goes with us. This village will be left empty. Any grown Amazon willing to hold a sword or staff in battle will fight. We will either come back as one tribe or we will fall as one people."
Penela pounded her fist on the table. "Now that’s the way I like to hear an Amazon talk!"
Gabrielle grinned and placed a gentle hand on the old queen’s shoulder. "Queen Penela you are the oldest and most respected of the queens. I must ask you and you alone to remain here at the village until your people and the other tribes arrive." She paused knowing she was asking a lot. "It will take all of your influence and perhaps the sight of the Argonian bodies to convince the foreign tribes to join us in battle. Will you do that?" she asked, knowing that such a request said the wrong way would be interpreted as an insult.
Penela nodded and closed her eyes in contemplation. "A true leader goes where they can be of the most good. If my age and big mouth can help defeat the enemy then I shall remain and when the other tribes arrive we shall bring up the rear and bring all our people home…together."
Gabrielle bowed her head respectfully. "Thank you." She then looked at Mussona. "Queen Mussona you are well know for your tactical skills so I will ask that you take half the party up the side here." She pointed to the map. " I will lead the other half straight down the middle," she said knowing she would be taking the very same trail her warrior friend had earlier.
"You?" Mussona said in disbelief. "Have you ever led an army to war?"
The new queen took a deep breath as she remembered a battle long ago where she had watched a friend die in what she considered a useless war.
Xena had told her that he had died for the greater good and that it had been a good fight and she should remember that, but the young woman still had nightmares about her own hesitations to act in that battle. She could not allow that to happen again. "Yes once." She replied looking form one questioning face to the other. Gabrielle held her chin high. "I am the queen and this is my tribe and I will lead them into battle no matter what the cost."
The words were spoken with enough force and determination to answer the questions of her fellow royalty.
Penela nodded and offered her arm. "Then today shall be a good day for a fight my friend."
There were those words again.
Gabrielle gripped the old queen’s arm in what she knew was a warrior greeting and held as firmly as she could. "Yes Penela it shall be a…good day."
On the trail…
Xena motioned Argo along. Her eyes were no longer filled with tears but instead her heart and soul were filled with a single determination, to get her child back. Nothing but the sight of her young daughter alive an unharmed would drain away the pool of rage growing inside the great warrior. She paused long enough to pull out her child’s slingshot and hold it in her hand for a moment.
The mother smiled as her thumb caressed the spot on the leather -covered handle where she knew the little fingers were usually tightly wrapped. Again she spoke to her absent youngster. " I remember the look on your face when I out this little stud from my armor on for you. Do you remember the practice solstice game Gabrielle made us play?" She took a deep breath and let her voice drop to a tender and loving tone that only her child had ever heard her speak. "Don’t worry baby. Momma is coming for you." She tucked the slingshot safely back in her armor and kicked the horse forward.
Xena knew that as the sun started to set the Argonians would appear more boldly then the sporadic attacks from dark spots on the trail she had been experiencing.
It was obvious that the Argonians did not view this single rider as enough of a threat to send their cloud-covered army after.
That was their second mistake.
The warrior heard a branch break above her and without so much as the blink of an eye tossed her chakrum straight in the air slicing down more of the dark creatures that she now knew watched her every move. She caught the weapon in her hand and moved forward never even pausing long enough to see just how many she had killed.
Xena glanced at the trees above and noted that the high branches had been bent and tied to join with the trees on the opposite side of the trail so as to create a block of the sun. She shook her head. "Well…That will just never do." She dismounted and placed a single finger in the air to test the direction of the wind before tossing her chakrum again straight in the air sliced all the bindings sending branches swinging back and the sun shining through.
The warrior took a deep breath as she felt the sun bathe her skin and heard the screams of Argonians dropping to the ground in fits of agony all around her. She pushed Argo to the side and pulled out her sword ready to make her first stand. "Ok come and get me," she yelled.
Dozens of the creatures kept their eyes low as they attempted to attack the great warrior.
Xena gave an evil grin as she threw kick after kick and twirled her sword in every direction until all that was left before her was a road filled with bloody bodies. She watched as the remaining men ran to the trees for cover.
The famed Warrior Princess stood tall and held her blade straight up to the sun. The rays of light hit the cold steel and reflected with such power that the metal looked to be made of fire itself. "That’s right run. You run and tell everyone I’m coming and I’m coming with a vengeance."
Back at the village…
Gabrielle watched as the last of the Amazon children were herded down a safe path with an armed escort headed by Eponon. She took a deep breath and scanned the now lifeless village. "What am I doing?" she questioned.
All of the remaining Amazons were arming themselves with weapons of some kind. Even the old cook, Boralla had blown the dust off of her sword to join in the battle for the glory of the Amazon nation.
The new queen moved back to the royal hut she had once, just days ago, shared with Xena and Tarren. She looked around the now empty cottage remembering the playful water fights in the large tub and the way Xena hidden the large bag of confections in different places always knowing her little daughter would find it.
Gabrielle smiled as she caught sight of a small piece of burlap protruding from underneath the mattress and gave it a yank. She pulled out the remains of a once full bag of confections. "Well Xena looks like Tarren found it again," she whispered as she placed the candy next to the child’s pillow. "I’ll just leave it right here where she can find it when you two get back," she said, hoping her words were not just spoken in hope.
Gabrielle sat on the large pallet, smiled and closed her eyes trying to recapture the sight of both of her friends sitting beside her in front of a small fire on some off the road campground that Xena had discovered. "Gods…Tarren always loves those special spots you find warrior," she said to the empty air around her.
The young woman let her fingertips run alongside the edge of the sheets of the large pallet. "She’s never going to sleep without you close by Xena. She loves you too damn much. She needs you…loves you. You are her Momma," she said in a faint whisper.
Gabrielle folded her arms against her chest and for the first time allowed a few stray tears to fall as she spoke to whatever essence of her warrior friend still filled the room. "Xena I’m going to do it. I’m going to lead these people into a bloody war. I hope it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know what else to do." She paused. "Ephiny was right. There can be no talking with these animals." Her features grew cold and she wiped away her tears. "So the gentle bard is no more. Now I am Gabrielle Queen of the Amazons and I will fight for them…for you and for…Little Tarren."
The last words were spoken in a soft whisper but the young woman did not allow her emotions to get control.
There was a knock at the door that brought the new queen’s thoughts back to the reality around her.
"Enter," she said in a controlled but quiet response.
A young Amazon bowed her head and stood on the doorway. "My queen. The tribe is ready."
"So it begins." Gabrielle nodded and turned ready to do what she must. The chest was thrown out and the shoulders straightened. "Tell Mussona to take her group west." She paused and let her voice become a bit softer. "Then please get my horse and go to Ephiny’s chambers and get me a sword. I’ll need to borrow one. I don’t have one." She lowered her head as she remembered Xena’s warning about carrying a blade making one a target. "No never mind…I’ll use my staff. Tell everyone we’re moving out now."
These were the orders of an Amazon queen.
The young warrior nodded and sprinted out of the hut to do her queen’s bidding.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and allowed her shoulders to sag. She nodded as she looked around the empty cottage. "Until we are together again my friends…my family…I love you both…I hope you know that." She took a deep breath threw back her shoulders and left the peaceful cottage never again looking back.
As the young queen made her way to the center of the compound she could not help but be impressed by the hundreds of Amazons seated on horseback holding swords and staffs in the air in salute. Some were old and some probably too young but all were willing if not eager to fight and die for their people and their queen.
Gabrielle stopped in front of an old queen bowed and gave a quirky little smile. "You have the toughest job of all Queen Penela. If the other tribes come and do not listen to your words…."
Penela smiled and raised a halting hand in the air. "They will listen if they know what’s good for them." She removed her sword from its sheath and studied it for a moment. "They will listen. Do not fear of that."
The words were filled with such authority and confidence that even Gabrielle found some comfort in them. Penela smiled and handed the blade to the young queen. "My mother and her mother before carried this sword in battle. I would be honored if you would lead these people with it."
Gabrielle eyed the old blade and knew that all eyes were now upon her. She could not refuse such a request and perhaps it would be wiser to be with a sword after all even if she did not plan to use it.
"I would be most honored," the young queen replied, taking the sword by the hilt and placing it in a sheath on the saddle of the mount brought beside her all the while trying to remain unaffected by the weight of the weapon.
The young queen offered out her arm to Penela as she had seen Xena do with many warriors in departure. "Good luck."
Penela smiled and gripped the younger woman’s arm. "And to you Queen Gabrielle." She paused and held her chin high in the air. "Bring our people home…all of them."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and bowed her head respectively and then mounted her horse. "We will." She took one last glance at the faces of her followers and then waved her hand forward. "Amazons…Move out!"
On the trail…
Xena eyes scanned the road ahead as she patted the side of her horse’s mane. She had reached the edge of a large field and could see that to cover the distance to the caves without being attacked in great number by the Argonians she knew surrounded her. "Well girl. I think that Argonian trash wants us to move right down this trail and into those caves." She shook her head. "As much as I would love to oblige them with a fast sword fight I can’t." She thought of Tarren. "No Argo, we’ll just take that little side trail over there and work our way around." She motioned toward a small narrow path that was barely wide enough to ride through. "Then we’ll get real close to the mouth of those caves and call our friends out into the clearing for a chat." She motioned the horse forward. "And then we meet them on an even field of battle," she said through clenched teeth.
Back at the cavern…
Ephiny lifted the small child up and cradled her in her arms as she tried to think of the best way to an attempt an escape. All of the Amazons had joined their thoughts together and ideas were being tossed back and forth in small circles mixed with every tribe. They were not yet bound as one group but they were a step closer than they had been.
The youngster’s cough had gotten worse and the fever had grown with such force that the little one now felt warmer than the burning fire it the center of the cave.
The child reached up her hand to her friend’s face. "Thanks Aunt Eph. I don’t mean to be so much trouble for ya. I know you’d be better off if I weren’t here with ya. I’m sorry." She lowered her eyes knowing her presence forced the queen to be constantly at her side.
Ephiny closed her eyes and wiped a few beads of sweat from child’s to cheek with the side of her finger. "Now you listen to me Junior. I wish you were not here. I wish none of us were here." She paused. "Just how you came to be here is a matter that’s between you and your mother. But your being here is no trouble to me." She paused and glanced at the fire in the center of the room that now had members of various tribes surrounding it. "As a matter of fact you’ve given these people…." She motioned to the Amazons now joined in one group in the center. "Well let’s just say you helped pull everyone together a bit."
The youngster shrugged her shoulders but could not turn her head to look at the other Amazons. "Me? What did I do?"
Ephiny shook her head not quite sure how to respond because she was not sure herself just how this small child seemed to have an ability to alter the lives of the people she touched. "You were just you and that seems to be all it takes kid."
The little girl considered the words as she tried to decide if this was indeed a compliment. "Oh… I want ya to know that Momma and me will understand if ya wanna leave me here when you escape. I don’t think I can walk and Momma wouldn’t want me to be a bigger pain then I already been to ya." She bit her lip. "You go. Momma will come for me soon and I can wait for her here. It’s Ok."
Ephiny’s eyes flared with anger at the mere suggestion that she would ever leave a sick child or anyone else behind not to mention one that belonged to one of her closest friends. "Hey don’t you dare even think like that or your Momma will have to get behind me to tan that little backside of yours." She shook a warning finger. "When we leave here we leave as a team or not at all. Do you understand me?" she said in the most parental no nonsense tone she could muster.
Tarren’s mouth dropped open. "Yes ma’am." the awe struck child replied in a near whisper.
The queen nodded approvingly at the show of respect knowing that it meant that the child now understood her value at that her protector meant business. "That’s more like it."
"Wow you even sound like Momma," the confused little girl replied.
Ephiny wiped a few sweaty hairs from the little girl’s forehead and ran the damp cloth over the hot skin once again. "That youngster is because I am a Momma. I told you I have a son named Xenon."
Tarren turned her head and nestled in closer to her Aunt’s side wrapping her arms around the Amazon’s waist. "Where is he?"
The queen stared at the little girl for a long moment and then smiled at the way the youngster had in one instant decided that Ephiny was a safe source for affection. "He’s with…his grandfather right now," she replied, closing her eyes and trying to gather an image of her young boy.
The little one coughed and the Amazon Aunt rolled the child closer and held her until the hacking stopped.
The child took a few deep breaths and smiled finding comfort in the gentle hold of her newest family member. "Why isn’t he with you Aunt Eph?"
Ephiny was truly starting to enjoy the sound of her new title and hoped it would last longer that just their days in the dark cell. She was beginning to see why it had been so easy for the stoic Warrior Princess to sacrifice so much for this one special child. "Well Tarren…My son is…a bit different and he is sometimes better off with people who understand him better," she replied, remembering the sad look on the little boy’s face as she had departed the centaur village leaving him behind.
The youngster rolled out her lower lip and made an attempt at arching her brow. "Momma says you should never leave your family behind. A kid needs a Momma. There’s nobody that can ever take the place of a Momma." She lowered her eyes. "I know cause I didn’t have mine with me for a long time and now I do and I never ever want Momma to go away again," she said with a tear, wishing her mother would break down the walls and race to the child’s side.
The Amazon let out a long breath. "Tarren it’s not the same. Xenon is better off with his grandfather right now especially while all the negotiations going on. It’s too hard for him to be in the village when I don’t have a lot of time to pay attention to him."
Tarren frowned and shook her little finger at the great queen of the Amazons. "Momma says that having a kid is a Momma’s great goody and it should be work ya love doin."
Ephiny sighed and tasseled the child’s hair. "Oh really. What else does you’re very wise Momma say?"
Tarren considered the question. This covered a lot of ground. "Momma says never touch swords…and stuff and don’t fib…and do what she says or else…and be respectable to old people and…well I forget lots of it but she reminds me when I do."
The queen grinned knowing some of those reminders were well placed on the seat of the youngster’s britches. "I’ll bet she does," she replied with a soft smile.
Tarren twisted her lips and suppressed a cough and Solari offered the little girl a handful of water.
"Drink this child. It will help a bit," the Amazon warrior said with a wink and a smile.
Tarren took the liquid thankfully and eyed the woman. "Thanks lady."
Solari nodded and moved back beside the fire to join her thoughts with the others in attempt to form an escape plan.
The youngster lowered her eyes and her expression became instantly sullen. "Aunt Eph do ya think Momma will be real mad at me for following her?"
The queen thought of her warrior friend and the fear that she knew was now racing through the mother’s soul. "Yup but I think she’ll be so happy to see you that she’ll forget all about that...for a while."
The small child bit her lip and let her eyes grow as wide as she could as she stared at her Aunt. "Do ya think she’ll send me away or trade me in for a better kid?" she asked nervously playing with her pieced together blanket. "I heard there are places where ya take bad little kids and get better ones ya know."
Ephiny’s expression went from amused to serious at what she knew was now a genuine fear of this little girl’s. "No Junior of course not. Your Momma loves you very much. She’d never send you away or trade you for anything in the world. Don’t you know that?"
The little girl nodded. "Uh huh. She loves me lots and so does Gabby." All of a sudden the small child was filled with confidence in this love.
The Aunt let out a long breath. "Then why would you ever ask anything like that?" she asked confused by the conflicting statements.
Tarren shrugged her shoulders again and glanced up at the queen. "You sent your little boy away so I figure he must have done something really bad for you not to want him with ya. I figure that if he could be sent away by his Momma when you say you love him that maybe I can get sent away by mine too for being bad."
Ephiny rolled her eyes at the way the youngster had manipulated the conversation back to Xenon. She wrapped her arms around the child and pulled her closer. "Look Tarren. I love my son very much and he’s a very good little boy. I didn’t send him away. I just sent him to be where it would be best for him."
Tarren shook her head. "Nope you sent him away. Aunt Eph you are a being a very bad Mommy," the youngster declared.
The words cut like a knife.
The queen frowned at this small child who was daring to challenge her choice of parenting skills. "No I didn’t send him away. I just wanted him to be happy. It can be very hard for him to be around the Amazon village and…" Her voice had risen back to that same parental tone again. "And I am getting a little tired of explaining my actions to someone closer to going over my knee than one who barely reaches past it."
The youngster backed away a bit and tried to cover her mouth to hide her coughs. "Sorry," she mumbled.
Ephiny let out a long breath and closed her eyes. "No I’m sorry Junior. I’m not your Momma and I shouldn’t be yelling at you like that. I know you’re just trying to help…in your own way and I appreciate it." She pulled the child closer once again. "Look Tarren sometimes Momma’s have to do things that are really hard even though they don’t want to."
The little girl frowned at the thought. "Ya mean like when I get a spankin from Momma cause I did somethin real naughty?" she asked, not really eager to bring up the possibility of such an event.
The queen nodded and tapped the child on the leg. "That’s exactly it."
Tarren let her small fingers finger the silver beads around her new Aunt’s neck. "But your little boy wasn’t naughty. Why are you punishin him Aunt Eph?"
Ephiny struggled with a way to explain her actions realizing that only weeks ago she would have told this child to mind her manners and shut up. Now the Amazon Aunt was eager to offer explanation to this small child that seemed to be like a sponge constantly in need of information to help understand the world around her. "I’m not punishing him Junior…or I don’t want to. I just need to do what I feel is best for him just like Xena does for you." She paused and lowered her eyes. "And believe me youngster it hurts me a lot to have him away from me," she replied, feeling an all too familiar lump forming in her throat.
Tarren lowered her head as soon as she realized her words had caused her friend pain. "I’m sorry Aunt Eph. I didn’t wanna hurt your feelings but kids need Mommas. I need mine. I wish she was here right now even if it meant I’d get the really big one. I love her lots and I sure do miss her." In an instant the small child’s cheeks were again covered with tears.
Ephiny held the youngster close. "It’s Ok…I know you miss your momma and we’re both gonna see her real soon. I promise." She forced a smile in an effort to keep the sick child focused and talking. "Now in the meantime tell me more of what Xena says about being a good mother. It’s obvious I can use the help," she whispered, not sure if it was really part of her strategy or the truth.
Tarren sniffled a bit and wiped a few stray tears away with the back of her hand before again wagging the little finger. " Momma says that kids belong with their Momma’s and any excuses that people make is just Argo droppings."
Ephiny covered her own face with her own hand and hid a smile. "Really is that what she says? And does she let you say that?" she asked with a smirk, remembering the scolding the child had received for swearing just days earlier.
The youngster immediately shook her head and looked at the queen with pleading eyes. "Uh no…Aunt Eph…Do we haffta tell her I said it? I am in lots of trouble already ya know."
The queen grinned and tilted her head to one side. "No we don’t have to tell her…this time." She paused and thought of her son. All of a sudden it seemed important to make it clear to Tarren just why Xenon was not living in the village for a while. "Tarren I want you to understand that the reason my son is not with me is because I love him…not because I don’t."
Maybe it was not Tarren the queen was trying to convince.
The child lowered her eyes feeling sad for this little boy she had never met. "Ok Aunt Eph…if you say so but all I know is that I don’t care how much trouble I get in or where we go…I’d never ever wanna be away from my Momma for nothin…not for all the candy in Greece even."
This was a great compliment.
Ephiny settled back against the wall wondering if perhaps Xena and therefore Tarren were both right and she should bring her son home. It was definitely something she would consider. She glanced at the little moppet lying so close to her heart that she could feel the child’s breath on her skin. "Hey Junior would you trade Gabrielle for a bag of candy?" she asked with a smile, wondering just how the youngster viewed the bard in her life.
The answer was immediate and without hesitation. "Oh no! She’s my Gabby."
The Aunt grinned at the term. "And just what is a Gabby?" she asked, looking for a definition of the strange nickname.
Tarren hated when grown-ups needed precise instructions on the obvious but made an attempt at explanation anyway. "Ya know…a Gabby. She tells me stories and helps take care of me and stuff."
"Well doesn’t your Momma do that?" the Amazon asked with a smirk, knowing Xena was putting her greatest efforts into becoming the best mother in Greece.
"Yeah but she does it like a Momma not like a Gabby. Don’t you understand the difference Aunt Eph?" the little voice asked with frustration.
The queen smiled and kissed the little girl gently on the cheek. "I think I am beginning to understand a lot of things Junior."
The youngster sighed with relief happy not to have to attempt at a further definition of her family. "Can I ask you a question without you getting mad at me?"
Ephiny chuckled a bit at the way the question had been asked. "Oh this sounds bad. Do go ahead and ask. I promise I won’t get mad Junior."
The growing wealth of affection the Amazon had for this warrior’s child was becoming more obvious with every word spoken
The little girl tilted her head to the side a bit and stared at the Amazons standing in the shadows of the fire. There were so many unfamiliar faces. She had heard that all the prisoners were Amazons and yet some wore feather and others did not. They all seemed the same but were quite different.
The youngster coughed a bit and nestled her head in her Aunt’s side. "Aunt Eph…Are Amazons all one family?"
The queen raised a brow surprised by the simplicity of the question. This seemed too easy but it was still a question deserving an answer. She took a deep breath and stared at the dark images of the group. "Yes once long ago we were as one family Tarren. You remember the story I told you of the Legend of the Last Amazon with queen Reea?"
Tarren immediately smiled as she remembered the wonderful story she had been told on the trail. "Uh huh… it was a really great story Aunt Eph."
Ephiny tilted her head to one side again and ran her slender fingers through the youngster’s mop of damp hair. "You see Tarren it was more than just a story. It really happened. It’s part of my history. As a matter of fact queen Reea was my ancestor...That means part of my family." She paused long enough to allow the awe struck child to absorb this new information. "At that time long ago we were like one big family and now…." She shrugged her shoulders. "We are lots of little families spread out all over the place. That’s why we have been having these big talks at the village. We’re trying to become one big family again. Can you understand that Tarren?" she asked, knowing that at the child’s age it would seem like a lot.
Tarren bit her lip and thought about the situation and all the information she had just been given. "No but that’s OK. Momma says someday I’ll understand all the stupid stuff grown-ups do," she replied still amazed that Ephiny was relate to the legend in one of her favorite stories.
The queen smiled. "Well in the meantime can you understand that it’s really important to have all the Amazons be one family again just like you and Xena and Gabrielle…always together and always helping one another."
The small child blinked her answer but then again bit her lip as if trying to decide if her next questions should be asked. "But aren’t ya all from different places and stuff?" she asked.
Ephiny took a deep breath as she thought of just how wide spread the tribes of the once mighty nation had indeed become. "Yes we are but we are all Amazons Tarren and I hope that is enough to make us one people and keep us together." She paused and tapped her finger on the little girl’s chest. "Besides youngster it’s what’s in ones heart that makes one a family not where one comes from."
Again little Tarren tried to arch a brow. "Ya mean like I keep telling ya about my Gabby?" she asked with her own little smirk.
"Yeah just like your Gabby," the Amazon replied with a nod, for the first time realizing that in this child’s heart Gabrielle was indeed true family.
Tarren smiled proudly knowing she had one some small battle. "So then that’s a good thing…family being together. Right Aunt Eph?"
The queen could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up knowing that this small child of the Warrior Princess was circling for an attack the Amazon had no defense for. "A very good thing and you know it," she replied.
There was a twinkle in the little girl’s blue eyes that said the time for dropping the net had arrived. "Oh…Can I ask the question that’s gonna make ya mad now?"
Ephiny placed her hands up in mock surrender. "I knew it had been too easy…Go ahead finish me. Your strategy is just like Xena’s and you talk faster than Gabrielle. I know I can’t win," she said with a soft smile.
There was a giggle mixed with a low husky cough and the youngster grinned knowing she had just earned a compliment of great value. "Ok Aunt Eph if you’re real sure…See I was just thinkin that if you’re havin all these talks and stuff to make Amazons a big family like me Momma and Gabby cause it’s important even though you’re all different…." She took a quick breath. "Then how come your little boy has to stay away just cause he’s different? Ya see I’m much smaller than Momma and Gabby and I don’t like vegeterribles and stuff and I get in lots of trouble all the time cause Momma says that’s what little kids do…especially hers…and…." Another breath is taken. "Momma says there is just no one in the world like me…Yup I’m one of a kind she says…and Momma hasn’t sent me away."
The words held a child’s wisdom that seemed so pure and insightful and simple that one had to wonder how any grown up did not see the obvious. If there were a white flag to place in the air surely the mighty queen would have done so.
"Amazing." Ephiny stared at the little girl for a very long moment as she considered the question. All of a sudden every reason she had given herself for keeping her son, Xenon, with the centaurs had been stripped away by a very small child.
The Aunt gently caressed the youngster’s cheek. "I guess…he really doesn’t Tarren." She swallowed hard and smiled at the youngster. "I think maybe you and your Momma have the right idea…Family should stick together no matter what and my son should be as much a part of everything that is going on as anyone."
Tarren sighed heavily. Training grown ups was really tough on a kid. "So are ya gonna bring your little boy home?" she asked hoping her work was done.
Ephiny closed her eyes and smiled at the way this youngster had in a moment changed her life around. "I’ll tell you what…When we get out of this mess maybe I’ll bring my son home for a visit so you can meet him." She paused. "I’ll see how it goes from there. Ok?"
Tarren nodded deciding she was too weak and uncomfortable to push for a more definite response from her regal friend. "Does he like to play Warrior Princess?" she asked hopefully, thinking of her favorite game.
Realizing that the child had no idea just what a centaur was made the queen suppress a chuckle. "Uh no…Centaur King is more his game," she replied quietly.
The youngster frowned at the response realizing the boy she had just worked in defense of did not even play games she knew. "Oh…Does he like to play in the mud? Cause I really like covering up in mud and acting like I’m part of the tree. Momma told me that’s the best way to hide…Ya gotta be one with nature Momma says…That’s how I hide from Eponon so easy." She chuckled a bit and let her voice drop to a husky whisper. "But don’t tell her. It would spoil all the fun." She chuckled and coughed.
Ephiny started to smile and then as if struck by the thunder of Zeus, her eyes widened. "That’s it! That’s how we’re gonna get out of here." She looked down at the little girl. "You Junior are a genius just like your Momma."
Tarren smiled broadly. While she was still not quite sure what a genius was. The child did know that any comparison to her mother had to be a very good thing. "Thanks Aunt Eph."
The great queen hugged the little girl tight. "No thank you for reminding me that everything we do or see has value. It’s all in how we use it." She looked to the rest of the Amazons who were not staring oddly at their overly exuberant queen. "Gather around Amazons. Tarren and I have a plan to get out of this rat hole."
Meanwhile back on a nearby path…
As queen Gabrielle and her war party came closer to their destination, the young woman thought of Xena and Tarren. She had seen the fallen forms of Argonians along the trail so she knew that the Warrior Princess had made it this far. However where she was and whether little Tarren was now with her was still unknown to the worried bard. She glanced at the line of Amazons riding silently behind her and sighed. " I hope you know what you’re doing Gabrielle," she mumbled, as her fingers ran from the edge of her trusty staff to the grip of an unfamiliar queen’ sword strapped to the side of her saddle.
The young queen touched the weapon tentatively as if afraid it carried some great disease. Yet when her fingers tightened around the hilt she felt nothing but the steady and even weight of a tool she might need in battle. Her hand fell away from the staff and she removed the sword from its sheath. "Maybe it’s time I face the fact that a queen carries a sword into battle…not a staff."
Gabrielle’s muscles tensed as she thought about the Argonians and how their ruthless interference in her life had caused death and despair and taken away the people she loved the most in the world. As her thoughts darkened her grip on the hilt grew tighter until without even noticing, the young queen of the Amazons was holding the majestic weapon in a two fisted grip over her head. "Amazons ahead," she yelled with such fervor that her words alone sent the group into a faster gallop toward their destination.
Chapter 35 – The Circle of Life
Back in the cell…
The queen stood and faced the Amazons that had formed as a group before her. "I have had enough. I am an Amazon. I would rather die a warrior’s death than live like this even for another moment," she announced to the small crowd of familiar faces and those few that she knew still sat in the darkness on the other side.
There was the soft rumble in the crowd.
"What would you have us do my queen?" Solari asked jumping to her feet ready to take any action ordered.
The reply was fast and without question. "Fight!"
Again there was a rumbling in the group only this time louder.
"How? What is this plan of yours and this child’s," the Amazon of the east asked pointing to the little girl leaning weakly against the wall. "What do we fight with?"
Ephiny let out a long breath and took a step toward the young Amazon as she addressed the entire group. "Are we so dependant on our weapons that we can no longer use our brains?" She looked at the faces of her warriors. "The first Amazons of long ago would have made use of anything at their disposal whether it was a rock or a twig. Everything can be used. It is all in how we match our brains with our bodies and our skills."
The child coughed and the once stiff queen moved quickly back to the little girl and nestled the youngster close to her heart as she ran her hand up and down the young one’s back to soothe the pain of the illness and loneliness of a mother’s absence. "We must work together as one people. There can be no separation in this. It is all or nothing. If you are with me speak," she yelled ignoring the odd stares of foreign faces that surely wondered how a queen would expend so much energy on one child.
Ephiny silenced her own band with the wave of her hand knowing they would surely follow their queen.
There was a long silence and then the familiar young Amazon from the eastern tribe stepped forward. "I am Dawn. Tyrell was my best friend and I will avenge her at any cost. I am an Amazon and I will gladly fight beside you and, if I must, I will die like an Amazon on my feet and in battle."
Ephiny nodded and reached up to offer her free arm to the young woman. "We will give these Argonians a fight they will not forget Dawn of the east. We will honor all that have died." She paused for a moment as she thought of Shalia. "We will honor them more if we honor those that still live first." She glanced at the child in her arms. "Do you understand?"
Dawn nodded in understanding. "Yes Queen Ephiny. We will honor all," she replied, lowering her head respectively to her new leader.
Soon many unfamiliar faces stepped forward to introduce themselves to the queen and offer their allegiance in this still undisclosed plan of battle. The time for merely talking amongst them selves was over. It was now time to see if the Amazons of many tribes could truly bond together as one people again.
Ephiny held her head high as she watched the tribes of the Amazon people join together as one nation to fight an old and still common enemy.
Tarren grinned as she ran her small but weak hand up to touch her friend’s face. "I’ll fight with ya Aunt Eph. If ya want me," she said with a cough, realizing that her size and sickness made her of no real use.
The queen smiled at the red-faced child and closed her eyes. She could feel the shivers that ran through the small figure’s body and knew that the sickness was getting worse. "Are you kidding Junior? I couldn’t do this without you. Why you’re my secret weapon…just like your Momma."
The little girl coughed again and grabbed onto the queen’s arm for protection. "Just like my Momma. " She smiled and reached her hand down to the side of her boot yanking out her chucks. "You can use my chucks Aunt Eph…." She paused as she glanced at her most prized possession in the world, the first part of her mother she had ever known. "But ya gotta give them to Momma when you’re all done. They’re really hers and she let’s me keep them cause she loves me ya know." There was a sniffle and a tear ran down the little girl’s face as she stared at the metal weapons.
Ephiny held the odd wands in her hands and nodded. "No you’ll give them to your Momma yourself," she replied, wanting to reassure the child that she would be reunited with her warrior mother very soon.
Tarren grinned and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. "Ok but you gotta clean them. That’s the rule. Whoever uses them last cleans them," she said quietly.
"Fair enough." Ephiny stared at the wands. She had seen Xena using these odd and intricate weapons with great expertise as the Warrior Princess had demonstrated a maneuver for her child in a drill on a private field one morning on the trail a week earlier.
Tarren had done a fair imitation after only having been shown the movement once demonstrating that she truly was the daughter of the Warrior Princess.
Ephiny took a deep breath as she remembered how Xena had playfully tossed the small child in the air telling her how proud she was of her. The queen had stared for only a few moments and then had chosen to walk away leaving the parent and child to their private time.
Ephiny closed her eyes and thought of her young son as she caressed the cool metal of the child’s weapon. She looked into the blue glazed eyes of her young charge. "Ya know Junior, with these weapons of yours we might just have a chance of getting out of here in one piece."
Tarren smiled at the words and then as if caught by a blinding light froze. Her vision turned inward and she could see the figure of her mother riding atop Argo heading down a dark trail. "Momma…Momma’s coming." The youngster started flailing arms and legs in an attempt to touch that which she could only see in her mind.
Ephiny did what she could to hold the child but was forced to lower her to the muddy floor just to restrain the dazed youngster. "Tarren it’s me…It’s Ephiny…Look at me youngster," she ordered, pulling the little girl’s chin in her direction.
The small child stalled in her flurry of anxious movement to lock eyes on the queen. She ran her face along the edge of the mud. "Momma…Momma’s comin Aunt Eph…I can see her. She’s real close and she’s on Argo and she’s coming for me Aunt Eph…My Momma’s comin for me," she cried.
Ephiny closed her eyes and ran her hand down the child’s cheek. "Of course she is Junior. I told you she would," she replied, forcing a large lump down her throat.
Tarren ran her small fingers across the muddy floor and then wiped her hot cheeks with the dark muck. "Mommy says mud’s good to cool off stuff as long as ya take your clothes off first." She rolled around a bit trying to remove her tunic.
The queen grabbed the little one firmly by the hands. "Tarren no you can’t do that," she said sternly.
Still the little girl struggled to fight with all her little might.
Ignoring the eyes of the crowd that were now watching the queen, Ephiny mustered all the parental authority she could. "Tarren I said no and I mean it. Stop doing that now. You have to leave your clothes on so do as I say right now!"
Recognizing the familiar tone as that of her mother’s, the small child immediately ceased in her efforts and fell back against her friend allowing her tears to fall freely. "But…but…Aunt Eph I’m real hot and Momma say the mud is cool and I’m hot and I want my Momma."
Ephiny took a deep breath and lifted the little girl back into her arms seating herself on a large boulder beside the fire. "I know youngster and I’m sorry." She wiped off some of the mud with the tips of her fingers. She tried to soften her tone the way she had seen Xena do for Tarren. "And I know mud is good for a fever sometimes but it’s too cold in here too cover you in wet mud. We need to keep you as dry and warm as we can until Xena comes. Ok?"
The child sniffled but nodded. "OK Aunt Eph if you say so. You’re the boss until Momma comes." Tarren shrugged. "Wanna play Warrior Princess Aunt Eph?" She coughed again deeper and longer than before as she stared down at the cooling mud. "I’m a Warrior Princess in training ya know."
The queen frowned as she placed the youngster’s make shift blankets over the small shivering form. "You sure are kid…you’re just like you’re Momma." Ephiny stared at the mud on her own hands and smiled as she remembered how the youngster had played Warrior Princess with Eponon back at the village. She kissed the little girl on the cheek. "Tarren you just rest while I get our plan into action," she said with a wide grin.
The youngster smiled at the unexpected show of affection. "Aunt Eph can I have some candy?" she asked reaching around the floor lost in a feverish thought that she was on her pallet in the royal hut and the bag of confections was still neatly hidden under the mattress.
Ephiny grabbed the little girl’s hand and squeezed it tight. "Junior, as soon as we get back to the village I’ll get you all the candy you can eat."
The youngster smiled broadly and brought her attention back to the queen wondering if her regal friend knew just how much confection she had just promised.
Ephiny rubbed the youngster’s head affectionately and looked to her warriors. "Solari…Gruella…Get anything you can find that will hold water and fill it up. It’s time to get to work."
Without asking what this great plan involved each just bowed and jumped into action without question.
The eastern Amazon, Dawn, stepped closer to the regal Amazon holding the child. "Queen Ephiny may I ask just what your plan is for our escape?"
The queen looked at the sick little girl in her arms and then at the Amazon of the east. She tightened her hold on the youngster’s weapons and smiled. "Yes Dawn. We are going to play a little game called Warrior Princess."
Tarren grinned hoping she would be allowed to play the game too.
On the trail not too far away…
Xena studied the trees and the trails looking for the best path to lead her into the open field that lay just ahead. The openings to the caves were nearly in plain sight. She could see them from the thicket she had positioned herself in to get a look at the outlay of the terrain. Everywhere she looked the trees above had been bent and tied to block out the beauty of the hot sun. Surely the entire field would have the same protection. She reached for her chakrum and smiled. "Looks like I’m gonna be doing some pruning all the way down," she purred, ready to cut the ropes and let the light pour in.
There was no reason to hide her approach when she knew that she had been watched from the moment she took to the trail. However, if she caused enough of a threat and a commotion then perhaps the Argonians would come to her and take their attention away from their captives long enough for Ephiny to make an escape. The warrior knew that her Amazon friend would not just sit idly by for too long.
Suddenly Xena grabbed her temples and dropped her weapon as she felt a piercing yell filling her mind. "Momma we need you." It was repeated again. "Momma we need you."
Xena steadied herself and regained control of her breathing. "Tarren." She closed her eyes and remembered the cave-in at Goden and how with the old mystic’s help the warrior mother had been able to send a message to her child with her thoughts. "Tarren baby, I’m coming. Please hold on. I’m coming," she said, hoping with all her heart the words had the power to make it to her little girl’s mind.
With a deep breath the warrior threw her weapon cutting all the bindings on the branches above. Holding her hand straight in the air she caught her returning chakrum. "I hear you Tarren. I feel you and I’m coming for you." With a new faith in her daughter’s well being and a strange sense of guidance, the mother sprinted back to the tethered horse on the trail. Once in the saddle she kicked Argo into a full gallop. "I’m coming," she whispered knowing there was now no force in creation that could keep her from her child.
Back at the cell…
Ephiny glanced at her surroundings and smiled. All was going just as planned so far.
"Whatever happens now…we are all Amazons standing together," she said to the empty air. "Artemis is with us all."
There was silence.
The queen took a deep breath and knelt beside Tarren. "It’s almost time youngster…This is not going to be easy and I may have to do a lot of…bad stuff…to get you out but I want you to know that no matter what it takes I will get you to safety. Ok partner?"
The child’s eyelids were drooping so low her blue eyes were barely visible. "You wanna be my partner like Momma is Aunt Eph?" she asked in such a low voice the queen had to move closer to hear her.
Ephiny ran her hands through the youngster’s hair and nodded. "If you don’t mind…just until she comes."
Tarren was now lost in a stream of faded memories and a delirium of fever. "Ok but I don’t have any good ideas for escaping just yet. I’m still thinkin on it," she replied, letting her head drop lazily to one side.
Knowing the child had been made well aware of the plan that already existed and had already forgotten it concerned the Amazon queen. "Tarren we have a plan. You helped already. Do you remember your part?" she asked nervously.
"Uh huh." The little girl swallowed and blinked her eyes and the queen could see how weak the youngster had become. "Aunt Eph?" The words were low and pleading.
Ephiny held the small hand in her own as she caressed the child’s face gently. "Yeah Junior."
"Can you do me favor?" the youngster asked as a tear made its way from the corner of her eye down her cheek.
The Amazon queen wiped the stream of liquid away with a single finger. "Sure kid. What do you need?"
Tarren opened her eyes as wide as she could and bit her lip as she stared at her friend. "Can you tell Momma and Gabby I love em?"
All the darkness and gloom that surrounded the queen seemed to drop away as she was reminded of a little girl’s dedication to her family.
Ephiny lowered her eyes a bit and took a deep breath. "You can tell them yourself as soon as we get out of here," she replied, knowing the little girl was growing weak very fast. The cold and damp air of the cell and lack of medicine was making something very bad much worse.
The youngster lifted her small hand and touched the queen’s face. "I will but will you tell them too. I wanna make sure they know. Will ya tell them for me…and tell Momma I’m real glad she’s my Mommy…and I love…her lots and I wish…." The broken words were halted by a spill of tears from a child aching to be held by a warrior mother.
Ephiny closed her eyes. "Sure I’ll tell them all that stuff but only because you’ll probably be sleeping a lot after we get you back to a nice warm bed."
Tarren smiled at the thought of the large pallet with the crackling fire in the royal hut she shared with her family. "And will you do something else for me Aunt Eph?"
The time was coming close for action but the queen would not deny this little wonder anything if she could. "What’s that youngster?" she asked.
Tarren bit her lip and lowered her eyes not sure if she was being disrespectful to an elder with her next request. "Can ya not yell at Eponon so much? I know she acts real big and tough and everything but she gets real sad when she thinks you’re mad at her. I like her lots. She’s fun to play with and I don’t want her to be sad."
The queen gave a sad little laugh and lowered herself closer to the little girl’s ear. "You have my word that Eponon will be very happy…I’ll try real hard not yell at her. Ok?"
The small child smiled weakly at the response. "Thanks."
"You’re welcome," the queen replied staring at the small child in absolute amazement.
Tarren took a deep breath and the queen noted the steady wheeze now in the youngster’s lungs. "Aunt Eph?"
The Amazon ran her hands up and down the child’s weapons that had been placed in her care. "Yeah kid?"
The words were soft and filled with innocence but came straight from the little girl’s heart. "I love ya."
Ephiny cleared her throat in an attempt to hold back the rush of unfamiliar emotions pushing forth. "I love you too Tarren…Now…Uh…Let’s stop all this mushy stuff and kick some butt. Ok?"
The child tried to smile but instead coughed so hard that Ephiny had to hold her until the fit passed. The little girl took long hard breaths but still smiled at her friend. "Uh huh. Partners?"
The queen tasseled the little girl’s hair. "You better believe it." She smiled. "You know I’ve never been partners with a real Warrior Princess in training before. I must say that I’m excited," she said wanting the little one to feel important in the ongoing plan that was about to unfold.
Tarren grinned as widely as she could. "Really?"
"Yeah really." Ephiny stood against the backdrop of the dark cavern. She glanced at the small form lying on the ground beside her. "Are you ready Junior?" she asked noting how weak and pale the little girl looked even in the dimness of the shadows from the firelight.
The child coughed and waved her hand. "Uh huh…Momma’s coming Aunt Eph. I told her to hurry cause we need her help. She said she’s on her way. " She again let her head drop lazily to one side. "Momma’s coming…I can see her Aunt Eph. I can feel her." The words were now just a mere whisper not even to be heard.
Ephiny closed her eyes and refocused her thoughts on the task at hand. Tarren was ill, very ill, and if the youngster was to have even a fighting chance at survival, the warrior queen knew she had to get the child to a healer quickly. "I know she is Junior. You just keep calling her and Xena will find you," she whispered, wondering if the little girl could truly communicate with her thoughts or it was just he wishful fever dreams of a very sick little girl.
"Ok Aunt Eph…let’s kick butt." The child coughed again but focused her thoughts on the sight of her mother and in her mind screamed out all the agony and fear which were now consuming this small child’s mind and body.
On the trail…
Xena’s movement came to a fast halt when she suddenly felt a searing pain in her head causing her to place both hands at the side of her temples in an attempt to grasp the power of what was breaking through her thoughts. She nearly fell from her horse as he felt a rhythm of pain shoot through her body. The mother regained her control but in that one flash of lucidity could sense the life force slipping from her young daughter’s grasp. "Tarren no!"
Back at the village…
Penela stood her ground before the Amazons of every tribe that rode angrily into the now empty compound.
"What is this all about Penela?" the angry queen of the north growled, seeing that their was not even a single Amazon none the less an alliance of them. "Is this some kind of trick?"
The old queen looked at the large group of angry faces surrounding her and smiled sorry that she herself ever been that foolish. She waved her hand and pointed to the dead bodies of the Argonians lying in the center of the compound. "No this is about being an Amazon. Now is your chance to decide whether you are one or ever really wish to be one."
Queen and regents looked to their warriors and then to the dead bodies of the strange creatures.
Penela took a step forward. "Are you Amazons or not?" she screamed as she waited to be joined in battle or struck down by her own people as a traitor.
Back at the cell…
Ephiny took a deep breath and swung the chucks freely at her side. "Hey guard." She watched as the shadow of a large head passed the small opening at the top of the door. "That means you ...ugly bastard," she taunted.
A figure came to the steel door and Ephiny could see his dark features through the shadows of the small metal bars. "Shut up woman."
The queen had gotten his attention. "That’s right you leather skinned son of a bachae. I’m talking to you," she said casually twirling the weapon beside her and spewing out as many profanities as she could think of.
Tarren coughed and allowed a weak smile hoping she could remember some of her friend’s words for future reference. Some were not yet on her mother’s forbidden list so those were each safe to make one appearance without fear of retribution.
The guard growled at his prisoner’s disobedience. "What do you want woman?" he asked with obvious disgust for her gender.
Ephiny took a step closer. "I just wanted to say goodbye. As you can see all of my friends have left and I’m going to be leaving soon myself, but I wanted to at least give you a proper farewell," she said motioning to the darkness around her.
The guard laughed at the thought. "You called me here to waste my time Amazon. For that you shall not eat today," he warned.
"Sure I will. I’ll be eating the skin from your bones…after I leave that is." Ephiny grinned at the confused Argonian. "Well why don’t you just take a look around for yourself gruesome. You’ll see that all my friends are gone." She motioned to Tarren. "This child and I are all that remain here…look." She waved her hand around the dark cell knowing the guard’s adapted vision would allow him to see through the darkness as she did the daylight.
The guard cocked his head and looked inside to see that sure enough the cavern was empty. He could see no one but the Amazon queen and the sickly child in his filtered light. "It can’t be," he said with a growl. "Where did they go? How did they get out?" he yelled showing the whites of his pointed fangs.
The trap had been set.
"Sorry but Artemis…whoops I’m not supposed to say." Ephiny steadied herself as she heard the tumblers in the lock moving. He was coming in.
Tarren closed her eyes and again thought of her mother feeling the grip of the cold around her slipping away and the pain of the cough in her chest fading with view of everything else around her.
The door swung open and the large guard entered cautiously waving his blade in every direction, expecting an attack. But the Amazons were nowhere in sight. "Ok woman where did they go? How did they escape?" he repeated through clenched teeth.
Ephiny grinned and gave an evil little laugh. "Now you didn’t think a piece of low blooded, stale smelling, centaur shit like you could hold the pride of the Amazon nation. You’re people could not defeat us in the time of Reea and they will not dare hold us now," she said feeling her own muscles tighten.
He growled and swung his blade in her direction.
Ephiny twirled the wands and with a quick snap of her wrist blocked the blade.
Realizing the agile queen now posed a threat the guard took a step back. "Ok woman. If you will not talk to me then you will speak to Barlon." He made a sound resembling an eerie whistle and soon four more armed guards had entered the cell.
Ephiny stepped back until she was pressed against the wall feigning fear at their approach.
The guard smiled and motioned his men forward. "Oh so now you are afraid. Well it will do you no good," he growled. "Cease her and kill that child. Her coughing has been getting on my nerves all day."
That was the one thing Ephiny needed to hear to kick her greatest skills as a warrior into action.
The four Argonians closed in on the Amazon.
Ephiny looked at the sick child and grinned. "It’s your call Junior," she whispered.
The child smiled weakly but mustering all her followed through on the one task the queen had assigned the Warrior Princess in training. "Mud fight!"
Soon the floors turned into a sea of dark hands and from the walls stepped down Amazon warriors caked in the dark wet dirt of camouflage known to a small child as only mud.
Soon there were the howls of Amazon warrior’s making their attack.
Ephiny moved in with the chucks and disarmed the surprised guard giving her the most precious gift of all, a sword. Soon the muddy Amazons stood victorious and had in their possession five such weapons and an open door.
The queen placed the chucks in her waist belt and motioned her warrior’s to take the point as she reached down for the little girl she had come to love. "Time to go Junior." She knelt down beside the coughing child and lifted her gently into her arms. "Hey that was some fight. Wasn’t it Junior?" she asked, noting that the little girl had barely spoken a word or coughed.
There was no response.
"Tarren?" Ephiny touched the youngster’s burning forehead and felt her insides crumble. "By Artemis no." She grabbed a piece of leather from one of the fallen guards and strapped the child tightly to her back. "You just hang onto Aunt Eph Junior. Don’t you give out on me now…Not with your momma on the way."
The one word with the power to offer strength had been spoken.
There was a low cough and a faint whisper. "Momma? My Momma’s comin."
The queen sighed with relief knowing there was still some spark of life in the small child. "That’s right and she’s gonna be pretty pissed off when she sees the mess we made, so don’t you go leaving me to explain everything all by myself," she said choking on her words.
Tarren tried to smile but instead a louder cough just emerged. "It’s Ok Aunt Eph. I love ya." She closed her eyes and tried to send a message with her thoughts. "Mommy...Don’t be sad. I love ya lots always."
There was no laughter. There were no smiles. Instead only the tears of a small child fighting with all her strength to hold on until her hero, her mother, the Warrior Princess arrived to save the day.
Ephiny reached behind her and grabbed the child’s hand. She swallowed an all too familiar lump in her throat. "Don’t you worry kid…We are getting the hell out of here right now and I promise you that your Momma will be waiting for you."
Somehow Ephiny was now sure that Xena was lurking somewhere outside the caves and the queen knew she had to get her band of half starved warriors out of the dark cell and too the warmth of daylight.
Ephiny secured the youngster tightly to her back and motioned the last of her warriors forward and with Gruella and Solari at her side she herself took up the rear.
As she moved, the queen could hear the cries of her people as those warriors still unarmed tried valiantly to fight in vain against a heavy sword blade. She moved to one side of the dark and narrow corridor knowing that before she could offer her own life to her people and Artemis she had to find safety for Tarren. With one final breath she pushed forward giving the order that would forever be remembered and repeated by all as the time the Amazon people were one again. "Amazons attack!"
There was the hoops and hollers of Amazon warriors running gallantly into a fight and then the cries and screams of the countless who fell to the ground in an attempt to pave the way for their sisters
Ephiny ran her hands along the wet walls of the dark corridor. It was so dark and lonely that she could almost feel a certain pity for anyone or thing confined to live in such a lifeless place. She tapped Tarren on the leg and heard a slight grumble that let the mighty queen know that her young friend was still amongst the living.
The great queen pushed forward until the sound of the battle ahead was mixed with the sight of a very pale light from the outside world breaking through the entrance of an above ground covering of some kind. It had been carefully covered over with brush and branches and packed from underneath with mud but a beam of pale light made it’s way through. "So that’s how they disappear so fast. They must have these covered holes all over the woods," she mumbled, pulling away at the wet moss and dirt until she had cleared an exit to the fresh air above.
The queen heard Solari yelling up ahead that they were nearing the entrance to the cave. Ephiny fought every warrior instinct in her body that screamed to her to take a sword and join the battle but instead yelled. "Take to the open fields. I’m going up here."
Before climbing to the surface the queen noticed how the light fell on the fallen bodies of an Argonian and an Amazon just a few paces away. Each body had a sword protruding from the chest. Ephiny leaned down and pulled the fatal blade from Gruella’s body. She touched the instructor’s shoulder and closed her eyes. "You fought well warrior. Join Artemis now," she whispered, as she closed her warrior’s eyes.
With a heavy breath Ephiny scurried up the hole until she was standing in the center of a large grassy field just outside the caves. The battle below could still be heard. The cries of her friends and fellow Amazons were nearing closer to the outside world. The Amazons were pushing their way to the cave entrance and freedom.
Ephiny looked overhead at the bent trees that masked the strong light and frowned. "Damn!" They would have to fight without the benefit of the sun to warm them or to hinder their enemy.
The queen ran to the edge of the field and placed Tarren under a tree as far from the battle as she could allow the child to be.
Ephiny knelt beside the little one for a moment and ran a tender hand over the burning far head. She knew the little girl was weak and running out of time. "Hang in there just a bit longer kid."
The little girl’s eye’s popped open and she smiled. "Aunt Eph…Aren’t ya gonna go kick some butt?"
The queen closed her eyes and nodded as she looked into the distance to the dwindling band of Amazons that had pushed their way into the world of the light and living. "Yeah Junior. I’m gonna do just that, so you stay here."
Tarren nodded. "I’ll be Ok…Don’t worry about me."
Ephiny swallowed hard at the youngster’s brave words. "You really are just like your Momma."
Tarren grinned and then coughed as she watched the queen sprint off toward the battle sword held high above her head ready to take on as many attackers as she could possibly reach.
The little girl felt a chill run up and down her spine and again her vision turned inward to a bright and clear place.
The youngster smiled broadly and reached out her arms as she saw the image of her mother riding fast and hard on Argo’s back.
Tarren could feel the pain and love emanating from her mother and reached up to embrace the warrior. "Momma I’m here."
The warrior mother of the youngster’s thoughts could not hear the child’s cries but the Argonians did.
Tarren pulled herself to her feet and concentrated on the vision of what she believed was her approaching mother. Stumbling and falling but moving with as much speed as her little legs could must the youngster raced into the forest sure her mother was only a few paces away. "Momma. Momma I’m here."
Hearing the little girl’s plea, Ephiny turned from her fight to see the child disappear into the woods pursued by two Argonians. "Tarren No!" she yelled but it was too late. The child was gone, and the queen was surrounded by a dozen blades all wanting to share in the taste of her blood.
Each raised their blade in the air wanting to be the first to strike but their actions were stopped by one lone figure moving through the insurrection.
It was Barlon. He pushed passed his men and faced the queen who held her blade straight in front of her willing to die with at least one Argonian on her sword.
"So you and your Amazons wish to die like your ancestors. So be it. However you woman shall die by my hand." He motioned toward the other Amazons still caught in a useless fight against too many swords. "Take the living back to the cage, " he ordered one of his nearby men. He glared at Ephiny. "I will deal with this one…personally."
The remaining Amazons immediately formed a protective circle around their queen. "We fight and die as Amazons right My Queen?" Solari asked with her chin held high.
A familiar young Amazon of the eastern tribes agreed. "Yes my Queen. We live or die as one people."
Ephiny nodded proudly at each of her comrades. "As you say my friends…as Amazons." She twirled her blade in front of her and grinned. "It will be my pleasure to watch the life drain from your eyes pig," she growled at Barlon, determined to take him if no one else.
Barlon’s breath became fast and his long fang like teeth appeared. "Kill them all," he yelled.
However before the Argonians could move forward there was the sound of a familiar battle cry and then the sight of a tall leather clad warrior racing toward the battle seated on a great war-horse. She tossed a circular weapon to the trees above slicing all the bindings that held the branches as a mask over the field and bringing forth the bright rays of the sun.
Ephiny turned and watched as the great Warrior Princess moved, as if caught in slow motion, swinging her sword high in the air above her and knocking Argonians one after the other to the ground. "Xena!"
The mere mention of the name seemed to bring a new strength to the Amazons and soon the fighting had begun again with a new fervor, a new force and a new friend.
Barlon raised his blade in the air to strike at Ephiny but before the sword could hit it’s mark a leather whip cracked in the air pulling it from his hand.
Ephiny turned and with lighting speed drove her own blade in to the evil ruler before he could regain his weapon or use his power as leader to call to the clouds for help.
Barlon held his bloody wound only for a moment and then smiled. "Death…finally…." His eyes rolled upward and his body slid to the ground just as the warhorse with the whip-wielding warrior came to a sudden halt beside Ephiny.
The queen rushed to meet her friend. "Xena thank you I…"
"Eph where’s Tarren?" the mother asked nervously scanning the grounds for her child.
The queen swallowed hard and pointed to the woods. "She ran that way calling your name." She paused and lowered her eyes. "She knew you’d come for her Xena."
Xena yanked on the reigns and looked at the still unbalanced battle raging before her. The Amazons were still vastly outnumbered.
Ephiny motioned her friend away. "Go find your daughter warrior. We’ll take care of this matter…Hurry the kid is very sick."
Xena nodded to her friend. "I’ll try and get back." With a quick kick of her heels the warrior rode away from the fight to find her child before it was too late.
Ephiny took a deep breath and looked at her small band of warriors fighting against what she counted as more than 100 Argonians. The open sky had offered some protection but the Argonians were still worthy opponents.
The queen tightened her hold on her blade and readied herself to enter the fray knowing her life would be given up quickly in the name of her people. However before she could take another step the sound of a hundred hoof prints coming from two directions filled the air.
Sheloppa pulled her sword from a bloody victim tilted her head to one side and smiled as she watched Amazons on horseback break through the trees straight onto the open field in a full charge led by a small blond holding a borrowed sword straight in the air. "Amazons attack!"
Hearing the familiar voice ordering in a now commanding tone, Ephiny turned to see Gabrielle leading an entire tribe into battle. "By Artemis now I’ve lived to see it all." Ephiny smiled and ran into the center of the battle knowing the odds had changed just a bit in their favor and the war that never was 100 years before was about to happen now.
Tarren raced through the woods until she reached an empty trail. Using all the strength that was in her small fever racked body the child stood looking down the path sure she would see her mother’s image riding on the great war horse just as the youngster had seen in her thoughts. However the trail was empty and the small child was alone…or was she.
"Momma!" Tarren continued to call but there was no response so little girl bit her lip and dropped to her knees in tears as she now whispered her cries.
"Momma…I’m here. Come get me please. Where are ya Momma?" The little one stared at the vacant land around her as she felt her limbs crumble and the tears flow from her eyes. "Mommy!" The word rung through the trees like an echo lost in time but the child could not see her mother. However two approaching Argonians saw Tarren and held their swords high ready to take the life of the warrior’s child.
Tarren fell back against the dirt. She had no weapon and no strength to even run. The youngster struggled to get to her feet and meet these two attackers standing just as any good Warrior Princess in training would do.
The youngster bit her lip and tried to stifle a heavy cough as she watched the men approach. She closed her eyes and looked to the sky. "Love ya lots Momma," she whispered, knowing it might be the last time she ever got to speak those words.
The two Argonians moved without hesitation swords held high eager to for any life they could take in this battle, even if it was only one of a small and very sick child.
The first Argonian smiled and was about to drop his blade when his actions were quickly halted by the movement of a spinning disk cutting through the jugulars of both attackers sending them quickly to their god.
Little Tarren turned around and saw her mother racing down the path on the large horse her cape blowing in the air high above. "Momma!"
The child reached out her arms but there was just no strength left in her body so she just crumbled to the ground in a small heap still calling out her mother’s name hoping it was not another vision.
"Tarren!" Xena jumped from Argos back and raced to her youngster’s side lifting the little girl into her arms. "Tarren…Tarren baby it’s me…It’s Momma. I’m here. Everything is Ok now." The warrior wiped tears from her own eyes as she cradled the weak child. "Momma’s here and I’m gonna take care of you…I promise."
The small child reached up a weak hand and ran it across her mother’s now tear stained face. "I knew you’d come Mommy. I knew you would…cause ya love me right?"
Xena held the little as close to her heart as she could as she removed her cape and placed it snugly around the little one’s shivering form. "Oh yeah I love you lots and lots…baby," the mother replied, knowing the youngster was very sick and time was short if she was to save her child.
As the warrior mother considered the best path back to the village there was a the sudden crunch of twigs from the ground behind and the warrior knew that there were now at least five Argonians with swords drawn waiting behind her. She placed the youngster gently on the ground. "Hold on baby, Momma had some more work to do before we go." Without effort the warrior vaulted in the air landing right between would be assassins and her child sword drawn taking down one attacker after another as she moved.
Tarren blinked her eyes trying to watch the skirmish but there was a blinding light and then a soft glow that blocked her vision of the battle. "Momma," she whispered as a lone figure stepped from the light and knelt by her side.
The little girl’s eyes grew wide and she drew back just a bit at the site that was now before her. "Shalia?" The words were filled with shock and happiness at the sight of her friend.
The figure knelt beside the child and cradled her in her still luminous arms.
Tarren opened her eyes wide trying to focus determined to be sure that what she was seeing was real. She could still hear the sounds of swords clashing but the glowing face of the figure before her blocked any sight of the horror.
While the face of this person was familiar the wardrobe was not. This Amazon wore a headdress with many feathers and armbands of solid silver with odd etchings like that of the bracelet Shalia had given Tarren as a gift. Around her neck the figure wore a thin chain with a heavy solid gold key dangling from it.
The youngster reached up to touch her friend. "Shalia I thought you were gone."
The Amazon nodded. "Yes Tarren I am…Shalia for you and I have told you that one must not always believe what one sees with the eyes. You must believe with your heart," she said touching the little girl’s chest.
The little one smiled and then tilted her head to listen closer to the sound of her mother fighting the five Argonian warriors just paces away. "Momma’s kickin butt," the child, stated matter of factly.
"Yes child and she is doing very well as a Warrior Princess should but you need her now so perhaps it would be best if we helped her just this once." The figure raised her hand in the air and soon the warrior stood alone in her battle, all the Argonians having disappeared with the wave of this strange Amazon’s hand.
Xena glanced around her at the now empty space where her opponents had stood just moments before. She sheathed her blade and quickly her thoughts returned to that of her young daughter but when she turned to where she had left the child the warrior was staring at the familiar face of a young Amazon. "You…Shalia? I saw you fall."
Tarren coughed and reached up a hand toward her approaching mother. "Momma, Shalia’s back. We didn’t lose her," she cried, using all the effort she had to stand and reach her mother.
Xena raced to the child’s side and dropped beside her. "Tarren calm down. It’s Ok…I can see Shalia…Just relax baby…." The concern in the mother’s voice outweighed the mystery of just how the young Amazon came to be with the living once again.
"But Momma…I knew you’d come. You always come for me," the little girl whispered in the mix of a loud cough as she grappled to hold onto her mother’s armor. "Love ya Mommy." With those words spoken the youngster went limp in her mother’s arms.
Xena’s eyes filled with fear and her voice became frantic. "Tarren…Tarren."
She nestled the little girl closer to her and dropped an ear to the little girl’s chest grateful that there was till a heartbeat. "Thank the Gods," she whispered.
The quiet figure of the young Amazon patted the child’s warm head. "She is quite sick. Under her pillow in the cottage you will find an old vile. Pour two drops into water and give it to her to drink. I do not know if it will help …enough…but it will remove the fever." She paused. "That vile contains 100 years of testing herbs for medicines. Use it wisely and perhaps you can duplicate it Xena."
"Thank you." Xena stared at the form before her as she cradled her youngster in a maternal fashion stroking the little girl’s head. "Who are you?" she asked noting the difference in the stature and dress of the form before her.
The Amazon sighed and closed her eyes as she studied the ill child now held protectively in her mother’s arms. "I am queen Reea."
"From the Amazon legend?" the warrior asked as if wanting to be sure she had the identity correct.
The expressions on the strange figure became sullen and her eyes lowered a bit. "Legend? Well I never really thought of my life or people as a legend…more of a curse."
The warrior had no time for philosophical discussions. "How…What are you doing here?"
The mystical queen caressed the gold key around her neck. "I have walked these lands in search of a pure heart for 100 summers Xena and never have I found one that could be trusted with the key to the Chest of Visions. All the Amazons were filled with such hate and blood lust after the war of long ago that the generations that grew from it forgot about the meaning of compassion and understanding."
"That does not explain why you are here or how you were Shalia," the mother said moving her now sleeping child protectively to one side.
Reea looked from mother to child as if she were trying to find the spot where the two joined and became one. "Artemis granted me a wish. She allowed me to take the form on young Shalia and walk amongst my people in hopes of learning more about them…or guiding one leader toward the right path."
"Ephiny?" the warrior said now realizing that her regal friend was not only a descendant of this strange figure but also had been raising her.
Reea lowered her eyes knowing that the queen was feeling the pain of Shalia’s loss. "Yes…but for so long her heart was filled with such anger and venom. It is only recently that I saw the change begin. Unfortunately I could not stay long enough to know if she would be the one to make the difference and now…."
The warrior lifted her child into her arms and stood. Time was too short to talk any longer. "So you chose Tarren?" she asked with confusion.
Reea chuckled a bit and touched the youngster hand caressing the small fingers with the side of her thumb. "No my friend…She is just a baby and her heart while pure is wild and without discipline."
Reea placed a gentle hand on the warrior’s shoulder and Xena felt a strange sensation pass through her body. "However the two of you combined as one heart are as pure and strong as one soul can ever hope to be." She removed the gold key from around her neck and draped it over the joined hands of mother and daughter. "I will trust your combined heart to do the right thing."
Xena stared at the key now in her grasp at then Reea. "But we are not Amazons."
Reea smiled a bit. "In your heart Xena…you know you are my friend."
Xena nodded and slid the key around the sleeping child’s neck. "Shalia…I mean Reea…thank you for…everything."
The figures stared innocently at her friends as her form started to once again glow and fade out of existence. "No Xena Warrior Princess… Thank you. Now I can go home." There was a look of peace and contentment in the fading expression.
"Please tell Tarren that Shalia went to see her mother. I think that the baby will understand…Good luck my friends."
Xena nodded as she watched the face of two important warriors with the same face disappear.
The mother cradled the youngster in her arms. "Come on baby I have to get you back to the village and that medicine," she whispered, knowing how ill the child was.
Down on the field…
Gabrielle kicked at the dark figures as they charged her mount. Using only the pommel of the sword she swung the weapon from left to right clearing a path between she and Ephiny. When she was sure the Amazon was close enough Gabrielle dropped from the saddle and ran to her friend’s side. "Eph are you Ok?" she asked as she pushed away an attacking Argonian with the flat side of her blade.
"I’m fine." Ephiny ran the edge of her own weapon across the throat of an attacker and then faced her friend. "I don’t know what you are doing here but I sure am glad to see you." She looked at the sword in her friend’s hand. " Gabrielle either use that thing the right way or throw it to the ground before you get your self killed," she warned.
Gabrielle shook her head as she drove the dull but heavy pommel into and approaching Argonian’s eyes. "I’m doing just fine thanks." She looked around the field. "Where are Xena and Tarren?"
The Amazon Queen’s face went blank. She motioned to the woods on the far side of the clearing. "Tarren is real sick Gabrielle. She ran off into the woods and Xena went after her."
Feeling her place was now with her family the bard mounted her horse and quickly headed in the direction that Ephiny had pointed out leaving the great battle to rage on without her.
In the distance Xena could hear the fighting of her Amazon friends. "What is the greater good?" she asked, caressing her child’s hot brow.
The warrior mother walked with the little girl cradled limply in her arms. "Ok baby we have to get you back to the village and get you all better," she whispered running her hands over the child’s sweaty skin.
The decision had been made.
Hearing the sound of a pair footsteps behind her made the warrior mother turn quickly ready to drop to the ground and shield her young daughter as she tossed her already handy chakrum to the throat of the approaching man. "Don’t make me waste a precious minute now," she growled, as she turned ready to toss her famed weapon through the air.
However as the warrior faced the hideous expression of an Argonian warrior his sword held ready to strike, Xena noted that his muscles of the man were already drooping in lifeless fashion and protruding through his midsection was the point of a heavy blade.
As the mad crumbled tot the ground the warrior lowered her chakrum and came face to face with the unbelievable. "Gabrielle?" she questioned seeing her once gentle friend release her grip on the handle of the heavy and fatal blade.
The bard looked from the body of the man she had just killed to the face on her best friend’s face. "Xena…I…He…."
The Warrior Princess swallowed hard and reached out an affectionate arm that the bard gratefully accepted. The young woman stared at her warrior friend and then the child in the mother’s arms.
"Tarren?" she asked noting the child’s unhealthy appearance.
The mother tightened her hold on the child and placed a loving kiss on the little girl’s forehead. "I have to hurry back to the village."
Gabrielle stepped over the dead Argonian and pulled on the reigns of her mount before climbing in the saddle. "Then what are we waiting for?" she asked pushing away her feelings and concentrating on what was most important, Tarren.
The Warrior Princess held tightly to her little girl as she too mounted. "Let’s go then," she whispered, pointing her horse in the opposite direction followed closely by the queen turned bard.
Xena closed her eyes and allowed a tear to fall. She dropped her sword to the ground so she could better hold her little girl in her arms. Slowly she turned away from the familiar sounds of battle knowing full well that the Amazons would be triumphant without her help
Ephiny smiled broadly as she heard the thundering sounds of hundreds of horses entering the field of battle. She turned to see an old but very wise queen leading the pride of every Amazon tribe in a charge onto the field.
Now everywhere one looked all that was seen was Amazons of every tribe mixed in battle against one enemy.
Just as the Argonians were about to meet their final demise there was a burst of light in the sky above and Artemis appeared before Ephiny.
The queen bowed. "My goddess."
Artemis smiled and touched the Amazon on the shoulder. "Rise Ephiny. The battle is over and all is as it should have always been. There is no longer need to raise your sword today. Your people are whole again."
Artemis raised her hand in the air and all the Argonians both living and dead and any trace of their existence disappeared leaving only a field filled with one nation of cheering Amazons and a very confused queen.
That’s right part 11 is finally done and I am working on part 12. Don’t forget to feed my pet EGO. He has been eyeing part 12 kind of closely. J firstname.lastname@example.org
On a more serious note…When I receive e-mail regarding my stories I always ask where people saw my story since it is up in a few places. It is disheartening to see that so many read the story here but I never here from those readers. I know from the counters that the stories are read but I also know from the feedback I get that these are NOT the people who write to me. I cannot stress how important it is to feed ALL the bards you read. I don’t speak just for myself because I am fortunate enough to have a fair amount of feedback come my way. However if you as readers could understand the time and effort that is put into a story then you would appreciate how much a little feedback means to the writer. I do this because I love to write and hope to improve my skills enough to write professionally so to me feedback is like an education from the public. Think about it folks and try and give to the writers the way they try and give to you.
Also I do have a mailing list. Anyone wishing to join should contact me.
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