The air smelt... peculiar. The short, solidly built woman dressed in dark leather and darker armour crouched against a wall, dark eyes flicking repeatedly around the space. It was a narrow corridor, and at its end, a strange room with a door no one seemed able to open. Lucky for her, her job wasn't to open it. Not so lucky for her, her job was to stop the Warrior Princess from opening it. Ares had insisted... she was the only one who could potentially succeed in stopping his former protege, "Even though you are a runt." he had sneered. The woman scowled. She had never asked to become one of Ares' goons. It just happened that her father had been incensed not to have a son. Then he had decided, in the perverse way some fathers who don't really deserve the title do, to drop her off at a temple of Ares. Later, she had been told he had declared no doubt she would be a fine bodyslave to someone. But followers of Ares are nothing if not contradictory, and somehow, the men who found her couldn't find it in themselves to mistreat her.
And so, against all odds, in the most peculiar fashion, she had grown up in an army. Unlike most Greek girls, heavy exercise was always her lot, and she relished it. Quick enough to teach herself to read, and shrewd enough to figure out the best ways to maintain the small freedoms she had, in time she had earned the heavy black armour and its accompanying leather and weapons. Now leader of Ares' largest army, it had fallen to her to take the beating when the Warrior Princess showed up. The woman ran a finger along a harsh scar along the angle of her jaw, prize from a fight with a Thrakian mercenary. Part of what had prevented her job from becoming more... akin to that of a brothel unfortunate, was that she fought with whatever it took, was quick, and heinously strong. The other was the fact that she was no beauty, when it came down to it. Square jawed, scarred from adolescence and fights, together with her strong build made her curiously androgynous. Men generally found this, discomforting, disconcerting. That was all right. She didn't much care for them in terms of bed sports either.
Footsteps. The woman listened. Two sets, one heavy, one light, as expected. She padded ahead, and positioned herself in a small alcove, hacked out in a manner suggesting the job hadn't actually been finished. The corridor was narrow, chosen deliberately to prevent the use of sword and chakram. Since she had chosen it, she had a vicious dirk, and this she drew, fitting her fingers around the hiltless handle. It made no sound as it came from the scabbard, everything having been carefully fitted, polished, and oiled. The Warrior Princess had spectacular hearing. For this reason, the dark woman had learned how to steady her breathing and make it as quiet as possible. Her armour and leather neither creaked nor smelt. Like her opponent, she was a quick moving, acrobatic warrior. The only potential problem was the bard, and she had already decided the best thing would be to disarm her and knock her out as quickly as possible. Then the Warrior Princess. No one had to die. Killing for the sake of killing struck the woman as quite stupid. She watched, smiling faintly as small bits of detail began to resolve into two people. When you were a warrior for a living, it was hard enough to sleep at night without adding a few more careless deaths to your conscience.
The Warrior Princess moved slightly ahead, checking. And the bard stubbornly opposed any attempt by the warrior to keep her at a safe distance, watching her back with fierce eyes. Their watcher smiled wider. Admirable. Completely foolish, but yes, admirable. Even to someone who had spent a lifetime in an army serving the most fickle of gods.
She moved smoothly and silently from her hiding place, slipping behind the bard and using the side of one hand to knock the bard senseless. Having dealt with the minor objective she turned to the major. A pair of blazing, furious, glow in the dark blue eyes glared at her.
"That was a bad idea."
The other woman didn't bother to answer. This was the Warrior Princess. Any time spent on smart ass comments would be simply to give the fight to her. A short, sharp swing of the dirk, and her opponent dropped back a little, slipping into a slightly crouched position. Those weird eyes had already taken in their surroundings. The torch she had been carrying had been carefully dropped to one side, the bard's kicked slightly away from her to be sure the unconscious woman wouldn't get burnt. She had taken note of the things she could and couldn't do. The dark woman leapt forward, and the Warrior Princess sidestepped, kicking her solidly in the back. Only a little more of the dark woman's peculiar sort of luck kept the dirk out to the side, away from her ribs, where she was sure she probably would have died falling on it. Dying was tedious. Refusing to let the dirk go, she turned back to the warrior, noting the bard beginning to move on the periphery of her vision. She swung, the Warrior Princess leapt, and now the dark woman tried something she had worked on, considering the confined space.
Picking up momentum with a couple of steps and a bouncing leap, she ran two steps up the wall and back flipped landing behind the warrior. There was the woman's back, and really, it had all been too easy.
Something smashed the hand holding the dirk, so much so the fingers went numb and all she could feel was pain in her wrist. And then, a peculiar, almost cold sensation in her side. Her limbs seemed paralyzed, and where before the corridor had been mostly dim, even with the flickering light of the two torches the other women had brought with them, oddly it seemed brighter. Spots danced at the periphery of her vision, and her chest began to feel very heavy.
"Talk. Who sent you here?" grated the Warrior Princess.
"I'll see you in Tartarus." the dark woman choked out. Her hands flexed uselessly. Where was that damned dirk? You didn't get as far as she did without persistence.
"No you won't," the bard declared fiercely.
"Gabrielle," sighed the Warrior Princess. The bard's chin jutted, expression unrepentant. "I can see you serve Ares. He must have picked you out pretty carefully. This was well done. What are you here to prevent me from doing, hmmm?"
Black spots were beginning to swim in front of the dark woman's eyes, instead of the pale ones at the edges. She could feel blood running out of her nose. She felt, very cold. "Won't tell you."
"Why?" the Warrior Princess asked bluntly.
"Never tell anything." The peculiar smell in the air... suddenly she knew what it was. It was a sort of mold, that often grew in damp places.
The bard squeezed the warrior's shoulder. "Xena," she said, quietly, an expression of horror on her face. She was staring at the dark woman's side. The dark woman's eyes slid upward. She never told anything. Not even to Ares. It had served her better than anything else, even her sword. Even her wits, to her vast irritation. A vague question floated by her awareness. Why did it always feel cold when this sort of thing happened?
Xena leaned back on her haunches, then quietly stretched the dead warrior out, straightening her limbs and covering her in a cloak tossed into a corner of the alcove. Apparently she had been standing on it to silence her feet.
"Xena?" Gabrielle choked. "Xena, I..."
"I know." the warrior gazed at her for a moment.
"I thought I knocked it out of her..." the bard swallowed, hard, as she glanced the peculiar shape sticking out of the dead woman's side.
"I thought so too, then... I never hear the dirk fall on the floor. Gabrielle, it was an accident."
The bard scrubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. "She was going to kill you."
"It doesn't make me feel better."
"It won't." Xena sighed sadly. "Not even knowing that it was basically an accident won't." she ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "I could lie, and say something else."
"No you can't." Gabrielle smiled a little through her tears.
The lopsided half grin the bard loved so much appeared for a fleeting moment, almost a ghost. "Come on. Time to get through this door and settle this thing once and for all."
The door was massive, made of blocks of stone bound together in places with heavy strips of iron. It was covered in symbols in some language neither the warrior or the bard recognized. There was no handle, and the door was solidly shut. Grimmacing, Xena began to hunt around for some way to get the door open. Their search of the strange complex, made up of half natural, half artificial caves had yielded no other ways into this room. According to the scrolls they had found about it, and the broad hints dropped by an old friend of Xena's long ago, when she had bitched one time too many about being Ares' Chosen, within that room was a means of binding Ares for eternity. He would have but three chances to escape, under specific, difficult to arrange circumstances. So long as someone was ready to foil him in the attempt, he would remain trapped. Forever.
Xena had already decided to stick to just worrying about getting him trapped in the first place. It was too soon to think about forever. She paused, running long fingers over the characters. Who was she kidding? She scowled. For her there was no forever. Just the tail end of a short, violent life, and then entrapment of her own, in Tartarus. Gabrielle denied it every chance she got, but... the warrior turned angrily away from the door. Denials couldn't change the truth. She picked up the second of the torches they had brought in from its guttering place on the floor, and began to examine things even more closely by eye and hand rather than by eye alone. Her hand ran over a curious spot, smoothed, seemingly by a hand a bit larger than her own. A gentle push, and against reason or expectation, the door began to open, moving soundlessly on counterweights and pivots. The musty smell in the air gave way to rock dust and time, and a peculiar milky light spilled out into the narrow corridor. Warrior and bard looked at each other, then walked in, shoulder to shoulder... okay, shoulder to elbow... unsure what they'd see.
At first they saw precisely nothing, their eyes still too used to the guttering half light of the torches in the close corridor. Then the brightness resolved itself into a simple room, very large, with a domed ceiling. The floor was smooth in the way that a cliff is smooth, with occasional cracks you could just feel if you ran your fingers over them. The source of the light hovered high in the air, a peculiar eye. Dominating the far end of the room was a sarcophagus, its lid at the ready nearby. Beyond those details, there was nothing. No indication of another way out. No helpful directions as to how to trap a god.
"Okay." Gabrielle held up both hands, propping her staff against one shoulder. She had stubbornly pulled herself together. It was time to get this show on the road. "Okay. I understand. Set out everything, assuming whoever needs to use it already knows what they're doing. That's nice." she turned around and began stalking angrily up and down. "This is exactly how I wanted to finish up. Stuck down here, in a creepy place, hoping some jerkwad of a god will turn up and chuck himself into a trap..." It was important for Ares to believe she didn't quite know what was going on, and that she would stand by like a numb bunny or something as a result.
"Gabrielle," Xena called, apparently trying to get the frustrated bard's attention. Damn but that woman was a good actor, the warrior thought to herself wryly. "Gabrielle!" The bard ignored her, her newly trimmed hair getting steadily more unruly as she got more excited, deeper into the play. Her new deep red leathers were very striking, and every time she waved a hand or arm a flash came from the metal tooling on her new leather bracers, a gift from Xena the bard had delighted her over by wearing constantly. In fact, the first night Gabrielle had them, she had wound up falling asleep with them on. All together, outrageously cute. Somehow those little flashes still turned up, when Xena was least expecting them, of a much younger person from Potidaea. "Gabrielle!" Xena tried again. No answer, which was getting a bit extreme... that was the trouble with bards they could get carried away so easily... she took drastic measures. She caught hold of the front of Gabrielle's form fitting top, and hauled her to a stop.
"Would you relax? I told you, I know what to do."
"I know you told me that." Gabrielle's eyes flicked down to where Xena's fingers still had a grip on her top, and one pale eyebrow slipped upwards.
"And you didn't believe me?"
"No. Of course I believe you. I just want insurance."
"Insurance?" blurted Xena. Life didn't get much weirder than this. Here was Gabrielle, acting, and herself, honestly confused.
"Oh, trust me, blondie. You've got insurance." Ares glowered from the newly open doorway. "Someone told Xena the rules of this place. Whenever someone makes it in here to challenge me, I must answer. If they win..."
"You get imprisoned in the sarcophagus, held in place by the Eye of Hephaestus." drawled Xena.
"I wonder who told you about that." Ares strode closer, oozing his particular oily charm. "Xena, this is a waste of time. We all know what you really want. We all know what I really want. Enough playing with this blonde, and breaking your back trying to get redeemed. You know it'll never work. There is no redemption for you, Xena. Just more of the same, and then Tartarus. Unless of course, you agree to come back to me..." he slid closer, intruding resoundingly on Xena's personal space, getting so close she could smell his sweat and his breath. Neither on her list of things to learn about. "Don't you miss it, Xena? Don't you miss what it was like to be really alive? The excitement of the battle. That black energy nothing else can match... it's like a drug, Xena. Some of us have to have it. Like me. Like you." He had gone so far as to try to tangle his fingers in her hair.
"You're wrong." Xena replied, so close to his mouth, if he had been quicker, he might even have kissed her. But the warrior never gave him the chance, and punched him soundly in the groin. "We're wasting time, Ares." she said flatly as she drew her sword.
For a few moments he crouched on the floor, cursing how she always seemed to find a way to defy him. "Only one of us, Xena." he snarled angrily. "Only one of us is leaving this place." Rising slowly he added, 'Then I'll teach the little blonde how to treat me with respect."
'So far, so good.' the bard thought nervously. 'This plan had better work Xena.' she grinned a little. 'Especially since I thought of half of it.'
For a few moments the two warriors stood there. Xena sighed. If Ares could get any more predictable... she half turned, mock yawning. Immediately he swung at her, and she easily parried the blow. "Ares," she chided mockingly. "Beheading isn't your style!" The blows rang quickly after that, as they pushed each other around the room, Xena carefully maneuvering Ares to get his back to the sarcophagus.
"Oh, it just won't be that easy, Xena." snarled Ares, kicking her across the room.
Struggling to her feet, Xena resettled her armour and tightened her grip on her sword. "Can't blame me for trying." One of Ares' favourite phrases. The god looked stung in spite of himself.
Moving quickly, Gabrielle ran around the lid of the sarcophagus. According to what Xena knew from the mysterious friend she wouldn't name, the slab of stone was actually boosted up off the floor just a bit less than a sword hilt wide, and the whole thing sat on an ingenious system of rollers and ramps. Jam something under the propped up side and heave, the lid should fall over onto the sarcophagus. Then the Eye of Hephaestus was supposed to do its thing, and seal it shut. Blows rang out across from her, and Gabrielle looked up in time to see Xena backhand Ares across the face. She winced. Getting Ares angry was all very well, but if he started throwing fireballs they could have a problem.
At last, there the gap was, and Gabrielle jammed the end of her staff into it, heaving a little. The lid moved a little, but only a very little. Cursing in frustration, the bard started heaving again, until the veins stood out in her arms and she was sure they must be protruding from her forehead. She spared a glance for the fight, and found herself growing uncomfortably aware of how mirrorlike the two warriors' moves were, leaving aside Xena's naturally greater speed. A short, arcing swing from Xena would be automatically guided away by Ares, his sword already responding before the swing had become fully visible. The blood began to pump around the bard's veins a little faster, as the thought really came to her for the first time. Was Ares literally aware of every move Xena would make before she did? They seemed to be testing each other, it was true, first one, than the other attacking first.
"That's enough of a warm up for me." drawled Xena. With that, she somersaulted over the god's head, landing behind him and knocking him flat. "Come on, come on... you're supposed to be the god of war." she twirled her sword, and flashed an arrogant smile. Growling with rage, Ares exploded off the floor, swinging furiously in an attempt to drive Xena back against the wall and disarm her.
Finding herself barely an armslength from the wall and serious trouble, Xena began sidestepping the blows, distantly aware of the fragments of rock and the sparks Ares was striking off. Another slight pause between swings, and Xena punched him solidly in the gut and dashed around the room, ending up standing in the sarcophagus. The god actually hesitated, torn between his intense desire to finally beat this mortal at her own game, and the need to avoid the trap. "Don't be a fool, Xena! Your friend forgot one important detail... the trap can close on anyone." A desperate gamble. But if he could get her away from there, he could get the upper hand back.
Xena stared at Ares for a long moment. She felt no threat, no danger, and long seasons fighting had taught her to obey her instincts. He was lying, she was sure of it, but why? And then, in one of those weird flashes she had every now and again, she knew the answer. "All right Ares." she pointed to a ledge above the sarcophagus. "Let's take it up there. Whoever wins, gets trapped." Ares glared at her furiously. "You can't leave without answering my challenge in one way or the other, Ares, and I am challenging you." Working her voice up into the booming, space filling timbre she usually reserved for whipping armies into a frenzy.
The lid of the sarcophagus was sitting on a balance point now. One more push, and Gabrielle was sure she could get it falling. Now the problem was how to keep the damn thing from falling before Ares was in the sarcophagus.
Ares smiled. "I'm going to make you wish you hadn't done that." Leaping onto the ledge, he waved his sword at Xena. "You asked for it."
Xena leapt onto the ledge herself, and easily knocked aside Ares' first swing. They swung at each other again, and this time, Xena's sword broke, the fragments of the blade falling with a ringing clatter into the sarcophagus. Struggling to keep herself in one piece with a bare finger length above the hilts was no easy task, and after a few more blows she literally slipped off the ledge, barely catching herself before she dropped into the sarcophagus. Gripping its edge with desperate fingers, she found herself wishing that just once, the original plan would turn out to be enough. If she fell now, she was liable to break something.
"Oh, Xena, I see a problem." Ares knelt down beside her, conjuring up a fireball. "There's the bard." Xena flicked a gaze over to Gabrielle, where she was struggling with the sarcophagus lid, her staff an impromptu lever. "She's preoccupied. Unarmed. Join me Xena, or, oh..." he twirled his fireball. "I may have to... pass her on to Hades."
"You should know by now Ares, I'll never join you." Xena had dropped one hand to her side. Funny, how the god seemed to have forgotten about her chakram. Their bouncing and struggling had made her realize the ledge wasn't as solid as it looked. The same jointing evident on the floor ran inexorably through its attachment point to the cave wall. The chakram slipped into her free hand easily, and she looked around. It was going to be close. Maybe too close. Damn.
"Why Xena, I thought you cared." sneered Ares, bringing back his arm.
"You'll never understand how much." The chakram collided sharply with the underside of the ledge, right by the wall, striking acrid, unpleasant smelling sparks. It ricocheted away, bouncing off of three walls. Xena shut her eyes, gathering herself up.
"What have you done?" Ares snapped suspiciously. Then he felt the ledge begin to shift. "No, Xena!" Then the rocks began to drop, even as Xena caught the chakram again and struggled to leap out of the path of the falling debris. Ares fell unceremoniously into the sarcophagus, and Gabrielle managed to get the lid moving. It slid into place with a startlingly audible snick, even as Xena rolled into a ball on the other side of the stone box, struggling not to get pounded by anything too large.
Considering the rocks falling off the wall, the sarcophagus lid sliding around like some demented chunk of ice on top of a frozen pond, Ares yelling, and Gabrielle hollering in panic when she realized Xena was in imminent danger of being killed, it would seem all Tartarus had already broken loose. In fact, all Tartarus had not broken loose, waiting instead for the Eye of Hephaetus to become active to put in an appearance.
The entire room filled with a sickly pale light, and the sound of the rocks falling was suddenly drowned out by an awful sound Gabrielle would later describe as worse than dragging your fingernails across a slate.
Clapping her hands over her sorely mistreated ears, Gabrielle struggled to where she could see Xena in a crumpled heap, half covered in debris. But the sound grew so loud she was forced to the floor, clutching her head in pain. The light changed from milky to an angry yellow glare. Then, suddenly as its beginning, the sound, and the light, stopped. Waiting a few moments for fear the racket would start again, the bard struggled forward. The light rose again, back to its original milky white. Her partner was dreadfuly still, matching the new state of the room. She couldn't even see if the warrior was breathing, and now Gabrielle began to feel the dreadful tendrils of fear curling themselves tightly around her stomach.
The warrior's expression was almost peaceful. A nasty bruise was visible on one temple. An ugly dent in the armour on her right side mutely told of a good sized stone that had struck the warrior on the side. Her left leg was at an odd angle, obviously broken. A thin trickle of blood ran from one corner of her mouth. Still, still it seemed like she wasn't breathing.
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice came out in a croaky whisper. "Xena." she shook the warrior's shoulder, hard, but it simply rolled bonelessly under her touch. "No, no, not again..." Grabbing both shoulders this time, and shaking harder. "Dammit Xena, why did you do that if you couldn't get out of the way?" taking a strangled breath. "You can't leave me, you understand? You can't go." Still silence, a peaceful room. Never before had Gabrielle hated so fiercely a peace that she at other times had craved. Pulling Xena carefully into her lap, automatically straightening the broken leg... the break was clean... "You can't go." Tears crept down her cheeks.
"Don't... don't cry." the bard was so stunned to hear a sound come out of Xena she nearly dropped her in alarm. The warrior coughed painfully, sucking in a rough breath. "Can't stand it, when you cry." Which of course, did nothing to stop the poor bard, who was now weeping with relief. "S... seem to be a little banged up."
"Yeah," Gabrielle managed, finding her voice again. "You've got... a broken leg, and I think, probably cracked ribs, and a concussion."
Her partner held still, taking stock now that she had shaken some of the haze off. She coughed, and winced when she tasted blood in her mouth. "Broken leg, broken ribs... punctured lung, concussion." she smiled faintly. "Need a vacation."
"A vacation." the bard repeated.
"And a new sword." a very feeble joke. The bard smiled again, and after carefully propping Xena up, went to retrieve her staff. It had snapped in half. Both a nuisance and a convenience. The pieces would provide a decent splint, and with luck, she could get her injured partner close enough to the mouth of the cave for Argo to hear a whistle.
"Gabrielle," Xena called, struggling to move a little.
"What? Dammit Xena, would you hold still? We'll have to move all too soon as it is." worry made Gabrielle's voice taut and angry. Blue eyes already shadowed with pain darkened with a different sort of hurt.
"I didn't see what happened to Ares. I was just..." she finally got a look at the closed sarcophagus. A strange shimmering passed over it occasionally, reminiscent of a strong polish.
"He's in there." Gabrielle replied quietly. "I wish I knew a couple of your pinches, then setting your leg wouldn't hurt so much."
"S'okay." Xena picked up a bit of her battle skirt. "Cut off a chunk of the leather from this. I'll have to bite down on something." Silently, her partner cut off part of one of the leather strips and folded it over twice.
Thankfully, Xena only passed out once, and never screamed. Gabrielle wasn't certain she could handle her partner screaming in pain. Now they were moving slowly away, after she had grabbed one of their torches. Averting her eyes from the dead woman, they struggled on.
"Where do you want to vacation, then?" she asked, determined to keep Xena talking.
"Themiskyra." Xena answered, startlingly, with no hesitation. Gabrielle nearly let her partner drop on the floor for the second time.
"Themiskyra? As in Amazon Themiskyra?"
Xena sighed. At least, she tried to sigh, and wound up coughing harshly instead, half twisting into a ball of pain. "Best place... you'll be safe, while I heal up. There's a big library, has all the Amazon history in it. I have an aunt there." she paused. "I think. She may have passed away by now, but she had a daughter." Another pause. "I'm sure Amy is still there."
Argo's saddle was in nearly mint condition. Not a sign of the encounter with falling rocks remained on Xena's armour. Her leathers had been cleaned until they smelt more like leather soap than leather and mended until they too, looked nearly new. Her boots had suffered a liberal scrubbing, then heating, and a solid coating of bear grease that the heated and porous leather readily soaked up. The three spare shifts and the extra set of leathers had also been carefully mended. A bunch of leather bits had been deftly transformed into a new belt for Gabrielle. Half of the chakram gleamed in the midmorning light. Xena was upset about that. It seemed half of it was still in the cave where Ares was now trapped. If Xena had been able to move around, Argo would be so well groomed, the horse would have feared for her coat. But she couldn't move around, so she sighed unhappily, and settled to wait as best she could for Gabrielle, who was hunting for dinner.
Not that Xena was really complaining. Her ribs were tightly bound, and her leg well splinted. The aftereffects of the concussion were mostly gone, and she had finally stopped couging up blood the night before. Gabrielle had nearly passed out in relief when she realized that. The warrior was setted in the nest of their shared bedroll and furs, propped up carefully against a half buried log with Argo's saddle blanket adding some extra padding under the aforementioned bedroll. She was dressed in a clean shift, a pair of curious woolen foot covers extending halfway up her calves warding off cold feet. A waterskin sat right within reach. Xena sighed. She just wished she could do something. Her eyes automatically tracked to a spot on the other side of the clearing, and after a moment Gabrielle stepped into it, triumphantly holding up two rabbits, already cleaned.
The first time she had ever had to clean a rabbit entirely herself, without Xena taking care of the head at least, had been a bit hard on the bard. Intellectually, she understood that animals and plants died to feed other living things, such as people. The best way to handle it was simply to be as humane as possible. Still, Gabrielle had had a terrible time, and even after the stew was bubbling over the fire, found herself to be too upset to eat. She had felt ashamed of herself, and angrily berated herself for being childish and unrealistic.
"Hey," Xena had interrupted her internal rant. "Come on. I'll show you something else." A pair of very unimpressed, upset green eyes had glared at her. "Bare with me here." She had, muttering rebelliously all the while, and wishing her stomach would stop hurting.
"When I first wandered into Themiskyra, I actually bumped into an old Amazon, living off alone in the forest. She used to... she had a ritual she'd do, every time she had to take the life of an animal, to feed herself. It was important to her." Xena had hesitated. "Back then, I thought she was old, crazy, and soft-hearted. Back then. But now..." Xena's eyes had dropped, the muscles in her throat working until she started again. "You've never been in that place where, destroying, killing... becomes just something you do, or a black pleasure of it's own." The ritual had turned out to be a short thank you to the animal, for giving its life, and a pledge to waste nothing and to never take more than was needed, or heedlessly destroy. Somehow, it worked. Gabrielle had been able to eat after all, and had written much longer in her journal than usual at the end of the evening.
While Xena had been remembering, Gabrielle had put dinner on, cooking up a rich broth and a stew. Enough food for two, maybe three days. Now the first problem, the punctured lung had been dealt with, she was determined to keep an eye on her partner, worried about fever and infection. Hunting and gathering trips had to be kept to a minimum. "Hey," she said, smiling at her partner, who looked too pale for her comfort. "Do you think you can handle some broth?"
"Yeah... maybe some of that stew too." Xena grinned and shifted restlessly.
"Bored, huh?" Gabrielle pulled over her pack, digging around for a few moments. "Wanna read a scroll?" her eyes twinkled.
"Sure, while you write in your journal. Right now I'd rather pay attention to you." another grin. The bard grinned back, and brought over their bowls, settling herself carefully beside Xena, who promptly took the opportunity to cuddle up to her. A lot of it had to do with her sore side, leaning against the smaller woman took much of the painful pressure off of it. Still more of it had to do with the fact she had noticed a lingering, twitchy nervousness in Gabrielle, clearly inspired by yet another of Xena's near brushes with death. The warrior's close presence allowed her to relax.
These were the official reasons. Xena never directly admitted how much she liked snuggling up with the bard. How just touching her, even in the most platonic of ways, made her feel instantly, better somehow. It was something she didn't quite understand, just accepted. Her mother had told her once, having wandered into the topic by rarely walked conversational paths... that once, once, she had had a lover who had made her feel the same way. Fate had separated them, and the wistful pain of the separation still showed in the innkeeper's eyes. Xena settled her head on Gabrielle's shoulder, suddenly feeling exhausted.
"You all right?"
"Yeah, just a little tired. Broth?"
"Right here." Gabrielle checked her forehaed, and frowned. "You're fevered, Xena."
"I know. Bound to be a little." Xena carefully sipped her broth. "The herbs for it are in that little pouch there."
Amynome, better known as Amy, leaned morosely against a tree trunk. She had come to the conclusion, in the deep wisdom of her barely nineteen winters, that the major problem with being young was that older people assumed it was easy, devoid of responsibilities or worries, and all great fun, all the time. The young Amazon sighed, and wished sincerely this had been the case. Then she wouldn't have to be standing here, a bucket of water hanging from each arm, perched on the top of a log with the crazy old bat of a weaponmaster whacking at the back of her knees. Not that she didn't appreciate the purpose of the exercise, of course. Tired muscles finally gave up all together, and she fell unceremoniously flat on her back in the grass, the buckets of water dousing everything within reach. Meaning mostly her.
"Not bad." declared the weaponmaster. "Come back tomorrow." Then she limped away.
"I'm so tempted not to." Amy muttered. "If only to give all the damn bruises time to heal up a little." She sat up, collecting her buckets, and carried them over to a little storage shed the old wepaonmaster had most of her equipment kept in. A tiny patch of shelf accepted the buckets without collapsing... Amy had been unfortunate enough to put away some weapon or other and have a shelf suddenly break in two... and the precarious piles everywhere else didn't so much as creak. Backing carefully outside, she pushed the door shut, very slowly. At last it clicked shut, and she stood very still, listening. Nothing fell down. Nothing creaked. Sighing in relief, Amy shook herself a bit, then headed for home.
Home was a solid midsized cabin she inhabited with her two cats, Phobos and Deimos. Someone had sneered those were dogs' names. The same someone had tried to mess with Amy, and discovered that Phobos and Deimos were very well named when it came to defending their human's safety. It helped of course, that Phobos and Deimos were not house cats. They were panthers... female panthers, as it happened, but as far as Amy was concerned, they were her cats, and she'd call them what she liked. She was quite sure they had some spectacular names for themselves in their own language of yowls, hisses and body positions. Some nights, laying by the fire in a whimsical mood, watching them clean their fur and roll about into all sorts of ridiculous contortions, Amy pondered what they might be.
'Faster than Night' and 'Terror of all Dogs' maybe, she had decided one evening. Even wolves took one look at Phobos and found some other place to be. And Deimos... if Deimos could run any faster, Amy figured, it would spoil the panther's game of chasing around the cattle. Not that Amy ever allowed the game to be played, officially. Unofficially, Deimos had realized the cattle that smelled pregnant and the really tiny ones were off limits. Chasing those ones made Amy angry, and interfered with things like having your belly scratched and getting fed some of the nice things humans ate.
Amy paused, considering. "No... I better change and then go. I owe a visit." Decision made, she marched towards her cabin. Her feline friends immediately slinked out of their preferred spots in the shade, and she stopped, scratching them behind the ears. Deimos promptly bounded around her, then tugged at the end of her tunic with her teeth. "Sorry," Amy said ruefully. "Can't play just now. Have to go visit Mom." Of course, this is no convincing argument for a cat, and the young Amazon had to work to get to the door.
Not long afterwards she left again, dressed in clean dry leathers and carrying a small rucksack. She made it a habit of trading for some of the fine mead that arrived on the caravans from the southern parts of the Nation for her mother. Each visit she brought it with her, and each visit her mother pretended to be surprised, and not at all excited. But her twinkling blue eyes always gave the game away. Amy loved her mother dearly. But visits could be stressful. Old Panny always wanted know, "Do you have a girlfrend yet? Well do you?" If the answer was no, which it had been for quite awhile... "Oh, then I know the perfect girl... you'll like her..." Unlike those other visits however, when Panny was usually sitting inside working on some piece of horse tack, the older woman was pacing restlessly outside.
"Mom?" Amy asked worriedly.
"Come inside, come inside." Panny ordered roughly.
"That damn sister of mine!" she exploded as soon as her daughter had sat down on one of the three hard, straight backed chairs in the room.
"Sister..." Amy shifted a little on the hardwood seat, trying to get comfortable, and tried to remember what she could about her aunt.
"Yes, my damned sister who lives in Amphipolis. Do you know who her daughter is? Do you?"
"No." Amy replied with absolute honesty.
"No? Well I'll tell you... that Xena, the one who used to go around beating the snot out of everybody."
"No way." blurted Amy.
"Oh yes way." snorted Panny. "Damn it, why didn't she write that in any of her letters, tell me that!"
"Maybe, she was embarrassed?" The suggestion was reasonable. The younger woman felt rather proud of it.
"Embarrassed? Embarrassed? What the furk for?" Panny's daughter gaped at her. "Soon as she showed any aptitude for weapons, she ought to have sent her here!" Panny stomped furiously around the room. "Maybe, maybe it wouldn't have changed a thing." Amy raised her eyebrows and inclined her head slightly. This was true. No way to know with what ifs, and no matter the thing done, the same outcome could be the result. "But dammit, she never gave it a chance, did she? She just ignored me here, and tried to force that girl into a mold she could never fit in." She stopped abruptly. "I don't understand it." Panny dropped into a chair, seeming to deflate into a tired, though still strong and wiry woman of enough years to have grey hair and a grown daughter.
The last time Pantariste had seen her sister, Cyrene had gotten adjusted to running the inn in Amphipolis and keeping her somewhat plodding son out of trouble. Sadly, the boy looked already to be taking after Atrius. Hot headed, not too smart, and unwilling to work too hard. Atrius was long gone, and word had come around that he had sailed for Phrygia, intending to make his fortune in the land of Croesus. Not an easy situation. But when the tall Amazon scout had arrived at the inn, her sister had been bustling about the inn's common room, brisk and energetic in a sturdy dress and one of the polo vests she was so fond of.
The young innkeeper hadn't really been glad to see her. Being an Amazon was alright, if you weren't her sister being an Amazon. Perhaps it would have sat better with her, if Pantariste hadn't so obviously been a warrior. The long sword strapped to her side and the daggers in her boots, together with the air of wary tension left no doubt. The tattoos on her upper arms made Cyrene that much more upset. Few Amazons wore the black panther heads. Few ever became leaders of Artemis' hunters. It meant dealing with Artemis herself on occasion, according to rumour. The hunters were dangerous people to interfere with, deliberately trained as they were to be deadly even when stark naked. Cyrene had decided her sister was some sort of glorified assassin. This wasn't true. Pantariste kept hoping that someday her sister would listen, and believe her when she explained that.
Tensions were such that she rarely came to Amphipolis in person, keeping to the occasional scroll sent with a trader going in the right direction. In this case, Pantariste had felt a personal visit was in order. After all, she had been offered a position in Themiskyra, and she had chosen to take it. The chance to live and work in the holy city of Themis... she found herself bouncing around excitedly every time she thought about it. The libraries, the loremasters, the priestesses. The strange Amazons from places as far away as India, where they persisted stubbornly in the Himalayas, carving out a living where the cold was bitter in the winter and the rains a terror the times it was warm. The whole thing was making her fit to burst, and who better to share it all with than her sister? Maybe, just maybe, Cyrene could be persuaded to come too. After all, the Nation didn't contain just warriors. Tasks were as varied as they were anywhere else. You never had to touch a weapon if you truly didn't want to, although learning self defense with a staff or bare handed was mandatory. Every woman had to be capable of defending herself.
The blue eyes that mirrored her own had turned chill while she spoke. "And you have decided to go on with this?" Cyrene had asked, her voice clipped and furious.
"Yes. Cyrene, this is right for me...I understand it isn't right for you, and I respect that. Couldn't you do the same for me?" Pantariste had asked, feeling her heart constrict.
"Why do you insist on leading those hunters? You must know what the hunters are for."
"I do, but you don't." The time had come for a bit of a showdown over this. "The hunters are not assassins. You're thinking of Ares' goons. Do you seriously believe I would ever ally myself with people who commited crimes?"
There had been silence between them for over seventeen winters. Then word had come that Amphipolis had been razed by a warlord, and Pantariste had sent a worried note, unable to travel there herself because of a bad bout of coughing sickness. The clipped answer had come back, written in her sister's own hand, thankfully. Cyrene was alive. The inn was still standing. She was getting by.
The scrolls had been coming irregularly, off and on. More often the past three winters or so, although Pantariste wasn't certain what had led her sister to make the small attempt to patch things up. The cause seemed to be riding toward Themiskyra, a former warlord. The woman who had saved her village, and ultimately been driven from it.
"When she and her friend get here, I want you to go and fetch them from the main city. One dinner at least they can have with us. They shouldn't have to bunk with strangers if they don't want to." Amy nodded sombrely, and wished with all her heart she wasn't going to be caught in the midst of any of this. She had heard stories about the warrior princess, and frankly, she was afraid of the woman and wanted nothing to do with her.
"Tell me again why your mother and your aunt don't speak to each other?" Gabrielle dug the bottom of her staff into the soft turf as the two women worked their way up a steep hill.
"They do speak to each other, Gabrielle. They exchange scrolls."
"Xena, that isn't really speaking to each other." Gabrielle glanced back at her partner. The warrior had one foot in the stirrup, the other lightly bound to the saddle so as not to jar her broken leg too much. Her ribs were still painful, but she had healed with surprising rapidity considering the severity of her injuries over the past week and a half. The bruise on her face was gone, and Xena was feeling well enough to make serious efforts to get around Gabrielle's strictures about trying to do too much.
"Gabrielle, before they didn't even exchange scrolls. That's not speaking to each other." Fair brows raised in her direction. "It's true. If those scrolls didn't count, they'd give up on them." Xena grinned. 'Take that, bard.'
The bard walked along for quite awhile, impressively silent. "I suppose." she said finally. "Why do they get along so poorly anyway? Your mother seemed fine with Amazons when we were at the inn last." Their last visit to Amphipolis had corresponded with the arrival of a sturdy caravan of Amazons on their way to Libya.
Twitching uncomfortably at Argo's mane, Xena considered the question. "Aunt Pantariste is an Amazon, but not an ordinary sort of Amazon." A glance across the horizon. "She's a leader in Artemis' hunters. Mom had a lot of... she only knew the stories the villagers liked to tell. Living so far from any Amazon village, the stories had gotten pretty inaccurate."
"Many people believe Artemis' hunters are immoral killers, because they are trained warriors and healers... and they stay by and care for patients, even the dying."
"And that kind of compassion is supposed to make them killers?" Gabrielle scowled in disgust. "No wonder it's so much work trying to help people out. They assume you're out to get them."
"If you seem strange and different, they often assume that." Xena agreed. "But that's only because they're trying to protect themselves." The warrior knew better than to criticize the way fairly isolated villagers tended to react to strange and unusual people. A slightly modified version of the same behaviour had made her one of the most successful warlords in Greece.
"Not really the best strategy." Gabrielle's expression had turned thoughtful, and she paused, tugging a piece of leather from her scrollcase. Parchment was expensive, and even the lower quality scrolls were still pretty steep, so she had gotten into the habit of keeping a chunk of smoothed, fairly pale leather for jotting down half formed ideas for reworking later.
They had run out of hill, and now Themiskyra's high walls were visible in the distance. Dark and solid, roads cut straight and true, then lined with stone to make smooth paths led up to it and between a ring of look out posts and smaller fortresses, made necessary by the repeated Greek raids. The men claimed they raided because the Amazons hoarded untold riches... which they didn't, not the gold and silver most had in mind. There was some of that, of course. Most of the riches of the Amazon Nation were in fact their works of art, and the objects they considered holy. A raiding warlord reacted to capturing a cache of rugs and tooled saddles with contempt, needing money as he did to exploit the system of buying and selling with whatever dinars came to hand. A warlord couldn't waste time bartering, because an army wasn't a trade caravan.
Xena's thoughts ran along these lines, noting the emerald grass and the first hints of wormwood, the predominant meadow plant not too much further north and west. A small herd of wild horses grazed patiently in the middle distance, and Argo snorted. "Some of those horses remind you of old friends, huh girl?" The warrior smiled. Argo had spent some time in a carefully tended, yet half wild herd kept by a fierce half Thrakian queen who lived even further north than Themiskyra during one of Xena's longer trips overseas. It looked like she'd have to repeat the trip, to replace her chakram.
"Hey, hold up for a bit." Gabrielle had walked back, and grasped Argo's bridle. Xena raised an eyebrow. "Call of nature, Xena." The warrior waggled her fingers at the bard.
"Thought you were walking sort of funny." The smaller woman blushed, scowled, then smacked Xena's good knee, since poking her in the gut was out of the question.
Waiting until the muttering bard was out of sight, and out of hearing range... Gabrielle, blushing until the warrior was sure her other body parts must be starved for blood, had insisted one day on figuring out just how far she'd have to go to be... inaudible. Xena had been a bit out to lunch at first, completely unsure of why the bard even cared. Then, it had finally clicked, and she had hurriedly agreed and reassured Gabrielle that she completely understood the bard's desire for privacy at such times. With a grave, absolutely sobre face. Once Gabrielle was out of earshot and beyond immediate sight, Xena had laughed until her sides hurt. She really did see and respect Gabrielle's point... didn't change the whole thing was damned funny.
Satisfied the bard was clear, Xena unstrapped her broken leg and collected her crutch from where it was neatly bound to the saddle. Argo snorted. After Xena had settled herself on the ground, pausing several long moments to let her ribs finish the worst of their complaining, she limped around to look straight into one of her mare's liquid brown eyes. "Shhh... no telling." She had made up her mind that she wanted to do something nice for her partner. Xena knew she was no easy patient, and her injuries hadn't been easy to deal with either.
Threading her way carefully off the road and into the meadow, she opened her belt pouch and began carefully collecting wild flowers. A pause over a few hemp flowers. Biting her lip against a snicker, she decided to save the potential entertainment Gabrielle's reaction to those sort of flowers would involve for later. An unusual blue pebble turned up too, probably dropped by some group of travellers long ago, and luckily kicked off the roadway before hooves and cartwheels shattered it. Brushing away the dirt and rubbing it with the edge of the light tunic she was wearing, Xena sucked her breath in in gentle surprise. What had seemed at first to be a pebble was in fact a tiny, skillfully carved fish. The tiny scales and even feathery fins and tail had been carefully rendered against the matrix of the rock, still in three dimensions. It was almost like the curious shells embedded in the rocks that sometimes turned up on high mountains. The mouth of the fish was open as if to force water over its gills, and the resulting space had been drilled out to form an eyelet to pass a cord through.
Shaking her head in delight at her luck, Xena limped hurriedly back to Argo and hauled herself back into the saddle, strapping down the crutch, then her leg. Making sure her belt pouch hadn't been squished, she took a breath, and waited with a sense of excited anticipation that surprised her for the bard to come back. It was the sort of feeling she used to get solstice morning.
Gabrielle reappeared after climbing out of a little gully, where she had presumably had to take refuge considering the lack of bushes readily available. "Let's go." she growled angrily, stomping by so fast Xena would have missed the words if her hearing han't been what it was.
"Gabrielle?" she shouted, a bit surprised by just how rapidly the bard was moving and her sharp change of mood. "Hey, what's wrong?" Gabrielle stopped and turned to look at her.
"Nothing." she replied shortly.
"Normally I'd take those words at face value..."
"And this time you aren't going to?" challenged the bard. The warrior actually looked a little sheepish.
"Well, no... not when something is obviously wrong."
Gabrielle sighed. "It's embarrassing."
"Then you'd better tell me." A disbelieving expression. "Gabrielle, any time you have something embarrassing happen, if you don't tell me right away what it is, usually one of three things happen," Xena marked out her points on her fingers. "You get arrested. You get in a fight. You suffer from some rotten injury for a ridiculously long time without letting me help." She put her hands on her hips. "The third one you never let me get away with." A sigh that blew Gabrielle's bangs straight up.
"Damn it... all right." Looking around, checking for eavesdroppers. Uh oh, Xena winced. She had a bad feeling she knew what had happened. "I was... answering the call of nature... and..." her voice died out, and for a few moments she couldn't continue. "and a bee stug me on the ass, all right?" The warrior bit her lip, hard. 'I will not laugh,' she ordered herself. 'I will not laugh. I will not laugh. This is not funny. It is not. It is uncomfortable, and embarrasing, and laughing will just make it worse, and then I will be so dead. No laughing.' The urge to laugh hysterically passed. Xena sighed in relief. She wasn't completely out of the woods, but the first reaction was always the hardest to control.
"You're right, that is embarrassing. Bees can be sort of... unpredictable." Xena hurriedly dropped her chin onto her chest, smothering the chuckles that nearly escaped. "There's some salve for bee stings in the left saddlebag, in an earthenware jar with a hexagon marked on it."
"Okay." Gabrielle said, watching Xena warily. She pulled out the salve, and worked off the lid. "Tell me if anybody is coming." If the sting hadn't hurt so much, she would have found better cover, but she seriously needed relief.
"Right." Xena declared, and promptly began scanning the horizon, the road, anything but the bard getting ready to apply the much needed salve. Looking was not an option. It'd be like looking down from a great height if you were scared of them. You weren't dizzy until you looked down. The warrior knew all too well, a careless glance would reduce her to paroxysms. 'No glancing, no laughing.' A deep breath. 'I can handle that.'
All was well. Life was good. The road was empty. The sky was clean of all clouds. Themiskyra beckoned. A mosquito landed on the small amount of exposed skin on her broken leg. Automatically she dropped her gaze to brush it away. Caught a glimpse of the bard carefully applying salve to her wounded posterior, and burst out laughing.
"Too hard not to laugh, huh?" Gabrielle asked wryly. She could see the humour, she just wished the whole sting on the butt thing hadn't happened to her. She also wished her partner's ribs weren't sore, because the warrior was clutching her ribs and still laughing. "Are you going to be all right?" Her partner couldn't even answer, the tears starting to leak from the corners of her eyes, one hand clutched to her sore ribs. "I can see the last few miles to Themiskyra are gonna take a long time."
Nothing had prepared the bard for the reality of the Amazon holy city. To start with, it's walls soared high overhead, skillfully pocked with watch and arrow holes. Nearing it, she had begun to understand how a system of catwalks and steps must run around its inner side, allowing the Amazons to move swiftly all around it's circumference and up and down it's considerable height. Once inside the walls, she stared in wonder at the various weaponry, armour, and clothing workshops built into segments of its base, with passages in between giving the watch immediate access to the steps and ladders. They were perfectly positioned to supply the wall with speed, and a skillful array of easy to move light shields and water provision systems allowed for the workshops to be protected from projectiles or moved efficiently under fire. Gabrielle bit her lip, feeling a discomforting sense of ambivalence about her growing, automatic ability to assess things in this way.
Half of the city was built into the craggy rocks, the many caves carved by running water exploited to provide cool storage, holy caves, and places for some of the priestesses to live. Otherwise, there were various huts and cabins, two more temples... one dedicated to Athena, the other to Hera, Gabrielle would learn later, the food hall, the meeting hall, and the library Xena had described in sketchy detail. True to the warrior's word, it was an impressive size. An Amazon in a dark robe was just leaving it as they passed by it, having convinced the gatekeepers of their benign intentions. They were both treated with respect. Still, it had been a little surprising when Gabrielle's position as queen of Arboria hadn't garnered much attention. The scout who had looked them over had listened to Gabrielle explain it, had nodded politely and smiled, then directed them to go ahead.
"Not that this is bad... I mean, it's nice not to have the whole 'your majesty' and 'my queen' thing happening. Just a little surprising." Gabrielle winced as an attempt to slip by a knot of Amazons jarred her tender posterior. Xena had shrugged a little in response, and begin to look around keenly for anyone familiar.
Up ahead, a tall Amazon in particoloured gear juggled six apples to the delighted oohs and ahs of a gaggle of children. Passing through a short sequence of tricks, she then shifted into a slightly slower cadence, giving herself time to take a bite out of every other apple. The unbitten apples were soon tossed among the children. All of them pleaded eloquently for a longer show, but the Amazon gently refused, explaining it was almost time for her to return to her work. But there was tomorrow afternoon still. Continuing to eat her three apples at a time, she winked and smiled. Her path took her by the warrior and the bard, and startlingly, her eyes locked for a moment with Xena's. Surprise nearly lost her two of her apples. A minute shake of Xena's head drew a slight nod of acknowledgement, and she continued on.
The short exchange had gone unnoticed by the bard, whose attention had been caught by a peculiar set of leather straps, obviously all going together, but not obviously for any purpose she could think of. She scratched her head, and tipped it to one side. Maybe just a little familiar looking from that angle...
"Ye know what it's for?" this from a rangy Amazon leaning against the facade of a carpenter's workshop.
"Not entirely, but there are some provocative possibilities."
"You'll be mad when ye find out." drawled the Amazon.
"You think?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Presumably you know."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle began to wonder of the Amazon was leaning against the post because she was drunk.
"You know the goofy things Apherdite is supposed to wear?"
The bard couldn't repress a grin at the Amazon's rendition of the Goddess' name. "Yes."
"Did you know those things can be made out of leather?" A baffled pair of green eyes stared at her.
"What? No you... waitaminute..." The Amazon began to laugh. "What's so funny?" Altogether this was becoming a bit wearing on the patience.
"Come on, Gabrielle, I'll explain." chuckled Xena. "You're an old rascal, Delope."
"You betcha." the Amazon drawled, that appearing to be her main mode of speech. "I hear you changed your ways."
"Working on it." Xena replied simply. The Amazon nodded.
"Glad, I am. Good to see one of our lot come through in spite of everything." Waving a hand a bit, Delope sauntered away, her path weaving and listing oddly.
"Is she drunk?" Gabrielle asked in puzzlement.
"Not exactly." Xena answered. "She used to be a Greek slave, and one of her owners discovered the hard way she had no intentions of being a sex slave, and had two hard fists. He took to having her go against any man who cared to see if a woman could outbox him. She's smart. Got a few allies who'd bet on her, and collected on each fight she won. Eventually she managed to buy her freedom and came here." The warrior clambered off of Argo's back, and got herself settled on her crutch. "Trouble is, getting hit in the head so often isn't good for you. She's punch drunk."
"Gods." The bard watched her partner for a moment. "I do not want the image of Aphrodite in some of that scary leather stuff anywhere in my head." She grinned proudly. Rumours she was still a naive village girl were highly exaggerated.
"Hey, I was just rescuing you." Someone cleared her throat nearby. "Yes?" Despite looking as if something had run roughshod over her, Xena still managed to look threatening. A much younger woman with auburn hair and blue eyes identical to her own stood her ground and refused to flinch.
"Are you Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
"No. I'm just Xena." The younger woman looked mildly nonplussed.
"My mother asked me to catch up with you as soon as possible after you arrived."
"She wants to invite you and your... companion," Amy wasn't blind. The proprietary way Gabrielle had stepped up to Xena, automatically placing herself in a position to defend the taller woman couldn't be missed. "to dinner."
"Lemme guess. Your mother wouldn't happen to be old Panny, would she?"
"Who else?" Amy's chin jutted.
"My aunt." Xena breathed, just loud enough for Gabrielle to hear. Then she added an 'it's up to you' gesture.
"We'd be delighted to have dinner with your aunt." Gabrielle replied, smiling politely.
Down at the Themiskyra harbour by the mouth of the Thermodon where it joined the Black Sea, several members of a recently arrived Amazon crew were eagerly sharing news with a just as eager group of Amazons who generally stood by to unload the ships. "Would never have believed if I hadn't had a chance to go see... but damn and blast, it's true!" declared the pilot of the crew, who so rarely swore or spoke in strong words she was teased for having missed her swearing lessons at sailing school.
"Aye. The whole temple had fallen to bits, fallen apart like it was made of plaster. You'd never know it was one of Ares' major places."
"His goons are wandering around leaderless for the most part, excepting the army Kyanaegis leads. Creepy damned woman. She seems to be waiting for something, though no one knows what."
"The new ruler of war, I reckon." muttered one of the landbound Amazons, picking at a scab on one of her knuckles. "Won't take long to replace him. If we're lucky it'll be Artemis, and things will settle down at last."
The pilot shook her head. "No... no settling down. There's too much greed in the world now, for that. A mess there'll be, though. the other thing I'm wondering... what happens with the warrior princess, huh? What happens to her?"
If the pilot had had some way of peeking, she would have seen the warrior suffering through a vigourorus hug and a bit of serious haranguing from her older aunt, who was shocked to see how badly injured she was. Dinner was already cooking... Pantariste had been quite certain the warrior and the bard would stop in... and now she wanted to know the whole story.
"Sit down then, girl," she ordered Gabrielle. "And do the bard thing you've gotten so famous for." Poor Gabrielle stared with an expression of absolute horror at the wooden chairs, to which a rough wooden bench had been added to insure everyone had a seat.
"Ummm..." her voice was raspy, and she licked her lips uncomfortably. "I would gladly 'do the bard thing' except... maybe, you have, a cushion? Or, I'll just stand." she added quickly when Pantariste stopped and stared.
"A cushion?" the elderly Amazon blurted incredulously.
"Please?" Gabrielle smiled, putting all the winningness and persuasion she could into the expression.
"Well, I suppose." grumbled Pantariste. "The furk are they teaching Amazons down south these days..." she grumbled, walking into an adjoining room and loudly rummaging through things for the requested cushion. "There." she tossed a horse hair filled, nasty thing with a cover that felt suspiciously like burlap at the bard. "Now talk." Pointing a spoon imperiously at her, before plunging it into the stew. Said stew was soon thoroughly stirred and recovered to simmer for the duration of the bard's tale.
Carefully arranging the cushion, and finding to her relief, the discomfort would be enough to keep a dozy person awake and no worse, although the drawback was the scratchy cover already had her itching, Gabrielle launched into the story. Beginning with Ares' latest plan to force Xena to serve him again and start a few bloody wars on the side, rather than the bit of morning fun they had engaged in.
"Stuck in a bit of a rut, isn't he?" snorted Pantariste. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks.
"You could say that." conceded Gabrielle.
Dinner proved to be dark bread, venison stew, hard cheese, and ale. Simple, but filling fair cooked with a combination of spices reminiscent of Cyrene's favoured recipes in the case of the stew. The hard cheese had been... well, hard to eat, until Amy had grudgingly hauled out a cunningly made clay tray with high sides, and used it to hold several pieces of bread with the cheese spread on top, placing the whole thing into warm spot over the fire's embers. Within a few moments the cheese was melted, and Gabrielle happily added the idea to the ways of cooking she could adapt to the road.
Pantariste had offered them a place to sleep, but hadn't insisted. She could see her niece and the bard were far from just friends with both eyes shut. No doubt they'd want privacy, especially since the warrior was well enough now to be a bit frisky. The bard's insistence on a cushion still puzzled her, but there it was. Everyone had their peculiar likes and dislikes.
Sitting by the fire after Amy had taken her leave, Pantariste pondered over a cup of tea. Staring sightlessly at the flames, she found herself repeating the same question over and over again in her mind. There was only one person who could have begotten Xena. Only one. The Amazon shook her head in disbelief. She had known it was possible, after all, there were no limits for such people. Part of the trouble was, she simply couldn't believe that being would have walked away, never going back, never helping, never speaking. Something had obviously gone wrong. All her logic and training put the pieces together neatly, forcing no edges together, making no wild leaps. The question refused to leave her.
How could Cyrene have never told her daughter she was half divine?
Xena carefully drew out her collection of wild flowers, and arranged them on Gabrielle's side of their bedroll. Then she took out the rose she had picked up at the market, having already trimmed its stem of thorns, and carefully slipped the blue fish up the stem so that when the bard went to smell the flower, the charming pendant would drop in her lap. One more thing, a neatly wrapped bundle of nutbread, and she shuffled around a bit. A pleased smile quirked her lips. If those things didn't help lift Gabrielle's spirits and salvage her rather rough day... Xena considered the possibility. Her nose wrinkled as if she had just smelt something nasty. Best not to go there. Slipping off her boots, Xena slid awkwardly into her side of the bedroll, struggling with the awkwardness of her splinted leg. Settled in nicely, she cast a quick glance around the camp. Tucked as it was into a small knoll in the outskirts of the Forest of Artemis, the great woodlands stretching away beyond Themiskyra before cold and altitude culled the trees and enforced the hegemony of the meadows, there was a slim chance of receiving even an accidental visitor. The hunters and the rangers would give them a wide berth, it being their way to remain mostly alone. Before she knew it, Xena had dozed off.
Walking a bit more easily... during their bath Xena had made sure the bee's stinger wasn't still stuck in the welt, and the cool water had helped a lot... Gabrielle padded lightly back to camp. She savoured the tall, beautiful trees, the deep blue sky with it's uneven scattering of stars, the smell of the stream nearby. Poetry began to tangle itself together in her mind, and she smiled. The fire hissed and crackled slightly as it settled into the somnolent, smoldering state that gave off the most heat. The resulting orange-red light cast everything into deep shadow or warm relief, and Gabrielle found herself watching the shifts as the fire slowly changed, fascinated. Giving herself a shake, she neatly hung her towel on a convenient tree branch, and tucked away her washing kit. Xena was sound asleep, she saw, and while she would miss the warrior's evening company, the rest would be good for her. Not quite watching what she was doing, Gabrielle had nearly flipped open her side of the bedroll before she realized something was sitting on it.
Dropping onto her butt on the turf in surprise, and nearly levitating off again with a sharp gasp, Gabrielle examined the flowers, the pendant, and the nutbread with delight. "You're such a romantiic." she whispered once tucked up against Xena's side, before kissing her on the cheek and shutting her own eyes.
"Now you listen to me... come on now, you must listen, I don't have long." Gabrielle jerked awake, startled by the familiar sounding but strange voice. "Please Xena, you have to wake up. Otherwise... no, I'm not thinking about otherwise. Come on!"
A strange, dark figure leaned over Xena, not touching her. Instead, they were wringing their hands slightly. "You must wake up Xena, I can't touch you."
Slowly, Xena became aware someone was speaking to her. Like Gabrielle, she found the voice both strange and familiar. She had almost gone completely back to sleep when the voice spoke again, more urgently. "Okay," she croaked. "Keep yer britches on." A mirthless laugh answered her.
"Trust me, that happens to be one of the least of my worries." The warrior sat up and looked around in confusion, momentarily disoriented, especially when she reached for her chakram and it wasn't there. Quickly she sought out her bearings, and focussed on the person perched on their haunches close by.
"Who are you?" she asked suspiciously. The dark person laughed bitterly.
"I wish with all my heart I could tell you. Just now however, I am constrained by circumstances I cannot control. Know I am here to help you. In fact, I am always here, when you sleep or when you wake, with the obvious exceptions, of course." The person shifted slightly. "There is nothng I can do if you neither listen, nor wish for my aid."
"Why would I want your aid?" Xena had got hold of her sword now, guard fully up.
"Because I give it for noble reasons, and without expecting payment for it. And it is my desire, my determination, to protect you. Before Ares' influence prevented me, but now that is gone, and not a moment too soon. Near here is a cache of my own things. You need them, Xena."
"I need them? How do you know my name?"
"I know your name because I gave it to you. You need the things I can give you because your chakram must be replaced, and the armour you wear scares the crap out of me. It's full of holes, and leaves almost your entire back uncovered, for Gaea's sake. Please Xena, you must."
"You sound like my mother." Xena sat up a little more, struggling with her leg.
"A statement that is both true and false." the person looked up suddenly. "The Moon is setting... I must go. The cache is a half candlemark walk from here... the lid will come off easily for you. Take everything in it, leave nothing. Some things in it may be suited to your friend. First thing in the morning, you must go to the cache." They stood up, movements odd and jerky, as if they were in pain. "Remember, awake or aleep, with the obvious exceptions. But I can do nothing if you refuse..." The bizarre apparition was gone.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's eyes were very wide.
"I don't know. Let's," the warrior wrapped an arm around the bard. "Let's check it out tomorrow. Maybe the venison stew just had too much spice in it, and we've both just suffered a really wild dream."
"People don't dream together, Xena." Gabrielle scoffed, beginning to feel the surprise and weirdness of the event recede a little.
"Okay, then whichever us had the dream had better tell the other about the whole thing tomorrow morning." One of those endearing, crooked grins. "I don't think it was real either..." she picked up the bard's rose. "If this is right here," she set it between them on the rolled up blanket they used as a pillow. "in the morning, we'll worry about it then."
The rough material in the cloak scratched the few areas of bare skin the dark woman had. Even through its mesh the musty smell of the stone invaded her senses. For a moment she went rigid with panic, the darkness, closeness, and smell reminding her vividly of the time she had been killed. And buried. Luckily the grave had been shallow. Clawing her way out of it had been one of the seven truly horrendous experiences she had encountered. But Kyanaegis was a survivor, in every sense of the word. Single handedly, she had started the various vampire legends now rampant across Greece, Thrake, and some places where the nomadic Rus and Cherkesians ran free. She had also helped spawn a new industry in wooden coffins with thick enough sides to allow the lids to be nailed down.
Kyanaegis was not a vampire. She did not drink blood, and sunlight made as little difference to her as darkness. However, it was clear she was no mortal. True, hurling thunderbolts and most of the usual nature defying powers were not hers. But she could become invisible at will, and run swift as Hermes. Few arrows or crossbow bolts were her problem, at the speeds most warriors shot them. They could be caught easily and successively. The weakwilled were easily persuaded to do her bidding, and just as easily persuaded to forget about her, but not what she demanded, right after she left them. Death was a minor inconvenience, a short, enforced hiatus. Each time her body mended itself, and Kyanaegis repaired her armour, cleaned her weapons, and started over. Ares didn't seem to be aware of her curious inability to stay dead. She did not interest him any more than he interested her. Only Xena interested Ares, when it came down to it. This would be his downfall, Kyanaegis was sure. And soon. His followers were restless, tired of having their pattern of rape, murder, and pillage regularly interfered with by futile, embarrassing attempts to subourn the Warrior Princess.
Morale was at an all time low. Those intelligent enough to lead were actually embarrassed by their god, their motivation sapped by repeated humiliations. The rest who were not quite so intelligent found the ennue and dissatisfaction of their superiors to be catching, oddly reminiscent of a disease. The only army in any sort of condition was Kyanaegis'. They drew from her a sense of unnerving, unified purpose that could easily make her the ruler of Greece, if she chose to put the army to such use. Kyanaegis herself wasn't sure she wanted Greece. Or anywhere else. She didn't know what she wanted. Yet.
The strange door was shut tight. Digging at it a bit with her traitorous dirk was of no use. There was no light, and she had found her way to it by touch. Now she used touch and her memory to work her way out of the complex. Pausing just inside the main doorway, allowing her eyes to adjust to the broad daylight, plans immediately began to fall togther behind her swift moving eyes. The warrior and bard were gone. No sign of their presence remained. No sign of recent human presence were anywhere. Without the stars, Kyanaegis couldn't be certain how much time had passed. The answer to such a question would have to wait until evening. Now the question of the moment was, what had happened to Ares? She never wondered why he hadn't brought her out of the complex. She expected nothing from him, and had always regarded him with contempt. He was simply the lesser of two evils. Things had never turned out in a way that provided other options. She wasn't Xena, Kyanaegis thought to herself grimly. There would be no self remaking for her. Ugly women didn't get second chances, let alone ugly women who could beat men at their own game.
Eyes adjusted, she got her bearings, then headed south, towards the Halls of War. The answer to what had happened to Ares, one way or the other, was bound to be there.
Three days it took, making it over a week since she had been left in the caves. Pausing for a moment halfway up a hill, she ammended her tally. Three days and three nights she had travelled. Most times she didn't need much rest, esepcially after the enforced inactivity of a short term death. So she didn't take any. The Halls of War were tucked into the side of a sloping green hill, an incongruously idyllic setting marred by the dark double doors and pretentious steps. This was the image in her memory, at any rate. The real place had changed significantly.
The steps were shattered, bits of them tumbled over each other and into the overgrown grass. The stone balustrades had fallen too, the bits of metal worked into Ares' favoured symbols and the letters of his name jumbled haphazardly in the mess. Picking up one of the metal fragments, Kyanaegis saw to her surprise it was rusted, and twisted apart even more easily than it should have in her powerful hands. The double doors looked slightly ajar, but had in fact fallen out of alignment because the hinges had come apart. Cracks ran over the doors, and a gap yielded a screaming rat. Kyanaegis smiled mirthlessly. "How appropriate." She shoved on the doors, and was surprised to feel them move. Logic lead her to expect no mere shove to move them. She was barely heavy enough to counter the weight of four of the good sized sacks of grain raiding a farm at harvest time but after market often yielded. The doors had to be far heavier than that. Still, they moved, so Kyanaegis set her shoulder against the ragged join between them and pushed.
The doors fell into the Halls so suddenly she felt on top of them, into a knee high pile of debris. More stone, and it seemed that perhaps the inside and the outside of the doors had been two different pieces joined together by rusted iron bolts. The inner side had fallen apart, but the balanced together doors on the outside had stayed upright awhile longer. Inside, things were no better than out. The flagstones were jutting up and heaved about as if an earthquake had hit the place. Chunks of rock fell out of the walls and ceiling with little or no warning. Ares' crumbled statue lay in segments across the floor, the sightless eyes now all the more unnerving. A few hapless lamps still guttered, the heaving of the floor and the falling walls hadn't completely drained their reservoirs. The flames were yellow, smoky, and weak. Most of the light came from the open doorway. The pit at the centre of the main room was astonishingly cold. No flame was in evidence. Even the stench of sulphur was gone.
The throne was in bits, of course. Weirdly, Ares' favourite silver skull sat on the fur on the precariously balanced seat, jaws agape like a ghastly replacement for the disappeared god. Kyanaegis took a breath, beginning to find the whole thing a bit much even for her numbed sensibilities.
"Where is he, hmm?" Kyanaegis mock asked the skull. "Where has Ares gone?"
"Ares has been demoted, and imprisoned. The likelihood of him ever escaping is... I would bet on the end of the world before the end of the millenium over that." The voice came from behind her, and Kyanaegis turned to face a tall figure in dark robes, their face hidden by a cowl.
"Yes, demoted. In fact, he had lost power over the forces of war some considerable time ago. He hid the fact as much as he could. He convinced himself that perhaps Xena could return that power to him, if only he could truly subourn her."
"A point explaining a great deal. Who are you, and how is it you know all this?" Kyanaegis asked suspiciously. She didn't doubt what this person had to say. It would give them no profit to lie... after all, she had nothing, and cared nothing about them.
"Surely I am not so difficult to recognize for someone such as you." The person pushed their cowl back, revealing it was none other than the Greater Fate, Moira. She had three eyes, the third set in the centre of her forehead. "The Divine Council deemed it appropriate that whoever happened to be here when you arrived should give you the news. It so happens that it is our paths that have crossed. You know that at the removal of any god or goddess, steps must be taken to insure they have left no souls trapped in the places they once dwelled."
"Wouldn't it make more sense to prevent them from trapping souls in the first place?" Kyanaegis snapped.
"Only beings such as myself may trap souls. I misspoke, perhaps, though unwittingly. Some deities do convince certain souls they are trapped, and the strength of their belief alone imprisons them. You know well how such manipulations are achieved."
"Would that I did not." the dark woman crossed her arms, glancing around the steadily deteriorating wreckage. "What are his followers expected to do?"
"No one really expects them to do anything but that which people often do. Refuse to accept Ares has been removed and worship him anyway, or replace him with someone or thing else. You know too that Fate is not chosen by me, it is merely woven based upon the consequences for the actions each person takes. Some things may seem inevitable, but only because a given individual has found it difficult to make a change."
"Oh, so it's all their fault."
Moira smiled faintly. "Yes, and no. If you choose always to drink every day, all day, why then, who else can be blamed when the drink kills you? But it can be seen too, that a great change is difficult, even frightening." She pulled her cowl back up. "The times when the true consequence of an action do not accrue to the individual are rare, occuring under only the most extraordinary conditions. I must go. Concern yourself no further with this, Kyanaegis. rather, concern yourself with what you will do, now."
The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle had discovered, to their extreme discomfort, the rose between them and clear memory of the strange events of the night before. They spent the morning packing their things, and comparing what they remembered of the previous night, finding they were in unnerving agreement. "Well, a half candlemark walk to see if the cache exists." Xena smirked. "Except, we have no idea what direction to go in."
"Maybe... along that path there?" Gabrielle pointed to a path running by the left side of their camp, roughly parallel to the stream. In the half light of evening, it hadn't been visible, mostly overgrown as it was.
"Sure." Xena shrugged a little. "I can't believe we're doing this." Gabrielle laughed lightly.
"To be honest, me either. But, that was too real, and too strange. I'd just feel better chasing down this thing." Xena hated to admit it, but she felt much the same way herself. A survey of the ground around the camp before Gabrielle woke had revealed a set of footprints extending from the base of a tree to just by her bedroll. There they became the unmistakable sunk in marks of a person sitting on their haunches, balanced on the balls of their feet. The marks were even deeper at the big toe than the smaller ones. A quick check, just because, revealed the feet of the person had to be even larger than her own, broader by two fingers' width with much longer toes. From that, she estimated their strange nocturnal visitor had to be in the seven foot range.
The warrior glared into the forest. Only immortals put in such strange appearances and were that tall. She had just finally extricated one unwanted immortal from her life. Was he going to be replaced so soon?
The half candlemark walk along the path had actually been nice, although very quiet. The trees had grown lush and thick, and had tangled into a thick canopy overhead. Little wandering patches of light speckled the forest floor, but for the most part the light was a very diffuse yellow-green. Under less unusual circumstances, it would have been a lovely, romantic walk.
Sitting at the end of the path, was great, heavy stone box. The sides were carved with various scenes of Amazons arming themselves, carrying messages at a full run, taking their hunting dogs out. Riding horses, even a few at worship. The lid was carved into the shape of a dead Amazon, her hands arranged across her chest, kitted out in full armour and gear. She had been carved in such fine detail the small lines at the corners of her eyes and the unruly fall of her hair at the forehead and temples seemed almost lifelike. Facially she seemed unnervingly familiar. Curiously, even the rings she wore on her left hand had been carved in all their detail, the riding glove carved partially clasped in it, her right hand still gloved and resting underneath the left. Rather than the short skirts and brief tops Gabrielle and her tribe often wore, or the battle leathers Xena preferred, the carved Amazon wore sturdy trews, high riding boots, and a a leather jacket over a slightly billowing shirt. The jacket had a high collar, and the leather jacket included join spots the quiver carved and set at her feet would have hooked onto. A sword was carved into the stone by her right side, a shattered labrys on the left, a curious marring of the perfection of the work.
"This doesn't look much like a cache." Xena murmurred. "Except, Amazon burial customs don't include tombs or big stone coffins." When she pushed on the lid, it slid open with the same ease as the lid to Ares' sarcophagus had moved.
The stone box proved to be just what the strange figure had said. In it rested an entire set of armour, constructed as if it had always been intended for Xena. A new chakram, marked with red jewels sat at the ready, its edge keen. There was even some sturdy, light armour for Gabrielle, mainly a long, tough jerkin and bracers.
The two women exchanged glances. "I feel the need for enlightenment." Gabrielle declared gravely.
"Oh yeah." agreed Xena.
"Then I am just in time." Both women spun to face their strange nocturnal visitor of the night before. They kept mostly to the shadows. Nevertheless, the tattered state of their clothing was obvious in the half light, and the toes of one foot stuck out of the broken end of a knee high boot.
"Who are you?" Xena moved forward.
"No stay back!" a note of near panic in the figure's voice. "That would ruin everything. You have to trust me."
"Why?" Gabrielle, her tone more curious than alarmed or hostile now.
"I am caught between two sharp blades. But if I can pass successfully between them, then all will be well." The tall apparition shrank back a little further. "As I said last night, it is my wish to protect you. Before Ares' presence prevented me. Your success in imprisoning him has finally allowed me to take up some small part of my responsibilities. A shamefully small part, but I swear to you upon my honour this lack is not intentional."
"Why can't you just say who you are?" Xena had lowered her sword, but she still wasn't happy.
"If I were to do so, my entrapment would be eternal. Were I to do so, my ability to give you what little aid I can would be forfeit. This I cannot do."
"You're protecting Xena." Gabrielle liked this idea. Any help with keeping the warrior in one piece was something she was in favour of. Besides, she simply couldn't feel any threat. The night before she had been surprised and a little afraid because things had been so strange. Today with a previous meeting and daylight under her belt, things were still odd, but not threatening. Much the way being around Aphrodite felt.
"Zeus does manipulate the minds and beliefs of those he can touch. He wishes to fully consolidate his tyranny on Olympus." the mysterious figure paused. "If you doubt that he is a tyrant, look to the fates of those who have stood up to him. There perhaps..." they moved around the clearing, passing a long fingered hand over the face of the stone Amazon. "perhaps you will recognize me. There remain only two capable of effectively keeping him from the goal he reaches for. Now." A half turn, to reveal, for just a moment, a shockingly gaunt visage. "Hera's Chosen, whom you do not know. And you, Xena. It is for Hera to protect her Chosen. You are not my Chosen, I am not some invader upon you. Nevertheless, I am connected to you in ways that drive me to do what I can to protect you from the machinations of that god. His interference with the right workings of Fate may well doom you. Yet, if you are willing to trust me, I can offset Zeus' acts, and leave you to choose your path, as mortals are meant to do."
"I could still be doomed." Xena pointed out.
"True. A truth I despise. But, it is a better truth than the alternative. The alternative is Zeus manipulating more and more mortals to force the results he thinks will serve him best."
"Why not let Zeus alone to do his thing?"
"Where would it stop? The Great Mother created mortals with free will. There can be no love, no loyalty, no trust, without the ability to say no."
"Sounds good." Xena replied.
"I can no more manipulate what you choose to do than you can order the Sun to stand still, Xena."
"So why doesn't Zeus just cut to the chase? Why doesn't he just manipulate us?"
The person laughed aloud. "Leave no detail unchecked. Excellent... having divine blood grants you both an immunity to Zeus' desire for control. The Great Mother put together certain rules for how immortals interact, peculiar ones, due to our powers and inability to die. In particular, any divinity may beat another up with whatever comes handy, or to have regular battles of wits, but we are fundamentally prevented from using more insidious means. We may try, but the attempt would damage us. This limitation extends to any children and their descendants of divinities."
"You're trapped." The figure seemed to collpase a little, a deflation leaving them thinner and more wraithlike.
"Yes. My entrapment was the result of a choice that was no choice at all. Manipulations of mind or use of some insidious drug is banned... but the low use of hostages and threats to loved ones is not, sadly. I don't know why that is." A glance upward. "I cannot stay any longer. The things in the cache are yours. Here is a token. You wil be able to match it to an old an honourable clan of Themiskyra. Proof of my good intent." One more pause. "And for Gaea's sake, go ahead and stay in that empty cot you saw on the way over here." They began to fade away, a final irritated mutter of, "...sleeping on the ground while trying to heal from major injuries. Hmmmph. What are they teaching young people nowadays?" lingering behind.
"Xena?" Garielle whispered. The warrior was staring at the token, a skillfully made badge of the type warriors buckled to their bracers or shoulder armour to display their allegiances. The centre was a roaring bear's head. Surrounding it was a snake biting its own tail.
"I know this badge." Pale blue eyes fixed on the bard. "I've mentioned my mother's lover who disappeared during that storm?" The lover who had made Cyrene feel the way Gabrielle made Xena feel.
"This is the sigil of her clan."
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