For The Keeper of My Soul--Always 2
By: Alex P.
As she neared the end of the forest trail, Xena began to see signs of a large force of well-trained soldiers passing in the same direction that she was heading.
She had first noticed their signs as she reached the midway point of the band of forest, and could tell they had traveled there in small groups to avoid detection.
The signs showed the groups had come together at a predetermined point to regroup for attack. This was not the first time Xena had seen this tactic. In fact, she'd used it herself in her early days as a warlord.
The fact that this force was using it did little to ease her apprehension for the safety of her blonde lover. It was a little after mid-afternoon when Xena came to the place where the unknown army had regrouped and formed their battle lines for their assault on the target. By all the signs she had seen, Xena knew their final objective was the city of Ciros.
As quickly and stealthily as she could, Xena followed the obvious trail till she reached the point where the trees thinned out at the wide floodplain of the river.
The smells of battle were thick in the air now, the scent of fear, blood,
and death filled the nostrils of the warrior princess. They were scents she knew well; war's perfume she'd once called it. The smell turned her stomach now.
She cautiously rode out of the trees then stopped in horror at the sight that greeted her as she neared the city. Flanking the road into the once thriving town were tall poles on both sides. Hanging from each pole was the mutilated body of what appeared to have been a soldier.
She couldn't tell exactly how many there were, but Xena estimated that there
were more than fifty or sixty. The cries of the carrion birds filled the air
and the smell of burning and decaying flesh blocked all other odors. Even the
smoke of the burning city couldn't overpower that stench. As she neared the gate, Xena pulled her sword from it's scabbard and loosened her chakram just in case. She couldn't shake the feeling of being watched from somewhere in the slowly dying city in front of her.
She rode through the now broken, iron bound, oak gates her eyes moving over the carnage alert to any possible dangers that may be hiding there. It was as she neared the other side of the city just a few yards from the guard shack nearest the Hags Head Inn that Xena found the first Amazon body.
She nearly missed the small young woman's remains buried under a smoldering collapsed wall of a small shed-like building. The sight of a muscular leg sticking out in the open sent a chill up Xena's spine as a heartbeat of panic made her believe that the lifeless limb, wearing an Amazon
boot, was her bard.
She leapt from Argo's back and began digging franticly at the debris until she'd uncovered the nearly shredded body that Xena could barely recognize as Kala.
The youngster was one of the women that had been Gabrielle's escort along with three other young Amazons that had been eager to impress their queen as responsible warriors. Xena knew there was no way this youngster would be here alone.
It heightened her worry that the body was here alone and unattended. She did
her best to arrange the young warrior's remains, then marked the spot so that
it would be easily found by her sisters that were sure to come looking when
the Amazon scouts that had accompanied their queen failed to return.
Xena's nerves were stretched to their limit when she resumed her search for her partner. As she drew close to the Southern city gate, Xena noticed that the signs of the battle that filled the streets were fresher, indicating that it was close to the sight of some kind of last stand.
One thing that didn't seem right--Xena had yet to see any signs of the marauders that had brought such carnage to this normally peaceful river town. If her mind hadn't been so focused on her missing bard, her suspicions
would have been aroused by the conspicuous absence of enemy dead.
She had once again resumed her course towards the inn when off to one side, along an inner wall, she caught the sight of a slight movement underneath a haphazard pile of bodies.
On closer examination her sharp clear blue eyes spotted an arm that barely moved, like someone was trying to crawl out from under the pile of dead flesh.
Catching a flash of an Amazon armband, the frantic warrior was once again digging at the pile of debris and flesh. She was spurred even faster when she heard a quiet pain-filled moan come from the pile.
Within minutes, Xena reached the still breathing, but severely wounded young woman.
She gently lifted the limp form, carrying her to a nearby still-standing shed wall that appeared to be stable. The warrior hurried to her saddle bags and returned with her medical supplies and a water skin.
She gave the now semi-conscious woman a small drink, not wanting her to get sick from too much at once. She treated the Amazons wounds well enough to keep her temporarily safe, so Xena could finish her search for her beloved Gabrielle.
It didn't take her long to figure out what had occurred here and since she didn't find any other wounded she knew that the only reason she'd found Tauria alive was because she'd been hidden under the other already dead.
If Xena hadn't come along when she did, the young Amazon would have joined her sister Kala on the other side.
Just as she was finishing her search, she came across a small party of the invaders that were left behind. The group picking through the debris collecting their dead and wounded, throwing them on a communal pyre. That explained the absence of enemy dead.
The ensuing fight was short and vicious. By the time a very angry, very frustrated, very worried, Xena was finished with them, all but one of the enemy were dead. They were all nearly torn to pieces by the almost berserker rage that gripped the warrior.
Only her indomitable love for Gabrielle kept her from killing the last remaining soldier. Before she was finished "questioning" him however, death would have been merciful.
She kept him alive though, even after she had all the information she could wring from his pain induced memory. He didn't understand why the gore-covered apparition let him live, until she took him to where Tauria was laying recovering her strength.
Xena gave the prisoner to the wounded woman after she learned that Tauria was bonded to Kala. It was her sign of respect for the Amazon tradition of justice, especially when she knew the woman's small wife had given her life to defend her queen. A debt Xena knew she could never repay.
After questioning her prisoner, Xena knew the fate of her bard, and the rest of her escort, along with everybody else that had survived the attack that wasn't a soldier.
The raiding party was under the command of a newly risen warlord named Karcax, that had recently entered the area from the North. They had looted the town and had taken everyone that survived to be sold as slaves to help finance his quest for conquests.
Knowing what she had to do, Xena took the time to treat Tauria's wounds properly, then made the young grieving warrior take some broth she'd made with the smoked venison and several herbs, to aid the healing process and lessen the woman's physical pain.
Xena was only sorry she could do nothing for the more devastating pain in the woman's soul. She knew how she would feel if anything happened to her beloved bard.
"Hold on, Brie," Xena prayed quietly as she began to methodically sharpen
her sword "I'm coming for you. Just stay alive for me, my love, that's all I ask--stay alive."
Xena heard the prisoner whimper softly when she looked over at him. He saw the look in those hard ice blue eyes and trembled in fear. He knew the true nature of terror, he would have welcomed all the tortures of Tarterus than to have to look into those eyes again. He could feel his very soul shrivel up as the hard crystal blue eyes bore holes into him.
Xena knew what she must look like the dirt and dust from the road was combined with chunks of flesh bone and viscera along with dried, clotted blood covered her from head to toe.
She knew but she didn't care. Her every thought, every action was focused on
finding and freeing her bard, after that, she'd worry about bathing.
"Don't worry about me, pig," Xena laughed coldly at his fears. "Your problems begin when her sister Amazons get here. You belong to them and they aren't very merciful to men that murder their sisters and take their queen as slave."
The man's eyes grew wide as he realized what awaited him. Every rumor he'd ever heard about the Amazon Nation and their treatment of prisoners ran through his mind.
It was fully dark and the moon had set when Xena sensed their presence, and a cold smile crossed her lips.
"Your captors are here. I hope you've made peace with yourself for your past," Xena stated to the terrified man. "Come on in ladies, I have been expecting you. I must leave soon so lets get this over with."
Several Amazon scouts in full war dress appeared out of the surrounding darkness as silent as phantoms. Only the warrior princess' finely-honed senses could have detected them.
An older Amazon stepped out ahead of the group and squatted across the small campfire from Xena, saluting her as an equal.
"I am Aentia commander of this troop. Our scouts reported the smoke of battle," the troops commander explained. "We knew that our queen and her escort were headed here and when they failed to return, I sent word to the regent, then we came to investigate. What has happened here, Champion?"
Xena winced a little at the thinly veiled accusation in that title. In her usual clear and concise manner, she told the Amazon everything she seen and learned since her arrival that afternoon. The troop leader nodded her understanding, and shuddered a little when Xena made mention of using her legendary interrogation skills on the prisoner.
That she'd given the prisoner to Tauria as her survivor's right pleased the commander's Amazon sensibilities. She expressed her gratitude to the queen's champion for showing the widowed woman and her mate such respect.
"Yeah, well, if anything has happened to your Queen nothing, not even the
nation itself, will stop me from my "rights". This one and her mate gave their all for my love. Their queen or not, it's a debt I can't repay," Xena growled causing even the battle-hardened veteran shudder. "I'll be leaving soon I only waited because I knew you'd be here and she needs care beyond that I gave her."
"I thank you, Champion," the leader said. "And if you will allow, I will send Tauria and the prisoner back home with a small escort, it's only a day's journey to our borders. If you will also permit, I and the rest of my troop would join you in your pursuit of our Queen to lend you any aid you may require."
"If you wish," Xena shrugged, knowing the women would not be argued out of it. "Just remember, your Queen is my mate and don't get in my way."
It was a flat statement not a threat and though the commander started to bristle, she thought better of it knowing the warrior princess, champion, and mate of her queen was fully capable of going on without them. She gave in to her request as a professional courtesy, not need or even want.
"It will be as you wish, Champion," the leader answered. "We will only be
there to assist, the right of vengeance is of course yours, as mate and champion. "
They shook hands and then Aentia assigned a party of four to take their
wounded sister and the body of her mate back to the nation where they would be cared for like the heroes they were.
There were a few
disappointed faces as their commander assigned the youngest of her troop to take them home, but both their leader and the queen's champion explained the honor of escorting the wounded sister and her dead mate home. That by seeing them safely to the regent, and seeing that
they were honored as the true heroes they were, the four youngsters were up-holding the highest of Amazon traditions. It seemed to deflect much of the
disappointment of not accompanying the legendary Warrior Princess on her honor quest.
Without any more delay, Xena saddled Argo and with an escort of fifteen Amazons that seemed to melt into the shadows, the worried and anxious Warrior set out to find and win back her beloved and treasured Gabrielle.
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