The Keeper of My Soul--Always 9
By: Alex P.
As the chariot of Apollo began it's journey in the morning sky, he found Xena and her new Amazon contingent well on their way into the third day of following the trail of Gabrielle and her captors.
While there was always a concern when the women and civilians of any town or peoples was taken, as Gabrielle and her remaining escort had been, some would think it was easy, since Xena had gained a reputation for freeing captured slaves.
This time it was different. This time
it was her bard that had been taken. Ever since they had begun traveling together, this had always been one of the warrior's greatest fears.
She knew that if her captors found out who Gabrielle was and what she meant to Xena, it would go a lot harder on the little green-eyed blonde from Poteidaia.
Another concern was all three of the captives' status as Amazons. For some perverse reason, they were highly prized among those who kept slaves, to be used either as gladiators or as tortured and broken sex slaves, in some of the more exclusive brothels.
Xena knew too, that there were always those among mercenary bands like Karcax's, that had been outcast by most of the regular armies because of their violent ways with women, but for some reason that kind was welcome amongst the ranks of a force, like the one that now held Gabrielle and her two fellow Amazons. In her own warlord days, Xena had a standing order against rape, and the punishment for breaking that order, was death.
If somehow one of these types found out either of Gabrielle's alternate identities, she would be fair game for whatever they could imagine as entertainment.
On the other hand, if she could convince some of them that she was a simple bard with her apprentices, then they may even be spared some of the
degradations the others may face. Bards were considered valuable and usually left unmolested, even by the most barbaric of slavers.
These thoughts spurred Xena on, and through her, Aentia and her small troupe of scouts.
Shortly before noon, one of the scouts that been sent on ahead returned to report that the group they were pursuing, had split up. They wanted the Queen's champion to come see if she could shed any light on which group to follow.
Driven by fear for her lover's well being, Xena spurred her tired mount on to the turning point.
Getting off the skittish war horse, the warrior hurried to where the Amazon scouts knelt beside the road where the trails split, one heading inland toward some of the smaller independent city states. The other led toward some of the larger, less scrupulously patrolled, port cities that welcomed, even catered, to the purveyors of human cargo.
It was the latter trail that Xena paid closest attention to, on the hunch that if she was able, her ever inventive bard would leave her some clue to their direction, knowing that the warrior would be hot on the trail of her captors.
Sure enough, Xena's searching azure eyes spotted a small leather strap tied around a rock holding a torn piece of parchment. Xena pulled the tiny folded paper, and unfolded it to read it's contents.
As she read, a small smile of pride and satisfaction lifted the corners of the sullen warrior's lips and tears of pride formed at the corners of her eyes. She handed the note to Aentia who read it and chuckled at the bravery and audacity of her Queen.
"She is truly something, huh, Aentia?" Xena said, the pride evident in her
husky, emotion-choked voice. "Is it any wonder such a woman would hold my
"Yes she is, Champion," the Amazon commander agreed, her own respect for the little queen raising a notch. "Truly a worthy queen and a true Amazon warrior as well as a worthy guardian of a warrior's soul."
Seeing the curious looks from the other Amazons, Aentia looked for, and received, approval from Xena to show the others the parchment. They all smiled. The note said.
I'm waiting my love.
Anxious to catch up with the slave caravan, now that she was sure that Gabrielle was still reasonably well, Xena sprang to Argo's back. The faithful animal started down the trail toward her rider's waiting lover.
Aentia waited long enough to send one of her scouts to find an Amazon border patrol to relay a warning about the new marauding warlord, and his army. Then she and her remaining scouts took to the nearby trees in an effort to keep up with the impatient champion.
The pursuers continued on after the slow moving caravan until by night fall, they were nearly caught up to them. The scout on point brought word that she had spotted the caravan's rear guard, and the main group holding the slaves wasn't far ahead.
Xena was all for riding into the camp and taking her beloved Gabrielle right then. Only Aentia's logical warning about endangering the Queen if they
accidentally ran up on their camp in the dark kept an enraged Xena from charging on after the slavers.
Aentia could just barely see the stoic, yet friendly Queen's Champion in the Xena she was seeing now. This was a cold, calculating, tempestuous force of nature, bent on the total destruction of any and all that came between her and her objective.
This, Aentia decided, must be what she must have been like when Xena was called the Destroyer of Nations, before she met her savior and soulmate.
It was obvious to Aentia that without the peaceful, loving influence of Gabrielle, the world would be a very different place. All Greece would be
living in fear of this tall, dark, powerful warrior instead of hanging their hopes on her.
With a cold shiver running up her spine, she once again looked into those two crystal-blue ice chips the tall, dark woman had for eyes awaiting her orders. The veteran warrior was suddenly grateful she had never
faced the Warrior Princess across the battlefield, the ruthless merciless
of the warlord was clear for all to see.
With Aentia's cooperation, Xena took full command of the mission. She sent one of the scouts out into the night to locate their prey.
"Just find their camp," Xena emphasized. "Don't get too close. Remember, no matter what you think, these guys just got done taking, and destroying a well fortified city complete with its own garrison, so they're tougher than they look."
She looked deep into the liquid brown eyes of the scout and liked the serious intensity she saw there, but added more for her own piece of mind.
"If you do something *stupid* that gets my Gabrielle hurt, there will be nowhere you can hide," the Warrior Princess warned. "She is everything to
me and anyone causes her harm, I will personally see to it they die for days."
Every one of the Amazons nodded their understanding including Aentia, if even half the stories of the Destroyer were true, Xena would have no second thoughts about following through with her promise. They were sure it was a promise not just a threat.
During the search, Xena's single-minded pursuit of her bard's captors had
made her feelings for their Queen clear to them all. On one hand, Aentia hoped she would find herself lucky enough to have that kind of all consuming love someday. On the other hand, she found herself fearing it more than death itself.
It was also clear to the Amazons that if anything happened to Gabrielle, the only thing the powerful ex-warlord would live for would be, to hunt down, and destroy whoever was responsible. It was also left unsaid, but well known, that once that was done, the warrior would never be heard from again.
Their Queen was the Warrior Princess' life, without Gabrielle there was no Xena, and the warrior so feared her own darkness that she would rather die than risk turning back into the conqueror she once was. In her heart, Xena knew that to do that would be to dishonor the woman that had sacrificed so much to redeem her.
The small party made a cold camp that night, not wanting to alert their prey to their presence. After setting up guard shifts, Aentia and the rest of the Amazons found comfortable places to sleep a short distance from the road.
Xena sat on a convenient log, and as was her nightly habit, began sharpening her weapons. The steady whoosh of the sharpening stone on steel and the feral look on the warrior's face made her companions nervous, but none of them felt the necessity to bring it up to the one time warlord.
The warrior hadn't even taken the time to clean the viscera and blood from the skirmish in the burned city. She was a sight that easily struck fear into any that saw her coming. Xena was not known for her patience, and considering the situation, Aentia thought it wiser to worry about the champion in silence rather than risk talking to her about it.
Suddenly, Xena stopped sharpening in mid-stroke and began muttering something to herself.
"It's not right," she said under her breath. "This is too easy. No way he
wouldn't be expecting some kind of pursuit. What is that Hades cursed bastard up to?"
Xena suddenly slammed her sword back into it's scabbard and stood abruptly. Thinking better when she moved, Xena began pacing around the quiet camp. As she prowled past each still form laying around the campsite, the warrior princess unconsciously noticed who was asleep and who was laying watching her.
Like a lightening bolt the thought struck her.
"A trap it's got to be," Xena hissed. "No warlord worth his armor could be this stupid. Aentia!"
"Here, Champion!" The troupe leader answered leeping from the ground. "What is it?"
"I want you to choose your two best and fastest scouts," Xena began back in her own element, a commander of armies, "ones you can rely on. Send one back along our back trail, as far as the turn off and to keep her eyes and ears open."
"Apia," the veteran commanded and a young but hard-looking scout appeared from the surrounding darkness, "you heard the Champion, do it."
With a quick salute, the scout turned and disappeared back into the darkness. Aentia turned back to the warrior for her next order.
"Good, now I need your fastest," Xena continued nodding her head at the leader's acceptance of her command. "But be sure she's cautious enough not
to be caught-- we'll be depending on her for our very lives."
Aentia thought for a second then a grim smile crossed her lips, not touching her eyes.
"Tessa," the woman hissed, determined to be as quiet as possible.
A small, wiry, dark-skinned scout with an angry red scar down the left side of her
face appeared from the shadows and knelt down next to them, her attention
focused on her new commander.
"You need to go by the most direct route back to the nation," Xena explained urgently, hoping the woman would understand the importance of her mission. "I'm sure by now the regent has sent a company of Amazon warriors to join us.
You must find them and bring them to us as quickly as you can. Tell them that we've stumbled into a trap and if they don't make it here, the lives of your queen and this troop may well be forfeit.
With a salute, the small woman melted into the night and soon even Xena's
senses couldn't detect her.
"What's happened Xena?" Aentia asked. The comment about a trap had her worried.
"I don't know where my brain is," Xena growled, angered by her lapse in judgment. "I'm sorry Aentia, I'm afraid I've been so focused on Gabrielle I wasn't thinking clearly."
She studied the older Amazon's face but saw no condemnation, only understanding.
"I should have picked it up from the beginning when the trails were so easy to follow," Xena continued. "I fell for the oldest trick in the warlord's instruction scrolls and walked right into the trap he set for pursuers."