Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and any other characters or text mentioned from the original series is owned by Renaissance Pictures, Studio USA, or whoever has the rights now. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction just for fun. Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. Some of the characters may be theirs but the story is mine. Copyright Feb 2001.

Rated as adult material for some violence and a loving relationship between two consenting adults and because anything can happen in my stories. If you are easily offended, please read something else.

Email me at: kenrogers2002@yahoo.com

Constructive comments and criticisms or just plain chats good or bad are most welcome. No flames please.

Suggestion: If you haven't seen 'The Last Battleground: A Friend in Need you may want to wait to read this as it contains spoilers!

Ken Rogers

 

Lost Soul, Part 5 -- Desperate Endeavor

Continued from Lost Soul 4 - Marking Time

 

I lay in the deep shade of the fading sun, my body chilled to the bone though I was glistening in sweat. My situation was becoming desperate. I lay hidden behind some rocks, my back to a shear cliff rising high above me and jutting out far enough to prevent any attack from above. I had no food and little water. Worst of all my supplies, most importantly my medical supplies, lay on the trail below draped across the back of my dead horse. I desperately needed the medical supplies because I was badly wounded from some cuts by daggers and swords during a desperate battle, and more cuts by arrows that had grazed my body. Worst of all four arrows had hit me. Two high in the back -- thankfully in my shoulder where nothing serious had been hit -- one in the right hip and one in the right thigh. Having no medical supplies, I had been forced to strip off my clothes after breaking off the arrows, then work on my wounds using only my daggers, while keeping a sharp vigilance the whole time. I had ripped my heavy shirt and trousers into bandages and was now only dressed in my summer Amazon clothes and my heavy coat. What little water I had was from a recent storm, in a depression in one of the rocks behind me. I had very sparingly used some of it to clean my wounds and had swallowed a little of it, though to go to the water exposed me to my enemies and I risked being shot again. Below me lay my faithful horse riddled with arrows; some fired at her in frustration after I was cornered. Scattered along the trail in both directions were the bodies of nearly thirty warriors. All but one I had shot from their horses or running from cover as they tried to get near me. That one I had shot off the cliff across from me, one of the six that had sprung the trap, killing my horse and stranding me here. Out of bowshot in both directions, on the trail in front of me, the enemy had set up camp and was having their evening meal. In both directions, at least ten warriors watched to prevent my escape, seeking any chance to kill me.

The battle had begun two days before when the local tyrant, having set many guards had twenty warriors attack me from hiding. Only my keen sense of my surroundings and my battle prowess, both hard-trained gifts from the greatest warrior I had ever known, had saved me. Even so I had been wounded several times, and would have died but for my heavy clothes.

By the time I escaped that trap my katana and arm were covered in the gore from more than half the warriors that had attacked me, but more were coming. I had no choice and fled as fast as my horse could run but they had persued and their archers had put an arrow in me and one in my horse. Still we had been distancing them, until I saw more warriors ahead of me and turned into the side canyon. The canyon was a trap and my horse was shot out from under me and I was wounded twice more. I made it into the rocks but was struck again and fell into a depression striking my head, knocking me unconscious. Had they been a little less cautious they would have had me then, but instead of coming to get me they had stayed where they were and sent scores of arrows to find me. Arrows had struck the rocks above me and fallen on me where I lay but fortunately, none of them found me. Even more fortunately, I was unconscious only a short time. When I woke, I still had my bow in my hand and had quickly returned many of their arrows with much better aim though the pain of drawing it was excruciating torture. I had gathered more arrows and made a dash for better cover, because where I was some bright boy might get lucky and arc an arrow into me. I was also in a vulnerable spot, in that I could not see anyone approaching from right or left, only straight on and it was possible for someone to get behind me. To stay there was to die. Running with four arrows in me was white agony, especially the ones in my hip and thigh where I had to use the muscles, but I had done it. Arrows had fallen all around me, two even penetrating my coat, one a clean miss and one gouging a line of fire across my lower back, but only just beneath the skin.

Now I lay, as my second night approached, where no one could reach me and I could cover all directions. Last night I had managed to gather forty arrows and today they had rained as many on my position without hitting me. After dark, I would again be able to gather more arrows and I still had ten with another twenty close at hand, if I needed them. Arrows weren't the problem, nor was visibility because the moon was in all its glory and so far, the desert sky had remained clear. Clouds could kill me, but I had more pressing worries. I was wounded and had lost a lot of blood so I was weakening, especially without food and water. To make my misery worse I now had a chill not from the cold air, but the beginnings of healing fever, and my head felt as thick as the rock around me hampering my breathing and hearing. As if the gods were enjoying my misery my time was upon me and I was cramping, a sign that this would not be a pleasant cycle. On top of all that I had had no sleep in two days and a night, other than passing out a couple of times, the second time almost costing me my life. It was a very good thing that Xena had taught me her methods for healing with pain and discomfort. I was not as good at it as she had been because she had been doing it for many years and I had only been practicing the methods for a couple of years but they were very effective. In my younger days I would have been unable to function even with my worst monthly cramping, now I was functioning better sorely wounded than I had in good condition then. I knew that with her training I would be able to function and do what I had to do up until the moment I passed out, or was killed. Even so, there were limits and I was conserving my strength for what was to come, as much as I could, even as my strength was fading from my wounds and lack of sleep.

I had gone over everything and the conclusion was unavoidable. I escaped tonight or died tomorrow. The problem was they might not wait until tomorrow. Even if they did there was the big moon up there to betray their movements and waiting to betray mine. It looked like no matter what, sometime tonight or tomorrow one of these warriors would add my pelt to his trophies. The certainty was that I would die sometime in the next night or next day, but there was a slim possibility that I could escape if I went during the night.

Surrender had never been an option. They had attacked me from ambush without ever trying to talk to me or demand surrender. I was sure if I surrendered or was captured it would be to suffer rape and torture before they put me to death. No, there would be no attempt to surrender. If I was to go down I would go in their midst, my katana reaping souls at every stroke. They may win my head, but it would be the most expensive trophy they had ever taken.

I changed my position to relieve the pain in my wounded leg, ignoring the pain it awakened in my hip and shoulder, making a quick survey of the approaches to my hiding place. If they attacked tonight then I would die tonight taking them with me, but if they held off until tomorrow I would be gone when the sun rose or dead from a lucky arrow.

I lay my head against the coolness of the shaded rocks in front of me trying to ease the constant throb in my temples. The first signs of fever caused by my wounds and the slight chill were getting worse. I was sickening from my wounds, a normal part of healing but something I could not afford right now. I needed water, my throat dry as dust and my wounded body desperately needing it. When it was dark, I would be able to get water from my little pool, hopefully without being shot. I determined to drink it dry since it wouldn't matter if there were any left for later. Later I would be gone or dead.

Another check and I saw some movement. They were testing me and getting careless. I nocked an arrow and waited for my chance. Now was a crucial time, for they would feint on one side and while I was busy keeping their heads down, assuming I was still conscious, for they knew I was wounded, they would attack from the other side. In the day and night they had sought to get to me, they had become predictable, their tactician lacking imagination. When they moved I sent a careless arrow in the direction of the feint and when the actual attacker made his dash I put one through his chest. Their soldiers weren't too bright either, still not believing my prowess with the bow, because three of them exposed themselves to see what happened to the actual attacker and two of them died.

I leaned back against the rocks watching through my vantagepoint, my throbbing temple pressed against the cool stone again, remembering when Xena had been teaching me the bow. I had been a poor student at first, because I had other things on my mind and wasn't concentrating. We had had several intense arguments about my lack of concentration. I had insisted I had to learn the bow, when she wanted to quit for a while, since I obviously had other things I felt were more important. Each time she would give in to my demand and try again. Several weeks had gone by like that and Xena had had enough. When I made a particularly inept shot, by doing exactly what she had patiently been telling me not to do for weeks, she threw up her hands and stalked off. She didn't come to supper and she was still gone when I reluctantly crawled into my bedroll.

When I woke I had a splitting headache, was lying nude on the bare ground, and my hands and feet were tied. There was no camp near me. There was nothing around me that I remembered. The only thing near me was a dagger driven high into a nearby tree with my bow hanging on it. I learned later that she had always been close during those next few weeks so nothing really serious would have happened to me. I went hungry and cold for quite some time before I had made my arrows and become good enough to bring down my dinner. For most of a week I subsisted on berries and a few raw tubers, then I killed my first rabbit. I immediately had a new problem because I still had no way to start a fire because I still had not found any flint. There were other methods but I had never paid much attention to Xena's lessons, always having a flint on hand. After some fruitless efforts at other methods and a determined search, I managed to find some flint to strike against my knife. By then, the rabbit was doubtful, and I reluctantly left it for the animals braver than I, though my stomach was so empty it hurt. My second kill, another rabbit had led me on a long frustrating chase because I had only wounded the poor thing. Well, it took me two more weeks to find Xena and by then I was clothed and shod in deer hide. I had all the skills; I had just never had to put them all together. By the time I found her, I had decided not to skin her after all. Instead, I walked proudly into her camp fully clothed with a small hind on my shoulder. She looked up and said. "Looks like you had a good shot there," noting the wound behind the shoulder. Then she went back to working on her armor as if I had never been gone. She never would tell me how long she had to keep me unconscious to get me that far from our camp.

I had to be more vigilant now, because the sun was down and the moon had yet to rise. This was a crucial time. If their leaders had given it any thought at all, this was the very best time to attack me, but a bad time for me to try anything since they would be watching for just that. I continually scanned the area for any sign of attack and almost missed it still. It dawned on me that a certain vague shadow was different than the last time I looked there and I put an arrow into it. It remained unchanged after that. When the moon climbed above the far cliff the shadow became a body next to a rock with my arrow in it.

With the moon up, they went back to eating and drinking in their camps. I heard shouts, laughter, angry words and even a scream once, so tortured I could not tell if it was a man or woman, and really didn't want to know.

I lay my head back on the rock. I had wanted badly to go to my water in the darkness but it was fortunate I hadn't. Now I would have to make several very quick moves to scoop some up in my hands and duck back out of sight unless I wanted my chest decorated with the heads of the arrows in my back.

I wished I had something to fill with water then realized with a start and a flip of my stomach that I could use my boots. The thought of drinking water from my sweaty boots roiled my stomach, but I didn't have time or the luxury of being queasy. I needed water and as much as I could drink. Several handfuls wouldn't do it. The water was there and the only way I could get more than a few sips was if I used my boots. While my stomach rebelled at the thought I stripped my boots off. The feeling of cold stone on my feet was actually very good, at least for a while. I reasoned that my sweat probably wouldn't kill me and going without water would weaken me and lessen my chances for survival if I had to fight during my escape.

Still a little reluctantly, I crawled down by my little water cache and pushed my boots into the water without raising an alarm. I could lie beside it, I just couldn't be over the water for very long if I wanted to live. After a moment, I reached quickly over and lifted my boots pulling them down with me and going back to my hiding place as six arrows bounced off the rock around the pool. The boots were dripping water and without pausing, afraid they would leak it all out, I upended one and drank it dry. After catching my breath I emptied the other one, although it felt like I had already had too much, and I was a bit uncomfortable. That was more water than I had had in two days. I hoped it stayed down.

Hesitantly I left my boots off so they could at least be partially dry before I had to put them back on, my feet already cold. I kept my vigil but continued to lay my throbbing head against the cold rock for short intervals.

My mind drifted back over the past months.

When I fled Japa I crossed to Chin and rode deep into the mountains going over a high pass and getting caught in a blizzard that nearly cost me my life. When I came down the other side, I ended up in a tiny mountain village where I had been forced to kill two men. The next day I had been visited by Ares and had a fight with him, which was seen by an elderly gentleman named Jai Zhong, that I had called grandfather as the villagers did. He kept the stable and lived alone in a comfortable little room off the stable. After seeing Ares and I fight, he had talked to me and invited me to tea. Before the day was through, I had told him more than I had ever told anyone, about my life, Xena's death, and my flight from her. He had shown me the anger and hurt I was hiding and denying and more, he had shown me the terrible thing I had done by leaving Xena.

After that, I couldn't wait to get back to Japa and try to make things right with her, though I expected it to be a struggle for both of us. I had wanted to leave the next morning but grandfather Jai had convinced me that the pass was closed and had been closed before I came over it and would not be open for four or five moons. I waited poorly for one of those moons to pass, but a month was all I could stand and so I had determined to go down the mountain and seek a way around through a lower pass. There was such a way. In fact, there were several, but grandfather had tried to talk me out of all of them because bandit lords or very unsavory warriors controlled all of that area, but I was adamant. I had to get back to Xena before she disappeared for good. I had to get back and the longer I waited the more I feared her spirit would be beyond my reach; in fact I already feared that I may have driven her away, never to return.

Reluctantly grandfather Jai had given me all his knowledge of the area I would travel, including routes and the locations of bands of cutthroats and thieves that passed for governments there. I was in trouble in two days, and I should have turned back, but I pressed on through several conflicts that cost them heavily and me not at all, except for time and carrying me further from the coast. It had gone from bad to worse and my katana and the chakram harvested many souls as I tried desperately to get to the coast. I was twice wounded slightly in those months, but recovered rapidly, suffering only discomfort. Finally, I had found a way through them, far to the north, and traveled hard and fast towards the coast, riding right into a trap set by the worst of them all. Now here I was, wounded, hungry and heavily outnumbered by a vicious band of men who were the local law and sought to kill me for the crime of crossing their land. I would be dead in less than a day or somewhere else in this desolate unfamiliar country, trying desperately to get to the coast through dangerous lands and even more dangerous people. It was looking like the next time I saw Xena; I too, would be on the other side.

I waited until the early hours of morning when the shadows were deep and the guards were more likely to be inattentive after a very quiet night. I stole back down to my water and drank my fill, so deep in inky shadows that it was unlikely they could see anything, though I was still cautious and didn't linger in the open. I put my still damp and very chilled boots back on and removed my heavy coat shivering as the cold air chilled my exposed skin. It didn't matter. The chill would help keep me from falling asleep in moments of inactivity, which I could easily do because I was so tired. I checked my weapons making sure they were all in place and not binding. I was as ready as I would ever be and didn't wait, but immediately started slowly down the path keeping to cover as much as possible and moving slowly. It was unlikely they would see me in the deep shadows, but I wasn't going to depend on that and get an arrow in my belly. I also moved slowly because movement can be seen faster than the actual form, which Xena had proven to me by attacking and capturing me up a barren hill with me watching the whole time. I never saw her. That had been early in my training when I had become overconfident of my new abilities and she had chosen to take me down a peg. I knew she was there when she put her arm around my neck and choked me unconscious. She had a way of making her lessons memorable. Now I had the skills she had then and more. I knew how to move and how not to move and I hoped I had learned well because a mistake here would cost me my life.

Getting out of my hiding place was easy, but no matter if I went left or right there was a point when I would be exposed to the archers on the ridge and the guards I would be trying to get through. Of course, if a guard saw me and I was close enough I could kill him but that would shorten my time to escape because someone would find him. If I weren't close enough he would give the alarm, and I would have to fight my way out which would be difficult, and more probably impossible, in my condition.

The shadows grew, assisting me as I moved slowly along the ridge towards the smaller camp. That meant I was heading for the coast when I got away which was my goal, but I had chosen this route because of the smaller contingent of warriors. Once back on the main trail I might well run into more warriors. I knew the main trail east would still be set with the ambush, so I wasn't sure what I would do there. That was still too far away yet. If I lived through this, then I would worry. I had inched along among some boulders at the edge of the canyon, passing only a few feet from my dead horse and my gear, but it was still in the light and I dared not try for it. I was sorry I had lost the horse. She was an excellent warhorse and I had become fond of her, but with everything on my mind, I had never even given her a name. I had traveled most of Chin not even giving out my own name or asking others theirs; I had been so lost in my sorrows. Naming the horse hadn't even entered my mind. Now I felt regret for that omission.

I had gone about as far as I could go and was standing against a rock preparing to cross that small open stretch when a warrior stepped out from behind a rock right next to me! He was so close I could have reached out and put my arm around him. He stopped, turned slightly away from me scanning the gloom ahead of him, and then I heard water. He was relieving himself standing right beside me! I hardly dared breath, and was afraid he would sense me, cursing my thick head under my breath for not hearing him. He finished his chore and scanned the area again and I thought he would move on but instead he backed up against the rock I was leaning against, still turned slightly away from me. If he turned only slightly to his left, his arm would bump me! I dared not move and was hardly breathing, sweat was pouring down my neck and across my chest though I was summer clad and it was heavy coat weather. He fished something out of his clothes and began chewing on it and I finally got a good scent of his foul breath. He had been drinking; I could smell the sour fermented drink on his breath. That explained why he hadn't sensed me. Now all I had to do was hope he moved before he rolled over on me! I looked down and his heavy coat sleeve was touching my chest.

I don't know how long I stood there, expecting him to touch me any instant, when I heard something across the canyon against the other wall. A guard stepped partially out from behind a rock near where I had planned to cross. The guard next to me stood up, and when he did his arm pressed into my breast; evidently he didn't feel it because he walked closer to the open, though not far enough to be shot at by 'me' and spoke to the other guard. I held my breath because if I moved, the guard across from me would probably catch the movement and I expected him to catch a glimpse of my yellow hair or light complexion anyway. If I didn't move, I expected the guard near me to turn to return to his post and I would be right in front of him. Either way I figured this was the start of the end because there was no way I would escape from here. I waited breathlessly my hands at my sides, but ready to grab my daggers, and take out both of these guards the instant one of them saw me.

The guard across the way was telling this one that after he made his rounds he should return to camp. After some non essential chatter the man across the way disappeared towards the camp on the right and the man in front of me turned to my right and continued along the path the way I had been going. I followed him and to my surprise, he turned into a break in the rock that had not been obvious in my race through the canyon. It widened immediately into a branch canyon. He called up to a guard on the ridge above my position, then after a short talk with him, continued on into the canyon. The little canyon was narrow, no wider than ten paces, and winding. Around the first bend was a camp with a dim fire and dark forms around it. I counted six. The guard I was following wakened one of the sleeping forms and sent him to take his place, explaining that he was returning to the main camp for a time. I had moved into a crack of the wall and the sleepy guard never knew I was there as he made his way to his post.

The first guard fiddled with the fire, then went beyond the group, around another bend and I was surprised to see picketed horses! He picked one and saddled it, a strong, long-legged warhorse of a dark color. I felt my conscience pulling at me as I slit his throat and held him silent until he died, then pulled him further back into the canyon and stripped him. I donned his outer clothes feeling my skin crawl at the touch and smell of his filthy clothes. His clothes were not a good fit since he was smaller than I was, but with his coat and helmet, I was sure I could fool the guards in the dark. I had had hopes that the little canyon offered me a way out, but just beyond where I had hidden the guard's body, the canyon narrowed then became clogged with boulders and debris. I had no choice but to try to get by the guards. I hoped that the horse and clothes would make it easier but I wouldn't know until I tried.

I pulled myself up into the saddle and the horse bucked a couple of times. I learned quickly that he was poorly trained and hard to manage, but he was powerful and given running room, I hoped he would have the strength to keep up a good run for a while. He balked and snorted again, not really liking me and I figured he could smell my strange odor, or perhaps my wounds, even over the stench of the clothes I wore. I didn't dare speak to him to try to calm him because my voice was different enough from the warrior's that it might make matters worse and because the sleeping warriors might hear me.

After a little more complaint, he settled down and I walked him out of the hidden canyon and into the other canyon, turning towards the camp on the right. I needn't worry that my entry in the canyon would tip my hand, since the exit of the small canyon and the path I kept to against the rock wall, were out of sight of the position I supposedly still occupied.

One of the guards shouted a rude remark at me and I waved as he laughed. By the time I had to move into the middle of the main canyon I was out of the range where the other guards would expect 'me' to shoot at the rider. Near the camp, I passed a couple of guards but they just waved me on. I walked the horse through the edge of the camp keeping to the deep shadows. My passing was nearly silent because of the sand the horse was walking in. Amazingly, there were no guards on the outer perimeter and I just kept on walking. I kept to a slow walk, well past the place I could expect them to hear me, and then nudged the horse out into the harder main trail and into a gallop.

When I got out of that canyon, I wasn't sure which way to go. Towards the coast, I had first been attacked. The way I had originally come, riders had forced me into the side canyon. With no clear choice and further to go towards the coast before coming to the original ambush site, I turned that way and began looking for other places to turn off the main trail. I was nearly to the ambush site when I found two side trails, one going north and one going south, both easily miss in the convolutions of the canyon walls. The one going south was heavily traveled but the north trail had not seen traffic in several days, so reluctantly I turned north again, taking me further from my goal.

I made slow time, carefully studying the trail for signs of guards. In the end, one of their horses gave them away, evidently getting a whiff of my horse. Once again, I silently cursed my thick head for my insensitivity to sounds. I felt my horse puff up to answer and reined him in hard, turning him full circle. It worked and he didn't whinny but his hooves clattered on stone. I pulled him behind some boulders and slid to the ground, tying him securely to a heavy branch. I didn't trust him to stay put if he got loose. I moved away from him and faded against the boulders just an easy step from the path. The guard that came to investigate had his sword drawn and moved fairly quietly in the soft sand, but quiet to him was much too loud for someone properly trained, even with a stuffed up head. He stepped on a small twig that made a muffled snap under his foot, and a moment later his boot scraped on rock. He passed me; my horse whickered and he was able to give the alarm. He turned as I came up behind him and slashed at me with his sword, but it was a clumsy blow and he was dead before fully comprehending his danger or folly.

I hurried towards his camp to find two other warriors ready for me. They attacked me immediately without any attempt to get me to surrender. When they were dead, I checked their camp. From the tracks and condition of their supplies, I could tell they had been there for close to a week and should be getting relief soon, curse the luck. There were three horses, all smaller than the one I had ridden, but apparently no better trained. I picked what I thought was the best and saddled her then made a pack animal of a second, packing all their waterskins after filling them at the little spring that made this a good camp. I collected what little food they had left and added it and a few medical supplies to the horse. Their supplies were inadequate to the kit I had had to leave behind, but much better than nothing. I also added extra blankets against the cold weather and my chills and fever. The third horse was of no use to me and I turned him loose. I had intended to replace the horse I was riding with these, but these horses were smaller than he was and not much better trained. In an all out pursuit, he could outrun these horses, so I chose to keep him.

A couple of hours still remained until dawn, and I stripped out of the filthy clothes I had been wearing and my own, washing in the freezing little spring and caring for my neglected wounds. I had to put my clothes back on but found some others to wear over them. The new ones fit a little better and were definitely cleaner than the ones I had been wearing. At their fire I found a couple of pieces of cold meat still on the sticks they had been cooked on, perhaps for the guard on watch, and a cold pot of a bitter tea. I ate the meat and drank all of the tea then climbed into the saddle of the horse I had just saddled, going back for the other and tying him on behind with a bit of rope. Now I had two mounts and could switch back and forth, keeping them fresher and going farther and faster than one horse could manage. The packhorse was lightly loaded and should not be much of a problem but if he faltered I would redistribute the supplies and leave him, or any of the others that slowed me down.

I made good time along the ravine and before the sun was fully up I was out of the ravine and a good distance out on a never-ending plain headed for some vaguely seen mountains to the east. I used every trick Xena had taught me, including padding my horses' hooves, for a time, and taking to rock when I could. On the open plain, they would be able to see me a long distance away. By keeping to lower ground wherever possible and taking advantage of any cover, including the occasional rolling hill, I made it as hard as I could for them. I didn't know how far they would follow me or when I would run onto the next band of trouble. I hoped I could make it into the distant hills and find a place to hole up for a while, to recover from my injuries and the now burning fever and icy chill I had. I needed rest and food and I needed it badly but I knew once I let down I would sleep and in my condition I would not be fully alert. I had to take all the precautions I could or death would find me while I slept.

It was nearly evening, the sun already down, and I was in the low foothills when I fell from the horse. The shock of hitting the ground shook my injuries and the pain returned me to consciousness. I was fortunate. The horses were tired and hungry and they wandered only as far as the nearest forage, which was some tough clump grass in a small depression.

For a time I wasn't sure I could stand again, but I made it and made my slow way to the horses. I was riding the smaller mare and she let me come up to her even while the stallion tried to pull away, tugging on the lead rope. It took me four tries to get back in the saddle and I had to rest before taking up the reins. I was near the end of my endurance. I had to find shelter.

I followed a ravine into the mountains then switched to another and finally a third. When I crossed the ridge of the low mountain, it was as if I had entered another world. I was almost immediately into thick brush and then into trees a little lower down. I even found a small stream, and after making a false trail across it, I turned up the stream and followed it up into a canyon. Twice I blacked out, but managed to stay in the saddle. The third time I woke with the horses standing in water to their hocks under a deep overhang, the entrance to a dark cave. A short distance away was a small meadow with good-sized trees, near the water. I couldn't see how big the grassland was but it would support the horses at least for several days. I walked them into the cave and got down, knowing I would not be able to get on a horse again until I was rested. I don't remember much, as I stripped the gear from the horses, letting it fall from them, except thinking it was probably the last time I would see any of them. If they chose to leave me, I was too weak to do anything about it. I left them to make their way to grass and lay out a bedroll and an extra couple of blankets, since I was freezing and it was cold in the cavern. Then without thought to anything else I fell into the bedroll fully clothed and pulled the blankets up to my neck.

The next week was a nightmare of little remembered horrors as my dreams tortured me in my fevered delirium. My fever got much worse before getting better, because I had worked myself to exhaustion to get away and find this place to hide, and there was little strength to fight the fever and the infection in my wounds. More than once I woke, sure that death sat at my side waiting for me to accept that life was ended. Each time I remembered that I had abandoned my soulmate and had to get back to her. I distinctly remember arguing with Celesta several times and refusing to let her touch me, though I am sure they were just dreams. If Celesta had really come for me, she would have taken me. My spirit would no longer lie in my body in a bedroll in a cavern, some-unknown-where in a desolate hostile world, where I was hunted as if I was an animal. Perhaps I could have put her off because she owed me, but more likely not. I had no doubt that when Celesta really came for me she would simply touch me and I would immediately be on the other side and moving towards my destiny.

I had vague memories of eating stale bread and dried meat almost too tough for me to chew. I woke once, standing hip deep in the water screaming at Ares, to the realization that my whole body shook with the freezing cold of the water. Ares may have been here in my dream but there was no sign of him when I woke.

Somehow, I made it through the week and on this day I sat in the shade of one of the trees watching the horses grazing a short distance away. It was a mild day, for this inhospitable region, outside the cavern and away from the water. I longed to be in the sun; but was still wary of setting myself up as a target for an unknown enemy. I sat near a tree where I could see the horses though I was quite well concealed by surrounding brush. Even the presence of the horses worried me because they advertised my presence. I stayed hidden because, if an enemy were there, I would not make it easy for him. I was in no condition for a fight and planned to put one off every second I could.

While I sat quietly enjoying that I was alive, and was well enough to appreciate the fact, my mind was in turmoil. I longed to be on the trail again; every fiber of my being screaming at me to get back to Xena and try to repair the damage I had done. Every day, hour, and minute I was not on the trail satisfying that urgent need, was a torture to me. Xena was my soulmate and I had let her down, abandoned her, leaving her to face the unknown situation that was now her existence, failing to support her and help her through a most difficult time. She had died to protect and save others. Whether I agreed or not with how she had done it, it had been done, and I knew in my heart of hearts that she had done what she thought was right regardless of what it cost her, including me. How could I be so selfish? I still didn't agree that she had needed to stay dead and I doubted I ever would, but right or wrong, she had done it to right what she perceived as a terrible wrong she had caused. I had seen the torture and anguish in her when she had turned me down. I also knew that if there was any doubt in her mind, even the remotest possibility that my bringing her back to life would adversely affect those forty thousand souls, Xena would not, could not, come back. In her cruel evil days she wouldn't have hesitated, not caring at all for a million souls, much less forty thousand, but then Xena would not have been in that situation in the first place. No, I blamed her for leaving me out, and I still had serious problems with that, but to turn against her, to leave her! How had I been so thoughtless, so callous? Our relationship had suffered some serious blows. I still wasn't sure I could forgive her for leaving me out in the cold during decisions that so profoundly affected both of our lives, but those were things we needed to work out between us.

Regardless, I had done it; betrayed and abandoned her, no less a mistake or failure than what I had spent weeks berating her for and I was suffering a frighteningly ominous fear. Somewhere inside the caring woman that Hercules had shown the world, the monster still lurked, as it did in all of us, but Xena's monster had been released once. It had tasted freedom and had only been locked away by her strong will and determination. During our time together I had only glimpsed that monster a very few times but even once had been too much. I knew that Xena believed that I was the one that kept that monster locked away, that I was her rock, her stabilizing force. We had argued this point many times, over our evening meal or as we lay watching the star-studded night sky. I thought maybe I had helped at first, but I was convinced Xena had changed enough that the monster was forever contained, but she had never for a second believed that. She didn't think she was strong enough to contain her demon without me. At some level I had agreed with her in our early years together because I had made her promise not to become a monster again, when it looked like Celesta would take me from her. But that had been several years ago when Xena had fought her demons daily and the monster lay just below the surface waiting to break out. Since then Xena had changed so much. I was sure her demon was forever chained, but what if I was wrong? What if, by my selfish actions, I had released that monster again? The very thought froze my blood. Xena was dead, in the afterlife, beyond my ability to get her back, but what damage could her demon do in the afterlife and if she were released who was to say what would happen? Xena would no longer care about souls. She wouldn't worry that her return to life could possibly prevent someone else from finding peace. The monster that Xena had been would use any means to return to life and I was sure that if the monster ever got out again she would destroy the Xena I knew and she would be unstoppable. The really horrifying thought was that it was all very possible. Ares would return her to life in an instant if he could get his Warrior Princess back, and with the knowledge Xena now possessed I wasn't sure even Ares could control her. Not that he would stop her from destroying the known world. No, he would love that. It was his goal; to unite the world under a single ruler that he controlled, and Xena would be smart enough to let him believe he controlled her, until it was too late for even him. Ares was dedicated but he wasn't the smartest, and if she wanted to and gained the power, Xena could run rings around him. I don't think Ares has ever really realized what a danger Xena could be to him, pretending to become what he wants as long as it suited her. Ares is, in a perverse way in love, not with Xena, but with the concept of what Xena could be for him. He thinks it is love for Xena. That can't be, because the Xena I know could never be what he wants, so he couldn't love her. The other, frightening Xena, is the one he thinks he loves but it is his perception of Xena as his tool, his to rule and control. I've gotten a couple of glimpses of that monster and if you combined her with the Xena I know, very intelligent and incredibly knowledgeable about war and tactics, I think Ares would be lucky to survive at all. He plays with fire when he entices her; confident in his ability to contain a demon he created, with Caesar's help, but Xena is not that person any longer. Xena is much more capable than she was then and if the monster ever got out, no one would be safe, not even Ares.

Those are the thoughts that had been haunting me while I was recovering. That and the increasing fear that I, though I believed Xena, my Xena, was permanently in control, I could be wrong. If I were, I would be the hand that unleashed the force that destroyed the known world. I had to get back to Japa and every day I was away increased my doubt and my fear.

*

The country seemed endless. I traveled for days without seeing a tree and sometimes without seeing anything other than the stunted tough grasses, that covered the plains. Water was hard to find but I found that my cantankerous stallion had the best nose for water and when he was thirsty I just let him have his head and he would lead me right to it.

One day the high tundra ended and I found myself crossing scrubby wastelands where vegetation of any kind was scarce and the only life seemed to be serpents and scorpions. On the fourth day I was walking, my horses hanging their heads, the water in my waterskins only a memory. In the distance, a darker line indicated different lands and I hoped to find water there, but I still had a day's walk to get there. The blinding sun was torture reflecting off the sand and rock, almost as bad as the snow had been. Cold winds whipped my clothes, stealing the meager warmth of the blazing sun. I stumbled to my knees several times having to struggle to get to my feet again. We plodded on through the torment of blinding sun while icy wind whipped at my clothes.

Time blurred as my vision blurred, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I knew that if I stopped I would not get up again. My body felt heavy and weak and my movements became sluggish but still I plodded on, I wasn't even sure why. Life became a single tortured effort to place one foot in front of the other, to move forward towards some unforgotten goal

My face slammed into gritty sand, I stared out at the shimmering endless desert knowing that I could go no further, and unable to think why I should. I closed my gritty eyes.

Anger flared in me and I rose to my feet, murder in my eyes, looking for something to kill. My katana came into my hands and I turned slowly around my rage raising to incredible heights, anger escaping my dust dry throat in tortured growls. I was steaming, trembling with anger. I was mad at Gabrielle, Tanaga, Tanaga's brother and family, Kenji's sister, the girls on the beach, the uncaring dead, my mother, Ephiny, Eli, Ares, the forty thousand souls, Yodoshi, Ghost Killer, Akemi, everyone. Most of all I was mad at myself.

The shock of recognition hit me. "Xena!" I cried out, my tortured throat making the name unrecognizable. With the realization I stumbled to my knees my mind frozen in shock for several minutes, unable to think, unable to move as the anger and hatred washed through me.

"Xena, no!" I cried, knowing that it was my fault and that the demon was unleashed. Anguish and sorrow for what I had done to my soulmate overwhelmed me. I cried harder than I have cried since I was a child, sent to bed with a spanking and no dinner, though my tortured body shed few tears. I cried in great gasping sobs, unable to stop myself, my anguish for what I had done to Xena dropping me into deep despair. I had destroyed my soulmate and unleashed the Destroyer of Nations on the world again. The demon that would destroy everything she touched until she reined supreme over the smoldering ashes that were left.

When my sobs subsided and I could get myself under control again, I managed to get to my feet. I collected my horses and turned again to the now visible mountains that were my salvation from the waterless sand.

My salvation. The words rang hollow. There would be no salvation if the Destroyer rode again. There would be no salvation for anyone, only heartbreak, sorrow, pain, and death. I felt my goal harden again. It was even more urgent that I return to Japa, before she destroyed that country. I had to find some way to stop her, even if I had to find a way to destroy her myself.

I pressed on towards the mountains in the failing light, as Apollo's chariot raced for the underworld, determined that I would not let the desert win. The cold winds seemed to rob me of the little heat the sun had provided as it whipped around me, making it difficult to keep straight on towards the mountains in my weakened state. Still I struggled on, my determination the only thing holding me up. Time seemed to drag until it seemed I had been plodding on for days though it was only hours since the sun disappeared. Somewhere I lost the horses but it didn't seem to matter anymore.

I found myself on my face again and knew I would never rise from where I lay. With an effort I managed to roll onto my back, the incline I lay on helping me. I wanted to see the stars one last time and they were there in all their glory chaperoned by a blazing moon. I lay for a time feeling the labored beat of my heart, the incredible numbing tiredness of my body, the sting of blowing sand against my cheek, the flutter of my hair against my brow, and I knew that these would be that last things I would know in this life.

Perhaps it was better this way. Maybe I would be with Xena sooner and maybe I wouldn't be too late to help her recapture the demon. With that final thought, I closed my eyes.

*

I heard a voice and opened my eyes but what I saw wasn't what I expected. A man in billowing robes bent over me. When my eyes opened he smiled through broken teeth, then his club struck my head and intense pain overwhelmed me.

I woke once; head down across a horse then faded back out.

A slap stung my cheek and woke me. I lay on the ground, a man knelt staring down at me, the moon resting on his shoulder. Without saying anything, he forced me to drink some water then stood and walked away. In the darkness, it had been hard to see his features but they had not been kind. I was unable to stay conscious but I did manage to confirm that I was bound hand and foot before I lost consciousness.

I woke in pain when I was thrown to the ground. Someone kicked at my shoulder, then my hip, to roll me onto my back.

I looked up to see five men and two women staring down at me. We were inside some sort of hide dwelling,

"You, woman, why do you wear the clothes of the western armies of Jengus the Butcher? Why do you carry weapons, it is forbidden?" one of them asked, toeing me with his boot. I turned my eyes to him but remained silent.

He toed me harder, "Speak, woman, before I beat you!"

"I don't take to beatings well," I answered but I had spoken in Greek.

"She is a foreign devil woman, look at her hair, listen to her gibberish! I say kill her!" One of the others shouted.

"No!" another said, and I vaguely remembered his features. He was the one that hit me in the desert. "She is my property, you will not kill her!"

A squabble ensued and I was afraid for a while that my 'master' would lose. While they argued, I tested my bonds but they were well done and I was weak. Laying on them made it impossible for me.

Finally, reluctantly they gave in; the argument that won was money. My captor assured them I would bring nearly as much as my horses, at the market. They began to leave.

My benefactor turned to the women.

"Remove those disgusting garments from her and dress her properly!" he growled and left the tent, my katana and the chakram in his hands. I noted a cut on his hand and that he carried the chakram gingerly. If he fooled around with that, he would regret it.

The women were gentle, if indifferent, as they removed my outer clothes, cutting them off rather than untying me as I had hoped. Their faces were blank, unreadable but they talked softly to each other in a constant chatter. My Amazon skirt and halter brought a lot more chatter and they studied them closely, noting the pattern, the cut, and the stitching. They determined they were some sort of strange undergarments then spent quite a bit of time trying to decide what to do about them. Finally, they decided that though strange, since they were obviously undergarments, having checked here and there, they would leave them. They took my shoulders and raised me into a sitting position. One of them screamed and they dropped me as if I had burned them, fleeing from the tent.

They had seen my little companion, my gift from the woman I now hated so intensely I couldn't even say her name most of the time. If I did say her name, it was uttered as a vulgar oath. Just to think of her sent my anger soaring.

The men crowded into the room again, the women staying well behind them.

My captor stood over me with my weapons in his hands then tossed them into the corner and looked up to the women. "Where is this demon? I see only a woman with pale hair and skin. Why is she not decently covered?"

"On her back," the woman answered bowing her head. "The demon lives on her back."

He snorted in disgust then reached down and grabbed my shoulder, turning me. Pandemonium broke out in the room and in a single breath, he was the only one standing over me. I looked over my shoulder to see a dagger in his hand, his eyes wide in fright. He wanted to kill me, I could see it in his eyes but he was afraid of the dragon on my back, his eyes fixed intently on it. I flexed my muscles and the dragon rippled. He dropped the knife and backed away from me and I rolled over the blade getting my hands on it, then sat up and sawed at my bonds.

It dawned on him what I was doing and he sent a kick at my face. I dodged it and by the time he recovered I had cut my bonds and slashed the ropes on my feet. He turned back to me to find his own knife at his throat.

"If you move or make a sound I will kill you, herder of sheep," I said and pushed him down. "Sit there and don't move. I'm no demon but I am a warrior and there is nowhere you can run."

He was trembling in fright. I took a chance and backed to my weapons. I hooked the katana to my belt then dropped the chakram in place. Then I traded his dagger for my own and finally slipped my sai back into my boots. He didn't move. I returned to him, gathering in a waterskin on the way, and squatted down in front of him, far enough back that he couldn't attack me and gain an advantage, and where I could see the entrance. I would hear any attempt to enter anywhere else.

"In the desert, why did you hit me?" I asked. Then let some of the tepid brackish water sooth my dry throat. He didn't answer and I lay down the waterskin and picked up a piece of my old clothes. I held the cloth up and with the slightest pressure against my dagger cut it in half. "Why did you hit me?"

"You are a foreigner! A a devil!" he stammered. "I should have killed you!"

"No. You should have offered me water. I was no threat to you. I was dying of the thirst."

"You carry evil weapons and do not dress as women should!"

"My weapons are no more evil than yours are, and I dress the way women dress where I come from. I am not one of your women. Why should I dress as one?"

"It is not right! You temp the eyes of men!"

"And your women do not?"

"No, never!"

"How sad for you," I answered then sighed. "Look, I mean you no harm. I am but a weary traveler. I ran out of water crossing the desert. All I need is a little water and my equipment back and I will be on my way. I will even dress more to your liking if you will offer me something since your women destroyed my clothes."

He looked at me skeptically. "You will not harm me?"

"No. Call your women and have them give me something to wear. I am a warrior but I harm no one unless they seek to harm me or others."

He called them and they brought me one of their flowing dresses. An argument ensued when I insisted on dressing as he did instead of as they did, explaining that their dress was not suitable to a warrior. Reluctantly he gave in.

Once I was dressed, just putting his clothes over mine, I rearranged my weapons so I could still get to them. I had him call in the ones that had been there earlier then explain that I would harm no one that left me alone, and that I was leaving. They weren't happy about it but when the argument became heated, I had had enough. They were arguing about losing the sale of my horses and me! The singing hiss of my katana as it slid from the scabbard froze their voices. It arced through a candle and I stood ready.

"You can let me go or you can suffer the fate of that candle," I said.

They looked at the candle. One of them reached out and lifted the severed top from the base.

"I do not care to harm you, but it is up to you. You will let me go now or you will die. My blade severs necks as quickly."

I waited in the silence. They were still looking at the candle, held above the base and still burning.

"Let her go," one of the elders said and the spell was broken. It was unanimous.

"My horses have been fed and watered?" I asked.

"Yes," my captor answered.

"Get them and my gear. Saddle them and bring them to this tent."

Several men bowed and hurried out.

I slid my katana back in place and picked up the waterskin, drinking my fill while we waited.

I heard them before they began to cut through the back of the hut.

"Ask those men to stop, or they will die," I said to my reluctant host and he complied. Finally the horses were ready, and I assumed so was the trap. The man that came to tell me the horses were outside would not look at me and left quickly.

I went to the entrance, and then turned. "Your friends are planning to do a very foolish thing." I dug in behind my belt and tossed him one of the smaller coins I had. His eyes glittered as the coin dropped before him. "You deserve nothing, but that's for caring for my horses, the clothes, and to let you know there is sometimes more profit in helping others than trying to sell or kill them. I will try not to kill your friends. Don't come after me."

The sounds outside had given away not only the horses, but also the two that thought to ambush me. I stepped quickly out the door and as he rose, I struck the first one in the throat. The second one was further away. He slashed at me with a dagger and the chakram cut through the blade, then my foot struck his ankle and I heard a snap as he screamed. In two steps I was in the saddle and moving, then reached out and caught the arrow headed for me. I dropped it, switching the reins to the other hand and the chakram whirled into the air. The archer's bow was cut in half and I head him cry out as the chakram nicked him. Already the stallion was at full gallop pulling the other two along. I caught the chakram and was well away before they sent another arrow after me.

*

I traveled into the mountains and found a place where I could safely watch my back trail for pursuit and at the same time camp close to water and rest for a day. It would take me that long to recover from my trip across the desert, although the water had revived me. I made a small camp among some trees where I could have a small fire, cook a meal, and not worry about the smoke giving me away since it would dissipate through the trees.

The place I had chosen had just a small trickle of water into a little depression. There was plenty for my horses and I to drink, but not enough to bath in properly. I made do the best I could, to get the grit of sand off my body. Because of the cold and my lack of a change, I was forced to just beat the sand out of my clothes for now. If it had been warmer I would have at least washed out my Amazon clothes, but the temperature up here would prevent anything from drying quickly. Perhaps tomorrow, if I wasn't persued.

Finally, after checking the area to making sure I was reasonably secure, I lay out my bedroll and reluctantly filled it to look like a sleeping body. I was afraid that in my condition I would sleep too soundly. A second line of defense seemed a good idea. I climbed to the vantagepoint I had selected, wrapped in another blanket and was instantly asleep.

My dreams were troubled, the fear riding me as real as an immediate threat would have been. I woke several times from frightening dreams of Xena, returned to life as the Destroyer, destroying everything in her path. I had been sure that she would never revert, but the rage I had felt had been from her. Though I tried to convince myself that it was just a momentary anger, my sleeping mind let me know what I really thought. I was scared to death for her.

The night was cold, and between the cold, my sitting position, and my nightmares I didn't rest very well, but I did feel much better in the morning. I woke suddenly, wide-awake. I stayed perfectly still studying my surroundings. Something was wrong; my senses fairly screamed at me that something was wrong. It was too quiet. I could see the horses from where I sat. Their heads were up, ears pricked, looking off to my right, expectantly. Very slowly I unwrapped myself from the blanket then lifted the chakram into my hands, and waited.

Several minutes went by and I heard my enemy, one of them stepping on a twig and another hushing him too loudly. About the time I felt like telling them to hurry up, two arrows struck my bedroll. They hurried into the open, bows ready to shoot again. I remembered neither of them so they had either crossed my trail and were looking for easy profit, had met the sheepherders and been told of me, or were sent by Jengus. The arrows shot from cover seemed to indicate they had been warned that I was dangerous; otherwise, they would probably have wanted to capture me alive. It seemed my recent hosts were still unhappy with me, or more likely, Jengus had sent them after me. I was getting so tired of just about everyone wanting to kill me, enslave me, or use me. If I ever managed to get out of this country or at least back to a more civilized part of it, I hoped never to see it again. At least in the more civilized regions it was only every tenth person that wanted to profit from me or kill me. Here it seemed to be everyone.

One of my killers wasn't satisfied and put another arrow into my bedroll. To his surprise, it went clear through, but he had other problems by then. Both of their bows were cut in half by the chakram and I flipped into the air coming down in front of them with my katana out and the chakram in my left hand.

"Are you looking for me?" I asked as they looked in amazement at their bows.

They made a mistake then, and drew their swords, attacking me. They were lucky that I was fairly rested, though still tired and they didn't hurry me. When they woke, they were securely tied, resting against a tree near my camp. They watched sullenly as I searched their horses and equipment, taking anything I could make use of and putting it on my packhorse.

I fixed myself a nice breakfast from some of the food they provided. The food in this part of the country would never make it high on my list of favorites but I had been here long enough to make do. I ate in silence, enjoying the strong bitter tea from this region, watching them the whole time. When I was through I cleared up and packed my gear then went and knelt down in front of them, but out of striking range, just in case.

"This could be your lucky day. Tell me who sent you to hunt me and I will not kill you, and will leave you a horse."

One of them spit in my direction.

"Is that your final answer?" I asked and he spit at me again. "Okay, just checking."

I got up and tied the reins of their horses to my horses. When I was done, I climbed into the stallion's saddle and looked back at them.

"It shouldn't take you more than a day to get free. I hope you don't have far to go."

I nudged the stallion into motion. When I was out of sight I could hear them arguing, one of them wanting to tell me, but I wasn't interested. It had to be Jengus. I stared ahead at the daunting trail into the mountains then set out to cover some distance. Mountains or no, this was the way I had to go if I ever wanted to get to Japa, and I would get there. I just prayed that I didn't have to destroy my soulmate when I did get there.

 

Continued in Lost Soul 6 - Endless Journey

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