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CHAPTER ONE - CROSSROADS
"Come on," she begged the horse. "You've got to jump. Here. Now." The dark-haired woman, clothed in leather tunic and sworled metal armor, slid off the back of her bay stallion and grabbed the loose reins. She looked back over her shoulder and cursed as she spotted the indistinct collection of riders just cresting the ridge.
She waded into the river, pushing against the raging current that threatened twice to pull her under. The rains this last week had left the river swollen and madly rushing to the Aegean to release its swell.
She tugged on the reins again and stride by stride managed to bring the horse to the edge of the water. One errant splash however and he reared, snorting furiously and backing up.
Xena untied her cape and waded back up next to her horse. Quickly she tied the cloth around his eyes. Almost immediately he calmed. "Better?" she whispered against his flickering ear. "All right, let's go." She glanced over her shoulder. What she was doing was risky, very risky -- which in a way was why she was going to do it. The riders following her wouldn't dare cross such a swollen waterflow. She'd be allowed to escape.
Xena murmured to the horse steadily and rubbed his near shoulder reassuringly for the entire trip through the water. Moving slowly both she and the horse managed to keep their footing. Finally Xena stepped onto the opposite bank and the bay stallion followed her with a kicking leap.
She led the stallion into the cover of trees, hiding in the shadows just in time. The front riders of her pursuers pulled up on the far bank.
"Would she have crossed here?" yelled the grizzled blond to his comrade.
"Doubt it. Looks like the Styx itself. The Warrior Princess probably turned to follow the river north."
"Why north?" They circled their horses around and continued to look up and down both banks of the river.
"She always goes against the grain, that one. Most anybody'd head downriver. Try and get ahead of the flooding. She'd head upriver, try to get behind the flood." They turned their mounts finally northward and cantered out of sight.
Crouched in the bushes, Xena nearly fell over. When had she become that uncommonly predictable? She looked up at her horse. And smiled. Just for that, she decided, "Let's go down river, boy."
Remaining off the beaten paths, Xena followed the river on horseback until the shroud of night became too thick. Then she dismounted, removed the saddlebag of her belongings and pulled off the bay's saddle and tack. She settled a looped rope around his arched neck and wrapped the other end loosely around a tree stump. She then slipped down to the river waterskin in hand. She bathed her neck and face, briefly rubbing at the stiffness in her left shoulder.
When she returned to camp, Xena filled a soft nosebag with a portion of her dwindling supply of grain feed, then settled it over her horse's ears. When he finished, she'd have to take him to the river for a drink. But she wanted to be sure there was no one else around before coming into the open like that.
She made no fire; the night was warm, and besides, she rather preferred to be hidden for a while longer. Instead, she searched her pack for the remains of her food supplies. Since leaving Hercules and Iolaus, she'd been riding wide of the many towns on her way back to the western side of Thrace. She withdrew a trail stick and an apple from the small collection she'd snatched from a tree in a farmer's orchard yesterday morning.
Who knew that would result in a town's guard being sent after me? Maybe she should have tossed coin at the alarmed farmer as she rode away. She shook her head. She'd been thinking like a warlord again. What she had wanted, she'd taken. She struggled so hard. At least, she consoled herself, I didn't slit his throat.
In the height of her warlord daze any opposition would have gotten that, or worse, a tortured death. Xena closed her eyes, fighting the memories as well as the self-loathing they caused. Would she ever find peace?
The bay shuffled. Xena looked up and quickly got to her feet. "Ready for a drink, boy?" she asked as she removed the bag, let him lip her hand, and snapped up the rope from the tree stump. As quietly as possible she led the horse to a cover of tree near the water, Peering carefully through the darkness, she scanned the embankment in both directions.
Once satisfied they were truly alone, Xena led the bay to the river's edge. Very thirsty now, the stallion slurped quite loudly and Xena hunkered down in the bushes to wait, and watch. He ambled to her hiding place when he finished and she stopped him from cropping the pungent flowering plants at her feet, the equine version of a sweet treat.
"Not tonight. Come on." She led the stallion back to the clearing with her belongings. She secured him again and smoothed out a blanket for her sleep.Removing her armor and her sword belt, Xena curled onto her side, her right hand rested over the hilt of her unsheathed sword. Though her eyes closed, Morpheus did not receive her for many candlemarks.
When finally she slept, Xena's dreamscape was not a pleasant place. She'd left so much of her old heartlessness behind, but it seemed Morpheus' purpose would be to continue to visit upon Xena night after night every horror, every atrocity she'd ever committed, ever ordered. Tonight, in the middle of nowhere, uncertain where she would go next, Xena's mind repainted for her the terror of the gauntlet.
She'd had strength to survive it, but from where she dredged her reserves, she didn't know. Xena recalled every single blow, every single moment she had ordered her muscles to pull her along once she'd fallen to her knees against the dirt. She remembered the blow that cracked two ribs, the pain lancing through her over again. She saw eyes, gazes of men she'd commanded for the better part of nine years, filling with hate, disgust, and distrust. Over nine winters, she'd led them, cajoled them, disciplined them. She'd demanded their best and been given it. Now their skill was shattering her bones, cracking her resolve, breaking her spirit. She watched her own facade fall away.
But when she'd crawled over the line, the torture ended. She lay breathing in the dirt, just barely coherent. She pushed to her feet, every ounce of her body screaming. She heard the gasps, saw a flicker of astonishment in several faces and, though her body was clamoring loudly in pain, she heard Darphus' order: "Kill her!"
And she heard a single reply. "No. She followed the rules. She got out." She remembered looking around, through the blood in her eyes, trying to find the face, to see admiration one more time before she died, as she'd been so certain that only the one token protest would not save her from Darphus.
She never found the speaker. She didn't have the time. Darphus charged her. She didn't see why he stopped, but stop he did. And she had run. Stumbled really, but she left the camp, her camp, and fled into the night.
Xena woke herself with the sensations of pain remembered from that night's run. She opened her eyes, blinking away the sweat beading her brow. From the dusky light she knew it was just barely dawn. Time to move on, she thought. "Again."
As she cleared the campsite, Xena thought about her options, which truth to tell were pitifully few and not entirely appealing.
First, she could hire herself into a city guard. Maybe she would survive long enough to prove her worth to a king -- if his guards didn't kill her first upon hearing her name. She'd killed so many. No, no city guard would welcome the Destroyer of Nations into their ranks. Besides, could she stand to take orders after giving them for so long?
Second, and she found this only slightly more appealing than eating dirt, she could head home to Amphipolis. Try to patch her relationship with her mother, settle, maybe marry and raise some children. Painfully she recalled Solon.
Xena swung onto her mount's back. No, home was out. So many of the townspeople would scream for her blood.
What was left? Xena didn't know. Turning her horse's head, she guided him west, and finally, fatalistically, moved onto the road to Troy. Maybe she could die in battle for Greece. It was several weeks travel to Troy, but it seemed the best goal at the moment. Besides, she had to stop and get food supplies in another day or so. Traveling the road would make it more likely she'd find a village and a market.
CHAPTER TWO - SIDE SHOW
It was midday when she came across them. A cart had been run off the road and overturned. The family, a middle-aged man, his portly wife and two boys were being herded away by two knife-wielding raiders. Two other large men tore through the upset inventory, pocketing treasure. Xena unsheathed her sword, galloping into the fray. The horse turned his head toward the overturned cart. Xena pulled him up short and struck out repeatedly with her blade, scattering the marauders. She turned now to the family and their captors. She gave a quick, high-pitched yell. She leapt from the saddle, tucking and rolling out. She came up on her feet beneath the man dragging the two boys. She elbowed him in the chin. Faster than lightning she drove her fist into his nose. He went down like a stone. The two boys cheered and jumped away from the falling body. Xena leapt between them and the man who still held their parents.
"Find another road," she warned the men. "This one's ours." She spun her sword in her hand, a calculating smile playing on her lips.
"Pretty fierce for a woman," snorted the man, shoving his captives aside. He pulled out two daggers and charged her. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena watched mother and father herd their children into the bushes. Then she concentrated on meeting the charge.
She lifted her sword and slapped him across the hands as he came close. She pushed him to the side. His momentum carried him on past her and he stumbled.
He came at her again. She backhanded him across the face with the hilt of her sword. She kicked up and caught him beneath the chin with the toe of her boot. His head snapped back, he staggered and finally fell.
Xena stalked over to him as he tried to clear his head. "Get out of here," she ordered. She heard rustling behind her and saw the faintest gleam of hope in the downed man's eyes. She spun, stabbed out with her sword blade and ran through his companion's stomach. She turned back and smiled a very unpleasant smile. "And take your friend with you."
As the man picked himself up and then his dead friend, Xena scanned the area again quickly. Satisfied, she sheathed her weapon and walked over to where the family was just rising from the bushes. "It's safe now. Come on out."
One of the boys ran up to her and made to touch her. Wary, Xena stepped back. He enthused instead. "You were great!"
Instead of responding, Xena turned to the father and said, "I'll help you right your cart."
As they walked over to the overturned cart, the father offered
his hand. "Thank you." He offered a hand. "I'm Bruticus. My family and I are headed home from market."
Xena looked at his hand and finally took it, briefly.
"Are you from around here?" Bruticus asked as they separated and gripped the cart.
"No. Just passing through." She heaved and Bruticus pulled. Another quick shove and the cart wobbled onto its own wheels, creaking noisily until settling.
Bruticus sighed. "You're welcome to spend the night at our place. What's your name?"
Xena bit her lip. She wished to avoid the question, but that would be rude. Deep down though, her mother's lessons in manners, pushed since she was old enough to speak, scolded her not to be rude. She swallowed and watched his face carefully for reaction as she supplied, "I'm Xena."
Bruticus blanched though he tried very hard to recover quickly. But he obviously couldn't bring himself to withdraw the invitation just given. So Xena decided for him."Thanks for the offer, but I'm trying to make time. I think I'll just keep moving." She looked over the cart. "Need any more help?"
Bruticus shook his head and Xena went to her stallion and mounted up. Turning his head, and without looking back at the family, she took off down the road at a gallop. She swiped at her face. "Damn you, mother," she murmured, wishing she could have lied. It would have been nice to spend some time with people who didn't fear her or her name. She rode fast, in truth, trying to outrun her heart and the pain being 'good' suddenly seemed to mean.
Half a league later, Xena's horse stumbled and she went flying over his head. She landed on her back a length away and turned over to see the bay down, rolled onto his side, his left front leg hung limp. His screams filled the air and Xena bowed her head once, cursing herself for forgetting to watch the road surface, then got up.
She walked over to look at the situation, unhitching his saddle girth, and pulling away the saddle. She crouched and carefully starting at the shoulder, she felt down the leg. He had multiple fractures.
Repair was iffy at best, permanently disabling at worst, and she had no idea where the nearest healer was located. She pressed two fingers to the inside of the horse's upper leg and the screams subsided. Using the saddle blanket and some rope, Xena moved them both off the road so she could think.
She had to release the pressure point and the horse's screams returned. How could she do this? The stallion still made no move to stand.
She couldn't stay, waiting for the leg to heal. "Damn," she cursed and efficiently slit the stallion's throat. She got to her feet, pulled out the small pickaxe and shovel from her saddlebags and began digging.
The moon was high in the sky when she finished burying the horse. She curled up near the grave, rolling into her blankets for the night.
She'd never make Troy without a horse. The only other near option was home. It was both terrifying and a relief to realize she couldn't run any more. There were a handful of villages between here and there. Maybe she could buy a new horse.
With what funds? she snorted. I barely have enough for food much less a new horse. Resigning herself to the long days ahead on foot, Xena fell asleep.
Checking her heading in the morning, Xena turned back to the north. She hefted the saddle until the next town where she sold it for a handful of dinars. She lashed her saddlebags together and then roped the makeshift pack to her back.
Xena happened across a farmyard as she continued along the road. Activity outside the barn drew her attention. She paused, leaning against a fence, to watch as a farmer tried to hitch a jumpy horse to a wagon.
The pale coated horse would not stand in the braces long enough to be secured. Xena was about to move on until the farmer pulled out a long thin whip and began lashing the poor animal.
Releasing her pack, Xena leapt into action. She crossed the field at a dead run and launched herself into the air with a battlecry. She landed near the farmer. She had to wipe the spittle of his last curse on the horse of her own face. She yanked the whip from his hands.
"What's the meaning of this?" he sputtered.
"A beaten horse doesn't pull a damn thing," she retorted. "How would you feel if I beat you?"
The man cowered, but then straightened. "That there horse is my property. I bought her fair at market just yesterday."
"How much did you pay for her?" Xena stroked the mare's withers, sparing only a lowered glared for the farmer.
"Sixty dinars. What's it to you?"
Xena looked down at the pouch tied to her weapons belt. Sixty was only a couple dinars less than what she had. Then she looked over at the mare quivering in the braces. The lash marks stood in red relief against the golden hide. One, she noticed, was going to need stitching.
This she stroked, watching the play of muscle beneath the horse's soft hide. She looked up and found the mare looking at her with golden eyes. The pale head bobbed up and down and the warrior made her decision.
Xena turned back to the farmer and ripped the pouch from her belt. "Here," Xena said. "There's 64 dinars in this pouch." She tossed it at him. "I've just bought your horse. And your whip."
"Here now, you can't do that." He made a step toward her.
She stopped his advance with a hard look. "I could kill you instead?" Her look suggested she would enjoy that ... very much. The farmer just backed up. "I thought you'd see it my way," Xena went on as she turned to the mare. "Come on, girl."
Xena put a gentle hand on the quivering neck and the mare walked out of the braces. Grabbing a fistful of wheat-colored mane, and being careful of a large lash mark on the withers, Xena swung herself onto the broad bare back.
"Let's go." She didn't look back at the farmer as she cantered the mare to the road. Without being told, the mare stopped easily beside Xena's abandoned pack, and the warrior slid off to retrieve it. Walking next to the mare, Xena continued in the direction she had been going earlier. "We'll make camp and I'll see to those welts." The mare nuzzled Xena's shoulder and whickered softly. Absently Xena scratched the mare's nose. "You're welcome."
Despite having wiped out the last of her funds, Xena felt exceedingly good about what she'd just done. The sensation stayed with her all through setting up camp and spreading salve on the mare's wounds.
She had no oats, but the mare seemed content to nibble the grasses of the clearing. Xena saw a patch of the nettles her stallion had loved but always made him sick. Though the mare moved toward the patch, she never ate a single nettle. "You're a smart one," Xena commented, drawing the mare's attention. "What were you doing as a dumb farmer's animal?"
The mare whickered and returned to eating. Xena had the strangest feeling the mare was asking her a question. Which was absurd. The mare whickered again, then ambled over to Xena's pack and began nosing inside.
The warrior pulled the pack away and put it in her lap. Xena thought the mare would back off. Instead she pushed on Xena's chest with her nose until the warrior was leaning back against a nearby boulder. Two sets of eyes met and held. Deep blue and wheat brown. Sky and earth. If asked, Xena would have sworn the mare smiled.
Xena rolled into her blankets to sleep, and felt the mare's muzzle against her back. She rolled over to study the mare in the growing moonlight. Xena absently stroked the muscular neck. Somehow the warrior felt her troubles were far away. And she slept without nightmares for the first time in weeks.
CHAPTER THREE - DISCOVERY
Xena woke at daybreak to find the mare had distributed the contents of her pack around the campsite, and was nibbling on one of the stolen apples. When Xena sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, the mare lifted her head and fixed her with her eyes.
"I'm up, I'm up. I take it grass wasn't quite enough last night, hmmm? Well, I don't have anything else, so I guess I'll have to steal some more apples for you."
The mare snorted, and finished chewing the last bits of the apple.
"All right. Let's get going." Xena looked at the remaining apples, gave the mare another after only taking a single bite out of it herself. Soon Xena was mounted and they were moving again.
It was difficult without a saddle to hold saddlebags, and balance while riding that morning. Even when Xena fitted her stallion's old bridle to the mare it wasn't easy to hold reins and continue. Several times Xena let the reins drop and the mare continued to walk a straight path. Nudging with her knees she also discovered that the mare was excellently trained, responding to the lightest touch.
After stopping to share an apple with the mare for the midday meal, Xena decided to see what else the mare could do. She whistled while they were relaxing in the clearing and was pleased to discover that the mare had several trained responses. One phrase, she knelt. On another, she reared. A third, she turned a tight circle.
She stood and tried voice commands. Instant success. Xena discovered that the mare could dance sideways with a combination of knee pressure and a sharp click of her tongue. That might prove useful. Definitely a warrior's horse at some point, decided Xena, trying to guess the mare's age.
But the mare wasn't interested in having her teeth examined and snapped at Xena. The Warrior Princess and the warrior's horse regarded each other for a long moment. "Okay. No guessing. A lady doesn't need to know, hmm?" Xena smiled and was rewarded instantly with a friendly nuzzle.
"Time to get going again." She examined the lash marks and noted they would slowly heal. It would be time for a saddle soon. Xena couldn't ride bareback forever, no matter how well-trained the mare was.
Xena entered a town on the mare's back the next day. She read with interest a banner that caught her eye. The city's guard was holding a competition to find new recruits. Feeling hopeful after so many weeks of depression, Xena put up one of her daggers to cover the entry fee.
In next to no armor and with only her sword, Xena lined up with the other prospects. One of the city guardsmen, a man of perhaps two score and ten summers, walked the line, dismissing those too young to compete. He stopped at Xena and said, "Where's your husband? Get yourself home, woman."
From her horse's back, Xena drew her sword too fast for him to follow and slammed it on top of his helmet. He didn't fall but he did back up. "Name's Maevis," she replied. "And I'm staying."
There were a few chuckles, but the city guardsman regarded her in thoughtful silence for a moment then moved on.
"A woman's no good for battle, save afterward," a deep male voice behind her murmured to his companion.
Replied the companion: "But what of the Warrior Princess? A demon they say, like no fighter ever born."
"A legend is all. Have you ever seen her? And certainly this slight woman is no legend."
Xena patted the mare's arched neck and bent forward. "Let's show them, girl," she murmured close to the mare's ear. The mare began to dance in place. "We're up next," Xena confirmed as she studied the combat unfolding in front of her.
The challenger was skilled, spinning his weapon expertly in his hands. However, the city guardsman chosen to oppose him slipped quickly inside his defense and knocked him from his horse.
From the ground, the challenger continued to fight, finally drawing the guard off his horse as well. More evenly matched, the combat saw no clear victor. Finally the guardsman yielded and offered a welcome to the new recruit. The two grasped forearms and led their horses from the field.
Xena's opponent rode out. He wore light armor and carried a mace. To keep his balance in the saddle he gripped the high pommel. His helmet, she knew then, made him slightly top heavy. This was going to be too easy. She'd have to make it look good.
She circled out, holding her sword negligently against her knees, and waited for him to make the first attack, which he did in short order. He swung the mace in a wide arc, finally aiming it for her head. She gave the command and the mare danced aside, moving Xena clear. While the mace was still in motion, she ordered the mare forward and charged the guard's opposite side.
Her sword caught the edge of his shoulder bracer. With a push she threw him off balance. He dropped his mace in order to keep his seat. She moved in close again. He batted aside her swipe with the sword blade and they circled their horses again.
"Very good, girl," commented the guard. He dismounted. "Shall we see how you play the game on the ground?" Xena recognized the smirk as the guard thinking to use his size and strength against her. She had seen the same on many green recruits thinking to prove themselves in easy combat against the woman of the army. Her blood boiled and she nodded tersely at the guard.
Fire gelled in her stomach as she responded. "Why not?" She slid off the mare's back and patted the golden rump to send her away. The guard did the same with his mount.
They circled each other now on foot and another guard tossed a sword to her opponent. The guard wasn't completely stupid. He didn't charge this time. He waved his sword over his head, bringing it down in a slicing arc. She blocked it easily. She thew him off balance again. She turned to parry his blade and they were finally in a pitched competition, trading blows with ferocity. He grabbed for her blade, but she turned it around. The strike made him jump aside when the blade came dangerously close to his legs. She smiled with only half of her mouth. Her blue eyes sparkled with fire. She was enjoying this.
He grabbed for the sword again and this time she let him get a hold on it. Before he could turn, she yelled her battlecry and somersaulted over his head. She landed lightly behind him and kicked the back of his knees. He collapsed to the dirt.
She ripped off his helmet and threatened his throat with the dagger from her boot. "I don't play games," she hissed.
The guard surrendered. The captain of the guard rode onto the field. She looked up into a face that reminded her suddenly of Darphus, but with a rueful look. "You have won, woman, but I would ask you not to join my troops. What other compensation would you ask?"
Smart man, Xena thought. She indicated her opponent's horse. "You can get him another saddle. I want that one."
The captain nodded. "I'm Malthus. What's your name?" He ordered a youth to put the guard's saddle on the mare.
"You don't want to know," Xena replied evenly meeting his gaze as she swung up into the saddle on the mare. She adjusted her seat and finally smiled.
Malthus shrugged. "I'll just look at the registry papers."
"Fine." Xena turned the mare's head and started to trot the horse away.
"Gods go with you, whoever you are," remarked Malthus with a small lift of his right hand.
"Ares did. For a while," she shot back over her shoulder. "I don't want the gods' help any more." With that, Xena kicked the mare into a gallop.
That night, while currying the mare's coat, Xena mulled over her day. She'd obtained a saddle and the saddlebags now could be lashed to it.
As much as she was still a warrior inside, after listening at the competition and recalling Bruticus' reaction upon hearing her name, Xena knew what she'd have to do. The Warrior Princess was going to have to disappear if she was going to have any chance at making a truly new start.
She rode across the countryside for several days until she reached the last town the Warrior Princess had ridden through. Envisioning the violence, fire and mayhem, she was startled by a little boy who stumbled out of one of the houses.
"Do you have any food?" he asked.
"No one does. Food's scarce everywhere. Times are hard for everyone," she replied. "Where are your parents?"
"On the other side. The Warrior Princess came out of the hills on her chariot throwing thunderbolts and breathing fire."
Xena squared her jaw, and looked around. "Here," she murmured. She dropped something at the boy's feet and kicked the mare to a gallop disappearing over the hill quickly.
The boy lifted the bundle and caught the small chunks of cheese and bread. He looked off in the direction the woman had taken. "Thank you," he called to the empty air and disappeared into the house.
On the wind the boy's plaintive thanks reached Xena and she pushed the mare harder, trying to run from the wrenching pain in her chest. In her reaction, Xena knew that the Warrior Princess would have to die. Nothing else would answer except her blood. The fire breathing chariot driving demoness should be buried forever.
She found a dense part of the forest and dismounted, stripping to her shift and digging a shallow hole for her armor, weapons and leathers.
The shouts of women reached her ears. She slipped into the bushes and watched as a group of villagers was led through the same clearing. Her mare appeared, also hidden, tossing her head, but otherwise silent.
Xena followed the mare's line of sight as she listened to the exchange going on. A blonde young woman held up her hands and said "Take me with you instead." Xena took in the sight of sunshine bright hair and a soft blue peasant blouse over a long darker skirt. She had a fire in her green eyes, despite the knife at her chin for her ill-advised attack of bravado.
Xena's heart pounded faster as she took stock of the situation. Across the clearing, she exchanged a look with the mare. It was time to come to the rescue. Xena leapt into the clearing to battle a new foe. And seized hold, not only of the slaver's raised whip, but also of her destiny.
She tracked the blonde even as she fought the slavers. When one threatened the girl's throat with his dagger, Xena lost her concentration and the butt of a sword crashed against her skull. In the dirt but a moment, she felt the edges of her chakram and sword beneath the thin layer of dirt. She smiled up at those surrounding her as her fist closed around the round disc.
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