3rd Part of The Darkness and The Light series
By Mikael Helbo Kjaer
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and all other original characters portrayed in the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are the exclusive property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA and Universal Television. No infringement is intended by this piece of fiction. The story is however the exclusive property of the above mentioned author. This story can be freely copied and distributed online under the condition that any website or list informs the author about the posting or the author approaches the website or list with the story for posting. The story and this note must be presented unedited except for any HTML added for presentation purposes. All other situations must be negotiated with the author as named above. No commercial gain must come from the usage of this story.
Setting: Post FIN
Sexual references: GEN (with subtext)
Violence: This story contains scenes and descriptions of intense violence
Summary: 3rd installment of the series 'The Darkness and The Light', which follows the adventures of first Gabrielle alone and then the girls together after the end of the 6th series, which I found unsatisfying to my need for XWP action. The 3rd story sees Xena beginning to follow the over two years old trail of her beloved Gabrielle and discovers the true reason the amazons disappeared from Greece. Her travels allows her to discover, what brought Gabrielle back to the once again beleaguered amazon nation, a nation suffering from both threats from the outside world and stagnation inside.
Author's notes: I want to thank my fellow writer TC O'Neill and my friend Karen Tang for their encouraging commentary on my writings. I hope this next installment won't disappoint any of my readers. I am now moving into the part of the overall plot, where I'll attempt to move my characters slowly along emotionally to the point, where I want them to be for the final. I have chosen to reduce the series to 6 installments, because I am developing the emotional content faster than expected and the intervening mini-stories really did nothing to advance the main plot. I am also currently in the process of preparing an uber series, which I'll begin writing as soon as I am done with this series.
The morning was clear and sunny. She could see from the entrance of the hospice all the way to the not so distant mountains that lay around Amphipolis. The sound of hooves thundering against the packed sand road came closer. Eve shielded her eyes from the shining sun and glared towards the approaching rider. Her mother's hair was flying wild and loose in the wind that whipped around her, as she galloped towards her hospice.
With regret she thought about her mother's coming departure. She had known it would come ever since she had heard found her mother's frail body clawing its way out of the family crypt. The connection between Gabrielle and Xena transcended anything she had experienced in her life and in some way she envied the pair's complete devotion to each other, which according to her mother and Gabrielle's writings had and would continue to transcend the passage of time. Those two souls were destined to die and meet again as they probably always had done and always would do until the end of time. It was a romantic thought even if she agreed that it did make their lives seem less valuable than they actually were.
Her mother's new horse, which she had just spent the last week training skidded to a halt in front of her. Her black haired mother vaulted easily from the saddle and landed in front of her daughter after several flips in the air. "Show off", Eve commented and embraced her mother in greeting.
"Eve, darling", her mother's voice betrayed a lingering unhappiness. Eve wondered if it was because Gabrielle wasn't around or because of the goodbye that she was about to say.
"I think I am ready to go", her mother said with a glint of pain in her lightning blue eyes. "I only need to pick up a few supplies then I'll ride to the amazon lands", she explained.
Eve knew that her mother had been preparing to leave and her mind had long accepted that thought, but still the words brought pain to her heart. Ignoring the feelings that she knew were akin to jealousy and not worthy of her, she asked: "So the skin and the book from Chin have told you where she is?"
Her mother looked pained for a few seconds then explained: "No. The skin was obviously a gift from the amazons. It contains an epic poem about all the things Gabrielle has done for the amazons. It looks like it contains her elegy as well. I think they put it into the pouch as a gift of honor from the amazons so something amazon would be in the place where Gabrielle should have found her final rest". Her mother's tone of voice had dropped a few tones and contained two thing rarely found in it: fear and pain.
"She isn't dead", Eve heard herself say with the same absolute conviction that she had in her soul. She believed that she would have known if Gabrielle, a girl unrelated by blood, but in many ways her adopted mother, friend and sister, had died. "I just know she isn't", she said and saw in her mother's eyes that she lightened her pain a little. Her mother didn't contradict her.
"Please come inside", Eve asked and gently gestured towards the door. "I have some things for you", she explained at her mother's inquisitive look.
The two dark haired women walked inside. Silently they passed through the large common room, where Eve's helpers were caring for the few patients that they currently had. They made their way to the kitchen area without exchanging a word, both women not people of many words to begin with and in addition the coming departure of the older woman hung between them like a barrier.
Eve slowly walked over to a cupboard and heaved a heavy basket out of it. "I had this made for you, while you were recovering", she explained and took the covering blanket of the basket. Xena looked down and to her astonishment saw a beautiful replica of her old armor sitting besides a small collection of weapons. There was a sword again made like her old one broad and thick with razor sharp twin edges, two daggers, a whip, a bow and a quiver of black feathered arrows. Of course no chakram lay in there, but she didn't mind. Finding its current owner was the entire reason she left this peaceful place and her beautiful daughter.
Neither smiled as the woman came back dressed like the warrior she would always be with her sword over her shoulder, the whip where her chakram used to hang and the quiver and bow held in her hand, they would be deposited on the horse later. Eve mused in her thoughts that the daggers were now hidden out of view somewhere on the formidable woman that was her mother. She held out the large bag of food and two wineskins that she had gathered, while her mother had dressed for her life on the road. Without speaking they walked out of the hospice and stopped besides the brown mare that now served as her mother's steed. Eve watched wordlessly, while her mother with practiced ease got ready to travel.
Suddenly she remembered something and asked: "What about the book from Chin? Did it contain any clues about Gabrielle?" Eve looked at her mother, who stood besides her horse lost in thought for a moment.
"It could, but it is written in one of the dialects of Chin that I am not familiar with. I can only read a little of it. Most of the book is a treatise on how to properly lead a large army into war made by some Chin general. However there is a large section in the back of the book, which is written in a different language by a different person than the one, who wrote the treatise. I think I recognized a few of the signs naming a foreigner called Green Dragon, who was laying waste to a large part of Chin. I couldn't wring anymore from it. I will have to ask the amazons how it got in the bag. Maybe it was something Gabrielle carried around with her. Maybe it was leftover from her adventurous trip home from Japan, when she wasn't writing", Xena explained.
Remembering the glorious tattoo of a green dragon, which now covered the back of the bard, she couldn't help asking: "I hope Gabrielle isn't the one they…"
However her mother interrupted her with genuine anger in her voice. "Don't be stupid Eve. Gabrielle doesn't have the darkness you and I share inside of her. She would never lead an army in murderous conquest against anyone", Eve however could also hear the slight waver in her mother's voice that indicated she had only voiced a fear they both shared. They knew that they also like many before them had underestimated the lengths Gabrielle would go to, if she believed the greater good would be served by her actions. In fact even Xena had underestimated her many times. They both knew that Gabrielle had an idealistic core in her soul which nothing had ever truly tarnished. It was what let Gabrielle lead the Amazons to war at Helicon, it was what had brought Gabrielle to Livia's camp to reason with her, it was what had allowed Gabrielle to let Xena stay dead in Japan and it was what lent Gabrielle the strength to continue the fight for the greater good. But it could also lead Gabrielle far astray as she had proven by betraying Xena during their first trip to Chin or when she had lied about killing Hope.
Her mother slowly approached and gave her daughter a kiss and a hug. "We will try to make it back here as soon as possible", she heard her mother promise. Eve knew that if her mother found her friend dead or worse, the will that had allowed her to somehow return to the living would abandon her and this would be the last time they met if such a thing happened.
"I will pray to Eli for your safe return", Eve promised.
"You do that. And stay out of trouble", her mother added casually as she swung herself up into the saddle. Eve smiled and nodded.
"Hiya", her mother yelled, reminding Eve of the blond haired warrior bard doing the same thing using the same words over two and a half years ago and never returning. She saw the black haired and armored shape of her mother disappearing down the road in the midday sun.
Eve thought about the last weeks. Her mother had pressed herself, training her muscles and body back to its old strength and endurance at day and reading or even re-reading the precious scrolls of Gabrielle's adventures in Greece at night. Scrolls that now rested on the side of Xena's saddle. Her mother had read about Egypt and Poteidaia. She had read about Gabrielle's trek to Athens in a countryside beset by raiders and marauders because of the lack of roman peacekeeping. About how Gabrielle had arrived in Athens and been greeted by the Academy of Bards as if she was famous. Her visit had been marred by a series of murders, which she had learned had been motivated not by professional jealousy but by the need to keep ancient intrigues at the Academy secret. Her mother had regaled her with Gabrielle's adventure in the form of a man, when Aphrodite had accidentally put a spell on her. Only the last scroll which had told of how Gabrielle had been captured by the Romans still angry over her actions in Egypt and how she had used her wit and charm as well as her friend Plini to con a corrupt roman governor out of his fortune, while getting away in the ensuing mess with a full pardon for her crimes had contained a clue where she went after Athens.
The last lines of the last scroll contained a mysterious sentence indicating that Gabrielle had gone to the amazons, a trip she had never returned from and which neither, Lila, Eve nor Xena knew the result of. There had been no news from her or the Amazons since then aside from a few closed mouthed visitors showing up in Poteidaia with Gabrielle's scrolls a while back. There were rumors that there no longer were any amazons left in Greece. Eve mused it was not her destiny to do anything more about this. She knew that her mother would either find Gabrielle or die trying. With a sigh she saw her mother's very distant figure disappear into the woods down the road. Eve turned and walked back inside. There were sick people that needed her help.
Xena had hoped that the beginning of her trip would lighten her mood, but instead she found her thoughts darkened by her final conversation with Eve. She had like Eve also thought about the fact that Gabrielle now had an easily recognizable tattoo of a green dragon covering her entire back. Gabrielle had now spent over 2 and a half years adventuring all over the known world, what if she had succumbed to that darkness that their last year together had revealed even Gabrielle had a share of. Suddenly Xena felt a prickling in her skin.
"I was wondering, why you hadn't shown up yet", she said and looked towards a clearing in the woods. Ares appeared in a shower of blue light and sparks.
"You look ravishing. I must admit I just couldn't believe it at first. I thought you mortals stayed dead, when you were shot full of arrows, beheaded and then cremated", he glibly added and stroked his thin black beard. As the god he was Ares looked just like the last time she had seen him.
"Yeah well as you of all gods should know I am not like all other mortals. I came back. And that is all I am going to tell you", Xena reined in her horse and stopped so that the god was on her left side. She turned her head towards him and asked: "So what do you want? I don't really have time for you right now. I am looking for Gabrielle".
"Yeah yeah, it is always about her isn't it? What about what I have to offer? I could give you the world. I could arrange for you to become a goddess. Please don't waste your precious chance for a new life on looking for that… poet", he spat the last word like he reviled its taste in his mouth.
Xena looked down on him her left brow arched. "I thought you and her had buried your mutual dislike", she stated remembering the mentions of his visits with Gabrielle in her scrolls.
He was silent for a few moments then ruefully admitted. "All right so she finally grew on me so what? I love you. I liked her. She really was a great surprise to the overblown egos of so many of my more misguided followers. Still I don't think you completely realize what you sent home from Japan. In the end you had created a masterpiece of a war machine out of that little irritating idealistic blonde farm girl. You should have seen her going up against the Romans or those pesky survivors of Gascar's army. Ahh", Ares seemed to relish a particular memory for a moment then looked back at Xena, who stared at him furiously.
"What!" He asked and looked around him as if he didn't know what he had done wrong.
"Gabrielle is a beautiful and good person, who fights what she believes in and the greater good. Furthermore she is my friend and you should not... Oh, never mind. Now unless you were going tell me, where she is, I'll be leaving", Xena delivered her ultimatum with a lingering angry fire still in her eyes and gave him only moments to answer.
"Now wait a little my dear. Okay, I happen to like her and she did do me a few favors before she left Greece. In fact I think she would have become my chosen by herself given enough time. Never mind that… I am sorry, I can't help you Xena. All I know is that the Romans and some Greek settlers were threatening her amazons and that she rode up there to help them. There was a massive battle, but I was distracted with an ambitious warlord, so I didn't really pay that much attention to it beyond the carnage the actual battle was. I think the amazons were so few after the battle that they simply disappeared. No amazons live on Greek or Roman soil anymore. That is a fact". Xena looked at him smiling at what was properly a memory of a terrible slaughter and keenly remembered all his actions over years.
"Did she die in that war?" She asked.
He saw the pain in her eyes. For a moment he considered his memories of the event then decided to speak: "No. I felt her presence for a while after that and Aphrodite swears that she did the same, but after a while she faded from both our senses. If she still lives, and I am not so sure about that, she must be far away, because I was able to admire her work, when she was down in Egypt without any trouble what so ever", he boasted. "But enough about Gabrielle what do you think about my offer?" He asked even if his eyes betrayed that he already knew her answer.
"No. And why do you keep on asking? I won't ever join you in battle or in love Ares. You are no good for me. I even bet that you arranged that war between the Romans and Amazons. I seem to remember that you've tried that once before", she stated and ordered her horse into a slow trot.
"No… I mean, wait a minute. Yes, I arranged that small battle, she knew that too. I had no intention of seeing Gabrielle hurt, but it is what I do remember? And I know that she survived that battle Xena", he said as she began distancing herself from him. Anger spread through his system.
"Xena, when you find her, then take a good look and think back to the girl, who you met in Poteidaia. Think of the bard that walked so long besides your horse. I am willing to bet you'll find a mirror of yourself or Callisto in her place if she still lives. I saw her during the final battle up there. Darkness was growing inside her, a darkness given to her by you and fed by your adventures with her as well the mistreatments she suffered over the years. The life you lead has poisoned your friend, turning her into something you never wished her to be… Oh, come on. Give it up Xena. She is no longer worth it. I could make you so much happier. Remember what we had together", he yelled out as she passed out of hearing range ignoring the lovesick godling.
Feeling slightly angry and shaken at the thought that Ares might be right, she let her inner eye show her, the many faces of Gabrielle going from farmer girl to bard to experienced and world weary traveler to pacifist to warrior to finally become her sword and chakram bearing successor on a mountain in a far away land baptized by her Chakram. She thought about which of those changes had been her doing and found that what she had done to Gabrielle, had in a way been done in reverse on her by Gabrielle. She had learned a lot about patience, innocence, good nature, friendship, love and strength to overcome even intolerable hardships as she traveled with Gabrielle. While she had watched the naïve girl grow up into a capable woman and seen their friendship grow from tentative to something that went beyond any normal definitions and into the realm of legend. Especially when she looked at the sacrifices Gabrielle had made to remain in her life.
Xena felt like she had only given Gabrielle darkness, pain and sadness in return. Yet in the past when they had talked about it, Gabrielle had reminded her time and again that their life together was what she had chosen. Still she felt guilty and swore that if she could she would either force or manipulate Gabrielle off the path of the warrior that she never should have been walking in the first place. Gabrielle would be a little angry with her, but in the end she decided it would be for the better for both her friend's mind and soul.
Now all she needed was to find her. Xena remembered the last words written on Gabrielle's scrolls:
Ephiny has appeared to me again. The amazons' future hangs in the balance according to her. It's funny that I keep seeing the ghosts of the people dear to me. Well now Ghost and I are heading north towards the nations.
Xena turned her horse towards the not so distant lands of the Amazons; while her eyes roamed the land around her like her soul mate would jump out of the bushes at the first turn of the road. Yet her heart and soul was still in turmoil over her conversation with the God of War.
A thick fog obscured her sight and made her leather coat and recently cut hair damp. All around her the world seemed more silent than ever. Only once in a while did she hear the slight song of a lone bird greeting the early morning sun completely hidden from her sight by the thick layer of white, which pervaded the wide clearing in the forest. Gabrielle stayed completely still and let her ability to listen for what lay behind the sounds guide her through the thick fog as she made a careful and almost soundless step forward.
Far away she heard Ghost chewing on some grass, while the remaining embers of her fire sizzled from the fog. No wind rustled the leaves of the trees and grasses around. Gabrielle focused on hearing what lay beyond her. She heard another animal walking carefully through the knee height grass. From the sound of it she knew it was her prey. Carefully keeping her senses focused on finding her target she lifted her bow and slowly drew the blue fletched arrow that had rested there back towards her chin, while closing her useless eyes. The bowstring creaked slightly as it was pulled back to its full extent by her strength. Her target stopped, probably sniffing the still air for any foreign scents. Trusting her aim Gabrielle released the arrow, which soared forward into the obscuring fog. She heard it sink into flesh and something tumbled to the ground. Slowly the warrior bard advanced, while slipping her bow over the shoulder to hang opposite her quiver.
The small roe deer lay twisting in the grass mortally wounded by her arrow. Gabrielle felt a twinge of compassion. Quickly she drew her hunting knife, a recent addition to her arsenal, and slit its throat in a quick move. She set about draining the blood, cutting out the innards and getting her fill of flesh from the dead beast. She was happy that she had only caught a small one or she'd be forced to leave much more of the good flesh here to rot. That would have felt like a waste of the gift by nature to her this deer was.
Gabrielle walked back towards her camp. She regretted slightly that she didn't have time to dry or smoke the flesh of the roe deer properly. She was heading towards the mountains near the Roman borders. There were reports of some kind of highway robbers making life miserable for all travelers without an armed guard. She was on the way to Rome to look for more amazon slaves anyway so she figured that she might just spent a little time breaking up some marauding bastards little empire of crime before it became a real problem. She rebuilt her fire and set about grilling the flesh thoroughly adding a lot of seasoning for flavor when it was cold.
Ahh you've grown more skilled at hunting than I ever was, my sad friend, a disembodied voice whispered through the fog. Gabrielle felt no danger and instead only turned her head in the direction of the voice. She had gotten used to people appearing and disappearing all the time these last few years. Still it chilled her a little, when the voice became the strangely transparent image of the curly haired amazon Ephiny. A woman dead many years ago, who she could see courtesy of whatever queenly gift it was that allowed her to see the spirits of dead amazons.
"Ephiny… Is Xenan in danger?" Gabrielle clearly remembered their last horrible outing, where Borias' oldest son had slaughtered most of the remaining Centaurs and only a last minute change of heart had saved them from a terrible battle. She still felt a little shame at the thought that she had advocating putting Borias' son into the ground like he had done to the Centaurs. She remembered the stare she had gotten from Xena and it had hurt. She had learned a valuable lesson from that adventure as she had analyzed it in her mind on their way to her birthday party. She had learned to think more carefully before speaking her mind and let her emotions guide her opinions less. Of course she still failed ever so often, but it was important to try.
"No Xenan and his family are fine. It is not why I am here now. Gabrielle the amazons need your help now. Their existence is hanging in a thin thread and only their wisest leader can save them", Ephiny's face smiled reassuringly at her friend.
"Yeah, well you and Xena are dead, so I think they'll have to make do with me", Gabrielle jibed and looked down at the grilling meat. Her stomach growled. She looked hopefully up at Ephiny.
Ephiny laughed and nodded. "Some things never change. Yeah you can eat breakfast first. But hurry to the Amazon Nation. If you don't make there in time, there will be no amazons alive". Ephiny's image slowly began to fade.
"And I am sorry for your loss, Gabrielle, but remember what I told you years ago. You need to let her go or it will continue to haunt you", her disembodied voice added before she disappeared from view leaving Gabrielle alone with her horse and the roasting meat.
Gabrielle fell silent for a few moments then walked over to her saddle and grabbed her latest scroll. She was out of new scrolls and had planned to get some new ones for her continued attempts at poetry as well as her journal in the next town she found. Now she would have to wait until she reached the amazon lands. She quickly scribbled an addition to her travel journal that now carried her thoughts about her life. She no longer wrote stories about her and Xena's adventures and she had even stopped making new ones for her performances. Still out of habit she recorded her life in a way writing it like she would have liked to tell it to Xena, writing it like she was speaking to her.
Remembering that the dead heard the thoughts of the living she sent her love to Xena and all the others that had meant something in her life as she once again stowed away her crackling scroll in her scroll bag. Sometimes she felt like she was the only thing left of her life with Xena. She was one of the last remnants of the old order of heroes in some way. Only Hercules would last longer and even he now spent his time quietly at a farm. She would have to go see him and Iolaus soon. It had been at least 27 years since she had seen them if you looked at it from their point of view. Joxer was dead and she had no idea what had become of Autolycus, Iolaus, Salmoneus or even good old Meleager. They had been rather a lot older than Joxer and he had been so very old, when they had met again. In a way she was very much alone and unique in this evolving world.
Soon her breakfast was finished and Gabrielle greedily ate a large slab of meat together with a few boiled roots downing it with a portion of the wine she had bought in the last village. Then she took down her professionally set up camp and saddled Ghost. Soon she set off into the slowly disappearing fog her leather coat whirling around her as she rode off.
Gabrielle kept Ghost at a steady pace, which would allow her to get to the amazon nations without having to get a new horse. On the way she only stopped to rest and to eat when she had too or Ghost needed it. Still it took her several days to get near the amazon lands.
A few days later…
The amazon forest rustled with the sound of leaves being moved by the wind. A pair of eyes stared out from a hideout amongst the branches of a large tree.
Their enemy was moving troops through the woods where Ares' army had once burnt a large scar in their homelands. Slowly she lowered the branch obscuring her view of the road they had made up to the camp of their forward position, while absently flicking a black strand of hair out of her eyes. She looked at her warriors hidden amongst the trees. The enemy hadn't dared come into their dominion yet. They still feared the strength of the amazons in the forests, the strength of the amazons in their home. Suddenly there was a slight movement along the branches of her tree and Cyane the blond amazon queen from the north appeared on the branch next to her.
"Varia, you have no right to attack them. The queen's council hasn't decided, what our answer to the Romans ultimatum will be", she said with authority.
Varia regarded the younger woman for a moment then snorted and looked back at her intended enemy. "I have decided that those pretentious bastards should be cast out from our ancestral lands", she said with finality and once again began contemplating her attack on her enemy.
"Have you forgotten that you are no longer queen of the amazons or even a member of the queen's council? You don't have the right to command a squadron of warriors, yet you decide to take those few who still trust you on a suicide mission. Varia! If you attack them their massive armies would surely come marching from Rome and subjugate us like they did Gaul. We are fiercer than them yes, but they already outnumber us at least 5 to 1 and they have an entire empire to back them up. We only have our forests", Cyane pleaded.
Varia turned towards the blonde woman with anger flashing in her eyes. "Exactly, we only have these forests left. Ever since the great council of queens were slaughtered in the ancient past our numbers, our strengths and our lands have dwindled. Now we stand alone in the world without Artemis to guide us. I will not stand by and let the amazons disappear like ghosts into history. I won't let the weaklings who rule get us all killed if I can do anything…", however the blonde woman interrupted her.
"You're confusing anger and will with strength and wisdom again. Haven't Xena and Queen Gabrielle taught you anything? Didn't you do enough wrong when you nearly lead us to serve Ares or when you tried to kill one of our own sisters? Another queen no less" Cyane's blue eyes flashed with anger, when suddenly a yell rang across the valley.
"It seems the decision had been made for us", Varia turned and commented as the forward scouts of the Roman legion marched towards them and the heartlands of the amazon nations.
"I have only brought a few of my sisters, but we will have to stop them here, if the rest of our army is to stand a chance against the legion that is coming to our lands after these dogs, we mustn't allow them to wander our forest indiscriminately", Cyane said, knowing that the decisions and wisdom of the council would no longer be able to stop this war. The Romans had decided not to await their answer to their ultimatum. Now they would have to be the first to defeat the Romans in a prolonged war or end up enslaved like the Egyptians and the Israelites.
Unseen by Cyane Varia smiled a feral smile. Maybe now she would be able to find redemption amongst her sisters. If she was able to lead them to victory, if she excelled in this battle then maybe they would forgive her mistake at Helicon. With quickly whistled bird calls and hand signals she readied the few warriors, who still looked to her as a leader, for the coming battle. None of them had much real combat experience but she hoped their training would suffice to keep them alive. She had been left with only these loyal few, who had come to know her as their teacher in the art of war. Everyone who had been at Helicon or believed the stories about what had happened there despised her for threatening the life of the heroic leader of the otherwise disastrous battle at Helicon. An action which in hindsight could have cost them the war as Bellopheron had surely known. The army would have disintegrated at the loss of its leader. Varia pushed conflicting emotions of friendship as well as bitterness and jealousy associated with the images of Gabrielle and Xena to the back of her mind and readied herself for the coming battle.
At the same time…
Gabrielle slowed her pace as she approached the Amazon lands, where she had originally met the black haired Varia and reconnected with the Amazon Nation after her 25 year sleepover in the ice. Funnily enough compared with much of the rest of the world the amazons had seemed to the same as when she had left them. They had even been able to remember her and Xena, they had welcomed them immediately even if there had been problems with Eve's past. It had been like coming home to her. At least until all the trouble with Ares had erupted, but then she hadn't really had any prolonged happy times with the amazons. There had been moments of happiness with Ephiny and later when she had gone to Cyane's tribe to give Eve her right of caste. But if she really thought about it most of her times visiting with the amazons had sooner or later gotten down to gritty battles and warfare. She had gotten her first weapon and formal training as a warrior from them. It was slightly astounding even to her that she only five years later with a slight 25 year snooze in between had been able to lead an amazon army in a successful war against the fortress at Helicon. But then she had been blessed with a great and very patient teacher.
As she came closer she saw the large encampment of at least a full legion with artillery sitting just outside the reach of the amazon lands in what looked like a hastily erected town of tents surrounded by the beginnings of a wooden palisade. Supply wagons were rolling towards the large army in droves, while Gabrielle sighed.
Again and again in her life she had been forced to deal with the Romans. They had been the reason for her crucifixion and many of her martial skills had been learned while disrupting another cruel Roman plot or power grab. Like Xena had her archenemies in Alti and Ares, Gabrielle felt like the Romans were hers in a way especially considering her more recent history with them. Gabrielle saw that the hills were crawling with scouts and spies, but she knew that none would penetrate the amazon lands without putting themselves in peril. The Amazons greatest strength lay in their complete and absolute control of their forest. It was said that an amazon army could appear out of the forest like ghosts and she knew it was true.
She also knew that she would have to cross into the forest and make her way towards the amazon main village before any major battle broke out. She needed to know what was up, if she was to stand any chance of keeping her sisters safe and alive. So she lingered for a few minutes taking account of the troops and noting the standard of the army commander. It was not someone she knew or had heard of before. She decided to do something about that and decided to await the coming of nightfall. Overhead clouds began to collect.
A couple of hours later…
A half finished wooden palisade surrounded the roman encampment. The side facing towards the amazon forests was fully finished and guard towers were manned by vigilant legionnaires. However the rest of the battlements of the camp were mostly made up of ditches filled with sharpened wooden stakes and a low earth wall were the rest of the palisade would be built on top of in just a few days. Patrols of four legionnaires apiece walked along the top of the wall carefully watching for enemies in the pitch black night.
Gabrielle sniffed the air and looked up at the overcast sky. It would pour on the camp within minutes the dampening of the sounds of nature that rode in front of the bad weather already apparent. A cold wind had been blowing against her leather coat for most of the evening now. She lay hidden in the high grass slightly less than twenty paces from the ditch surrounding the roman camp. Ghost remained tied to a tree back at the outcropping of trees that had served as her hideout most of the day. Suddenly the rain began to pour down from the pitch black night sky. Now only the lights of the fires in the roman camp provided any illumination in the overcast night.
Gabrielle smiled as her eyes and ears caught the passing of the torch carrying patrol. Quickly she got out and dashed through the tall grass towards the wide and dangerous ditch. Just as the ground dropped into the ditch filled with glistening wooden spikes she launched herself into the air, flipped several times in the air and landed on top of the already muddy earth wall with only the slight squishy sound of her boots impacting on mud revealing her actions. The sound easily was drowned out by the wind and rain. She sent a proud thought to Xena feeling boastful at her increasing mobility.
A peal of thunder rolled through the small valley, as she jumped down between the many tents set up in nearly exact rows with military precision. Gabrielle took no chances and moved as stealthily as she could towards the section where the officers' tents were. Somewhere around there she would be able to find the commander of the legion and maybe the reason for this act of war on the Amazons.
Slowly she edged towards the most lavishly embroidered and massive tent in the middle of the officer's camp. Outside a legionnaire stood guard getting drenched to the skin just like Gabrielle by the rain that seemed to have slowed to a more or less constant pelting that her experienced weather sense told her would probably last most of the night. A cold wind reminded her that she also was wet all the way through. But she knew that there would be no comfort or warmth for her until she reached her amazon sisters.
Slowly she made her way around the tent and hid besides a series of empty wooden box propped up against the large tent. She quickly drew out her knife and cut a tiny hole in the canvas, where the boxes covered for the worst of the rain. Gabrielle peered inside. The tent was separated in two areas it seemed. One area was set aside for day to day matters of leading an army and another looked like it was a kind of private bedchamber complete with a large stack of comfortable looking pillows. A roman commander was seated at a wooden table looking over a map, while a very familiar man was standing in front of him explaining a plan of attack on the Amazon nation like it was a command instead of a suggestion. Gabrielle couldn't help smiling in a wry and knowing way. This was exactly what she had come to expect of the God of War. It didn't even help getting angry at him. It was just who he was and at least he was honest about that.
Ares was getting impatient with his latest warlord. Not only had he chosen to remain in the relative safety afforded to him by his main army, but he had left the work of attacking the Amazon Nation into the hands of this man sitting in front of him. An uncreative, stubborn and arrogant Roman noble called Gaius, who seemed to persist in thinking that he actually had any choice in the way he had to attack the Amazons. They had to burn the woods, remove the forest from the Amazons or any kind of battle was lost before hand. Artillery would never suffice; the warrior women would just melt into their forest like ghosts and slaughter the Romans by the patrol.
He was about to explain this to Gaius once again, when he by chance dedicated a little of his awareness to his surroundings and felt a presence almost as familiar and loved as the presence of his dead beloved. Gabrielle was spying on them. Last he had looked in on his current favorite warrior woman; she had just fooled a bunch of Roman nobles into turning their intrigue and interest against each other instead of pressing the money out the Athenian citizens. She had even managed to con a full pardon for all her previous acts against Rome out of the governor even if he had actually later ended up as the patsy for her manipulations and had lost both his position and his fortune just after she had skipped town. Suddenly he felt like loosing interest in making the Romans grab the land of the Amazon Nation, while they worked their way towards the riches of India. Smiling in anticipation he looked at the military midget sitting in front of him and thought of the prowess of the woman sitting outside the tent in the pouring rain.
"I think you're right Gaius. Your legions are more than enough to destroy the fragile remainders of the once great Amazon nation. Back in the glory days of Caesar no single legion could have taken them, but today your legion alone can do it. The Amazons are much weaker now. I am sure your master will be very pleased, when you defeat them. In fact you could do it even without the artillery should you lose it", he said in his most convincing tone, while he in his immense mind saw all the opportunities for creative warfare that this battle could come to offer.
The arrogant man sneered and looked at the god standing in front of him. "There is no chance of me losing my artillery... Of course I can defeat them. I could do it with half my men. I heard that those weak women's military strength has been steadily dropping over the years and let's not forget the most important thing here. They are only women. After their near defeat at Helicon last year I am sure to crush the few remaining weaklings into dust. If it wasn't for my emperor's command I wouldn't even have bothered. However I have been ordered to sell all captives like the ones we got from that skirmish this morning as slaves. They should bring a great price down in the warm countries. Somehow the independence of these women provokes most of the men down there deeply. Now do you think I can follow the plan I have laid out for the attack", he asked and looked over the jumble of papers on his desk.
"Sure. If you wait for the last of your supplies you should be ready the day after tomorrow. Then you can wander straight from here up that valley my army made a year ago go through the cliff passes and fall upon their village before they can even come close to stopping you", Ares assured him knowing well that every word he spoke was being noted and remembered by a well trained military mind.
Deciding that he had evened the odds enough for a fair battle his eyes drilled into the eyes of the Roman. "However this is no game Gaius. I want this victory! You don't dare fail in this! I have the word of your master that my name will be glorified by your victory both here and in Persia", with those words he disappeared in a blue flash as the man gulped under his baleful glare.
She knew that he had known she was there. He would only have revealed so much of the Romans' plans if he had wanted her to know about them. That meant that he either had a reserve plan up his sleeve or that he had wanted to give her a slight chance of defeating the Romans. Probably the latter as he had always seen the most glory in great open battles where anything could happen and only the warriors' fighting prowess decided the outcome. At least that was what she thought he liked. She decided to trust her instincts.
However the words of that pompous bastard leading this army had told her that some of her precious sisters were in this camp held captive and were already sentenced to be the slaves in some place far from their home. That gave her a more pressing mission. Seething with anger she did however refrain from following its suggestions, it told her to go into the tent of the commander and slit his throat from ear to ear. As it was now the chaos this would generate was nowhere near enough to stop the planned assault on her sisters and would probably only lead to more trouble. She stalked into the rain looking for the amazon captives instead.
"I seem to be rescuing people from camps a lot these days. I wonder if Xena ever found her life a bit trivial", Gabrielle mused as she cast an eye on the amazons, who were being kept in a cage near the edge of the camp. Three guards were guarding the cage full of angry women, who as far as Gabrielle could make out included a few wounded warriors amongst their number. After considering her options Gabrielle grimly drew one of her Sais in her left hand and put the Chakram into the other and stalked over to stand behind one of the guards.
She carefully aimed the Chakram and tossed it hard past the guard. The sound of its passing made him turn towards her. Gabrielle hammered the butt end of her Sai into his throat and kneed him in his groin. The man fell to his knees in pain and bent his head forward. She quickly brought down the Sai and he fell unconscious into the mud. Almost without thinking she caught the blood red glistening Chakram and returned her Sai to her boot. Two men fell into the deepening mud thick streams of blood coming from their cut throats. Gabrielle walked towards the cage signing for the suddenly stirred amazons to remain silent.
Quickly she hacked the Chakram down onto the lock. As always the incredible weapon destroyed the weaker metal and the lock fell into her waiting hand. Gabrielle swung the cage open. "Two or more people help carry the wounded. We are getting out of here. Arm yourselves if you can, but make no noise. You're all needed to defend your homeland", she explained and stepped away to look out for any approaching guards as her sisters made their way over the wall and slowly navigated the dangerous ditch in groups between the oblivious patrols. Finally only Gabrielle and a black haired amazon remained.
"Run to the forest! I have something else I must do before I join you out in the forest await me there", Gabrielle commanded without hesitation.
"Yes", the astounded amazon girl said and disappeared into the raining night.
Later the amazons were huddled in a group near a large tree. Thick droplets of rain collected by the tree fell upon them regularly. "Why are we waiting here? We should return to the village and report", one of the girl asked.
"Because that woman who saved us asked us to wait for her", the black haired amazon warrior, who had guarded their retreat with Gabrielle, explained. She was the most veteran warrior amongst the survivors of Varia's ill-fated followers and stemmed from the warriors brought to the village by the now deceased Queen Gwyn-Teir.
"We need to report everything we saw to the Queens. They need the information", the first girl, who had spoken, explained, while her teeth chattered from the cold.
"No! That woman saved our lives. The least we can do is to wait for her here", the black haired girl demanded.
"Why? She could be a spy trying to gain our trust or…" Another girl joined the discussion.
"Are you blind? Didn't you see her weapon? It had to be the legendary Chakram", another angry amazon had found her voice.
"Now you're stupid. Everyone knows from the scrolls of the wandering queen that Xena is tall and black haired dressed in leather and armor. That woman was neither armored, tall or black haired", the black haired girl added. Suddenly she paused in realization and looked over her shoulder towards the camp in thought. "I'll stay here. The rest of you go home and report. I'll meet with our rescuer", she whispered a tone of respect and disbelief in her voice. Soon she was standing below the huge tree in silence.
It was nearly morning and the rain was letting up as she heard a horse approaching. Suddenly a white shape appeared before her and the voice of their rescuer greeted her: "Hi. So where are the rest of you?" The very tired sounding voice asked.
"I sent them home, when you didn't show up. I was about to go see if you had been captured", the black haired amazon admitted.
"That won't be necessary I can take care of myself. But I am glad you cared", the blond woman said with a smile and slid down of her horse. "Gabrielle", she said and held out her hand after making the traditional amazon greeting by touching her fist to her heart.
"Deirdre", the girl whispered in surprise as she returned the salute. She paused as if she wanted to look the woman that had rescued her over in the weak light of the dawn. She had a compact and muscled form yet had a kind of inner shine of health apparent in every aspect of her body and presence. The woman felt so alive to her even if her eyes had a very sad cast. "You're Queen Gabrielle right?" Deirdre couldn't help asking.
"Yes, I am. Deirdre we can't stand around here anymore. It won't be to long before the false trail I laid for all those angry legionnaires, who are looking for me, runs out and they go looking for me around here. I need to see the Queen's council and you look like you need a rest", Gabrielle explained and took the reins of her horse. They set out towards the central village.
"Why are the legionnaires angry?" Deirdre couldn't help asking. "My Queen", she quickly added.
"I kind of set fire to their artillery and a few tents, when I was leaving. I really should cut back on the fire setting. It is a bad habit I've been developing over the last few months, but I swear I won't do it to those catapults ever again", Gabrielle explained with a smile.
"Now Deirdre could you tell me what this war is about? I haven't really had the time to get the full story?" Gabrielle asked as they disappeared into the deep green of the forest carefully concealing their route as they went.
Deirdre looked out over the battle field Queen Gabrielle had chosen. These last few days had been a whirl of confusing and grand events for her. First she had met one of her life long heroes and then she had even begun to hope that she might get to see the formidable and legendary Xena in combat. However the Nation had been cast out into mourning upon learning that Xena the greatest non amazon warrior had died and stayed dead even after triumphing single-handedly against an entire army and an evil spirit.
She hadn't felt much anguish personally. She had become too engaged in her new role as helper to the dragon backed heroine that stood in Xena's place. Guilty by association she had become Queen Gabrielle's assistant. Her return in this time was heralded as yet another time, when the brave queen would step up to serve as she always did in a time of crisis.
She had already proven at Helicon that she was more than just the sidekick of a hero and now she stood alone and formidable along side the remaining Queens of the Amazon Nation. Gabrielle, as she preferred to be called, had barely managed to dry the rain out of her clothes before she had been drafted to lead the Amazon army against the Romans. To Deirdre's astonishment Gabrielle had at first rejected the notion until it was revealed to her that the two remaining strong warriors able to take command were either Cyane, a young and inexperienced queen, who kept mostly to herself and wasn't well respected amongst any other tribes than her own or it would be Varia, a capable leader but no longer trusted as a leader by her sisters.
Deirdre remembered clearly the sadness apparent in the eyes of the Warrior Bard as she took over the leadership of the amazons once again. She had immediately set aside whatever it was that had kept her from taking command and begun issuing orders.
The days had continued at such a rapid speed that she barely remembered meals scarfed down in the presence of the unhappy woman, who seemed to get grimmer by the candlemark as she first outlined and then implemented her brilliant but gruesome plan for the battle against the Roman legion getting ready to march out on the plains.
Deirdre still remembered how the blonde queen had outlined her tactics to keep as many amazons as possible alive. The council and senior warriors had been chilled by her plan to start a massive mud and rockslide using a black powder she had learned the recipe for on her travels in the East to explode the hillsides. The rockslide would hit the Legion, when it was in the narrow cliff passes on the way to the main amazon village. It was meant to bury as many men alive as possible to increase their fighting chances. Gabrielle had also managed all the logistics of deploying the army, setting up the many death traps in the forest, distributing poisoned arrows to the archers and getting the black powder made and placed correctly on the rain softened cliffs and hilltops.
However none other than her had seen the small blonde woman walk behind her yurt to vomit and cry for nearly a quarter of a candlemark after giving the final command to set up the black powder charges, nor had anyone but her glimpsed the nightmare tossed sleep of the woman on the night before this. She knew now that this woman knew everything about gruesome warfare and destroying the enemy from her experiences with such evil, but while her plans were cruel and efficient the woman, who made them, did so for the good of others at the cost of her own happiness and peace of mind.
Now she was awaiting the survivors of their traps as the Legion foolhardily pressed on towards the long evacuated amazon village. Every step in the forest made treacherous by the many hidden pits and foot traps filled with spikes covered in debilitating poison. The bravest archers lead by Queen Cyane had spent most of the day attacking the legionnaires from afar with arrows coated in the same kind of poison. The amazon army sat still fresh and strong awaiting the ragged group as it marched slowly onto a small open field in front of a forested hill. On the left side a small but treacherous stretch of river framed the battlefield while the deep and dark forest on the right side hid half of the amazon army under the leadership of Varia.
Deirdre was seeing this from Gabrielle's command position by the hill. Messages delivered either by fast runners or bird calls were constantly being given to Gabrielle, who to her amazement, seemed absolutely calm and collected even though they in a few minutes would be going up against the Legion in open combat.
The sound of studded sandals filled the air as the legionnaires marched onto the battle field. Many were dirty, some were wounded or barely standing. Deirdre recalled the horrible battle at Ares' scar earlier in the week, where they had been captured, where she had killed her first man. Slowly she drew out the twin axes that were the preferred weapon of her tribe. At her side she watched Gabrielle draw her Sais from her boots. She looked pale and tired. For a moment Deirdre wished she could see those green eyes light up in a smile, see that face framed by blonde hair filled with joy, but she knew that such times were a long time off for her queen. And there in the middle of the sudden breaking out of battle with spears, arrows and fire raining around her, she realized that Gabrielle had become not only the Queen of the Greek amazons, but as she looked around her, she knew that Gabrielle was the queen of them all. With a fierce battle cry in her native tongue Deirdre followed her blonde queen into the surging mass of warriors.
The stench of war lying over a battlefield always made her queasy. Gabrielle looked out of the large field where her army had slaughtered the unprepared and weakened Romans. She felt no joy over her victory and didn't pay any heed to the many calls for her to join the victory party that was already being prepared in the rapidly repopulating village. She would rather stand here mourning the loss of life on both sides. Gabrielle stood on top of her former command post looking over the large stretch of land lost in thought, but still well aware that someone was walking confidently up the hill. She recognized the footfalls of Varia just as she came to a halt behind her.
"There will have to be appointed a few new Queens and you'll have to find someone new to stand in for you, when you leave", Varia said and moved to stand at her side. Gabrielle did not answer her.
"I don't understand you Gabrielle. I saw you at Helicon and here today. I realize that you have learned a lot more since then and in fact you're becoming more like Xena than I would ever have thought anyone could be, but still I see that every battle every war hurts you. Why do you endure it? Why? When she is gone?" Varia looked at her.
Gabrielle turned to face her. "I do it, because someone has to stand up for the greater good. And there is no one else", Gabrielle stated heroically.
"Don't give me that. There is more to it isn't there? Is it guilt? Are you punishing yourself, because you couldn't save her?" Varia pressed.
Gabrielle laughed with apparent bitterness in her voice. "No. I don't have any guilt over Xena's death Varia. I could have saved her, but what would have been the point when she didn't want to be saved? There was no way to save her without dooming 40000 souls". Gabrielle fell silent again.
"Then why? I thought I had you figured out. I thought you were weak. I thought all your strength came from Xena", Varia looked at her with confusion.
"Xena only gave me freedom to choose how to live my own life. I am who I asked to be, who my life has made me. My strength is my own. Anyone who says otherwise is in denial about me, who I was from the beginning and who I always was to be. If you have to know about why I keep on doing it, then I will tell you. I do it because rescuing innocents, protecting the weak, fighting and telling stories is all apart of who I am. Even in the beginning when I was just a farm girl with no clue about anything, I had strength. I used my voice of innocence as my weapon. I outgrew that and took up a real but safely blunted weapon instead. I stayed that way out of idealism and Xena's protection of my innocence for many years, but still I learned about fighting all the time simply by watching her, Hercules, Iolaus and even Ares, Caesar and Callisto doing their stuff. Then after I got over a few months of misguided pacifism as well a short time as a dead person I became the warrior my heart has always held. It was always there Varia and in the end it came out. What I am trying to say is that I fight for other people because that is what I have always done and will probably do until I get to old and then maybe I'll settle down and be a healer or a bard or a playwright", Gabrielle smiled wistfully at that, while Varia looked at the blonde woman for a while with the look of confusion still in her eyes, but she held her tongue for while.
"Gabrielle, what do we do now?" Varia asked and indicated the battlefield.
"We save the Amazons from extinction… Don't let anyone onto the battlefield, not even to recover our dead. Wounded are fine, but leave all the dead. Then come to the Queen's council, you'll want to hear what is said there. It concerns you and I want you there. Now I need to go see a few shamanesses' about a few last rites", Gabrielle answered as she saw Varia's disbelieving look. The two women parted as Gabrielle ran off into the dusk, leaving Varia to wonder about her intentions.
Deirdre looked around the large cavern as Gabrielle strode into the room. She looked like she had just come of the battlefield. Her hair was a mess, soot and drying blood droplets covered her brown battle dress, legs and skin. She carried her blood encrusted weapons as well as a bandage across her upper arm where the roman general had managed to nick her before she gave him two big round holes in his chest. The only allowance she seemed to have made for custom was wearing her Queen emblem around her neck.
Around the room the young queens shuffled into their seats. Most of them had only had their positions for less than a year and one was recently field promoted as her queen had died in the battle against the Romans. She walked to stand by the queen of her tribe even as she looked to the blonde Greek for her commands. Gabrielle walked to stand in the middle of the ring bearing the spear that signified her as the overall war leader of the Amazon Nation. Everyone fell silent. Deirdre noticed that Varia slipped in to stand in the shadows.
"What I say now I say for the good of the entire nation. The amazons have come to the end of their rope. From now on the Romans will strive to claim this land as their own. They will not relent or give up", she paused for comments. No one spoke as she slowly turned around before them looking each queen sincerely in the eyes as she explained.
"I have been dealing with the Romans and their leaders or emperors for most of my adult life. And I guarantee you that they won't stop coming, they won't respect any treaty, they won't relent until this nation is dust at their feet. And we will lose such a battle. The Roman Empire stretches over most of the civilized world a world that is now encroaching on ours, because we haven't changed our ways to fit the times, we haven't allowed the men to conquer and rule us. Until a few years ago that was fine, but now they have spread their civilized world so far that we must decide. Stay, fight and die or abandon this forest and seek solace in some deeper wilderness to gain strength and become more than a ghost of a once great nation. I see those choices before us. I will not contemplate the surrender of our ancient ways. I will not sacrifice our ways on the altar of progress or pride, we must leave and grow or stay and die", Gabrielle stopped her speech and walked to her seat. "I put this suggestion before the council of queens for the consideration of us all", she spoke the ritual phrase that initiated the discussions.
Deirdre watched as Varia stood in the shadows as Gabrielle spoke to the council. She seemed to seethe with anger and indignation as Gabrielle suggested they leave the forest to live and grow in peace in a safer place. As the conversation between the queens began in earnest and they mulled over the question of their continued existence and life in this valley Varia got more and more agitated. Then suddenly Varia leapt forward into the circle and screamed: "No, you can't be discussing this betrayal".
"This valley is the birthplace of the Amazons. Artemis created us here and here we shall stay and fight until the very end. This is the last bastion for all women. Many come to us for a place where they can be the warriors their hearts command them to be. Here they come to be free of their drunken husbands. Here we offer them sanctuary. If we leave we will lose that which makes us Amazons. We lose the forest. And what remains of the blessings of Artemis. Gabrielle is misguided in this and I…" Varia yelled, when she was suddenly thrown to the ground by Cyane and found herself held at spear point by the guards.
"No, don't hurt her", Gabrielle commanded. "Pick her up and hold her, but don't take her away", she said and watched in silence as the guards moved their prisoner outside the ring of queens.
"Varia raises some important points that will be asked by all of our people. But I will tell you now that what she claims isn't true. These woods aren't the original ancestral home of the Amazon people and we weren't created here by Artemis. Long ago I learned the true origins of the Amazon people, while I was ruling the northern amazons. There the ghost of a recently slain shamaness called Yakut brought us the Atma dagger. It revealed to us how we all come from an old people called the Tretomlec, who lost all their men to cannibals. It revealed the coming of the first Cyane and how she taught us to use horses. We became the Amazons because we chose to live life without marrying men, living apart from the other men's world forever after defeating their slayers. Artemis came later and she was in the end an indifferent goddess, who barely paid attention to anyone but the Greek amazons and then even when another goddess terrorized her people she didn't come to help to us. I know that most of your tribes never truly worshiped her and most of you still keep the older spiritual traditions alive through your shamaness instead. There is no true original homeland for the Amazons and therefore there is neither dishonor nor fault in abandoning a place that is nothing more than a no longer convenient hideout". Gabrielle returned to her chair.
Cyane the young northern queen rose. "I come from the tribe once ruled by Gabrielle before Xena's battle with the Olympian gods tore her from us. We remember and acknowledge to this day what she spoke of as the truth. I know in my heart that she speaks the truth and if I had my shamaness here she would tell you the same as Gabrielle just did. The legend of Xena and Gabrielle teaching us not to continue to bloody our children has allowed our people to grow and now we are no longer the weakest amazon tribe as we was then. I find her observations are true and I add my own voice to hers. We must move with the times, learn new things and grow or perish like the primitives that once inhabited the lands near Greece. Their civilization will not allow us to live as that we are, so we must create our own or find a way to hide our civilization in theirs for all time. The Amazon ways must never disappear from this world", she said. Many looked on in astonishment as the normally quiet queen spoke her mind with rare eloquence.
Soon the queens were agreeing with Gabrielle. Only Varia remained unconvinced and angry as she looked upon the council. "It is the will of the council that we move our nation to safety from the persecution of the Romans. We have decided that the leadership during this expedition should lie in the hands of our most capable queen. Gabrielle, will you lead us?" Cyane said as the queens nodded their assent.
Gabrielle looked around at the many faces and sighed then nodded yes. She rose and began giving commands: "First of all we must leave our dead on the battlefield. I know this is horrendous breach of tradition, but I have the assurances of a shamaness that she can perform a ceremony to allow them proper passage to the realm of the dead without a funeral pyre. I would normally never disrespect the dead, but we need to convince the Romans that we were so beaten by their legion that our tribes were shattered to the winds by their attack and are now roaming the lands never to become a threat to them again. This will give us the freedom we need to travel to the place I have in mind for us". Gabrielle paused and looked around at the council, who like Deirdre breathlessly awaited the next step in her bold plan.
"We can't move the entire nation in one go, so I propose a strategy for this. I and some of our veteran warriors as well as a portion of the nation start out first. We'll use our head start to make a safe passage for the rest, who're to follow behind with most of the supplies and our possessions. We will also be able to clear the lands up there for your arrival. I think that Cyane should be in command of the main group, while I will lead the forward party. We will need to empty these lands of as much food and goods as we can bring with us. We need horses and new weapons as well and many of the amazons will need to learn how to live in a cold climate. You see I am planning to take us to what was once the stronghold of the Amazon Nation. Back to where I think the original lands of Cyane and Samsara were. There we'll make our future and once again rule the lands with horse and arrow", Gabrielle smiled at the memories that had been poured into her as she had become Queen of the Northern Amazons just two years ago. Ephiny had brought her here to ensure the existence of the Amazons and that was what she felt she was doing. "We must however start now and all be gone from here before the Romans come back", Gabrielle cautioned.
Deirdre looked on in amazement as a new emotion entered the eyes of her queen. Gabrielle seemed to be happily daydreaming about the glorious future of the Amazons.
Suddenly a scream of rage penetrated the room and Varia tore herself free of the guards. She flipped into the circle of queens again and yelled: "I won't stand for this. It is enough. Will you let this blonde twit lead us all to our deaths? Away from our holy lands the homeland I have fought my entire life to protect. The homeland you sisters spilled their blood for at Helicon. No. I won't stand for it. You once tore the necklace of my position from me Gabrielle, and I haven't challenged that decision out of guilt, but I was wrong. You did it then for revenge over my defeat of your earlier challenge and I say it was not legal. I am still queen by right of caste and I challenge you for the leadership of your tribe and all the tribes that follow you. You must be stopped".
"Varia, no one will follow you any more! You should have been killed at Helicon by Amazon tradition and only the mercy of Queen Gabrielle stayed our hand then. You can't challenge her now. We need to stand united now more than ever. This council will not accede to your plans ever again", Cyane explained gruffly and placed herself between Gabrielle and Varia.
"I accept your challenge", Gabrielle's voice rang out in the suddenly quiet cavern.
"What", Cyane said and looked with disbelief at the Greek woman.
"I have to Cyane. She is right. I had neither the right nor power to take her title away from her at Helicon even if it was the only way I knew to save her life. Now please stand aside I want to talk to my challenger", she claimed as she walked forward.
"Choose the weapons", Gabrielle said and looked with pity into the eyes of the angry black haired amazon.
"Staffs", Varia said and looked on the smaller woman with arrogance in her eyes. Varia was well known as a very competent staff fighter. To her surprise Gabrielle grinned for a moment. Merriment was apparent in her eyes as Gabrielle nodded in agreement and motioned for her to leave. By tradition they had an hour to prepare for the fight.
Varia looked around the cleared field in front of the council's cavern. Drums were beating a steady beat in the background as she walked forth in a new leather battle dress. Blue and red feathers had been woken into her long braids. In her hand was her favorite battle staff. It bore plentiful evidence of having seen use many times before. She walked to the challenger's position, while the amazons formed a large and wide ring around the field.
Suddenly the drums fell silent and Gabrielle walked into the ring wearing a dress made of blue fabrics. Strange black armor made for small enameled plates guarded her chest. Gauntlets of cloth and the same type of armor guarded her arms. The materials and cut was foreign to Varia. In her hands Gabrielle carried a wooden staff that easily was the height of her former companion, it was clearly completely new. Varia couldn't help noticing that she didn't sense any fear or uncertainty in Gabrielle like she had the last time. She remembered that fight well. Gabrielle had held her own until she had hesitated just a moment to long. It had cost her a severe beating. Varia fully expected to reprise her success from last time. She was a great staff fighter and had used staves almost as often as she had a sword until a few years ago. Gabrielle grasped her staff with both hands and squared off against her.
Gabrielle noticed that Varia's staff was slightly shorter and obviously made for speed rather than strength. Varia was likely to be able to use it one handed like a club as well. Gabrielle would have to use her agility and experience with the staff as a weapon to win this fight. Without thinking she gave the staff a quick practice whirl. Then suddenly the drums beat began again. The fight had begun.
For a while the two combatants circled each other. Then suddenly Varia attacked making a hard swing with her staff in one hand. Gabrielle easily parried, but was rewarded with a swift kick in the stomach for her troubles. She ducked the second hit and instead swept the feet out under the black haired woman. Varia fell onto her back.
Gabrielle quickly hammered her staff down, but Varia had already rolled to the side and all she hit was sand.
Varia jumped onto her feet and launched her staff into a series of quick blows, which Gabrielle to her astonishment parried with casual ease. Varia realized then that she was not the most experienced staff fighter in the ring. Suddenly as Gabrielle made a high guard and parried another of her attacks Varia received a powerful kick to the side.
Varia ground her teeth together against the stinging pain and struck another hard blow against Gabrielle's guard this time hitting Gabrielle's fingers on her left hand. A small crack resounded across the ring. The smaller woman danced away with pain evident in her eyes, but she didn't let go of her staff none the less.
Varia emboldened by her success swiped a blow towards the head of the blonde queen.
Gabrielle heard instead of seeing the oncoming attack and instinct made her duck, while she swept her longer staff out behind herself and towards Varia's legs. The black haired woman fell down with surprise written all over her face as she landed hard on her back.
Gabrielle pressed her advantage. Quickly she turned and hammered her staff down towards the chest of the downed amazon. Varia's staff quickly came up in defense. Gabrielle whirled her staff back up but Gabrielle merely swung it around in a circle putting all her strength into her next blow. Her staff came up under Varia's staff and smashed the smaller staff out of her hands and away from her grasp.
Varia felt her weapon fly out of her numbed fingers with pure astonishment. Somehow over the last year Gabrielle had managed to become not only faster but also stronger. Still her position standing only a few feet from her head left her open for a desperate counterattack. In the split second after her staff had left her hand, she brought her feet up and managed to weakly kick Gabrielle away. It left her able to get to her feet, but she hadn't counted on her opponent's endurance.
Gabrielle staggered away from the surprising kick and saw Varia leap to her feet. Quickly while ignoring her hurting stomach she ran forward, pressed her staff down in sand and let her entire body fly into a kick aimed at the black haired amazon's head. Varia dropped like a stone and Gabrielle tumbled uncomfortably down on top of her. All around her the amazons cheered. Gabrielle rose and walked over to Cyane.
"Make sure she gets good treatment. We will need her on the trek north", Gabrielle explained to her and walked away cradling one of her hands. Deirdre and a few of the Greek amazons ran after her each eager to help the queen with her wounds. The ring quickly cleared as amazons walked away with happy faces, leaving only a few angry looking women to care for their fallen champion.
Xena rode down the newly made road. The way the world always changed around her had never ceased to amaze her. She had only been gone a little over two and a half years yet now there were wide and well traveled roads leading into what had always been amazon territory. The last few days she had constantly been bombarded with the changes wrought by new settlers on the ancestral Amazon lands. Small forests and grassy plains had been cleared to give room to farms and roads. She was seeing budding villages, where the amazons used to have their best protected hunting grounds and above all she was constantly reminded of the Roman power in the area by the constant patrols of legionnaires.
To see the lands of Melosa, Ephiny, Marga, Varia and even Gabrielle reduced to nothing more than another Roman province hurt her inside. The amazons as well as Gabrielle and herself had fought wars, shed blood and lived under harsh conditions to protect these lands. Many generations of amazons had their ashes shattered across these lands, yet with every step of her horse she was reminded not of the heartlands of the Amazon Nation but of just another outskirt of the Roman Empire stretching forth. Even in the hot sun she felt chilled, when she saw an innocent man cut down a tree that so many brave women had bled to protect. Her expression and face must have reflected her desolation and revulsion, because the farmers and villagers shied away from her gaze.
Xena rode relentlessly towards the central village the inner center of the Greek Amazon culture. It would have been the best defended place and if she were to find any clue of where the amazons were now then she would have to start looking there. Her daughter had said that the amazons, who had brought back Gabrielle's scrolls had been disheveled and weak, maybe they were the last survivors the ones left behind of a once great culture.
To her relief the relentless progress of the settlers seemed to have stopped at the central amazon forest, maybe it still contained to many fears or maybe even a few recalcitrant amazon survivors holding out until they also perished on the spears of the Romans. Xena found herself thinking back upon her many adventures with the Greek Amazons both good and bad. She thought back upon her first encounter with Melosa, on Gabrielle stumbling upon a royal title and then later becoming worthy of it. She had come back from the dead here once. She had tried to kill her best friend here as well. They had fought bravely against the Romans and later they had found new friends here in a much changed world after their long sleep in the ice. She rode by the place where Ares' army had made a wide scar of deforested land in the forest, now it like all wounds in living things was slowly healing. The amazons had survived both that and the terrible battles at Helicon hoping to be allowed a reprieve and grow stronger once more. But now no human seemed to live in the beautiful amazon forest.
Xena began noticing the many small indications of the battles that had been fought here only six months after her death. She came upon the narrow passes that made up the best way to reach the central amazon villages, where she had once held back Ares' army by making a rockslide and was treated to an unexpected sight. The narrow pass was no longer a narrow pass. A massive amount of earth and rocks had nearly filled in the entire pass. The cause of which hadn't been natural. Not in a hurry Xena quickly dismounted to take a look around.
She soon found herself in from a marble plaque set into a rock just where the pass had once been. A text in Roman Latin as well as Greek read: "Here many brave companies of the legions of Gaius were destroyed by the cowardice and treachery of the Amazons". Xena turned and cast another glance at the mass of earth and rock. It was far too much dirt to be the result of any rockslide she had made before. Carefully she crawled up the dirt embankment and scaled the last stretch of wall to the top. She searched the mountainside looking for traces of the equipment used to create the rockslide and found something worse. Holes which could only have been made by the black powder they had used during their last time in Chin. That meant that only Gabrielle could have arranged, timed and executed the cruel killing of the legionnaires burying them underneath rocks and dirt. Chilled by that realization she crawled down, remounted and continued on her trek.
Xena rode into a stretch of forest leading up the last hills before the village. She was seeing remnants or scars of battle everywhere. Arrows were still stuck in trees while here and there a bone or skull lay half buried in the dirt looking bleached and white. Many roman weapons were shattered about. Xena rode onto the grassy area in front of the forested knoll hiding the last stretch of way to the village and was treated to the sight of what she could only guess had been the main battlefield.
Everywhere skeletons, broken weapons and rusty armor lay shattered about in the grass. Xena once again dismounted and walked around in the knee high grass. Neither side seemed to have been willing or able to recover their dead. Xena shuddered as she knew that the Amazons would never let any of their dead lie on the ground to rot. Their ways demanded that they all were carefully wrapped in cloth and burned on a pyre with their best weapons at their side. Even when they had been in a rush to recover Varia from the clutches of Bellopheron they hadn't moved before they had given full honors to their dead. She was sure that they had even gone back after Helicon to recover their dead from the cursed beaches where they had been trapped. The amazons would only have allowed this if there was no way for them to recover their dead. Her promise to Ephiny was broken. She had lived to see the end of the Amazon way of life. Slowly she returned to her horse and rode on.
Slowly she rode into what had once been a village. To her astonishment there were no clues to either the war or the fact that there had ever been a village present. There were no burnt out spots, where small huts or yurts had once stood. There were no torn banners flapping in the wind nor where there any indication that the massive caves where the royal council had been based were anything but a normal series of caves in a cliff. Only a rough circle around an uncommon sandy area in the middle of the forest indicated that this place had once been the lively place she remembered.
Xena dismounted again and walked around looking as if her eyes could not believe what she saw. Then she realized something. Scenes of the massive rockslide, the abandoned dead and finally the complete disappearance of the main village apparent around her flashed through her mind. Her eyes went wide from the sudden realization.
If she looked at this from the perspective of the Gabrielle she kept in her mind, a perspective she had developed over the years with her bard to curb her own dark nature, everything that she had seen so far told her of a possibility of a hope. This could all just be a trick. Gabrielle had ever since she had known her been quite capable of manipulating people. No one she knew neither god nor man was entirely immune to her bard. She knew because she had been treated to six years of companionship with her. Gabrielle could play crowds and opinions like Orpheus could play his harp if she put her mind to it. For a long time her skill had been only been used in her storytelling but once in a while Gabrielle's ability to find the good in people as well as invoking different feelings in others had allowed her to talk or cheat them out of a tricky situation.
If she was right Gabrielle had succeeded in doing so with the entire Roman Empire by actually hiding another nation from them. If she was right, all she had to do was to find that hidden nation of warrior women. Unfortunately she still had no idea where to look for them.
Night came quickly and Xena slowly set up her camp. As she sat down to eat her grilled rabbit and thought back on the luscious stews that Gabrielle had managed to cook out of rabbits over the years she once again felt melancholy over the state of her life. She wanted nothing more than a return to the life they had lead after Helicon. Things had been quieting down. There had been no stirrings of things like Dahak or Lucifer. They had been so close to actually be traveling around to see the world and handle small stuff like defeating the odd warlord again, that it had reminded her of the first years of their life together. It had reminded her of a simplicity that she hadn't even known she missed. Then their little trip to Egypt had been postponed by Kenji's arrival and everything had gone really wrong from the moment she had laid eyes on Ghost Killer.
And someone was trying to sneak up on her camp.
Who ever was trying to walk silently through the forest and she was good at it. Just as the woman cleared the clearing and Xena smiled as she looked like a settler, but walked like an amazon through the dry leaves towards her now empty camp. Slowly she crawled down to the ground again without making a noise and playfully decided to have some fun with the amazon in disguise.
Silently she drew her new sword from its well-oiled scabbard and held it over the woman's shoulder letting it rest lightly against her chin. "Don't move", Xena said and almost couldn't help smiling as the woman gasped in surprise. The woman had long and wavy dark blond hair that cascaded down her back and wore a blue dyed dress much like the one Gabrielle had worn back when they had met.
"What is one of the supposedly dead amazons doing out here at night?" Xena whispered in Amazonian. The woman gasped but remained silent.
"Turn around", Xena commanded and took the sword away from the woman's throat.
The pretty woman turned around and stared at her with that same surprised look that most ambushed people had. It was a lot like a small child pouting after being caught about to raid the family food store. At least that was what Xena thought. "Are you an amazon?" The woman managed to stammer in fluent and unaccented Amazonian.
"No, I am not. Listen, my name is Xena. I am looking for someone who can tell me about what happened here and where the remaining amazons are?" Xena asked and hoped that her guess about Gabrielle and amazons was true.
The woman looked like she had been taken aback for a few moments then she swallowed and looked around the small glen as if she couldn't bear looking into Xena's eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about", she suddenly answered the catch in her voice betraying the enormous amount of emotions running through her. She began backing away from Xena.
"I am not out hunting amazons. I must find the Amazon nation. I know it has been hidden away somewhere, where the Romans won't find it", Xena said but remained standing trying to look a lot less threatening and as usual failing at it.
The woman backed even further away looking a lot like a frightened rabbit right before her chakram hit. "I am no amazon. I just speak the language because… because… Oh to Tarterus with it", she suddenly cursed, turned and ran away in a full dash.
Xena managed to raise one of her eyebrows and smile slightly before she somersaulted several times, jumped high in the air, corkscrewed and landed a few yards in front of the fleeing amazon.
The woman gasped in surprise and fell backwards on her butt to stop from crashing into the armor of Xena.
"Now there is no reason to run. I am not here to steal away the secret of the amazons or to reveal the truth about them. I am here, because my best friend is an amazon one of your queens as a matter of fact. I just came back from a trip to a faraway land and I came here to find her", Xena explained, while she helped the startled woman back onto her feet.
Still sounding suspicious the woman asked: "What is her name?"
Xena smiled and replied: "Oh, I hope you've heard of her. Her name is Gabrielle; she is also sometimes called the battling bard of Poteidaia". Xena watched with well hidden glee as the woman's eyes went wide and she gulped.
"If you're a friend of Queen Gabrielle then you truly are a friend to the amazons. I think I can help you find her. Why don't you come with me to my farm then I will tell you everything I know", she offered and pointed to the south.
"You have a farm?" Xena asked and looked at the smaller woman as they walked back towards her camp.
"I thought you knew that all amazons contrary to the rumors don't live in yurts. Anyway my daughter and I have to hide, who we truly are to the settlers, so we act like I am the widow of some brave legionnaire farming the lands given to my family as payment. My name is Mytilene by the way", the woman said, while Xena was busy packing up her camp, secretly hoping that Mytilene was a better cook than she was. Or that she was even luckier and Mytilene had a store of some better beverages than water.
The name of the amazon rattled around in Xena's brain, while they made their way back out of the forest and went towards a small farmstead that nestled against a hill surrounded by a few herds of sheep and a well kept and fenced garden out back. Suddenly Xena remembered the name from Gabrielle's journal about her adventure in Egypt.
"Say? Why were you out in the forest at this time?" Xena remembered to ask as they began the short walk towards the house.
"Oh, I was out checking a few of my traps and I always head up to the old village towards the end of my rounds. Call me nostalgic if you want, but I miss the other amazons a lot", Mytilene answered and shrugged.
They went into the barn and secured her horse and equipment. "Then why do you stay here?" Xena felt a little like Gabrielle asking this many questions but it had been quite a while since she had someone to talk to.
"Let me tell you my story and the story of the amazons leaving these forests for now", Mytilene offered and then suddenly held up a finger to indicate that they should be silent as they entered the common room of the farmhouse.
They walked inside and Mytilene indicated what looked like a two year old girl sleeping in a cozy bed near the fireplace. Mytilene guided Xena out into the kitchen and closed the heavy wooden door. "Do you mind if I make us some late dinner?" She asked and immediately set about making her words true juggling ingredients and smoked meat, while she told her story.
"You see I first met the queen, I mean Gabrielle, when I was still enslaved by the Romans. I had been captured by the forces of Livia some years ago and one of her commanders a man called…" Mytilene began and told the story of Gabrielle's adventures in Egypt from her perspective, while Xena listened intently not minding a bit that this motherly amazon told her a story she already knew.
"I went north almost immediately after we arrived in Greece, but I never made it home. I met this true bastard of a man, who knocked me out in a fight and then had his way with me. He gave me great pain and nightmares, but in a way I am grateful to him because a little later my little gem in the common room came into this world. Well I hadn't given birth yet, when the next problem came up. I had just settled down here finding to my surprise that my tribe had moved here over the years after my capture. I liked these forests even if the Greek amazons were a little too primitive and set in their ways for my taste, but I guess that is what you get from living with Romans for so long. Anyway the Romans were the problem again. You see a year earlier the Roman Emperor at the time had sent a large force into the Amazon forest to protect some religious figure and they had gotten very killed by Varia and her gang of primitives before Gabrielle and Xena… Wow there. You supposed to be dead", Mytilene stopped her story and looked over at the black haired woman.
"Yeah, well I got past that. That's why I am seeking Gabrielle. We haven't seen each other in years and we need to be together. We've always been incomplete without each other. But that is a story best told by Gabrielle. Please go on with yours", Xena begged hoping to avoid further discussion of the painful subject.
"Okay…. I can't believe I am talking to another legend, and then even one that is supposed to have died a few years ago. Oh, well that is life. Anyway the Romans showed up one day with some wild demand that we were to give them most of our land and swear our loyalty to the Roman Emperor or suffer the consequences. But the council never got to formulate a reply, the Romans just suddenly invaded our forests and soon there was about to be an all out war. Of course like she is, and I guess she has that from you. Gabrielle suddenly appeared out of nowhere stalked into the Roman camp, learned their battle strategy, freed all captured amazons and ruined the Roman catapults all before coming here to say hello. The other Queens were glad to place her in command of the unified amazon armies. Well I didn't get to see much of the struggle because I was highly pregnant at the time and was evacuated to the deep forest with the rest of the noncombatants. But I did hear that our army nearly massacred the Romans. We were originally outnumbered 5 to 1, but not a single Roman left the field and we barely lost a fifth of our warriors. I had never known that such a sweet and sensitive woman could cause so much carnage", Mytilene said and placed a bowl of food before Xena and went to get some wine.
While Mytilene was out of earshot, Xena whispered: "Neither did I, but then again she seems to have inherited most of my skills. I only hope that doesn't include inheriting my darkness".
"Well I do chatter don't I. Well I guess that is the effect of years of enforced silence in the presence of the roman dogs. Even now I have no one to talk to except the other amazons hiding in the area and of course you", Mytilene rambled between bites of food.
"So you defeated the Romans", Xena prompted.
"Defeated them, no, we obliterated them. Things went a little weird on the day of the battle. There were a few long meetings between the queens just after the battle. Then Varia challenged out of the blue challenged Gabrielle's demotion of her and Gabrielle's title giving no reason for her challenge. At least that was what we were told at first. But most of us guessed what had really been going between the two a little later. Anyway Gabrielle beat the crap out of Varia in a staff fight and suddenly she was even busier than when we had been preparing the battle with the Romans. Food, water, clothing, weapons and armor was suddenly in extreme demand. We were asked to trade, steal, gather and give all that we could. No one was allowed to give the dead on the field a proper burial and people were talking. Then when the questions began to get louder and angrier the queens dropped another surprise on us. They had decided that the Roman constituted a too great danger and that these forests were too exposed and hard to defend in the battles that would surely come in the future. The Amazon Nation needed move and all amazons who were loyal to their queens would follow. All they asked of anyone, who didn't want to come with them was that they cut all ties to the Amazon Nation, accepted that they no longer were apart of the Amazon Sisterhood and that they would not be told, where the rest of the amazons went. Privately a few of us, either unwilling to leave or unable as I was, were offered another option by Gabrielle. We were asked to remain here in hiding, and would be given knowledge on how to find the clues leading to the hiding place of the Amazon Nation and in turn we would give these clues to all amazons, who we believed were worthy and ready to go rejoin the tribes. I accepted Gabrielle offer immediately. Of course the moment my daughter is old enough to survive the trip we'll be heading out, but until then I stay here doing my duty", she explained while Xena listened intently.
The plan to hide sounded a lot like one of the more convoluted plans that Gabrielle usually came up with when she was given time to think. She would probably have sought a more permanent settlement with the Romans something that would have taught them that they really didn't need to see another amazon ever again. But therein lay one of the differences of her and Gabrielle.
"So do you know why Gabrielle's scrolls were returned to her sister a while back?" Xena asked hoping that the scrolls had been sent back from here, because it could mean that Gabrielle was close at hand.
"They were… I didn't know. Well last I saw them they were tied to the saddle of that completely white horse she rode around on", Mytilene answered and shrugged.
It was nearly midnight as they finished talking about the way to find the amazons, Gabrielle and what had happened here in the time Xena had been gone. Xena walked outside for a brief stroll in the starlit night. "I just got a whole lot closer to you", Xena whispered out into the cool air hoping that somewhere her bard would sense her words and keep up the hope of a happier life. Xena swore that it was time for one of those for the both of them. She could have a future if Gabrielle would accept that she shouldn't follow Xena's path but her own a path of peace that she should never have left. Smiling quietly to herself Xena walked out to her horse to get her bedroll. She would sleep warm to night. Already tomorrow she would continue her hunt her prey now seeming much closer. Briefly she wondered how Gabrielle had fared as the leader of a small army going into unknown lands.
Gabrielle looked at the large group of people around her and smiled warmly into the fire as she slowly caught her breath. All around her the amazons were laughing and smiling, while they ate their well seasoned beef. She took the waterskin at her side and gulped down some of the chilly water to calm her hoarse throat. The autumn that had painted these lands in red, orange and yellow also meant that is was getting a whole lot colder than she had hoped. At least the gods had deigned not to bury them in snow yet.
After nearly a minute of silence was broken, when Deirdre her black haired young helper and newfound friend suddenly asked: "Okay that really was a good story. Xena had to see you all die and had to endure weeks of waking up to the same day in that story, just because two love struck teens couldn't be bothered to do things right and elope in the first. Please Gabrielle couldn't you tell us a funny story like the one about Aphrodite cursing you, Xena and Joxer to follow your obsessions? Just one more please". All around Deirdre heads were nodding vigorously.
Gabrielle smiled. She had taken up storytelling to entertain the amazon warriors on their trip northeast. At first some of the others had taken some of the load of her by singing, playing instruments or even telling stories of their own, but for a few days now her warriors had gotten a little greedy. Now they demanded at least two stories before they would give her peace or let someone else entertain. She didn't mind and she did have more than enough to tell even for a trip to the coast of Japan and back, but her voice was getting hoarse from use and once in a while when she told some of the more emotional stories it tore her up inside. Still this time they asked for a funny story. Nodding to herself Gabrielle chose to tell the story of Xena getting caught in the body of a little girl when one of Aphrodite's spell went wrong again. She had been on quite an adventure with Aphrodite to get the cure and she had the word of many audiences that it was really funny. "Alright but it is the last one for tonight. It is a story I've chosen to call: "Little Trouble" and it all began like this…"
Later when the laughter had died down and only a few guards were still awake Gabrielle lay inside the tent she shared with Deirdre and a few others. Gabrielle stared up at the roof of animal skins and thought back at the good and bad times she had seen with Xena. Sometimes she was tempted to only think of the good times, but her life with her friend hadn't been a dance on roses and while she was sure that if she hadn't met her there would be less of her to actually call Gabrielle she didn't want to cast her memories in to rosy a color either. There had been times where she had been angry and hurt by the actions of her friend. There had been times when she had nearly died, where she had killed and even done terrible things, and if she held up all the good she lived through versus all the bad that had happened to her it hadn't been an altogether happy life they had led. Now she lived it alone and while it was much harder, lonelier and she now had to do the things that had been Xena's tasks before, she found that life in general like then was still good enough to be lived.
"Are you still awake?" Deirdre's tired voice asked across the tent.
"Yeah I was just contemplating my life. I do that almost every night before I go to sleep. It's in a way to reason for my problems getting up in the morning. But don't mind me Deirdre just go to sleep", Gabrielle answered and covered her arm with the thick animal fur as it was getting cold out in the air of their tent.
"I wasn't complaining. I just wanted to tell you that I really like your stories. You seem so much happier when you're storytelling", Deirdre explained.
"Oh", was all that Gabrielle could reply for a while. "You know I've never thought about it Deirdre, but I think I like it because it was the first thing I got really good at after I left home. I took me a good long while longer to become a warrior or admit to myself that it really was what I was meant to be", Gabrielle explained wistfully.
"But when you told us the story of how you and Xena met you said that you had asked her to make you a warrior", Deirdre commented.
"True but as I learned a little later fighting was not glorious or at all like the stories told. People got killed in fights so I swore it off, but in the end I was a fighter inside. I care about people you see and when I see people in trouble I want to help. You can't really help many people, when they're about to get beheaded by some guy, who doesn't care if you're so full of love that you can heal the sick and wounded. You have to get in his face and make him see the error of his ways; ensure that he finds his destiny either in prison or in some other way that he deserves. In the end before I let it happen I had become a fervent believer in non-violence. But it didn't work out, because my life with Xena constantly demonstrated that such a life was ultimately one of self-sacrifice. And while I at that point was weighted down by guilt and things of the past to a point where I would gladly have given my life I wasn't able to give the life of my friend just to uphold a belief I was beginning to feel conflicted about", Gabrielle explained in a whisper so that she didn't wake the two other amazons they shared a tent with. She thought about the battle with Pompeii after Ephiny's death and how close she had come to abandoning her way of love then. And then her little transgression on the wharf a few days later when she had saved the life of Amarice by tripping a man or her even more misguided smoke compact. She had sought to fight even when she had meant not to.
"Alright I guess that explains it. Why do you tell me these things?" Deirdre sounded like she was afraid to learn more fearing maybe that she learned secret that should only be shared with Xena.
"Deirdre, you're my friend. I want you to understand why I am the way I am sometimes", Gabrielle explained.
"So the sadness you show. It is regret over the loss of your innocence", Deirdre said and Gabrielle caught the glint of light in the water of her eyes from across the tent as she was amazed by the astute nature of her new friend.
"Yeah, it is a little stupid. I again and again tell everyone who will listen to me that I don't regret the life I have chosen. But I guess there is still a twinge or two of both a little disappointment and regret in my soul. Somehow that is a part of who I am too", Gabrielle explained.
For a while no one spoke and soon Gabrielle was treated to the sound of Deirdre's breath as she slept. Gabrielle turned over on her side and closed her tired eyes, while whispering: "Goodnight Xena" as she had done many nights since the death of her beloved friend.
"Queen Gabrielle", a faint voice called out to her, just as she saw the samurai lop the head of Xena for the hundredth time. A cold hand touched her warm shoulders. Fire surged out into her veins she lunged awake. "Whoa", the same voice replied as Deirdre suddenly found herself lying on the ground with the Chakram pressed against her throat. Gabrielle blinked in surprise and looked into the startled eyes of her friend.
"Don't ever do that Deirdre, how many times must I warn you of that. I have slept on the ground in bandit ravaged lands for almost all my adult years. My instincts are to strike first and ask later", Gabrielle admonished her younger dark haired friend, who had suffered this fate several time already.
"I forgot", the young amazon answered and sounded sorry. Gabrielle smiled and let her up. She notices that the air was even colder this morning even inside their tent. Soon they would have to build bigger tent capable of containing a fire if they wanted to keep warm she mused. As Deirdre stood before she held out a hand and said: "I am sorry I attacked you Deirdre. But I've told you already. Talk to me until I am awake. Call my name until I am up even if I take my time. The only reason not to do it is if we're under attack and I don't hear cries of alarm outside, so…"
Gabrielle smiled reassuringly to her remorseful helper and set about dressing in her winter clothes. "Why were you in a hurry?" Gabrielle asked with her back to Deirdre.
"Well I was up early and I saw something I thought you would want to know about", Deirdre admitted and looked pointedly towards the tent opening.
Gabrielle raised one of her pencil thin and slightly darker blond eyebrows and walked over to the tent flap. She drew the cold fabric aside and looked out over a snow covered camp. "Damn it", she cursed and turned back to Deirdre.
"Good this means we'll have to change our plans a little. We need to unpack the heavier winter clothing we had made and gather more firewood. Oh, and we need to shorten the length we ride each day as the horses will tire faster and suffer more in the cold. We'll also need to keep them warmer at night from now on. Deirdre would you get Kati and anyone else who are capable seamstresses to rebuild our tents into larger models capable of having a fire burning inside. We'll need the warmth to survive. After you've started that get some of the hunters to go out and look for game, we will be staying here for at least two days". Gabrielle found it increasingly easier to command her troops and she felt she was doing an adequate job at it.
Just as Deirdre was about to leave she said: "Deirdre thank you for waking me early this really was important". She was rewarded with a smile. Gabrielle quickly donned her coat and went off to the woman she had set in command of the guards. She needed to ensure that she was told about all weather changes in the future.
The snow continued to follow them as they traversed the mountainous region on the other side of the sea that they had gone around. Gabrielle looked out over the pass covered by masses of white and marveled at the glory of nature around her.
"Breathtaking isn't it", Kati asked. Kati was the quartermaster of her troops and usually handled many of the mundane tasks of setting up cooking fires and tents for her 40 women strong force.
"Yes, it never ceases to amaze me. I remember the last time I went through here going east it was summer. The high passes which are always covered in snow looked much like this and we chose to go through these passes instead. I should have realized that they would be filled with snow and ice in the winter. Funny thing is these mountains are nothing compared to the massive giants lying between the fertile jungles and valleys of Indus and the many provinces of Chin. We won't be seeing them on this trip as we're heading further north, but I can tell you that some of them go so high they seem to touch the sky", Gabrielle explained wistfully with eyes glazed over by memories.
"That's great you two like the view, but do I have to remind you that we need to find a way through there as well. And we must also find a way to mark the right pass of Cyane to find", Deirdre added caustically. Gabrielle had learned to her amusement that the amazon coming from the British Isles, where there could also be hard winters seemed to abhor cold weather with a deadly passion.
"Well my dear friend, if you think so, I better go do just that", Gabrielle said with a smile and nudged Ghost into a gentle trot.
"Hold my Queen", Deirdre and several other amazons said. Gabrielle turned and her eyebrows disappearing up into the nearly white shock of hair that fell down over her forehead.
Deirdre and the amazons that Gabrielle had associated most with sat on their horses looking at her defiantly. "You should not risk your life on such an endeavor one of us will go in your stead", Deirdre said.
Gabrielle fixed each of the amazons with a withering stare. She hadn't expected that her friends would ask her not to do anything. "I am the only one who has any experience with traveling through treacherous passes full of snow. I won't stay behind and risk someone else. Why should I?" Gabrielle looked defiantly around at the group.
"Because you are too important to risk, we are expendable and frankly I don't think your experience counts for much. We have no local guides, so you'll have to guess the way through anyhow", Kati countered.
"No one is expendable. People will never be pointlessly expended just to ensure the safety of my life, if it is best for me to do the job", Gabrielle said anger slowly creeping into her tone. Still a little voice in her mind reminded her of her actions at Helicon. Gabrielle commanded it to be quiet.
"Don't be stupid. We need you. Each and every one of us is completely expendable and you know it. You just don't want to be in a position to see anymore of your friends die", Deirdre said showing the understanding of Gabrielle's personality that she had built over the last few weeks of their trip.
Realizing that she wasn't thinking with her mind again, Gabrielle forced herself to look at the situation from a fully intellectual point of view. If she perished there was no clear cut leader of the group. There would have to be challenges to determine the leader and then there was the added problem of Varia, who still rode sullenly in her column of warriors. Gabrielle knew she would try to regain control of the amazons the moment she was able to. Gabrielle didn't regret bringing her along. Varia was not only a great warrior and brilliant hunter, but also a strong leader. And then there was the plan she had for her.
There was no logical argument for her to go either. Even if she had traversed snow covered mountains before, she knew as her warriors had that it was different on each mountain and no one here had any local knowledge about this particular pass anyway.
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Alright someone else can go, but don't question me in public again. It is counterproductive and ruins morale", Gabrielle commanded them, and very well knowing that no one of the remaining amazons were even within earshot.
"I'll go", Deirdre volunteered and Gabrielle reluctantly approved with a nod.
Gabrielle watched nervously as her newfound friend rode ahead with the rest of the column of amazons followed at least a hundred paces behind her. Gabrielle commanded them all to remain completely silent on their way through the snow. She had seen avalanches before and she didn't want to die pointlessly in one now.
Deirdre reached the snow covered path that they believed to lead up through the mountain pass and down onto a plain that would bring them directly to their new forest. She dismounted and began walking in front of her horse carefully testing the snow drifts as she began the hard work of finding a good path for both her and her horse forward. Behind her the amazons had formed up into a single file on Gabrielle's orders and began following the path she marked.
A long day and night followed as they had traversed the dangerous path in silence, snow and wind pelting them from time to time. It was simply to cold to stop and there was no cover to be found, so they just had to keep walking.
Deirdre relentlessly pressed on, her thighs burning with fatigue, her head swimming from the lack of sleep as they began the walk down from the top of the pass by midnight. And worse still the ice cold wind went through her clothing like daggers of ice. But she would not disappoint her queen. She would never give up or show weakness in front of the short blonde powerhouse that now walked only a few paces behind her. She marched on into the night nearly blinded by the stinging wind.
Morning and coming relief should have given her renewed strength but Deirdre found nothing refreshed inside as the far horizon began to lighten. They were traversing a section of the pass, where rain or melting water had been frozen by the icy weather of the night covering the snow in a hard shell of ice. Suddenly the ground beneath her horse seemed to shiver and it fell through the ground behind her. Suddenly the snow below her legs gave out under her as well and she fell. She felt her head hit something hard and cold. Everything went dark for a while.
Gabrielle saw Deirdre's horse disappear from sight her rider quickly following. The air currently still, after the severe winds that had attacked them on the top of the pass, resounded with strange cracking noises from the area of snow, where Deirdre had stood.
Quickly she motioned for everyone to stop. The tired amazons stopped wearily in the heavy snow. For the merest moment she considered what to do. "Kati you're in command. If anything happens, move the amazons back up the mountain for while then look for a safe way down. I'll go fetch Deirdre", Gabrielle reached over to the side of Ghost and grabbed her whip and forced her legs to run, jumping more than walking down the white path made by Deirdre and her horse. The cracking noises seemed to get worse all the time.
Gabrielle slowed down as she came near. Carefully but feeling pressed for time still quickly she worked her way forward testing the ground with each step. As she reached to edge, she glanced carefully down into the hole in the snow that Deirdre had disappeared into.
She could see both Deirdre and her horse. Deirdre lay still on top of a large amount of powdery white but looked alright; she was too far down to reach by hand. Her horse was lost though. It seemed to have fallen and broken its neck.
The cracking noises became louder and some sections of snow fell into the cave like structure in which Deirdre lay. "Crap we standing on the top of an avalanche in the making", Gabrielle turned and gestured towards the amazons not daring to speak. Kati, who was next in the column, just looked at her curiously as Gabrielle motioned for her and the amazons to withdraw further up the mountain.
They didn't move.
Gabrielle sighed and looked back down at Deirdre. She seemed to be coming to. Quickly Gabrielle took out the whip.
Deirdre awoke and turned over to look up at her in confusion.
Gabrielle held out her whip. Deirdre cocked her head to the side in confusion. Gabrielle swore that she would have to teach her amazons hand signals after this if they survived.
She heard Deirdre draw breath to speak, but she managed to lay a finger to her lips in time.
Gabrielle decided to try a trick. She reached for the amazon.
Confused by Gabrielle as there was no way for her to reach Deirdre, she still held out her hand reaching towards Gabrielle's.
Gabrielle smiled mischievously and quickly withdrew her hand, while quickly flicking the whip forward. It wrapped its tip and some of its length around the outstretched arm. Gabrielle grunted heavily as she walked back from the edge carrying the surprised amazon out of the hole. But her eyes weren't focused on the hole or on Deirdre. The cracking noises were turning into a low rumble. She was looking around for a large section of ice that seemed thicker than the rest.
Deirdre found herself back on top of the masses of ice covered snow. She fell to the ground almost incapable of movement. She saw something red smeared across the ice, where her hands and head had been. She was wounded, but the cold seemed to have numbed her to the pain for now. She looked up to find Gabrielle running towards her at a high speed.
Gabrielle yelled towards the amazons, who still sat by their horses awaiting her command: "Run back up the mountain! This section of ice is about to come loose! Get down the mountain after the avalanche! If we survive, Deirdre and I will join you there".
Gabrielle grabbed the fallen amazon barely noticing that both Deirdre's hands and head had several cuts. She freed her whip from Deirdre's wrist and dragged the amazon towards the section of ice she had in mind.
Behind her the amazons and their horses sprinted up the mountain just managing to get above the section of snow and ice about to fall.
Gabrielle felt the ground begin to slide away beneath them. She took better hold of her friend and jumped forward managing to vault into the air and land on her feet again on top of the thicker section of ice.
With a great rumble the entire ground suddenly became almost like water. It thundered down the mountain making more noise than a thunderstorm as it moved.
Snow and air whipped around Gabrielle as she instinctively planted her feet onto the 5 paces across section of ice, which they had landed on and so far seemed intact. But as she balanced the piece of solid mass of ice on the churning masses below their feet riding the raging mass of snow like a leaf on water, she realized that there was no way that they would survive the ride atop this.
All around her stones and trees were being destroyed or thrown away like pebbles on a beach during a storm.
Cracks began to appear in their sheet of ice just as Deirdre seemed to come to her senses.
Their safe place was disintegrating by the moment.
A dip in the landscape approached, but Gabrielle steadily tried to guide them sideways, where the ground fell off and a sheer drop all the way to the foot of the mountain stood in its place.
"What are you doing?!" Deirdre screamed as she saw the ground disappear not too far to their left.
"Saving our lives. Hold onto me with all your strength", Gabrielle retorted and smiled wildly. She let her instincts guide her movements forcing herself to act before they would be torn into shreds or buried beneath the raging snow.
Suddenly the mass of snow dipped and their section of ice cracked and then broke under the stress.
But Gabrielle was ready. Deirdre held herself hard against her. Just before she had nothing more to stand on her she forced all her strength into her legs to jump her up and to the side out over the edge and into the open air.
The air rushed by them.
To their side Deirdre saw the ground churning with snow become replaced white and grey mountain rock as they freely fell of the mountain. In her mind the words: "Out of danger into terror", appeared. She became aware of Gabrielle's hands and arms working incredibly fast.
"Get ready", Gabrielle screamed over the thunder of the avalanche. Suddenly the Chakram was thrown down into the mountain side. Deirdre saw the metal ring hammer into the stone wall. In a time shorter than it took her to breathe the length of the whip stretched forward and wrapped itself around the edge the Chakram.
"Oh, shit", Deirdre screamed as they suddenly lurched to a stop and hammered into the side of the mountain.
After a few moments to cope with the pain she looked down and saw nothing but air. "What the hell do we do now", Deirdre asked. A little snow from the avalanche continued to rain past for awhile longer as Gabrielle remained silent.
"We climb", Gabrielle said through clenched teeth reminding Deirdre that her queen was holding the both of them in her arms. Deirdre looked up at the rough cliff wall. The climb wasn't impossible. It was just damn close. Her already hurt hands had already begun protesting the pain that would soon follow. At least they would only need to climb four times the length of a horse on a sheer cliff wall to get back up to safe ground.
Gingerly she reached forth and found a hold on the cliff wall. There was no other option. She forced her already tired and wounded arms and hands to hold her, while Gabrielle disappeared, crawling up the length of the whip to the precious Chakram.
Two candlemarks and change later they both lay weary to the bones on top of the much less snowy ground of the pass. Neither ready nor able to move as the morning dawned and gave their ice cold bodies some much needed warmth.
"We must go down the mountain and find the amazons. If we stay here we will freeze to death", Gabrielle explained and staggered to her feet after another half candlemark.
Deirdre barely got to her feet.
"Say Deidre, what do you say, could we support each other down the mountain?" Gabrielle asked as a few steps revealed that neither was very sure on their feet, but at least they had lost all fear of any coming avalanches for the near future.
"I thought great heroes never got tired", Deirdre replied dryly.
"They never do. But then I am only a simple farmer's daughter from Poteidaia in Greece, so I can be", Gabrielle answered and offered Deirdre her arm. Slowly the pair staggered down the mountain, while Gabrielle told Deirdre about how it was to grow up in Poteidaia.
A few hours later they reunited with the amazons, who had been just about to send out search parties at the behest of both Kati and Varia.
Some weeks later…
The dry plain stretched out in front of them, rolling hills and flat areas covered with high grasses in green and all shades yellow and brown. The wind could be seen as waves passing over a sea of green. Here and there small bushes grouped together to form what little cover these lands held. The land had a stark beauty much like a desert and felt just as empty compared to the varied lands of the Roman Empire. Somewhere out there in the east laid the primal forest that she would settle the amazons in. Gabrielle turned in the saddle of Ghost and looked out over her amazons.
They seemed fully recovered from the hard trek through the mountains and seemed much more at home on these plains than they had appeared everywhere else on their already long journey. More than two full turns of the moon they had slowly traveled the lands, marking the best path for the larger column of amazons that was following them somewhere way past the horizon.
Gabrielle had entered her 25th year, she realized. There had been no pranks, no surprise party or celebration. Their supplies were tight and while their hunters brought in ample amounts of game they didn't have time to stop to hunt that often, so she hadn't deigned to tell her by now good friends about her birthday.
She wasn't even sure if she could call them her friends at all. They were removed from her by their own regard of her royalty and held in her in such an awe especially Deirdre that they acted more like her fanatically loyal followers than someone she could relate to. They held onto her every word like it was from the mouth of Artemis herself. And it wasn't even limited to Deirdre or Kati anymore. There was a core group of about 10 amazon warriors, who seemed ready to ride into Tarterus itself if she asked them to. She had seen such people before, but they had always been on the side of her enemies and it scared her a little. She distanced herself from them hoping that it would lessen their regard for her, but it didn't seem to be working. But she needed perform her duty and they were a great help in that regard, so she forced herself to ignore their troubling behavior.
"My queen, the hunters are coming back", Varia reported dryly. She seemed to still resent her. Gabrielle looked at Varia without revealing her emotions in her expression. She had brought Varia along not only to protect Cyane from any political manipulations from the powerful warrior, but also to enact a carefully laid out plan in which she figured greatly. She had initiated a campaign to not only restore Varia's honor in the eyes of the warriors, but also to impart some of her own philosophy on the aggressive woman, continuing the work begun by Xena, when they had been hunted by Prince Morloch.
"Varia, why did you come along when I asked you? You could have stayed with the amazons, who didn't want to come along", Gabrielle asked and looked over at the amazon seated on her brown mare.
Varia seemed silent. "I came because I wanted to protect my amazon sisters. I don't agree with your plan, but I lost my challenge and so you are my queen. You asked and a true amazon can do no less than follow the commands of the chosen queen of her tribe", Varia explained formally clearly revealing her tone the underlying resent that she still held for her current position.
"Can't you see why I did it? What would have been lost if you had stayed?" Gabrielle asked trying to sound if she was surprised at Varia continued failure to understand her plan.
"No", Varia countered.
"If I asked you to think about it with your mind instead of your heart for a while would you do it?" Gabrielle asked smiling wanly.
Varia looked at her for a few moments then nodded soundlessly as the leader of the hunters approached Gabrielle to report their success in downing two large elk for their consumption. She didn't understand why Gabrielle continued to talk to her even ask for her opinion so often recently. If she had defeated Gabrielle in their battle she had fully intended to cast her out of the ranks of the amazons or maybe even killing her. But she could not understand why the blonde queen who seemed filled with enough inner reserves to never appear tired before her troops, who seemed to have an answer to every problem and who could not even see that even the least of her warriors would attack a force many times their size sure of their death if only it allowed their queen to live. She had made them all love her and she hadn't even been trying to be charming. Varia had realized after Gabrielle's daring rescue on the mountain that she was not the great hero of the amazons that Marga had envisioned her to be. She was at best only the second best amazon queen and Cyane was growing up fast so to speak. Soon she realized she would also regard Gabrielle as her queen if she didn't already. Her shoulders slumped as she considered the question Gabrielle had posed to her. She didn't want to think about it intellectually. Her hurt emotions were her only defense her shield against the images of her past.
Weeks later, the rain was drenching the guards to the skin. The rest of the encamped amazons sat in their tents. Deirdre, Kati and the rest of the amazons who considered themselves the most loyal amazons was cramped together in a single tent meant for 7 but holding 12.
"Our queen is blissfully unaware of this meeting and it must remain like that", Deirdre explained.
"We are gathered here, because we all are of the same opinion. Queen Gabrielle should receive better protection. She has no royal guard like the other queens nor will she ask for them. But we are all walking around her the entire day. I propose that we swear a binding pact that we pledge our lives to protect the Queen in action and word until our dying day. Our lives for hers", Deirdre explained with a fanatic sound in her voice.
All around her heads nodded and arms were freed from their coverings. 12 women cut a gasp across their wrist and swore a blood oath to protect their queen now and always in one voice.
Meanwhile Gabrielle, Varia and a couple of hunters was riding across the plain.
"Are you sure, my queen?" Varia asked again.
"Yes. That type of bear usually sticks to forested regions near fresh water, so the forest must be close by or we will at least find a place to replenish our water supply, Varia. And would you quit with the 'my queen' stuff I get enough of that from everyone even Deirdre and Kati", Gabrielle explained sounding unhappy.
"Really, I thought you would have gotten them off the habit by now. I remember that you always hate being called Queen. I used to think it was because you didn't feel worthy, but now I guess it is because you don't want us to see you as more than the person you are", Varia had spent a whole lot of time with Gabrielle these last weeks and some of her personality was rubbing off even if Varia hadn't noticed.
"I thought I had gotten through to them, but after our little mountain trek they are back to their old form. I think they're even trying to protect me by acting as a kind of bodyguards. And I really don't want that", Gabrielle explained as they crested another hill and suddenly found themselves looking out over the beginning of a forest that looked like it stretched beyond the horizon.
"Yes!" Gabrielle exulted and vaulted of her horse to dance randomly but happily on the ground. Varia and the hunters smiled and joined in.
After they had settled back down Varia walked over to Gabrielle again to continue their conversation. "About Deirdre and the others… I think it's kind of your own fault in a way. You present us with the truth about you making no allusions to your own greatness, but then you tell all those fantastic adventures about you and Xena in which you manage to reach greatness even while having human flaws. On top of that day by day you show them what a brilliant leader and person you are even after all the hardships of your life. Quite frankly they have every reason to be impressed. I am nearly in awe of you and I didn't even like you that much to begin with".
"Oh, no not you too", Gabrielle groaned.
"Don't worry about me my queen I've beaten the crap out of you once. I am not about to fall on my butt and worship you as the mortal incarnation of Artemis or something, but I do acknowledge that you're a better leader than I am. Especially now that you've moved beyond the insecurities you had at Helicon", Varia told her and put an arm around her shoulder while smiling.
"I guess", Gabrielle said and looked up at the slightly taller amazon, knowing in her heart that she had won the battle for Varia's heart that had been one of the main goals of her plan.
"My queen I think we should go back and tell your loyal followers that you've found the forest they've been looking for", Varia said with a smirk, while Gabrielle groaned again at the thought of another notch on her belt.
A day later the jubilant but at the orders of their queen still careful group of amazons rode into the foreign forest.
Xena looked out over the green plains that had filled the most of her days for the last few weeks. Traveling in the green fields wavering in the harsh wind with next to no cover had reminded her of not only her time with Borias and then later Alti as they had ravaged plains much like these hunting for ultimate power in the east. She had been a monster then. Then there had been her mad dash across lands like these seeking a way into the amazon afterlife looking for Gabrielle but finding only another sin to repent. But she also remembered slightly happier times as she while a little pregnant at the time had gone through lands like these going east to secure the legacy of Lao Ma they had been happier then. Now she once more went through an empty plain looking for her bard and she could shake the sense that she was a long way away from happier times even if she still held out hope.
Suddenly her eyes caught sight of strange marks in a stretch of sandier ground where only very little grass grew. Xena dismounted and examined the markings. It looked like the hoof prints of a great many horses, but their shoes were strange large and deep. She began feeling the distant thunder of approaching horses. Quickly she ran to her mount and easily jumped into the saddle. She only managed to whirl her horse around, when suddenly a large group of warriors rode over a nearby hill. They looked disheveled and poor, dressed in animal skins and brandishing badly made bone clubs and the like. Xena spurred her horse into a gallop, when she recognized that most of the bones were human.
Xena knew that they were following even before she heard the almost inhuman screams uttered by the primitive barbarians, who were riding at her back. However their horses were neither big enough nor had those horseshoes that had left those marks she had found back there.
Suddenly a primitive axe flew by and not for the first time lately Xena wished that she had her chakram at her side. Instead she quickly drew up one of her daggers and casually threw it at her enemies. She barely noticed how her dagger implanted itself in their leader's throat or that he tumbled from his horse only to be trampled by his own men. Xena was too busy listening. A large force with horses were hidden on either side of the small pass between two hills she was about to pass through.
Nervously on the lookout for any arrows she passed through the pass as fast the wind. Everything seemed silent on the other side as she passed between what looked like two small armies of skin wearing women armed with large bows, swords, axes and other modern implements of war seated on very large horses with deadly sharpened horseshoes ready to be used as weapons. They had all the markings of the amazons but their deployment looked like as organized as the tactical formations of a roman legion. Xena looked over her shoulder to see the hand of the blonde leader dip signaling the attack just as the riders following her moved into the deadly trap. Arrows long drawn were released and with a mighty cry the amazons fell upon their enemy like an unstoppable avalanche of lethal efficiency.
Xena wheeled her horse about and witnessed the merciless attack of the amazons. They were as fierce as when she had first beheld their lethal infantry attacks in the forests of Greece. Only their tactics seemed a heck of a lot more advanced than anything she had ever seen them use before. Still amazons were about to get hurt and the other people obviously cannibals were not someone she pitied. Quickly she drew her sword as she rode down towards the battle ready to show her lethal skill in defense of the amazons once more.
Xena saw her chance to help. One of the amazons was about to receive an axe to her back. Quickly Xena rushed in between and caught the thrown axe and in one smooth move imbedded it in the chest of its owner.
A big and unfortunately stinking warrior barreled down towards her crying out in anger. Obviously bent on avenged one of the many wrongs he perceived she had done onto him. Xena, unaware that she was grinning, spurred her horse forward into a gallop and met his charge. Their swords clashed, but Xena the superior sword artist of the two didn't stop. Just as they had passed each other she swung her sword backwards out of her sight, putting it nicely into the back of the brute, whose strength had shaken her grip. She heard the sword glide through his armor with a rustle and slipping through his flesh with a wet sound. Another enemy dispatched.
The battle had moved to the ground and Xena was not late for her next appointed enemy. She saw him run a bone club with its sharpened head into the back of an amazon, who fell down bleeding profoundly. Xena vaulted from her horse, yelling her battle cry. She landed just a few feet from the barbarian. She growled with his sharpened yellowed teeth showing clearly.
Xena exploded into a flurry of fighting. First she turned his weapon into a bunch of splinters, while kicking him hard in the groin, making him bowl over to the ground. She barely grunted as she whirled her sword around and stuck it through his back feeling it hit the hard ground below. There was no time to talk to the fallen amazon as the next warrior ran towards her from behind. Xena launched herself into a high backwards flip knowing exactly she would land not too far behind her would be attacker.
He turned around brandishing his club at her, when suddenly Xena heard the sound of a powerful bow releasing an arrow. The man suddenly sprouted a blue fletched arrow from his side. He wearily turned towards the source of his pain.
"Big mistake", Xena commented as she jammed her bloody sword into his wide side and pulled it upwards treating her to the ugly sound of his ribs cracking one by one. He gurgled and fell silent. Xena looked around to see the fighting end the enemy vanquished. The amazons cried out in jubilation and many held their bloodied weapons up in victory.
"Hold your celebrations amazons, we have a foreigner amongst us", a familiar voice commented. Xena turned around and looked into the blue eyes a slightly older Cyane.
Cyane took one look at her, her jaw went slack and her mouth fell open. For several breaths she just stood looking in disbelief at Xena the only movement apparent the rise and fall of her chest and constant blinking of her eyes. Then she said in a hoarse voice: "She said you were dead. She was so sad; it couldn't have been a lie".
Xena nodded and walked towards Cyane standing there to tower above her. "I was dead and Gabrielle didn't lie to you. I found a way to return. Is she here?" Xena asked not aware of the longing expressed in her voice.
Cyane looked her for a moment. "No, she isn't. Not anymore. We fear that she has died or has taken her own life a long time ago. It has been almost two years since any amazon has seen our most beloved queen", Cyane explained.
"Who is this?" A tall tanned and blonde amazon asked Cyane. "Kati this is Xena the Warrior Princess", Cyane explained with a strange look in her eyes.
"She is Xena?!" The woman turned to look at Xena seemingly trying to get a full view of her for the first time. "She is the one who taught my queen her many skills. I am honored to meet you", the amazon named Kati saluted her like she was a full amazon and stepped back to stand behind Cyane after she sent her a look.
"Come Xena you must come with us to the central village. The council will want to greet you and then Varia and I will tell you about Gabrielle", Cyane explained and commanded for all the amazons to mount their horses. Xena followed suit.
It had only taken them one hour to reach the outskirt of a huge forest that Xena guessed now housed the amazon nation. Every where she looked there were amazon markers and the trees abounded with vigilant scouts. The nation seemed a lot stronger than she had remembered but that much couldn't have changed in the nearly three years since Helicon could it. "There seems to be many amazons around", Xena commented and looked to Cyane for an explanation.
"We've been getting a lot of wonderful recruits and we've been sending well trained infiltration groups down into Persia and the Roman Empire to recover as many worthy women and captured amazons as we can", Cyane explained.
"That is a bold strategy", Xena commented more to herself than anyone else.
"Another one of Gabrielle's plans she initiated it when she ruled the united tribes. She had seen first hand the hardship and suffering brought down upon the many female slaves out there and she had no trouble convincing us to recover our sisters. Besides the Amazon Nation needed fresh blood and new ideas", Cyane explained with pride in her voice.
"Like your combat tactics out there?" Xena asked as she ducked under a low hanging branch.
"Yes an innovation suggested by a fierce woman who came to us from a desert tribes that cruelly suppress their women treating their own daughters more like cattle than persons", Cyane explained and nodded towards a woman that looked like a younger version of Kahina.
"Is that the main village?" Xena asked as the group passed a small valley where they could look out over a village made up of many huts and towers. It was surrounded by a wooden palisade another new thing for the amazons to have.
"No that is just one of the client villages. Would you believe there are even a few men down there, who are willing to live under the rules of our culture?" Cyane said with incredulity.
"Yeah, I would. But I thought that any men who associated with amazons were killed. I remember back in the old days that the entire procreation thing was a rather touchy affair involving a lot of lonely men living close to the Amazon lands", Xena said and looked at Cyane for an explanation.
"The law needed amending. Besides way out here we need to draw them a little closer if we want to exist a generation or two from now don't you think? Anyway the council makes the laws and they all saw use in having the men around if they could accept that they can't be leaders, rule a woman or have any say in the running of things. Now they can own land, fight and live as they like, it only gets touchy if a man is accused of taking a woman against her will. Usually that makes him a dead man", Cyane explained, while Xena thought about the changing ways of the Amazons and their apparent growth. At least they were on the way out of their stagnation.
Xena was rarely at a loss for word, but when she saw the new central village of the amazons she found herself unable to speak for a few moments. The amazons had always built their homes in the forest from the material at hand, but this new home of theirs was a little different. The one who had chosen the spot had done so thinking both of the martial security of the Queen's council and of aesthetics. A wide and rapid river ran along side below a horse length of cliff aside a small rock plateau onto which only one route remained passable and well guarded. On top of that plateau laid a small town surrounded by a Greek style thick city wall with battlements, lookout towers and even platforms where catapults were being built as they rode towards the town. Inside all trees and bushes remained like the amazons had built a wall around a huge garden not even bothering to make an actual town, but as they rode through the heavy gates as thick as those on Troy Xena was treated to another sight. Underneath the careful nurtured trees lay a town of stone houses and yurts gently nestling against the base of the trees. Around the town small stone roads led past well placed wells, stables, a smithy and children playing with toy weapons to a single wide but still one story building, which Xena could only presume was the home of the queens.
"So you all live in there?" Xena asked doubting the wisdom of putting all the leaders of the amazons in one place.
"No that house is the meeting place of the council, the community center for all the people of this village and it also contains our arena for settling our disputes, holding dances or putting on plays if we can. It actually holds one huge covered and heated square room and a couple of meeting rooms. Of course its basement contains our prisons and we even have a few good rooms for guests in there even if you're the first we've had so far", Cyane explained as she dismounted.
Cyane walked over to stand in the middle of her warriors and spoke: "We have done well today. The cannibals that annoy our borders have once more broken the treaty of peace they asked us for. I will report this to the council. Soon we will deal with this constant threat to our borders. Go now, rest and be well. Know that we will not be defeated by these mongrels ever again", Cyane said and walked over to the central building. Xena heard her whisper to the blonde amazon named: "Kati do me a favor ensure that the wounded get proper treatment. I'll have to before the council immediately. The attack and Xena's return must be discussed".
Xena was suddenly aware of two amazon guard coming up to her and asking her to follow them. Even with the trust forwarded to her by Cyane the amazons didn't trust her too much.
Xena paced around in the chamber she had been led to. Cyane had been with the council for hours and she was loosing her patience. She had cleaned up and even managed to sharpen the nicks out of her new sword, but now her patience was at an end. Xena walked towards the door, when it was suddenly opened.
An older Varia walked inside her neck once again adorned with the necklace of a queen. It had all the markings of Gabrielle's necklace.
"Xena, I couldn't believe it when Cyane told me that you had showed up. I had to convince myself firsthand. It's good to see you again", Varia smiled happily.
"I see you've been made queen again", Xena said and pointed at the necklace.
"Yes, I got this from Gabrielle", Varia admitted unabashedly.
"Did you kill her to get it?" Xena's voice became low and held the promise of swift death for Varia within her next few breaths.
"No… It is rather complicated. She wanted me to have it. I think it was all apart of a grand plan of hers. One that almost went down perfectly", Varia added suddenly far away in thoughts.
"Why don't you explain it to me? I am an impatient person you know", Xena said and locked her eyes on the bodily reaction of the dark haired amazon queen. She was fidgeting like something about telling Gabrielle's story was bothering her deeply.
"Cyane told me that you hadn't eaten. Why don't come over to my home? I can tell you everything, you could stay the night. It is a long story", Varia explained and held out a hand to let her leave before her. Xena noticed that Varia was still wearing the sword she had gotten from Ares years ago. The last time she had talked to Varia it had been to stop her from shooting Gabrielle in the back. This talk had better be good.
They walked along the open galleries surrounding the central square of the building that made up most of the heart of the amazon village. A group of amazon women were practicing swordplay against each other, while Cyane and a group of women who looked like they were the other queens were standing in a group talking excitedly about some subject.
"What's going on?" Xena asked and indicated the queens.
"Oh, Cyane is explaining her plan of attack, when she takes the army out to rid us of the cannibals that continue to threaten our borders", Varia explained off handedly her thoughts apparently elsewhere.
"Cyane is the war leader", Xena asked surprise easily audible in her voice.
Varia looked at her and smiled contently. "Yeah, I am too spirited to be a levelheaded leader so she handles that side of things. I will be joining them in the campaign as the leader of my tribe, but I'll leave the actual leadership up to Cyane. It's a combination that has turned out to work well for us", Varia explained. Xena was mystified by the wisdom apparent in that decision. Varia was a great warrior and leader, but she had always been to guided by her anger and fear that made her a dangerous leader and somehow Varia had not only learned that but also accepted it.
They walked through the happy town. Xena wasn't surprised to find music and dance still was in ample supply amongst the amazons, when they were at peace. Still she couldn't remember coming into an amazon village and find such happiness even during the reign of Cyane, who had been able to fight of Alti herself. These amazons felt safe not only from the dangers of the male world but from the harsh nature that had always permeated their society. Varia led her to a large wooden hut constructed in the style that had been so common back in Greece. It was unlike any other hut on the entire street. "You miss home huh", Xena commented and stepped through the cloth covering the entrance.
"Not any more, it is just a habit… I guess", Varia answered and followed Xena into her home.
Xena was treated to a very clean and completely organized home that in a lot of ways reminded her of her daughter's hospice. In a way Varia was a little like she had originally thought her daughter might have turned out had she been around to raise her.
"Sit", Varia commanded and began putting food and wine on the table. After she had questioned Xena about what she knew. Varia began telling the story: "It's a long story, but you see I was there for the entire trip here. When we set out I was still angry over my defeat I saw it as an insult you see. To Gabrielle it was a political necessity. She had to defeat me in public to silence anyone, who still taught my demotion was unfair and give her enough credibility to do what she had figured out was the only way to save her people. I still remember the very day we set out. 40 warrior women with horses and pack animals going off to a place not one of us had ever seen before…"
It was night, when Varia finally told the story of how the weary but happy amazons rode into the vast forest and began looking for the perfect place for their new homes. Gabrielle finally decided upon the place found by her loyal friend Deirdre. They had founded this place and marked the final path for the amazons who were following in their tracks somewhere out beyond the horizon.
"If everyone was so happy why is she not here?" Xena spoke for the first time in hours and looked up at Varia's face. The orange light of the fire in her hearth cast deep shadows across her face, but still Xena could see real sadness in her eyes.
"Actually everything was going just fine. We had set up camp here and even begun setting up a few permanent structures, when Cyane arrived with the remainder of the Amazon Nation. We partied for days. Gabrielle was crowned high queen of the Amazons, just like I had been once, but I found I no longer minded. She did though. I had learned on our trip that she hated being placed above others and this ultimate position of power given to her as a gift was more of a curse than anything else. Anyway I had my share of surprises that night as well because her first action as high queen was to reinstate me as the queen of her tribe as she would be busy leading us all. Actually I think she got the better of the bargain as all she had to do in her position was to implement the policies of the entire nation and her position couldn't even be challenged unless you had the entire council of queens behind you. And she was content to let the queens continue to rule their respective tribes as they saw fit as long as they kept within the framework of the laws she laid out in the days following her coronation", Varia paused to drink some wine.
"Actually she made things rather easy for herself, reducing her power as absolute dictator to be mostly an arbitrator of disputes between tribes and ultimate judge of important points of law. I think she showed great wisdom in going in that direction. Our system has always too dependent on old and sometimes meaningless laws that could be interpreted as the queen saw fit. She stayed that way for months, setting up the infiltration squads going south, establishing the other villages and working hard with Cyane to ensure the safety of our borders even if we had no enemy nearby or so we thought. I still clearly the day everything changed, the last day really Gabrielle ruled here", Varia paused to draw breath and Xena had to stop herself from screaming at Varia get on with the story.
"One morning one of our hunters came running into this village…" Varia began the story.
"Gabrielle", a voice screamed nearby. The blond jumped bleary eyed from her sleep warm bed. She had come home late in the evening from the new construction project that she had started and had barely gotten five candlemarks of sleep. Still the voice had been full of alarm. The sound of metal meeting metal told her that her guards had stopped whoever it was from entering her abode. Quickly she dressed in the rich red set of clothing that her subjects had given her as a gift a few weeks ago, it was kind of the royal version of the red dress she had been traveling in for years. She continually asked them to not give such expensive gifts, but they continued to ignore her claiming that even if she didn't want to she was their queen and they had all right to demand that she was properly dressed for her station. She had at least managed to stop them from giving her a crown.
Quickly she put the Chakram into its customary place on her hip and placed the Sais into their sheaths on her tall boots. Quickly she poured a large amount of water over her sleep tousled hair. "Let her in", Gabrielle commanded and approached the door, while she tried to arrange her hair properly.
Deirdre stepped into her tent, she seemed out of breath and slightly pale. "Gabrielle there is a problem", she stopped to swallow, while Gabrielle waited in silence smiling encouragingly. Gabrielle had after months of work gotten her relationship with Deirdre back on track now all she had to do was get the rest of the so called royal guard back on the ground.
"One of the hunters just came back. She claims to be the last survivor of the entire hunting party that went out three days ago", Deirdre explained.
"That was Yakut's hunting party wasn't it? Where is the survivor?" Gabrielle asked and ran towards the door.
"Yes and Yakut is already in the healers house", Deirdre explained and looked as her queen sprinted away her powerful leg muscles carrying her away much faster than she could ever hope to catch up with.
A little later Gabrielle stood before the assembled council. "It appears that a large band of men fell upon the hunting party and subdued them. Yakut herself managed to fight her way free, but she was severely wounded so there was no way for her to save her sisters from the brutes. She describes them as dressed in animal skins, having only primitive weapons and no horses. There were about 15 of them. We cannot allow such men to take our sisters captive, so I put before the council that a war party is formed with the task to free our sisters from their captors and remove them from our lands", Gabrielle paced as she explained the matter to the council.
All around her the queens looked from one to another. "I guess this place isn't as safe as I promised it to be. I am sorry", Gabrielle looked genuinely unhappy about what the most of them considered a small matter.
"I will lead the war party", the queen of the tribe that had come from the British Isles volunteered.
Gabrielle nearly cursed out loud, she had hoped to lead the party herself, but there was no way she could do that now. "I was hoping to do it", Gabrielle said in a quiet voice.
"No my queen this small matter should not concern you. I am more than capable of handling this", the queen retorted. Gabrielle knew from her previous dealings with the stubborn woman that if she pressed the issue she would only make her angry. It could become a political problem right now, as she was enacting some rather controversial law changes on the subject of having men inside the Amazon Nation. She needed to stay on that queen's good side as she was held in regard by some of the more shortsighted, young and idealistic amazon queens.
"Maybe that is a good idea. I am busy enough as is", she admitted without lying. Ruling was more of a job than she had imagined. In the past she had never really managed to get in the middle of it before her life with Xena had taken her away again. She liked it and she had seen with her own eyes that her decisions made other people's lives better, but still her wanderlust was stirring more each day and she felt like her development was standing still for the first time in a long while. But maybe she had reached a point where she was ready to settle down. She had felt ready once before just after Eve's birth, but Xena hadn't been ready and it had taken until the last weeks of their time together before she had seen any indication of Xena tiring of the life on the road. Problem was that these days Gabrielle would much rather be traveling around than staying here governing her people, handling politics and sometimes despairing at the almost childlike stupidity and conservatism shown by otherwise intelligent people that she saw day by day.
Soon she was back in her hut using the ample room for another the countless combat drills that she completed every day just to stay sharp. Sometimes she trained with Cyane, Deirdre or Varia getting them to fight her almost for just to have some of her edge remaining in the case of her having to fight for real. Combined with the workout she gave herself every day she was in the best state of health ever. Although she would never admit it even to herself, she missed the constant threat of being a traveling hero and she had missed it ever since she had gotten her own house in the town she had founded. Outside her hut the war party rode off into the warm afternoon seeking their new enemies. Gabrielle sat down at her table to look at the first instances of paperwork that the increasing civilization of the amazons had created. She wondered sometimes if it was a blessing or a curse.
It was nearly midnight. Gabrielle slept fitfully in the middle of another of her nightmares that still plagued most of her nights even in these peaceful times, when suddenly alarmed voices woke her up. Quickly she called up her ability to listen for sounds and piece them together. Horses were whinnying, women were groaning, the sound of metal banging against leather and metal studs, angry curses being uttered and the voice of one of their healers crying out in dismay. Their war party had returned and they had been beaten. Gabrielle felt a chill go down her spine. Forty warriors had ridden out this afternoon. For them to be beaten their enemy would have to be strong, organized and clever no matter their weapons and look. Gabrielle quickly dressed summoning a strength and endurance that she hadn't needed for nearly two months now. Before she left her hut she added a long amazon knife like the one she had carried at Helicon to her array of weaponry and walked out of her hut.
"Someone tell me what happened!" She demanded as she stepped up to two warriors that only looked a little tired aside from a few cuts and bruises. They both snapped to attention, when they saw their little high queen in full combat attire appear before them.
"The enemy was a lot more numerous than expected. The trackers followed their tracks out onto the plains, where they seemed to have made camp. We came upon them as they were eating our sisters…" The woman grew pale and swallowed hard.
Gabrielle nodded understanding her reaction. She had met and fought varying degrees of cannibals over the years and they made eerie enemies as you knew that if you lost you were likely to become their food.
"We attacked, but just as we were about to dispatch the last of those swine a much larger group on horseback arrived. They fell upon us from each side and captured many. They were naturally out to get live prisoners. Only 12 of us got away, the queen and her retainers seemed ready to fight to the last, when she commanded us to get back here and warn you. They will probably follow our tracks back here soon", the tired looking warrior explained.
Gabrielle nodded grimly and stalked off to awake the entire village. There was a war in the offing and those barbarians had thrown the gauntlet at the feet of the wrong enemy. The thought of the queen a person she knew well being eaten by those disgusting creatures awoke a fire in her she hadn't felt since she had faced off against Dareios. Those barbarians very existence filled her with revulsion and anger.
A few days later in the outskirts of the amazon forest Gabrielle lay hidden in a ditch besides a small group of her most loyal warriors. "Okay, listen to me. Our enemy hasn't dared to enter forest yet and we want them to. We have all of these nice little traps all setup and awaiting them and I am sure Varia and the main army as well as Cyane and her archers are getting anxious to show those bastards out there what happens when you mess with the amazons. Now I have a plan to lure them in. It does however require some fast runners, which is why I chose you guys. I won't command you to do this and I understand if you don't want to do this. But I ask you to sneak out there, find a good spot, where their scouts can see you and set up a false camp and when they come after you to flee for your life instead of fighting. You're bait. They must be running low on amazons by now and I am guessing that they'll jump at the chance of capturing some for free. And don't forget where the traps are, we're using a lethal poison this time. Just get them to the battlefield we will take of them", she explained and looked around at the handpicked women, who she knew were the fastest runners of all her warriors.
"Will you do it?" She asked and looked from woman to woman. They each nodded in turn not one even seemed to contemplate the horrible fate that would await them if they were caught.
Gabrielle thanked them each and set off to find Deirdre and her cavalry. The plan was that they would attack the right flank of their enemy boxing them in between a hill and the amazon army if her bait could lure them into the right spot. Hopefully the cannibals would be sufficiently decimated to never become a problem again.
Gabrielle felt another pang of regret and guilt over bringing the amazons to another place where they would have to fight to protect their homeland. It seemed to her that she hadn't been any help to them after all but only postponed the troubles of her people.
Soon she caught sight of her cavalry carefully hidden out of sight of the stretch of grassland within the forest she had chosen as the battlefield. Without exchanging anything but a friendly glance with her soldiers she mounted Ghost and began to wait for their signal to attack.
Suddenly they all saw something unexpected. One of the runners she had sent out came barreling out of the forest right in front of them. She was bleeding profuse. "I failed you my queen", she stammered and fell over a dart from one of their traps stuck in her side. Gabrielle gasped as she heard the approach of the enemy. They were coming towards them. If they let them pass they would come upon one of their villages within a few minutes her plan had failed.
"Kati, ride! Get the army here, we'll hold them here", she commanded and sighed.
"Everyone we must stop them here or our sisters and their children will feed these beasts tonight. Forward!" She spurred Ghost into a gallop and rode into the forest knowing that her cavalry would not be far behind. In her hand she held her blade knowing full well that the Sai were not adequate weapons for mounted combat.
One of the barbarians rushed towards her on his black steed. The powerful muscles of Ghost send her towards him at high speed.
He held out a sharpened bone club ready himself for their meeting.
Gabrielle mirrored him holding her weapon. They rode ever closer.
Suddenly at the last moment Gabrielle ducked backwards in her saddle seeing his weapon gliding harmlessly past overhead while she felt her long dagger slide across the side of his horse and his leg. Both man and horse disappeared behind her. Her hearing informed her of his horse's demise in a messy tumble and the resounding crack of his neck braking ensuring her that he joined it.
Gabrielle rose to sit again and found her looking up a hill, where a large man sat astride on what could only be their equivalent of a warhorse. She immediately knew that this man was the leader of this band of warriors and she was pretty sure he saw the same in her.
Three of his mounted warriors stood between her and him. She didn't care.
They rode forward crying out in a grim warcry ready to slaughter her.
Gabrielle answered their charge by stopping Ghost abruptly launching herself into a high air tumble landing behind the surprised warriors.
They began wheeling their horses around.
Gabrielle snatched the Chakram from her belt and flung it sideways at an angle. It split in two as it rebounded on a large stone.
The warriors charged forward.
The Chakram halves flew into the uneven group slicing through armor and flesh, killing two, rebounding on trees and stones for a moment until they reunited in the air and sunk into the chest of the third.
But Gabrielle only heard the Chakram do its thing. She was facing the large man as he stared at the defiant woman who had carelessly dispatched his bodyguard. He cried a challenge in a language that reminded Gabrielle of the Pomira and held a huge club full of long bone spikes high. She just remained standing, while carefully sheathing her dagger and drawing her Sais. He roared with anger revealing his yellowed sharpened teeth and charged towards her.
Gabrielle saw the large man on his equally large horse thunder towards her. She felt each step of the horse in the ground as he rode towards her with the sun shining through the trees at his back. He got very close.
Suddenly Gabrielle threw herself to the side making his huge club sail past the place she had previously occupied. Gabrielle rolled to her feet and threw her Sais at his back with disgust not even wanting to engage in a fair fight with the leader of these disgusting men. They embedded themselves to the guards into his back and he slumped forward dead before he touched the front of his saddle.
But Gabrielle didn't feel happy or relieved as she looked out of the battlefield. The army was coming to their rescue, but her warriors were already engaged with the numerically superior enemy. People she knew well, her friends were in mortal danger. She rushed forward retrieving the Chakram as she went.
She saw Deirdre, who had dismounted to fight two men with her axes to her left and she moved in that direction, while looking for the dead leader, whose horse and owner rode around with her Sais somewhere in this chaos.
She smiled with relief, while kicking one of the barbarians in the groin, as Deirdre dispatched the last of her enemies. Gabrielle focused on her enemy, kicking him in the side, barely dodging one of his stabs with his bone weapon and finally downing with a clever combination of a kick to his knee followed by sliding the dagger across the back of his exposed neck.
She turned and suddenly everything seemed to move in slow motion. All around her the barbarians began to notice the arriving amazon army. She looked forward at Deirdre seeing her raise an axe in happy greeting towards her sisters, when suddenly she became aware of the thundering ground. She turned her head to the side and saw a large warhorse and its rider move rapidly towards her, the rider swinging another one of those massive bone spiked clubs in his left hand. She was ready for him. Suddenly a black haired blur moved in between her and her enemy. She beheld in excruciating how Deirdre only managed to turn her head her eyes apologizing for her action before he passed her, hammering his weapon with all his might into the side of her black haired friends head. It seemed to collapse on itself and a lot of it was torn off carried off by the spiky club. He passed harmlessly by her.
Something in the back of her mind seemed to burst. Like a dam had collapsed she felt a wave of sorrow and seething rage crash down on her consciousness. She saw the death of Perdicus as she could only look on. She was chilled by the look in the eyes of her daughter as her monstrous grandson killed his mother. She saw Eli die at Ares' sword as she stood by doing nothing. She saw the pointless death of Joxer at the hand of Livia. She saw the vision of Xena being beheaded by a samurai and she saw the beheaded body hanging before her illuminated by lightning. Her entire world seemed to descend into a red haze. A warcry just like the one uttered by Callisto many years ago, a cry of rage, a cry demanding vengeance echoed throughout the immense forest. Everything became a blur of movement a blur of images and so much blood. Blood that cooled her raging heart covered it and weighed it down. She let her anger guide her turning herself into an angel of death that made the title of Xena's successor mean something more than an empty honorific for a hero. And then every indication of rational thought seemed to abandon her.
A few hours later…
Varia looked out of the carnage of dead amazons and barbarians that filled the battlefield and shuddered. They were tallying up the deaths now and the numbers were horrific. Most if not all of Gabrielle's cavalry was dead. The infantry and the archers had lost about a 12th of their number, but it seemed from the reports of the scouts that none of the cannibals had escaped from the battlefield.
But the cost could very well be terrible for the entire nation. No one had any idea what had happened to Gabrielle after she had lead the hopeless charge against the barbarian force that by chance had chosen the wrong path into their forest. If the queen had died the entire nation would be thrown out into chaos. There was no clear cut leader right now and many of the new ideas implemented by Gabrielle needed her around to smooth over the troubles that they were causing with the more conservative amazons. It only made things worse that they had found her Sais imbedded in the back of some warrior, but with no Queen Gabrielle nearby to claim them. Rumors of her demise were growing by the minute.
"Queen Varia look", one of her scouts said as a horrific figure stumbled towards them crawling out of a mass of dead horses and men. It held the two halves of the Chakram one in each hand. It looked like it was covered in blood and gore, but as she came closer. Varia recognized the form of her queen beneath the disgusting cover. However her eyes looked up at her and were completely empty. They were devoid of both recognition and emotion; it was as if the brilliant soul that used to reside inside had left.
One of the amazons approached her slowly. "My queen, are you hurt?" She asked. She didn't expect the woman's reaction however. Gabrielle dropped the two halves of the Chakram and fell into her arms, crying in anguish.
Varia didn't fully understand yet, but she ordered the amazons nearby to take the queen back to the central village immediately, clean her up and have the healers look at her. They were also given strict orders not to tell anyone of the queen's condition and she asked them to tell the healers the same. The chaos of not having Gabrielle around would be inevitable now she realized and shuddered at the thought of those empty soulless eyes.
The day was dawning outside, but Xena hadn't slept. She had spent the remainder of the night after the very tired Varia had finished her tale of how she had found Gabrielle out in the forest drenched in the blood and remainder of at least 20 slain enemies. Covered in blood she had been brought home.
Varia had explained how Gabrielle had been unable or unwilling to speak or even eat for days. They had found the dead body of Deirdre on the battlefield and Varia had slowly pieced together from the reports of many of the wounded warriors in Gabrielle's cavalry, what had happened. Xena shuddered at the stories Varia had related of how Gabrielle had acted like an efficient murderess. She had set about slicing throats, opening bellies even removing limbs with blazing speed, killing and wounding many of the enemy and frightening many more. She had been compared with Callisto the monster of her own tales by her most loyal soldiers after that.
Xena had cried after Varia had gone to bed. She had cried for the final loss of innocence and possibly the beginning of the death of all the good remaining in her friend. Gabrielle the girl that had once been her mirror of light showing her the way to live a life dedicated to good had in her mind fallen to nearly the same depths as she had during her times of darkness. In the past they had promised each other to never allow the other to become a monster. Now the possibility existed that she would have to kill her friend instead of embracing her if she ever found her again. Still Varia hadn't told her, what had become of Gabrielle after she had regained some measure of humanity. She hadn't told what had happened after she recovered from the aftermath of her berserker rage. Had she even recovered? She heard the woman in the next room awaken and cautioned herself to remain patient as she awaited her final answers.
Varia and Xena sat over breakfast. Xena hadn't spoken at all to the black haired woman since she told the horrific tale of her beloved friend's final brutal acts against the barbarians.
"Varia, where is Gabrielle?" She finally said.
Varia looked at her then nodded, while swallowing her food.
"Come with me", she said and rose.
Xena followed Varia to a beautiful house that was covered in mural painted in bright colors and surrounded by a garden full of flowers.
"This was her home", Xena stated instantly recognizing the Greek building with the happy styles of the Poteidaians in the many colors, while the murals looked like something from Chin or Japan.
"Yes, it was built as a gift to her after the founding of this town", Varia admitted and stopped. "She stayed here for a few weeks after the war. She absolutely refused to rule us again. Finally Cyane and I went to her and tried to talk some sense into her and we found her packing", she explained.
"What are you doing?" Cyane asked as she saw Gabrielle stuffing clothing and money into some saddle bags. She had been quiet these last few days refusing to tell them what she was thinking about.
"Oh good you came by. That means I am leaving now", Gabrielle explained and pressed a well known saddle bag into her hands. It was famed as the container for all Gabrielle's stories and journals that she carried with her everywhere.
"You can't just leave. You're our ruler. We need you", Varia said and felt a strange anger like a child being left alone by its mother.
"No you don't need me. Not when I am like this. I am out of balance Varia. I have been ever since Xena died. We seem to need other to stay on the right path, if I was ever on it in the first place. Xena isn't coming back I know that, so I have to go and find some way to regain some measure of myself back before the darkness in my soul consumes the light she loved and I miss", Gabrielle explained.
"But…but… we… I understand and I hope you find what you are looking for Gabrielle. Your nation will await your return", Cyane finally capitulated. Varia fell silent for a moment then nodded.
Gabrielle turned and managed a sad smile, while holding their hands to her heart. "I leave that saddle bag and the Chakram here in your hands. I'll go out in search of something to cure my soul. If I don't return within a year I am either dead or I have fallen into the darkness. Either way if I don't come back all that I was will be dead. I ask you to honor me by sending this saddle bag to my home and that the Chakram is given to whomever can properly master it and is worthy of it", she said and looked from one to another.
"Why leave the Chakram?" Varia asked and looked at the weapon carefully lain on the table where Gabrielle had her scrolls.
"Because I am no longer worthy of both sides of the Chakram and until I am I will not demean my inheritance from Xena by using it. I think she is disappointed enough with me as it is right now", Gabrielle admitted and walked out of the house to the small stable behind her house, where her trusty Ghost stood awaiting her. She guided the horse out of the stables after saddling it. Gabrielle jumped onto the white horse and looked at the two amazon queens.
"I've lost too many friends already. Stay alive will you and try not to let the nation fall into disarray without its figurehead", she commented.
"Where will you go?" Cyane asked and looked at the sad blonde woman.
"To Indus I guess. In the end it was the place that meant the most to Xena's spiritual development. It was the place where she finally understood her path in life. And if the land of spices manages to disappoint me I'll go to the lands of Lao Ma. Her philosophy was the foundation of Xena's recovery from her darkness", Gabrielle cried out as she rode Ghost away from the two queens, who were left looking at each other in silent astonishment.
"And we never saw her again. The entire nation considers Gabrielle lost except me and Cyane. We know that she is most likely dead by her own hand if she hasn't found a way out of the darkness that was eating at her soul", Varia explained and opened the door into the clean room, the Chakram still rested in the exact spot Gabrielle had left it.
"We kept it clean for her, but I don't expect to see her again. Although you can never know with the two of you, I remember that you disappeared for 25 years once so I guess anything is possible", Varia said and looked as Xena carefully reclaimed a long lost part of her life.
Gingerly Xena placed the weapon on her belt before asking Varia another question: "Varia there was a strange book from Chin in Gabrielle's bag, where did it come from?"
Varia managed to look a little guilty before speaking: "Well, while Gabrielle is my queen and all that I was not about to let her disappear without a trace. Almost a year after she disappeared, I got three of her remaining royal guard to slip off and look for her. Only one returned dying from a rare disease, but still in her fever she managed to croak forth that they had been able to follow the path of the queen and that the book held the answers I sought. However she died and no one here could translate it. So in the end when Cyane reluctantly was about to send the scrolls back to Poteidaia I threw the book into the bag as well. I hoped that it might give some hope to her family or even let them find her for me. Couldn't you translate it?"
"No", Xena admitted and considered her options.
"So you're going to be leaving immediately if I remember how you two are correctly?" Varia said and looked at the suddenly withdrawn warrior princess.
"Yes, it looks like I am going to India", Xena said.
Keep an eye out for the 4th part of the Darkness and the Light: "False Dragon" as Xena discovers the final fate of the battling bard after traversing the final part of her friend's path into the foreign lands of the East. What has been happening to Gabrielle the last two years?