Posting Chapters 8 and 9 on Monday March 21 2005
Posting Chapters 6 and 7 on Sunday March 13.
ALL DISCLAIMERS IN CHAPTER ONE OF THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER
THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER - Part 2 of Trilogy
by Patricia and Xanjaa
by Patricia and Xanjaa
Chapter 8 - Kunjana (Rebel with a Cause)
The maniacal leader of the Persian army strode through the encampment in the late afternoon light, his face a ghastly grimace as his eyes surveyed his domain. Men scattered before him, intent on doing any job at hand that would insure no eye contact was made with the general. He stopped in front of his first officer's tent and studied the chevron of his subordinate's rank emblazoned across the tent. The glowing Red Scorpion insignia in the dimming sunlight thrilled him.
The two guards on either side of the opening saluted; looking straight ahead. He ignored them, intent on finding his officer, but turned his head suddenly towards the compound when he heard the sound of a woman's scream. A pleasurable smile creased his hard face at the sound and an approving laugh erupted when he saw two of his soldiers dragging a half clad woman towards a tent surrounded by cheering men.
A movement just off to the side caught his eye and he jerked sideways as a large stone whistled past his face. He knew it was intended for him but the stone thrower had disappeared, using the melee in front of the soldier's tent as a diversion.
One of those gods be damned slaves he thought. Probably that witch Kunjana. He'd have to deal with her soon. I may turn her over to my soldiers after our next raid, he thought with a smirk; that would teach her the price of defiance.
The woman who threw the stone melted back into the lengthening shadows as though blending into a forest.
Next time I won't miss. Next time I'll cut your heart out with your own sword she vowed. There was nothing more she could do for the woman they had taken away. They could only wait and treat her battered body and broken spirit when she was tossed back into the women's stockade.
She sprinted in the direction of the main group of women as soon as the general turned away, easily slipping back into the confinement of the stockade as she saw the expectant faces turned to hers. She shook her head from side to side noticing the sad resignation in turn on their faces.
"Halima!" she called out to the women's healer and cook. "Boil water and get clean cloths. We'll need it for her."
"Right away, Kunjana." The heavy set woman replied gesturing to another woman to start a fire. "That poor child." She muttered. "How many more like this?" She asked of no one in particular.
A large detachment of the army had been gone for a quarter of the moon's cycle. With the general out of the encampment, the remaining soldiers had become more unruly and unmanageable. The officers failed to maintain any discipline and were just as guilty as the men, growing more and more aggressive, and abusing the women at will. Kunjana prowled the stockade at night, trying to rescue any of the women that she could, bringing their fragile bodies to Halima for healing.
As the sun reached its zenith in the heavens, a loud, distinct and recognizable horn sounded in the distance. As though awakening from a deadening stupor, the soldiers and officers hastily rushed about the encampment trying to reestablish some shred of the order that the General had left it in.
The women heard the horn as well and those not too bruised or injured, made ready under Halima's direction, for the new women slaves who were sure to be among the returning army. Water was boiled, cloths were ripped and leather strips torn to hold the compresses and bandages.
Within a candlemark they could see the dust cloud of the approaching army with the Scorpion banners held aloft. The din of horse's hooves and men's voices preceded their arrival.
When the army entered the grounds, the general leading the way, Kunjana was puzzled as she realized there were fewer surviving slaves on this raid. The general lifted his hand and a small group of frightened women were herded forward like goats, the men prodding and pushing their weary torn bodies. Several of the women had been severely beaten and were being carried by their comrades. One in particular looked like she'd been beaten almost senseless and would require all of Halima's skills if it weren't already too late.
Kunjana watched the proceedings thinking that many of the women looked like they'd fought back valiantly. This pleased her immensely as she needed more women with courage in her own encampment. She thought that when they were healed perhaps a few of them would still be fighters.
The general flicked his wrist and two soldiers rushed forward to open the stockade doors.
The new slaves were pushed from behind into the stockade, some falling forward upon each other onto the hot desert floor. Halima and several women rushed forward to help them when they heard the General's booming voice.
"Fix that one quickly or you'll die too, fat woman." He said pointedly at Halima. "I want her on her feet again." He pointed to the fallen body of the most severely beaten of the slaves as he laughed viciously.
Turning his horse back to the camp, the general stopped seeming to see the disarray for the first time. Empty flasks lay about, broken camp stools and shattered crockery littered the ground.
The color rose up his neck from his tunic as his anger made itself known. With his face turning from red to puce, the general bellowed, "Lieutenant Hvar."
From the edge of camp, a swarthy, disheveled man swaggered over. A smirk on his face, the former warlord stood with arms folded across his chest in an attitude of indifference before the furious general.
"General." The man stated confidently as he looked up at the commanding officer astride his big stallion.
Noticing a red wine stain on the front of the officer's tunic, the general's anger escalated.
His voice trembling with outrage, the general asked. "Why is this garbage lying about? This is an army camp; not a brothel. You were in charge. What is the meaning of this?"
Lieutenant Hvar had never been more than an unimaginative thug. In his younger days, Hvar had sought to make his fortune by leading a small band of murderers and thieves. They had barely eked out a living preying on small caravans.
Dreaming of riches beyond his wildest dreams, Hvar and his men had been some of the first to join the general in his quest for world domination when it became obvious that there was real power behind this new army. The general had made him an officer because he was big and cruel and brought with him, twelve recruits.
Now the foolish lieutenant made a fatal error in judgment. Attempting to win the general over with the attitude of camaraderie, the former warlord chuckled conspiratorially, his hand on the stallion's bridle.
"Well, you know how it is, general. All work and no play and all that. I figured the men had earned a little party is all. No point in letting all the little ladies dry up from lack of use." He laughed at his own joke, failing to notice he laughed alone.
The rest of the men noticed however and began backing away as the General erupted in fury.
"It is not your job to decide when the men shall work and when they shall play. This is an army destined to rule the world and I will have discipline! Do you hear me?"
The volume of his voice rose to such a degree that the horses began stamping the ground nervously. Without further discussion, the general raised his right arm above his head. A brilliant blue fireball instantly materialized.
Realizing his mistake too late, Hvar's eyes grew round with horror and disbelief as he backed away from the madman. Turning, he ran. The general's insane laughter was the last sound he heard before his body erupted in flame. Within moments, all that remained of Lieutenant Hvar was a pile of smoking ash.
The silence in the camp was deafening, as the general looked at his troops.
"This is an army and every man in it will behave accordingly. If any one of you has other ideas, you may resign now and join Lieutenant Hvar. I want this camp cleaned up. And no one is to touch the slaves without my express orders. Is that clear?"
Apparently, it was, as not one soldier ventured to ask a question.
"And I'll see my officers in my tent, now."
Dispassionately, he watched them for a few moments then turned his stallion, dismissing the men.
Kunjana watched Halima and her helpers gather up the fallen women. The death of one of these brutal animals that passed themselves off as soldiers held little interest for her. The woman warrior however was near death and had to be carried by four of the others to the healer's hearth. She held her attention.
She turned and walked to the perimeter of the stockade looking back in the direction of the departing soldiers knowing that only the ire of the general had saved the new slaves from the inevitable rape that night.
This cannot continue she thought angrily as she gripped the wooden barrier. She wondered how she would protect them all when there was barely any protection from the sun in the wasteland of the camp. I long for the hills and forests of home she thought.
A hand touched her back softly stroking it, trying to erase the anger and hurt. Penda she smiled as the name of her lover caressed her mind. At least you're safe now she thought, exhaling loudly the breath she'd been holding.
"Kunja, my beloved, you tried. You've done everything you could. It's in the hands of the gods." She spoke in the sing song accent of her Numidian tribe using the name of endearment she knew Kunjana loved.
Kunjana turned and looked at the face of her lover. She remembered when Penda was brought in as a slave. Her black eyes shone with defiance as the men herded the new captives into the enclosure. She was beautiful. Her skin was glossy ebony and she was thin and lithe as a reed in the wind. She'd fallen in love with her from the first moment she laid eyes on her and she swore she would do anything to protect her from being raped by these barbarians.
Her story had been the same as that of all the other slaves brought into the encampment. The Red Scorpion army attacked a village, killed all the people in the tribe and, as though selecting fine stock, some of the women were taken as body or camp slaves. They took only the slaves they wanted in each of their raids.
"It's never enough, Penda. They will take others. I can't fight their whole army. There are too many of them. If they take you…." Her eyes filled with tears with the disquieting thoughts that filled her.
"Shhh. Shhh. It's all right, Kunja, it's all right. You've seen to that. Don't you know that I know what you do? Don't you know how I feel knowing what you do to protect me?" She continued stroking the back and shoulder of the woman.
"I do what I do, Penda. I won't let them touch you."
"I know, my beloved. Shhh. Be still." The black skinned woman put her arms around the slightly taller woman and held her tenderly.
Kunjana allowed herself to be held. The small pleasure was all encompassing. For a few moments she could relinquish her leadership role with this woman who held her heart. She didn't have to be strong, or have all the answers. She didn't have to direct anyone or plan any attacks on unsuspecting soldiers. She thought back to the time before coming here when her life was so simple and she pondered the turn of the fates that had changed her life forever.
She came from a privileged family. Her mother had long ago resigned herself to the fact that this daughter was like no other and would never take a husband. Her mother, in her wisdom had named her Kunjana meaning Forest Girl. She played rough games and was unbeaten in weapons and sparring matches with the boys of the Indus valley where she lived. Her father had presented her with a magnificent horse, providing she could tame the beast. In no time, she had and she and her horse often raced alone across the plains or through the deep forests.
She remembered that day, as thought it was another time so long ago. She'd been out riding the hills with her horse, her hair streaming behind her in the wind as she galloped with no cares on her mind. After mid-day she turned back for home. In the distance she saw thick smoke and knew something was dreadfully wrong.
She kicked the horse with a fury and raced back towards the town. As she neared she heard screams punctuated by explosions as the ground under her shook. Then she saw the army - evil looking red scorpions were affixed to the banners carried by the soldiers. The men were larger than any she'd ever seen, and the horses towered over her own. She drove her horse towards her family home and pulled up when she saw it in flames.
Her younger sister was being dragged from the house by a ferocious warrior with a sword held high in his hand. He clearly intended to kill her. She jumped from her stallion, pulling her dagger from her trousers as she leaped onto the man's back. She pulled the dagger across his throat and felt the warm red sticky blood flowing across her hands. The massive man fell forward onto her sister, his raised sword striking her in the chest.
She screamed as hands grabbed her and pulled her off the fallen soldier but there were too many of them. The huge soldiers disarmed her and held her, waiting for orders from their officers. She heard bets already being wagered on whether the captives would be slaughtered or taken as slaves.
"Kill me" she screamed as the men laughed callously.
"This one would make a good slave. We need a cook." said one soldier.
"She'd make a better bedmate" said another as he reached out and squeezed her breast.
Kunjana pulled back from her captor's hold and spat in his face.
"I'll teach you" he bellowed, and hit her in the stomach then backhanded her in the face with his fist, knocking her senseless to the ground.
She didn't remember much more. She assumed her family was dead. A few of the other younger women in the village had been taken captive with her. They traveled for some time with no medical care and little food until they reached an encampment where they were all thrown into a pen together, guarded by the massive soldiers.
During the night, soldiers would come and single out the women, taking them to their tents. Cries and screams echoed through the campground. And her time inevitably came as well.
She vowed the night she was taken that she would never surrender her inner self and she began plotting her revenge for the slaughter of her family and the destruction of these innocent young women. This was how she'd come to be leader of the slave women. They relied on her cunning and her bravado with the soldiers but she was only one woman and there were so many soldiers.
The soft sounds of Penda's voice brought her back to the present.
"You always go back there in time my beloved. You cannot change what is. Don't dwell on what you cannot change. Dwell on now and what you can change."
"I'm going to kill that son of a slithering serpent, Penda. I'm going to kill him and get us out of this infernal pit."
"I know you will my love. I know you will. Shhh now. Try to put these anguished thoughts from your mind, eh?" She cocked her head to the side, her braided black hair swinging out. It was a familiar gesture that beguiled Kunjana's heart.
"We will get out of here Penda, I promise you." She said it as an oath.
"Don't get yourself killed doing it, my beloved. I could not go on living without you."
Kunjana studied her, then smiled and hugged her tightly. "I won't get killed, my heart."
Chapter 9 - Seven Magnificent Women
The four women emerged from the temple into a throng of curious Amazons hungry for information. All eyes were trained on the young queen. Flanked by Xena at her right shoulder and Ephiny and Yakut on her left, Gabrielle stood straight and addressed her Amazon sisters.
"We've spoken with the goddess. The Olympian gods are well aware of this scourge in the east. We, the Thracian Amazon tribe, are the chosen ones to meet this threat."
Immediately, questions were hurled at her from all sides. From the more mature women, came concerns about daily tribal practicalities.
"Are we going to war?"
"How can we defeat an army of giants armed with weapons of the gods?"
"Who will tend our crops and hunt for next winter if we're off in Persia fighting a war."
"Are you sure this army will come here…"
But blood lust fervor rose up from the invincible younger ones, their cries for vengeance ringing out:
"Yessss! Kill the Persian bastards!"
"No one attacks an Amazon sister and lives to tell of it…"
When it seemed the shouts of outrage and concern would continue unabated, Xena stepped up next to her lover. "Quiet!" she shouted, clearly having had enough of this. "Quiet, all of you. Give your queen a chance to talk and all your questions will be answered." She paused and glared at several of the more vocal ones before continuing. "Now be quiet or you'll answer to me."
With the voices dying down to a murmur and then to deadly silence, she stepped back behind Gabrielle, crossing her arms in the stance of queen's protector. It left no doubt in anyone's mind that the next person who spoke before the queen was finished would be tossed across the camp. Gabrielle threw Xena a grateful look.
Taking a deep breath she began again.
"Artemis has supplied us with a powerful aid in the form of the Persian goddess, Anahita. The enemy can be defeated but it will take powers both human and divine. To answer some of your questions; yes, we are going to war."
At this pronouncement several women gasped and the queen's champion glowered, lowering her arms threatening to come forward again. Immediately, quiet descended on the assembled Amazons. Nodding to Gabrielle to continue, Xena stared down the crowd of distraught women.
"Okay, let me continue. Yes, we are going to war, but not all of us. Artemis told us to take only a small group of warriors. So, most of you will remain here to handle the daily needs of our tribe. When we get to Persia we'll be given instructions by their goddess on how to defeat this army. If we succeed then, no, the red scorpion army will not come here. Now, I will answer your questions."
Casting a quick glance at the warrior princess, one woman dared to speak. "Who will go to Persia, my Queen?" she asked respectfully.
"There will be a party of seven of us. I leave it to Xena and Ephiny to decide who the other four warriors will be." At this news, both Ephiny and Xena stared incredulously at Gabrielle, who studiously ignored them both. "Are there more questions?"
"Queen Gabrielle," another woman ventured, "Are you going with the warriors?"
"Yes, I am. Artemis seems to think I have a role to play in this."
"Then who will rule, if both you and the regent are going?" came another query from an older Amazon in the back.
"Fortunately, Yakut, Ephiny and I were discussing this very subject at breakfast. At that time, I asked our shaman, Yakut, to assume these duties should it ever happen that both regent and queen were away from Amazon lands and unable to rule. I have the highest respect and trust in her. Despite her youth, her wisdom is of the ages and I believe you will be well served with Yakut as your leader in our absence."
There were murmurs of agreement that seemed to surprise Yakut. Always self-deprecating, she had a hard time understanding everyone's faith in her. As she saw it, she merely served her goddess and tribe; certainly it was nothing so special. She caught snippets of conversation before the queen began speaking again.
"Yes, Yakut is wise and fair."
"I feel better knowing she'll be in charge."
"And with Otere as her champion, well who can stand against them?"
Gabrielle shouted over the women as they began discussing this latest development.
"I'm glad everyone is comfortable with this arrangement. I will present the mask and staff to her this evening. We'll want to leave for Persia as soon as possible and we'll need everyone to contribute to do that. Xena will be in charge of making us ready for travel. If she asks anything of you, please treat it as a request from me personally. Those chosen for this mission will be contacted immediately. I think that covers it. Let's all work together. Thank you."
Talking among them selves, many of the Amazons continued to stand around in small groups. Casting backward glances over their shoulders in case another announcement should be forthcoming, they were reluctant to leave. However, when the queen and her champion began speaking in urgent tones to each other, most of the stragglers moved away. The big warrior seemed agitated and no one wanted to be in the line of fire.
Xena turned on Gabrielle. "What do you mean, Xena and Ephiny will be in charge of who's going? I know these Amazons well enough to pick four. I certainly, don't need any interference from your regent."
She did nothing to modulate her voice so that Ephiny was well aware she was the topic of conversation even as Gabrielle sought to steer Xena to a quiet place to discuss things.
"Xena, please, I know you're an excellent judge of fighting skills, but Ephiny knows everyone's fighting ability too." Sighing deeply, the young queen rubbed the back of her neck releasing the pent up tension there. She began again. "Mostly, I need you two to get along. We have a huge task ahead of us. How can we hope to win if we fight among ourselves? Please, Xena, I need your help. This war you have with Eph has got to end."
The warrior blew out a breath and looked skyward. Mentally, she counted to ten before replying. In her heart she knew Gabrielle was right and her own knowledge of battle strategy confirmed it. Xena knew well the value of a tight knit fighting force, especially during covert operations where each person's life depended on the split second response of a partner. And truth be told, she actually liked and trusted the regent. What happened during the solstice party was nothing more than too much port in too charged an atmosphere. Gabrielle loves me, how much proof do I need, she ruminated to herself.
"Yeah, you're right Gabrielle. I'll work with Eph." Then she smiled down at her lover, moving closer so she could whisper in the young woman's ear. "You've acquired a lot of wisdom in your young life, ya know that?"
Blushing, the young queen pushed her away. "Thank you, Xena. Now get to work."
Giving her a quick peck on her downy cheek, Xena moved away, "Your wish is my command, my queen."
Gabrielle laughed shaking her head as she walked over to speak with Yakut. She wanted to glean any further enlightenment the shaman could provide on the meaning of her dream vision and what she might know of the Persian goddess.
Ephiny unconsciously backed up as the warrior approached her. Smirking as she registered this reaction, Xena began stalking her quarry, but then thought better of it. Damn, I need to get a grip. Gabrielle is right. We can't win if we can't trust each other. With this thought in mind, Xena held out her forearm in the warrior's sign of friendship. "No hard feelings Eph?"
Breaking into a huge grin of relief, Ephiny crossed Xena's arm with her own. She continued to marvel at the young queen's ability to tame the savage beast within this warrior who brooked no argument from most people.
"None at all. Let's get to work, shall we?"
Standing there in the center of camp the two women began discussing what they would need in terms of skills for a small guerilla force to invade and distract the Persian army.
"The way I see it, we'll need warriors skilled at stealth and in the use of swords for close in fighting. But also, I'd like at least two archers. Who've we got that fits the bill?" Xena asked.
"Well, I'm a pretty damn good archer myself and can handle my sword or so I've been told. Noalani is the best archer we have. At solstice she won all the games, if you recall. And Pony is the best with a sword, but Solari is second only to her. And both of them are captains of the perimeter guards. You want stealth, they're the best. So, those three for sure."
Xena pondered this for a few seconds. Solari, she knew only in passing. The woman was quietly intense, taking all of her duties seriously. And Xena did indeed remember that no one even came close to Noalani's skill with the bow during the solstice contests. Other than that she did not know the woman very well. She got along well with Pony and knew her abilities first hand, having spent every morning of the past fortnight sparring with her. The woman in question stood a respectful distance away, her attention divided between the proceedings and the newcomer. Xena waved Pony over to join them.
"I agree about Pony. Don't tell her, but there've been a couple of times that she almost had me. She's good all right." Xena said sotto voce and then in a normal tone continued, "I'll take your word for the other two. We need one more."
Before Ephiny could answer, the two women were interrupted by a new voice. "I'm going with you. I'm the seventh."
Startled by the interruption, their heads came round in the direction of the voice. They were confronted by Adara, still looking tired and drawn.
Xena spoke gently, "Adara, I can appreciate what you've been through and what you've lost. But we need warriors. Can you handle a sword or a bow?"
"I only know the staff well. But I am a healer in my tribe. I could be of use to you. There will be injuries."
"Adara, we can't take you. I need another sword and your children need you." Xena stated kindly, laying a hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze of encouragement. Then she started to turn back to Ephiny.
Grabbing Xena's arm with unbelievable strength, Adara spun the warrior back around. Years of getting her own stubborn warrior's attention had taught her a few moves. Raising her voice so there could be no mistaking her resolve, she said, "I'm going if I have to follow you all the way to the Caucus!"
Hearing the loud voices, Gabrielle and Yakut hurried over to the other three women.
Pony, who was never far from Adara's side, was also in attendance.
"What's the problem?" asked the queen.
Xena looked with compassion at Adara, fully aware of the young woman's pain and her need to avenge her hearth mate. Trying again to reason with Adara, but speaking softly to Gabrielle, Xena said.
"Adara wants to go with us. But Gabrielle, she's needed here with her children. And we need one more sword."
Holding Adara's golden eyes with her own blue ones, Xena tried to convey her real sorrow at this decision, "I'm sorry Adara. But I promise you, we will bring home your sisters and I swear; I will personally avenge your mate."
Having voiced Adara's own unspoken hope of some survivors, the eastern Amazon drew in a breath to steady herself. She wasn't going to be defeated on this. No matter what, she'd be the seventh woman.
She knew her slight frame and quiet demeanor were deceptive. In a fond memory of the previous summer, she recalled that Tynet's immediate response had been "no" when Adara had announced that she and the children would be traveling to Thrace with Tynet to trade their horses. Adara had merely begun packing what they would need for the long journey. No amount of argument about the trials of taking two small children, the younger being only one and a half, on such an arduous trip could dissuade Adara, who simply continued her preparations. She remembered hearing her lover laughing and telling friends questioning the decision, "My Adara, she's a force to be reckoned with. You talk her out of it if you can. Me, I have better uses for my energy. " They'd all made the trip.
"I know you think you're doing what's best for all the Amazons. I understand that, but I can be of help. I know the quickest way to my camp and I know the area and its people. I am a healer and you will need my skills. Since they took captives from my tribe there may be other prisoners, and if that's so, perhaps I can find other warriors to fight with us."
Pony had been following the arguments pro and con. Looking with compassion at Adara, her heart broke open. For the first time in her life her heart was full of understanding and empathy. She actually felt Adara's pain as if it were her own. The young eastern woman was suffering and Pony, in her desire to guard this woman against any further hurt, felt compelled to step in. Before Gabrielle could respond, Pony voiced her thoughts on the matter.
"I'm against it," she said. All eyes turned to the weapons mistress, but she focused solely on the Eastern Amazon.
"Please trust me Adara, I too promise to avenge your mate. Xena's right. You belong with your children. And you need time to heal from your loss. Please, stay safely here. My lodge is yours, all my possessions, I give you. If we don't return, your children will be raised in the safety of this tribe." Such a declaration of generosity could only mean one thing. In a short time Pony had come to care deeply for this brave, beautiful stranger. With her heart in her throat, Pony waited to see if her gift was accepted.
Even through the depths of her grief, Adara understood what it was that Pony was truly offering. In their often harsh world, survival depended on family and tribe. The need to provide for her children would mean re-establishing a hearth for them. Even so, it was impossible just now to imagine that she'd ever want another lover in her life. The pain was too real, the wound in her heart too raw. All of her life, empathy came easily to Adara and she sought to let Pony down gently.
"Thank you, Pony, your offer of friendship touches me; but if you don't return, there is no place on this earth my children will be safe. I need to go in order to heal and I know I can be of help."
Knowing she'd continue to protect Adara and her family even if it was only as a friend, Pony wondered at the strangeness of life. She'd always been the one to play the field. There had been a couple of women who truly cared for her and wanted a life with her and yet Pony had been unable to respond in kind. Now she stood in their boots and felt the terrible emptiness of loving someone who was not able to love her back. With this new insight, Pony swallowed the rejection and sought to mask her own pain so as to not add to Adara's already burdened heart.
"I understand. I'll do whatever I can to help you."
Adara acknowledged the offer with a wan smile and a simple, "thank you" and then turned pleading eyes on the queen.
"Please, Queen Gabrielle, I know the secrets of both the mountains and the deserts. My skills with weapons may be limited, but having an ally that knows the area will be invaluable."
Gabrielle could easily put herself in the young woman's place. The mere thought of living a lifetime without Xena by her side, tugged at the queen's heart. Her own inclination was to take Adara. She knew there was more to winning battles than weapons and strength, but she had given the choice of who went and who stayed to Xena and Ephiny. She needed to bear in mind the needs of the tribe as well as this Amazon's personal need to finish what she'd started. Gabrielle turned to her warrior, knowing that she had been digesting all the arguments. "Xena?" she asked.
Even though she was still concerned about Adara's children, Xena couldn't disagree with the young woman's logic. It would indeed be invaluable to have someone familiar with the landscape, weather patterns and watering holes along the way.
"Adara, are you sure? You'll leave your children orphans if we fail."
"I do understand, Xena, better than you can imagine. I've seen this army. I know what we're up against. Here, my children are with family, my aunt, Marana." She paused taking in a much needed breath. "And, I know, their lives will be greatly shortened if we don't succeed."
Studying the determined woman in front of her, Xena nodded once. "All right, we have our seventh."
Pony's heart clinched in her chest, even as she silently pledged I'll make any sacrifice to see you happy.
Gabrielle forestalled any further argument, "The decision is made then. We need to get ready to travel. When do you want to leave, Xena?"
"At first light" was the succinct reply.
"Let's get moving then." Gabrielle said.
Xena began issuing orders for the preparations. "Everyone will need to pack their personal gear. Pony, you and Solari gather as many small hand weapons as you can, breast daggers, small knives and I want strips of soft leather for garrotes. We'll need to slip into their camp and arm as many of the captives as we can. I don't know what condition they'll be in, but the element of surprise is our biggest weapon. Also, pick good horses, fast, agile and strong."
As Pony moved off to find Solari and fulfill their list, Xena spotted Noalani a few feet away watching the proceedings. It was obvious from her stance; she knew she was one of the chosen. Motioning to the woman to join them, Xena turned to Ephiny. "Would you and Noalani check on the supplies of arrows as well as dried food, blankets and the rest that we'll need for travel? I want to move fast. We'll hunt when we can, but for the most part we're looking at cold meals, especially when we get within range."
Both women responded at the same time with, "Done." and "Got it."
Looking at Gabrielle and Adara, Xena continued. "All right, let's sit down with Artemis's precious piece of parchment and see if Adara has any idea where this place is."
The morning dawned cool and crisp. Smoke from breakfast cook fires lay like a light fog over the compound.
In the previous eighteen hours there had been a flurry of activity. Every Amazon had participated. Some prepared food for the journey, while others readied the best horses for the long ride, and placed supplies into neat bundles ready to be strapped onto three sturdy pack animals. Many women had worked through the night so that the small band could get under way by dawn's first light.
Seven chosen warriors slowly made their way to the center of camp for Yakut's blessing, each lost in her own thoughts.
Solari poked her head out of the flap of her hut, and then emerged holding the hand of a blonde, hazel eyed woman, Calliope, who had spent the last few hours with her in her lodge. The two young women had become close over the preceding spring. Neither had felt any need to hurry their relationship, thinking they had all the time in the world, now each mused over the possibilities and knew a sense of destiny. Calliope squeezed Solari's hand as they reach the central fire pit and stood silently beside the compact brunette who had come to mean so much to her.
Noalani and Ephiny approached from opposite directions. Ephiny had spent most of the night seeing to the last minute details, before falling into a dreamless sleep just before dawn. The two arrived at the fire pit at the same moment acknowledging each other with tentative smiles.
Noalani had not spent the night alone, but in the company of a close friend of many years, Idola. The two had become like sisters over the years and although they had been lovers many season ago, they had come to realize that they made better friends than lovers. Still, last night the two had laid together in each others arms talking until at last they had fallen quiet, each knowing they might never see the other again.
Seeing to the last minute details, Xena had not bothered with sleeping. Watching her approach with Gabrielle at her side, Ephiny marveled at the warrior's stamina. Even now without any rest, Xena appeared alert and competent, walking with her typical long stride, a tired queen hurrying to keep up with her. Two candle marks earlier, Xena had sent both queen and regent to their respective huts, stating that they were next to useless as tired as they both were. Neither had argued, but hurried away for a few precious minutes of slumber.
Last to appear, but ready for travel was Adara with her family. The combined hearts of her Amazon sisters went out to the young mother when she bent down to say goodbye to her children.
Hugging her somber, five year old to her breast, she kissed the side of the child's head, and then held her at arms length. Seeking to give the small family a bit of privacy for their farewells, the others moved nearer their horses so that the whispered goodbyes couldn't be heard. The youngster could be seen shaking her head before she bolted back into the seamstress's lodge. Sighing, Adara stood and took Ursa from her aunt's arms. The baby seemed confused by the early hour and the activity in the camp. Kissing the toddler and holding her tight one last time, she finally relinquished the child back to the protective arms of the formidable Marana, who then hugged Adara with her free arm.
Finally pulling away, she turned to join the others at their horses; but was stopped in her tracks at hearing her daughter's voice behind her.
"I'm ready to go." Thaddea said.
Adara's heart clinched as she observed the small five year old warrior, so like her mother, standing with feet planted wide, bedroll under one arm and small wooden practice sword hanging from a leather thong at her side. With only a glance of apology to the others waiting patiently, Adara knelt before her resistive child.
"Thaddea, sweetheart, we've had this conversation. You are not going. This is dangerous business. As much as you have the heart of a warrior, you're still only a child."
Unconvinced, Thaddea adamantly shook her head, no.
From her vantage point seated on Argo, Xena could see that Adara wasn't having much luck convincing the child. Resigned, she dismounted and approached the mother and child. Kneeling down next to Adara, Xena waited until the youngster looked at her.
"What's the problem, warrior?"
Tearing her eyes away from Xena's, the child stared at the dust on her boots. She was close to despair, her tears of rage and frustration threatening to flow. "I… I promised my mama." She stammered in an almost inaudible voice.
Only Xena's keen hearing allowed her to understand what had been spoken. "What did you promise her, Thaddea?" She asked the child tenderly.
"That I would come find her. She's not dead." Here she looked at her mother, begging her to understand. "Amma, I know she's not dead."
Adara's heart split wide open. With tears running in rivulets down her cheeks, she cradled her daughter's head to her shoulder, choking out her words.
"Oh Thaddea, my baby, I want her to be alive too, believe me I do."
Gabrielle and Pony had approached the small group. The child's misery struck a sympathetic cord in everyone assembled. It was Xena who most clearly understood the commitment behind the small girl's pledge to her dead mother. Such a promise would override every other promise made and demand a lifetime attempting to fulfill that which could never be accomplished. This she knew from personal experience. The last thing Xena wanted was for this innocent child to be caught in the same trap she herself had lived in for so many years and was even now still atoning for.
"Thaddea," Xena said, "Do you know what a warrior's surrogate is?"
The distraught child shook her head, no.
Xena continued, "You know the Queen has a champion, someone who is her protector and fights on her behalf."
Thaddea nodded her understanding.
"Well, a warrior can designate a champion too and it's called the warrior's surrogate. Warriors are allowed to do this when they cannot fulfill their solemn duty themselves. I will be your surrogate, Thaddea. I will assume your pledge to your mama. If she lives, I will bring her back. If she does not live, I will avenge her death. This I swear to you on my sword and warrior's honor."
Xena struck her chest once with her closed fist. Then raising her forearm to the child, she asked, "Will you accept me as your surrogate?"
Having spent most of the previous day following the tall warrior woman around like a shadow, and seeing her strength and authority, Thaddea knew if anyone was capable of finding her mama, it was Xena. She knew she had promised to find her mama herself, but it would be no shame to send Xena in her place, the child reasoned. I'm sending the best warrior I could get, Mama. Next to you, she might be the best in the world. She'll bring you back to me, she thought to herself. Then the child, realizing she'd made her decision, slowly extended her small arm and crossed Xena's.
There was a collective sound among the assembled Amazons who had gathered to bid the seven goodbye. Sniffles could be heard from many and sobs from a few. The story of the towering warrior and the tiny one would be told for days to come.
She still had one worry eating away at her, and she voiced it to her mother now. "What if you die, Amma?" she choked out the question.
"I'll be very careful sweetheart. I… I plan …" Adara struggled to find words that would give some measure of comfort to her child.
Before she could finish, Pony stepped in. "I promise you, Thaddea, I will sacrifice my own life before I'd let anything happen to your mother."
She could not bear to look the weapon's mistress in the eye. She didn't like the way she looked at her amma, the way she always touched her shoulder and smiled at her. Her thoughts were turbulent with her inner fears. She belongs with mama. You don't understand; my amma and my mama belong together. But her options were limited. In her heart she knew all the women going were very brave and would each fight to protect the others. Her eyes downcast, Thaddea grudgingly acknowledged Pony's offer, "okay."
It appeared that all was settled then. Xena stood and squeezed Thaddea's shoulder. Adara hugged her one last time. Finally, moving as a group back to their animals, the chosen warriors mounted up.
Yakut stepped forward raising her feathered rattle in her right hand and a twisted rope of sweet grass in the other. As the riders waited patiently for the Shaman's blessing, Yakut circled the group three times east to west chanting an ancient incantation stopping finally in front of them. "Warriors, you travel under the protection of the goddess and with her blessing. Come safely home to us." She then stepped aside.
Seven brave, magnificent women filed out of camp, Xena and Gabrielle in the lead, with Adara at the rear, looking back at her children for as long as they were visible.
As they entered the forest, the tree line obscured their view of the main village. Gabrielle turned to Xena and said. "I've never heard of the warrior's surrogate."
"Not surprising, since I made it up." Xena answered.
Reaching over and taking her lover's hand, Gabrielle squeezed Xena's fingers before letting go. "Have I told you how much I love you?"
Xena smiled broadly. Her heart swelling with pleasure that this beautiful woman thought highly of her, she said simply. "Yes, and I love you too, you know that?"
Back in camp, a small girl stood watching the forest's edge long after the horses had disappeared from view. The sound of a whiny close by alerted her that someone approached from behind.
Cleese and Thalia stepped forward leading a beautiful white mare. Each of the girls had her hand on the reins, but it was Cleese who spoke.
"Thaddea, would you help us train our new horse?"
Her heart heavy with grief and loss, Thaddea continued to look east in the direction of the departed warriors. I don't want to train a horse. I want my amma and my mama. I want to be back home, she thought.
Then from a secret place deep within her heart it seemed her beloved mother was speaking to her. Thaddea, Tynet's voice seemed to say, Go with these girls and help them as I've taught you. An Amazon always helps her sisters. I promise you, I will never leave you. I am with you even now.
It was that inspiration that allowed her to understand why her Amma had had to go, to help all the Amazons. Thaddea too, was an Amazon, a member of a proud group of women and she knew where her duty lay. Goodbye, Amma, bring Mama back to us, she sent this final prayer to her beloved mothers.
Casting one last, longing look in the direction of home, Thaddea accepted that her role was to wait here and to be a strong Amazon. "Okay." She said.
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Continued in Chapter 10
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