2005 Posted to AcademyChapters 1-5 posted.
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THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER – by Patricia and Xanjaa
firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Disclaimers in Prologue
Chapter 10 – Ride Across the Caucus
Additional acknowledgment disclaimer: This chapter contains a song by Canadian singer- songwriter Loreena McKennitt, called “Night Ride Across the Caucasus”. It was used without permission. We mean no copyright infringement of this song. This singer sings magical songs with a celtic flavor. If you are interested in her wonderful music you can purchase it online or at your favorite music store. The song can be found on Loreena’s CD, The Book of Secrets.>>
Riding single file up the steep incline, the seven dusty and road weary women sat silently on their mounts. The top of the mountain peeked in and out of view as the trail twisted and turned back on itself. For the past two days, they’d been climbing, always leaning forward in their saddles to guard against sliding back over their horses’ rumps. Even though most of them sported sore backs and thighs, they pressed on knowing their goal, Adara’s camp, was only half a day’s ride further.
Reaching a level meadow with a few stands of pines scattered about, they were relieved to be able to ride over even ground for a bit. The flat terrain would only provide a short respite as the trail started back up again at the opposite end of the meadow to what would be the final pass into the valley on the eastern side of the mountains.
Astride Mahtab, Adara quietly took in the familiar landscape. Riding just ahead of her was Xena. Adara’s thoughts drifted to the queen’s champion.
Admiring the stoic warrior’s focus, strength and compassion, Adara noted again the qualities Xena shared with her Tynet. Even their body types were very similar, and in fact, several times she’d caught her breath when seeing the warrior princess from a distance. Those moments had made the journey even more difficult for Adara, as it had seemed that her beloved hearth mate was riding just up ahead.
As she’d come to know Xena better, Adara became aware of a major difference between her lost mate and the warrior princess. Tynet had always been at peace within her soul, whereas something troubled Xena.
Adara had pondered this as the miles passed beneath their horse’s hooves. An astute observer of people and life, she’d finally realized what it was. Xena was still unsure of the queen’s love.
Adara had watched as shadows of disbelief crossed the warrior’s face when she watched Gabrielle. It was sad to realize that Xena felt unworthy of the queen’s love, as Adara had also recognized Gabrielle’s love was given without reservation.
Now, as she observed the tall woman’s back, Adara hoped one day Xena would come to understand, worthiness had little to do with the heart. Lost in thought, she allowed her mare her head and was soon abreast of Xena.
Xena’s eyes were in constant motion scanning the horizon as she led the band of tired Amazons.
“Adara, how’re you doing?” Xena asked smiling at the preoccupied woman, knowing that seeing the destruction of her home would slam home the reality of her loss. For now, it was still an unbelievable nightmare, one that still held some hope.
Adara appreciated the way all these wonderful women had taken her in and made her one of them. Pony had become a friend, allowing Adara to reminisce for hours without interruption. For her part, Adara made every effort to keep a positive attitude, even while her heart was breaking.
With this in mind, she replied to Xena’s query.
“I’m doing alright, but it’s as if I can’t get my mind to accept this. I look around and everything seems so normal. I know that even though we’ll soon reach my home, there won’t be much left to see.”
She paused, her voice taking on a wistful, far away quality, almost as if she’d stepped back into that black time. She sucked in a ragged breath as her inner vision filled again with the horrors she’d seen that evening.
“Everything, all of it, was taken that night….” She paused. “My life as I knew it….my heart.” The impact of the words being said aloud ripped through her making her shudder with the realization.
Xena knew the best thing was for Adara to get it out, to speak of it in the light of day.
“Tell me again, Adara; everything you can remember. Even the smallest bit of information is a weapon I can use against them.” Xena said as Pony trotted up next to them. She was seldom far from the eastern woman’s side.
As the angle of the late afternoon sun elongated their shadows, Adara once again told her tale in a flat empty tone. When she got to the death of her life-mate, her voice dropped to a whisper and was even more emotionless,
“… from my hiding place in the rocks, I peeked over the edge of a large boulder. Below me, it was chaos. The camp was in flames, the smoke was so thick details were hard to make out. The screams of the dying and of those still fighting reached me over the noise of explosions and the insane laughter of the giant soldiers as they cut down one Amazon sister after another.”
Needing to breathe before the memories of that day crushed her she paused before continuing.
“Then I saw her, my Tynet, standing bravely in front of maybe a dozen women, the last of our tribe. Her blade was in continual motion. She fought one, then another of the huge soldiers. They were so big, Xena, ugly, malformed, hideous monsters. I know I sound like I’m seeing impossible visions made worse by my anger and grief, but I still wonder; how can any human be so large?”
She stopped, the pain etched in her features as she relived the death of her life partner.
Reaching over, Xena took her hand and squeezed it softly. Kind blue eyes gently took hold of golden ones, as if to say trust me.
“If you can, please finish. Believe it or not, it’ll help us both. Every time you tell it, you remember a few more pieces. Let your memories and anger be your shield. Time enough to grieve after this is over. I need to know all I can about these soldiers, what makes them strong, so I can know their weakness. And they do have them, Adara, they do have them.”
Adara took another deep cleansing breath gazing into the middle distance to compose herself.
Noting Adara’s emotional pain, Pony moved closer glaring at Xena daring her to cause the beautiful woman to weep yet again. She looked protectively at Adara with an expression of helpless devotion written on her face. Despite having resigned herself to being the friend Adara needed right now and giving the woman space to work through her grief, Pony was still protective. I’d give anything to see you smile. I’d bring back your Tynet if I could. Her thoughts were interrupted when the eastern woman resumed her story.
Returning Xena’s kindness with a weak smile, Adara continued.
“I knew it was hopeless. As my sisters died, more soldiers took up the battle against the few remaining. Even from the rocks I could see Tynet was tiring, her sword slowing, but still she fought and killed the dark soldiers. Then an ugly coward crept up behind her. He was larger even than the others and carried a mace. Most of the monsters wore helmets, but not this one. He must have always fought with out protection on his head, because he had a hideous red scar running from his filthy hair to his chin. It ran through the edge of his eye; maybe from an axe, I don’t know. Because of the smoke I couldn’t tell if he could see out of that side or not. He raised his mace and, and my Tynet, she tried to move away, but, but...” Her voice cracking, she stopped again, reliving the blow as it fell. Fat tears overflowed her eyelids and bathed her face.
Now, Pony moved closer to the distraught woman, shooting a glower at Xena as she did so.
“You think you have enough information now, Xena? Can’t you see this retelling is tearing her apart?”
Adara put a hand on Pony’s forearm. “It’s all right Pony. You need to understand what these animals are like if we are to have a chance to defeat them.”
Xena gave a helpless shrug unable to defend her motives when, a sharp whistle pierced the afternoon stillness. Pulling to a stop, Xena glanced back at the Amazons strung out along the trail. At the rear, Solari was dismounted and examining the lead pack horse.
“I’d better see what’s wrong.” Xena said, turning Argo back to the rear of the small caravan.
As she rode past, Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in question, catching the simple statement from Xena, “Pack horse.”
With Xena backtracking, the rest of the women took the opportunity to dismount and rest their backsides. They’d been riding almost non stop for nearly a fortnight.
They all had a new respect for Adara, who’d just made the trip in only two weeks time with two small children only to turn around and ride all the way back the very next day.
Dismounting, Xena stood next to Solari who was running her hand down the front of the big gelding’s leg and asked the obvious question. “What’s the problem?”
“He’s pulled up lame; seems to be favoring his right leg.” The Amazon stated as she lifted and examined the animal’s hoof. Cleaning dirt out of the soft area in the center of the horny arch, she dislodged a small rock and lowered the foot to the ground.
“Here it is,” she said holding up the stone. “I think he’ll be okay. Looks like some bruising, though. We’re gonna need to stop and treat this.”
Pony and Adara rode up as Xena and Solari were discussing the situation. Soon the other three women had moved closer as well.
Xena looked at Adara. “Are you familiar with this area? We need a place to camp for the night?” She patted the pack animal on the flank as she continued. “This boy needs to rest.”
Looking around the meadow, Adara recognized the area as the same place she and the children had stopped that first terrible night. “Yes, there’s good cover over in that stand of pines and there’s a small creek nearby.” She said as she pointed to the far end of the valley where the trail wound through the moraine and began its ascent again.
“Okay, we’ll make our camp over there.” Xena decided for the group. Then to Solari, “Can he walk that far without further damage?”
“Yes, but let’s unload him.”
The other Amazons began taking sacks of supplies to carry on their horses. At last only the pack frame remained. Once the weight was distributed between the other horses, the women remounted and rode for the thick copse of trees indicated by Adara.
The pines did indeed make for good cover. The tall trees, whose boughs reached all the way to the ground, almost completely surrounded a natural enclosure which opened only on the western end. They’d only need to post a single sentry. They’d be protected from wind and a small fire wouldn’t be visible to the east.
After two weeks on the trail, each woman knew her job setting up camp. They worked in silence and symmetry moving about the campsite, laying out bedrolls, fetching water, picketing the horses.
As soon as camp was laid out, Xena, Pony and Noalani left to hunt for dinner. Gabrielle and Ephiny chatted amiably as they dug fresh tubers and collected fruit and seeds for their evening meal.
“What do you make of Pony and Adara?” Gabrielle asked the regent as they worked side by side picking early summer berries from a thicket of brambles.
Sighing, Ephiny glanced at the hunters as they disappeared in the distance. Pony’s height was second only to Xena, making her easily distinguishable.
“Well, she’s got it bad, Gabrielle. I’ve never seen her like this with anyone; ever. She’s always played the field. Pony’s never led on any of her lovers either. She’s always been very honest with ‘em. She was out for a good time and from what I’ve gathered, she could make a woman feel pretty damn good. But if anyone dared to assume they were a couple, Pony ended it, gently, but firmly.
“Are you speaking from experience, Eph?”
Ephiny paused looking with a kind of longing at her queen and slowly shook her head.
“No, I’ve never been interested in one night stands. When I fall, it’s with the hope of more and Pony’s never offered that promise to any woman, until now.”
“I pray she doesn’t get hurt then, Eph. Because I don’t get the impression Adara returns those feelings, do you?”
Looking back toward the stream where Adara and Solari worked on the pack animal, Ephiny shook her head.
“No, I don’t. That poor woman is in love with a ghost. And I believe she always will be. I’ve seen it before; two halves to one soul. Even if she eventually took a new hearth-mate, it would not be the same blending of spirit. She was joined with her soul mate. There’s no other for her.” Now, the regent looked meaningfully at the queen.
Gabrielle blushed even as she acknowledged the truth of it to herself. A life without the warrior princess in it would be a colorless existence for her. The truth was emblazoned in her heart, Xena was her mate, beyond time and space, and there was no other for her.
“You’re right Ephiny. Goddess, poor Pony.”
Adara worked with Solari on the injured pack horse. While Solari soaked the bruised hoof in cool stream water, Adara found the comfrey she needed in her pack. Comfrey was widely known for its exceptional ability to heal bruises. She considered them to be favored by the goddess to also have found wild onion, another healing plant, growing near the stream.
Kneeling next to the creek, she pounded the herbs into a thick paste. Solari raised the injured hoof so that the eastern healer could thoroughly cover the bruise with the gooey substance. Then they tied a piece of cloth over the entire foot. The relief was immediately visible, as the horse wandered away to graze barely favoring the foot.
With her hands on her hips, Solari watched the gelding move over to where the rest of the pack animals were picketed.
“Thanks for the help, Adara. You’re good with animals.”
“Thank you for saying so. But it’s my Tynet who is the horse woman in our tribe. There’s not one of them she can’t ride or train, and the way they respond to…” She stopped as she realized that she was using the present tense.
The beautiful woman looked away. Turning toward the trail that led home, tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She swiped at them angrily. She needed to stop this incessant crying, there was much work to do if they were to help the captives and stop this menace from spreading.
Solari was a kind soul. She’d always been one who could put herself into another person’s boots. Pulling the eastern woman to her, she awkwardly patted her back. In the distance she could see her friend, Pony, with the other hunters. Her heart broke for all of them, Pony who was obviously in love with this woman, Adara whose heart belonged to a dead woman and two small children who would never know the amazing woman that their mother appeared to have been.
In a ravine not far away, Xena and Pony crouched low on the slope directly across from Noalani on the other incline. They’d spotted fresh deer signs at the entrance to this canyon.
Bow in hand and arrow nocked, Noalani was leaning over a boulder ready to fire as soon as the decision was made. Pony also had an arrow ready to fly.
Xena didn’t want any left over meat to attract predators to their campsite. So the plan was to bring down a small animal and take away just the amount of meat they could eat that evening, leaving the carcass deep in the ravine for the scavengers to feast on far from the Amazon campsite.
A small group of five fallow deer grazed on the sparse grasses of the canyon floor. Although unaware of their peril, the three adult does and two fawns occasionally lifted their heads testing the air. Scanning the group, Xena picked out a small older female among the group and watched intently. Immobile, the three warrior women waited. After observing long enough to determine which youngster belonged to which doe, Xena signaled Noalani, that it was the older female they were hunting. Watching the interchange from her position of cover, Pony felt a small surge of adrenalin course through her veins.
Xena raised her arm. Both archers pulled back on their bow strings simultaneously. As she dropped her hand giving the signal to fire, the zing of the taut strings releasing alerted the timid deer a moment too late. The older female dropped with a thud, dead before she hit the ground as both Amazon arrows found their mark. Terrified, the rest of the small group sprinted deeper into the underbrush disappearing from view.
Small rocks and pebbles preceded Noalani as she made her way down the opposite slope. Xena had just started down to help when Pony forestalled her by gripping her bicep.
“Xena, can I ask you something?” Pony said.
Glancing down at Noalani who’d already reached the canyon floor and had her
knife out to butcher the fresh kill, Xena reluctantly turned back to her friend.
She knew what was coming but had no answers for the love-sick weapons’ mistress.
It was painfully obvious, that her friend had lost her heart to a woman she
could never really have. It tore at Xena to see the hopeful expression on Pony’s
face, clearly asking for answers she didn’t have. What good is talk, when
there is no solution?
“Sure Pony, what’s on your mind?” Xena feigned ignorance.
“Well, it’s about Adara and me. I mean not Adara and me exactly, but … I mean… I’d like it to be Adara and me; someday… you know, when things are better… oh Hades Balls! Xena, do I have a chance with a woman like her?”
Gods, I hate heart to heart talks. I’d rather bite the heads off rats than give advice about love. She knew little about it. Mostly her life had been a series of mistakes in that department, until Gabrielle and that had been a gift beyond her comprehension. Still, she needed to tell Pony something.
“Pony, I don’t know what to tell you. You can see as well as I that she’s grieving.”
Pony interrupted impatiently, “I know that. I’m not blind, not completely insensitive.”
“Like me you mean,” replied Xena, trying to spark an argument rather than go any further with this painful topic.
“Centaur Crap! I didn’t mean that and you know it,” Pony argued before blowing out a breath. “It’s just that I… I really care for her. I’ve never felt anything like this before. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Yes, I do. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It wasn’t that long ago you called my attention to just that fact.”
“And now you won’t help me; you’re getting the last laugh, is that it?”
“Pony, believe me, I’m not laughing at you. I know what you’re feeling. For almost two years I carried my own love for Gabrielle hidden inside, because I didn’t think she felt the same and it turned out I was wrong.”
“But this is different. I just met Adara and from the first moment she’s all I can think of. I know she’s grieving for her hearth mate. It’s only natural. How can I show her I care? Should I? Damn it, what can I do?”
“Pony, you’re already doing all you can. It’s going to take time. After we find the army and defeat them, then it will be time for her to heal. She’ll need someone to lean on when she finally accepts the truth. Just be there for her. I know it’s not much help.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Come on, Noalani could use our help.”
As there was nothing else to say on the topic, Xena tried for a change of subject.
“Look Pony, would you mind riding up on that ridge with me after we get this meat back to camp? I want to make sure no unexpected company shows up tonight.”
“Sure, whatever you need. I would have hated sitting around relaxing all afternoon.” Pony joked, forcing herself out of the morose mood.
Xena clapped her friend on the shoulder. “Thanks; it’ll work out. Everything always does.”
The two women joined Noalani who was already well into dressing out their kill.
The moon waxed nearly full in an indigo sky glittering with stars. It had been nearly a full moon cycle since the mid-summer celebrations.
As the evening meal had been prepared, Xena, Pony and Solari scouted all the way to the top of the pass looking for any sign that the army had passed this way. After a candle mark’s fruitless search, Xena had called a halt, assured their camp would remain undetected.
The thick stand of trees even muffled sounds such that, the three trackers were almost back in camp before they had heard the women within.
Dinner had been a veritable feast after so many cold meals on the trail. And now the seven warrior women lounged around the small evening campfire.
Xena, who’d just returned from walking the outer perimeter of their campsite, sat with her back against one of several boulders strewn about, Gabrielle between her legs leaning against her chest. Unconsciously drawing small designs on the warrior’s thigh, Gabrielle enjoyed the feeling of Xena’s chin nuzzling her hair.
Ephiny, Pony and Solari huddled close together speaking in low tones striving to keep their conversation to themselves. They mulled over all that could go wrong and how they could be prepared for it. Even though the injured pack horse seemed much better after a few hours rest and would be ready to travel in the morning, they discussed redistributing his load amongst the two other pack animals.
Casting furtive glances over at the beautiful woman sitting next to Noalani near the fire,
Pony could hardly keep her mind on the conversation.
It had been determined that they would reach Adara’s home by mid morning the next day. The woman, whose life had been decimated only four weeks before, sat deep in thought, staring into the flames as they flickered and danced over the logs. Painful memories played at the edges of her consciousness. Even though she didn’t want to entertain her misery, there seemed to be no place to hide from her loss.
Noalani reached into her saddle pack and rooted around until her fingers closed over her most cherished possession, a small flute made by her best friend, Idola. She’d given it to Noalani as a winter solstice gift two years prior. Closing her eyes, she put her lips to the instrument and began playing a slow haunting melody that matched the somber mood of the entire company of women. Spying the lonely woman and seeking to ease her out of her depression, Noalani switched to a song that Adara had taught them last summer.
As she’d hoped Adara’s head came up as the soothing music entwined itself around her consciousness like the embrace of an old friend. Adara swayed along with the tune for a few minutes, before she joined her voice with the flute’s melodious strains and began to softly sing. Noalani encouraged the young woman by smiling around the mouth piece and nodding her head while she played.
Ride on Through the night Ride on
Ride on Through the night Ride on
There are visions, there are memories
There are echoes of thundering hooves
There are fires, there is laughter
There's the sound of a thousand doves
While her voice floated up on each note, Adara stared into the middle distance,
her inner eye seeing so many scenes from happier times: She and her mate as
children, and then as young lovers riding out across the mountains on a night
much like this. The moon goddess had shone down her blessings as her daughters
frolicked and laughed and loved.
In the velvet of the darkness
By the silhouette of silent trees
They are witnessing life's mysteries
Pony’s eyes were riveted on the woman singing. Even as she knew the words
were sung to another, she vowed to make Adara’s life joyful again, whatever
that took, whatever that meant. From out of nowhere came an unbidden thought,
be careful what you wish for, warrior.
Cascading stars on the slumbering hills
They are dancing as far as the sea
Riding o'er the land, you can feel its gentle hand
Leading on to its destiny
Revisiting in her mind all the times she and her lover and best friend had enjoyed these same images, Xena’s heart swelled. And she chuckled at the memory of Gabrielle seeing animal shapes in the stars glittering over head. It was a dipper, anyone could see that, but if Gabrielle wanted a bear, then a bear it was and she leaned down with her lips close to her lover’s ear whispering, “It’s a bear!”
In reply, Gabrielle turned her head and lightly brushed Xena’s lips with her
own. Then she settled deeper into her lover’s embrace as she let Adara’s clear
beautiful voice flow over and through her.
Take me with you on this journey
Where the boundaries of time are now tossed
In cathedrals of the forest
In the words of the tongues now lost
As Ephiny looked over at her friend, her heart opened in a silent prayer. You are such a good hearted woman Pony; may you find happiness. Sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of your face. But if Adara is who you want then may she come to love you as much as you love her.
Reflecting that the ways of love were strange; as fulfilling and pleasurable as it was, love was a force unto itself and could be devastating. Ephiny understood that this powerful emotion came from a place beyond the heart and beyond time and even beyond the gods.
Find the answers, ask the questions
Find the roots of an ancient tree
Take me dancing, take me singing
I'll ride on till the moon meets the sea
As the words drifted away, each woman sat silently caught up in her own special memories. Solari looked back to the west thinking of Calliope, Please Artemis, take care of her till I get home. I want to make memories with her. Then she wondered if Artemis could even hear her out here. Maybe their goddess, Anahita will deliver the message.
It was Gabrielle who finally broke the reverie. “That was beautiful. Thank you both for taking us out of this fearful place we’ve been in and helping us to remember there is beauty and life always.”
All the women spoke at once adding their thanks and expressions of appreciation to the two musicians. It seemed that the song had delivered its gift and as the hour was late, the women slowly moved over to their bedrolls to sleep before the final push into Adara’s valley in the morning.
“Who’s got the first watch tonight?” Xena asked. She actually knew who it was, but was hoping she was wrong.
“I do” chirped her partner.
She groaned inside. After that song, Xena wanted nothing so much as to hold her bard tight and look at the stars for a while. Maybe she could. Sliding closer to her lover and lowering her voice to an intimate level, she said.
“I’ll stand watch with you then.”
“Xena, you stood two watches last night. When do you sleep?”
“I’m not that tired and I could make the time pass faster.” She added with a suggestive lift of her eyebrows.
Glancing around to see that none of the others appeared to be listening to this exchange, Gabrielle replied, “Xena, I need to keep alert. Why do I have the feeling with you there I wouldn’t be so attentive to sentry duty?”
Shrugging her shoulders and lowering her voice even more, Xena said, “I have many skills. I could keep watch and entertain you.” She smiled and winked to emphasize her lascivious point.
“Xena I can’t do that. I need to pull my weight and set a good example for the others.”
Feigning capitulation, she said, “Okay, if that’s what you want.” Then Xena leaned in; first brushing her lips against the bard’s and then using her tongue she sought entry and kissed the woman deeply, eliciting a low moan from Gabrielle.
“Are ya sure?” Xena asked when she pulled back for a breath.
Gabrielle’s knees wanted nothing more than to buckle. Despite her youth and her feelings for Xena, she knew her duty and was determined to perform it. Pulling away as she caught her breath, the young woman tried to regain her composure.
“Nice try Warrior Princess, but no… I mean yes… I mean; I’m the queen and I don’t think…” Blowing out a breath of exasperation, she said, “Xena, I have to do this my way.”
Finally, feeling a bit more in charge of her body, she gently patted Xena’s leather covered chest and backed away heading for the opening in the trees. At the perimeter, she turned and waved to the thwarted warrior who stood with arms akimbo and a stunned expression on her face. Then the queen disappeared around the tree line.
Turning back to her own bedroll, Xena kicked the furs in frustration.
“Problem, warrior?” Pony’s sarcastic voice was close by.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than eavesdrop?” Xena’s response was terse as she flung herself down on the bedding.
“Sor-reeee, just making conversation. What a grouch. I don’t know why she puts up with you.”
Xena didn’t bother answering. The rest of the camp was quiet. The others were already asleep or lost in their own thoughts. With her hands behind her head, Xena stared up at the stars, seeing the dipper first and hearing her bard’s voice in her mind, “…look, see it’s a bear… see there are the cute little ears…” Damn.
She flipped over on her side. In another minute she turned over on the other side. She needed to touch Gabrielle, to hold her close and breathe in the very essence of her. Flipping onto her back again, Xena expelled a huge discontented sigh and stood up.
The ever vigilant Pony whispered to her. “Can’t be away from her for a minute can you?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about… I need to use the bushes. Go back to sleep and mind your own business.” Xena hissed back as she walked by the prone Amazon.
Suddenly repentant, Pony reached out and held Xena’s boot, “I’m sorry Xena. Sometimes making jokes is the only way I can stop this hopeless feeling.” She whispered in a voice choked with emotion.
Empathy flooded Xena, as she recalled her own intense loneliness before Gabrielle had come into her life. Leaning down so only the weapons mistress could hear her, she whispered, “S’Okay, Pony. I understand.”
Before either of the two strong women could be embarrassed by this display of perceived weakness, Xena straightened and made her escape from the slumbering women.
Gripping her staff lightly with two hands, the young queen stood with feet apart just at the edge of the trees staring intently into the distance. With the moon almost full, the valley was bathed in an eerie light that illuminated the rocky features of the trail leading to Adara’s camp. Since an intruder would be easily spotted in the twilight-like light, Gabrielle’s mind drifted.
Guard duty is so boring. I wish I had let Xena come with me. At least I’d have her to talk to or hold hands with or feel the warmth of her arms around me, her lips nibbling on my neck... whoa, down girl; we know where that leads.
Scanning the horizon and seeing nothing, Gabrielle tried distracting her self from her lascivious thoughts by inventing a story. She tried out an opening line, mouthing the words without sound, let’s see, I sing the song of Xena and the Amazon queen… no, no, no, I’m not going there tonight.
Looking to the star filled heavens for inspiration, she smile as an idea struck her, I sing of the time before the Titans came to Earth and all the gods still lived in the crystal cities in the heavens…
Careful not to disturb even a pine needle Xena stole to within ten feet of where her young lover stood unaware. Standing well back in the thick foliage, Xena had a clear view of Gabrielle in the soft moon light. She only intended to stay a few minutes to ensure the bard was safe from intruders.
Scanning the horizon from her place of concealment, Xena noted the empty landscape with a sense of comfort. All was quiet. Planning to return to her bedroll long before Ephiny relieved Gabrielle, Xena settled in for a moment’s pleasure of gazing at the woman she loved.
Smiling broadly, she watched the bard’s lips move in the silvery light, wondering what Gabrielle was saying. Probably making up a story; it’s what she usually does when she’s bored.
The simple enjoyment of watching Gabrielle swelled the warrior’s heart. Etheric light silhouetted the young woman, tantalizing the love-struck watcher. The rounded mounds and curves of the young queen’s body was an aphrodisiac. Xena’s eyes traced a loving path from graceful neck, down strong shoulders and back, over slightly swelled hips and compact buttocks to shapely tanned legs that disappeared into leather boots at mid-calf.
Xena’s passion grew as she drank in the vision that was Gabrielle. Larger and larger the feeling grew as her heart opened in a fruitless attempt to contain the boundless emotion. Standing so close to the woman she loved, wave upon wave of intense desire flooded the warrior’s chest spreading down into her belly. She felt herself getting wet. Staggered by the effect this incredible woman had on her, Xena literally shook with arousal.
Oh, oh, not the right time or place for this.
Aware of the dangers of a tryst with Gabrielle when they were so close to enemy country, and having assured her self that Gabrielle was safe, Xena reluctantly decided to return to her bedroll. Turning too quickly, she was sabotaged by desire spinning out of control, and stepped on a dry twig, snapping it cleanly.
Instantly alert, the hairs on the back of Gabrielle’s neck stood up. Having the distinct feeling she was being watched, every nerve ending on her skin began tingling as she assessed the situation.
That sounded close.
She felt the presence of another being near by. Whether animal or human she didn’t know. Almost certain the sound had come from behind her, she peered into the trees but saw nothing.
Maybe I’m wrong. Sounds can be deceptive at night.
Scanning the open valley floor from north to south and back revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Still, the feeling of being watched persisted.
Quietly, Gabrielle moved around the trees. At the edge of their forested retreat, she looked out in all directions. The eastern horizon stood out clearly in the moonlight; nothing moved. Unerringly she turned back toward the wayward warrior’s hiding place.
Separated from the bard by only a couple of feet, Xena cursed herself for a fool. With few alternatives, she waited to see how good the bard was; maybe she could escape undetected.
How wrong she was. She’d trained Gabrielle herself and the bard was an apt and eager student.
Gabrielle stopped. I know I heard something. I need to shut out what my eyes are telling me.
Breathing deeply once, she expelled the air and then with eyes closed to eliminate unwanted visual stimuli she allowed the night sounds and smells to filter into her senses. Slowly, she felt her senses expand as Xena had taught her. The light evening breeze kissed her skin. She sipped a small breath of air identifying the various smells invading her nose and mouth; pine, mulch, musk, cinnamon… What’s this? Cinnamon and musk? A small knowing smile crept over her lips. She identified it as her lover’s distinctive scent.
“Are you there Xena?” She spoke quietly into the darkened trees before her.
Facing Xena’s hiding place, she tilted her head to the side sniffing the air again. The scent was unmistakable. She was certain Xena was close at hand.
Damn, damn, damn. Xena flattened her body against the trunk, waiting, watching and looking for an opportunity to slip away.
Less certain now, Gabrielle looked behind her. She saw only the empty plain bathed in moonlight. Then she peered back into the thick branches trying in vain to make out shapes in the filtered moon light. Her lover’s scent was still there, but less distinct now. Although her quarry had moved, she was certain Xena had been there.
“Xena, I know you’re here. Quit fooling around. You’re scaring me.” Gabrielle spoke softly but with an urgency bordering on fear.
At that very moment, strong arms slipped around the smaller woman, one hand covering her mouth so that the rest of the camp wasn’t wakened. Gabrielle was rigid with fear until familiar lips next to her ear whispered, “Looking for me?”
Relief quickly turned to anger as the young woman spun free, landing a sharp smack with her staff to Xena’s upper arm.
“Just what in Tartarus do you think you’re doing Xena?” Gabrielle spoke quietly but the ire was obvious as she enunciated each word.
Rubbing the sore spot on her arm, an abashed Warrior Princess had the grace to look repentant as she attempted to explain sneaking up on the bard like that. “Ummm, I just… ummm, just wanted to see how you were getting along.”
Gabrielle was having none of it. “Well, the way to approach a sentry on watch is to announce yourself, not skulk around in the bushes.”
“I don’t skulk.” Xena quickly defended.
“Oh yeah, then what do you call hiding in the dark spying on someone without their knowledge.”
Unwilling to admit the depth of her need for Gabrielle, Xena tried for the middle ground.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Well, you hardly gave yourself a chance to get to sleep. I’ve been out here less than a candle mark. You were checking on me Xena, thinking I can’t take care of myself, not treating me as an equal. We’ve had this discussion over and …” the bard was warming to her favorite topic and gaining a head of steam heading into a full blown argument.
Xena needed to close this avenue off before it escalated and the only way to do that she realized was the truth. Defeated, she spoke softly.
“That’s not it, Gabrielle. Not it at all.” She stopped and blew out a breath.
That simple act of resignation stopped the bard’s flow of words. “Then what is, it?” she asked one hand on her hip the other grasping her staff.
Looking first to the moon for inspiration, Xena almost heard Artemis gloating, her voice taunting the warrior in her mind, Yes, what is it Warrior Princess? Let’s see you be honest with her. You wanted her, now be worthy of it, because I will always welcome her.
Oh shut up, Artemis.
Having never been able to express her deeper feelings easily, Xena did what she’d always done. She took a breath and began at the beginning.
“Well, I couldn’t sleep,” she stated and held up a hand to forestall Gabrielle’s objection. “Please, let me say this, okay.”
All vestiges of anger gone now, Gabrielle sensed her lover’s struggle to speak her heart. Placing her arms around Xena’s waist to encourage her, she relented, but wasn’t going to do it for her, so she said simply, “Okay.”
Relieved and encouraged, Xena touched Gabrielle’s cheek, tracing the bone over to her ear and down the rounded jaw line. Clearing her throat, she tried to find words that would explain without revealing the ache in her heart, without giving away her fears.
“I couldn’t sleep, that’s true. I saw your bear in the sky and it made me think of us alone together… of all the times we lay looking at the stars. I knew… I mean, ummm, I just needed to see you. Okay? I just wanted to see you.”
Raising her arms in a gesture of surrender, Xena stopped talking.
Realizing this was as close to a declaration of love as she was likely to hear from the stoic woman, Gabrielle relented and laid her head on the warrior’s chest. They stood as one for several moments; Xena resting her face against Gabrielle’s golden hair. Finally, the bard leaned back and planted a delicate kiss on her lover’s mouth.
“Thank you, Xena. I know that was from the heart.”
Relieved, Xena smiled at her lover. “Let me stand watch with you. I promise to behave.” She stood back and struck her chest with a closed fist in a mock Amazon salute.
Gabrielle laughed lightly. “Okay, you win.”
Xena smiled again and kissed the bard once more, chastely, before becoming all business. “Okay, let’s walk the perimeter and meet back here.”
When Ephiny arrived to relieve the queen two candle marks later, she smiled at the sight. The two stood as one, Gabrielle wrapped in the warrior’s embrace, both looking out onto the moonlit plain.
* * * * *
CHAPTER 11 – You Can’t Go Home Again
For the first time in days the warriors rode, their bodies sliding forward in their saddles, as they descended into what had been Adara’s home. Rounding the outcropping of boulders where the village sentry post had been, Xena called a halt.
Dismounting, all the women gathered around the queen and Xena to be assigned their tasks. As leader of the team, Xena spoke to the waiting Amazons.
“Adara, is this the guard post you told us about?”
Her golden eyes shuttered, she nodded and then spoke. “Yes, they were killed up there.”
Xena would have loved to have the eastern woman come up to the sentry post with them, but she knew looking down on the village would break her. In an act of kindness, she decided against it for now. If needed, they could return later.
“Okay, would you watch the horses? Pony and Solari, you’re with me. We’ll take a look up there. Ephiny, take the rest, fan out below the guard post and see what you can find. We’ll meet back here and compare notes. Then we’ll all go into the village together.
Turning, she quickly ascended the rocks. The two Amazon women were close behind
her. They found the remains of the guards exactly where Adara had described
them. What was left of the bodies looked like little more than pieces of bone
scattered around. The scavengers had done their job well.
After crouching down to examine the remains, Xena stood and looked to the camp below. She had an unobstructed view of the village and the carnage done. Beyond the edge of camp was an open plain. How could these sentries not have seen an army coming?
Then she looked uphill the way they’d just come. Higher up, it was heavily wooded yes, but not near the guard post. Here it was cleared for a good fifty yards to the nearest tree. An intruder would have been plainly visible.
Shaking her head as if to clear her mind, she contemplated how this might have played out.
“How could these guards been caught unaware.” Xena mused aloud.
“I’m wondering the same thing,” Pony said. “You can see forever up here.”
“If the guards were somehow taken out first, then a small strike force could have flanked the camp on foot. After initiating the attack, then the rest could have come barreling in on horseback.” Solari offered her opinion pointing to the edges of the camp below.
Then she too looked up hill wondering, “But how in Hades did they get to the guard post unseen.”
“That’s what’s bothering me,” Xena said. “To do this, the attack had to be coordinated. So I’m wondering if these animals have some way of camouflaging themselves. I can’t imagine soldiers the size Adara has described being able to sneak up on these sentries, can you?”
Pony concurred. “No, Amazon sentries are better trained than that. Not much escapes notice.”
Xena continued to scan the enclosure while the two Amazons discussed the possibility that they were dealing with invisible foes, a thought that did nothing to encourage their confidence in defeating this army.
“We’re going to need the help of the goddess if these animals can’t be seen.” Solari said.
Sniffing at the contents of a water skin, Xena nodded absently in agreement.
“We’re going to need all the help we can get. Ummm, nothing in this skin but water. I’d hoped that perhaps, the guards had been enjoying the mid-summer celebration.” She added as she tossed the vessel to the ground.
Pony quickly defended Amazon perimeter guards the world over. “No Xena, the guards at festivals are even more alert than usual. We always post volunteers, and of those, we take only the most seasoned. They wouldn’t have had a drink until they’d been relieved. According to Adara, it was early in the evening. So no, these guards would’ve been the best and fully alert.”
“Too bad!” Xena responded. “Okay let’s look around above this post.”
Stooping, intensely scanning the ground around the enclosure, the three women moved in an ever widening arc from the lookout post. Suddenly Xena crouched down peering intently at a small hole in the ground.
Seeing Xena, the other two hurried to her side.
“You find something?” Pony asked.
“What do you make of this hole?”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s too small for anything human to have come out of.” Solari said before turning to her friend who had gone deathly quiet. “What?”
“I found one over here too.” Pony said moving back to where she’d been looking.
After examining Pony’s find, they spread out again soon discovering three more of the same small round holes going deep into the ground.
“I want to hear your opinions. You’re both trackers.” Xena said.
Pony ticked off what they knew on her fingers.
“They’re too small for a gopher or ground squirrel. Insects live in the ground, but that’s ridiculous. There are only a few holes.”
Skeptical Solari spoke. “Well it could be nothing; a coincidence. On the other hand, there’s something about them that bothers me. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Same here.” Pony agreed looking to Xena for her impressions.
“Okay, here’s what’s bothering me. Look at how the five spots line up.”
Three heads swiveled in the same direction scanning the positions.
“They seem like they’re surrounding the guard post.” Pony observed.
“And this is the only place we find them.” Xena added. “So given we’re dealing with something we don’t understand, then I have to conclude that this is important to what happened here. I just don’t know how it fits in; yet.”
Deciding that they’d seen all there was to see, they descended to the others.
There wasn’t much additional information to be gleaned from the lower area. All that had been discovered were huge boot prints below the rocks and then evidence of Adara and the children passing through there. It seemed likely that they had missed running into the marauders by inches.
Xena nodded as each woman reported her findings. Looking with compassion at Adara, she spoke. “Let’s check out the camp then.”
Pony moved nearer the beautiful woman who looked stoically ahead.
Leading their horses, they moved through the trees and down into the decimated village.
In fact, there wasn’t much left to see. Charred circles scattered about indicated where lodgings had once stood. Fanning out they entered the compound. Each woman was lost in her own thoughts as the complete and utter destruction of the eastern Amazon tribe hit them.
The main campfire had burned outside of its ring and the ash there was immense. It wasn’t difficult for the women to determine that the Amazon dead had been tossed there in a heap and ignited.
Adara slowly walked to the edge of the dust and cinders. She knelt down just outside the circle. Her bowed head and flowing tears confirmed this was the final resting place of her tribe. Pony had been watching the woman’s every move and seeing the tears, went to her. She knelt down next to Adara and pulled the pliant and unresisting woman into her arms.
Finally, after all these weeks, the force of the emotional dam she had been holding in burst. Throwing back her head, Adara wailed out her grief, shattering the quiet. It was the sound of a wounded animal in more pain that its soul could contain.
Scattering before the onslaught, birds in the surrounding trees took flight. Without any self-consciousness at all, the woman screamed out her agony and loss to the heavens. Pony held her like a wounded bird, rubbing circles on her back, and crooning meaningless words of comfort.
As each gut wrenching cry broke free, Adara’s tormented mind silently shrieked
in concert, Nooooo! Tynet, Tynet please don’t be dead… you can’t be gone…
You’re my heart, my soul… please, please, please... Pouring out the pain
she’d held in check for so long, the woman finally came face to face with the
devastating truth. Tynet was gone and she would now walk a lonely solitary
path. The endless days and nights stretched in front of her mind’s eye like
a gaping hole piercing her heart to its core.
Holding the broken woman in her arms, Pony lamented that she didn’t have some magical cure for the pain in Adara’s heart. The weapons mistress shook as the grieving woman convulsed in her arms. With each new surge of grief released from Adara’s throat, Pony wondered at the amount of pain this woman had held inside for weeks.
On and on surged the unrelenting agony. Just when it seemed as if it would never stop, the sobbing began to subside to be replaced by soft mewling and unsteady panting as the woman struggled for air. Finally even the tiny whimpers stopped. Only Adara’s ragged breathing, as she tried to calm down, broke the quiet.
Feeling boneless and oddly cleansed after the outpouring of grief, the broken
woman began to take stock. It was then she noted that the sharp pain that
had lived inside her since the night of the attack had receded to a dull ache.
Tynet, my love, help me get through this.
The short prayer seemed to help soothe her and a certain peace calmed her mind. Now, she knew exactly what she had to do. Her lover had been taken from her yes, but the danger still remained. Her children and others were relying on their success. It was as if she could hear Tynet comforting her. Adara, together we will defeat this menace. I haven’t left you. I would never leave you. Until the day of your own journey to the land of the dead, I will be by your side and on that day, I will again hold you in my arms.
Someone pushed a clean cloth into her shaking hands. She looked up to see the concerned face of Pony peering worriedly at her. Managing a weak smile, Adara blew her nose and struggled to compose herself.
“Thank you.” She said with difficulty.
Looking into the ashes beyond the woman holding her close, Adara bade a final silent, loving farewell to the light in her life. She cleared her throat offering a wan smile to the kind hearted woman who had offered her friendship.
“Pony, you’ve been a dear friend.”
“I, ummm… is there anything I can do?”
“No, there’s nothing; you’ve been kind. It just hit me… you know; hit me that it’s real.” Adara swallowed around the burning in her throat as she spoke.
“I knew you shouldn’t have come.” Pony said; her face a mask of self-reproach. “I would have done anything to spare you this.”
Adara sought to ease the guilt she saw in the weapons mistress’s face.
“Pony, I needed to come. I would have always held out hope… hope that I’d not seen clearly that night. Now, I know. I know and I can go on. Now I will avenge my Tynet. She is lost to me, but I will see to it that she did not die in vain.” Adara’s voice and determination grew with each passing moment. It was as if with acceptance came inner strength.
Pony nodded. “You’re a very strong woman. I’ve never met anyone stronger.”
The others, rocked by the outpouring of grief, had moved away to examine their surroundings and give the women some privacy. Without discussion, they each began searching the camp for signs of the invading army. It was immediately clear that the area had not been visited since the night of the attack.
Joining each other at the eastern edge of the camp, Gabrielle took Xena’s hand in hers. “Gods, it’s so hard to see Adara crumble like this.”
Glancing back toward the central fire pit, Xena could see that the worst of Adara’s anguish had finally subsided to hiccupping and ragged breathing. Even from here, she could see that the woman’s normally dusky complexion looked pale and her golden eyes red-rimmed and haunted.
“I know Gabrielle. I’ve been expecting it. And it’s the best thing that could happen. Now she can heal. She would never have been able to accept Tynet’s death without coming here. I’m glad we brought her.”
Breathlessly jogging over to the two women, Solari excitedly pointed southeast and said, “I’ve found the trail. It’s clear as a Roman highway. The bastards figured no one would be following.”
Both Ephiny and Noalani joined them as Solari finished. Compassion written on their faces, all five of them looked over to the fire pit unsure how to proceed now.
Feeling the eyes of the others on them, Pony rose offering her hand to Adara. Gratefully accepting it, she got to her feet slowly. Drawing in a final cleansing breath, she straightened and said to her friend.
“I’m ready. Let’s join the others.”
“Are you sure? You’ve been through a lot. Take as much time as you need.” Pony protested.
“Thank you again, Pony. But we have much to do now. At least a dozen Amazons, including my own birth mother, were taken captive. If there is any hope of saving them, then there is no more time to waste. It’s time to go.”
As they joined the others on the eastern edge of the village, they caught the last of Xena’s comments.
“… and since there’s nothing left to salvage here, we need to find some place where we can restock. I hate to waste time, but there’s nothing else to do. We can’t go into the desert without food and water.”
Her voice thick and raw, Adara said. “There may be something left Xena. The soldiers were intent on killing and burning. They took few spoils. Our hidden stores may still be untouched.”
Xena was very interested. “Stores? You had supplies not kept in the camp?”
“Yes, our winter food, extra weapons, some furs and blankets. It’s over in the rocks below the guard station.” Adara said as she pointed back across the compound indicating a huge mound of tumbled boulders.
Six other heads turned the direction she indicated. “I don’t see a thing,” Noalani said.
“That’s the idea,” replied Adara. “Follow me, I’ll show you.”
The women moved as one back in the direction they’d come. When they were almost to the rocky jumble, Adara turned to the right and went behind the pile of rock and dirt. She smiled when she saw what she was seeking. Stopping in front of a landslide of dirt, grass and small rocks, Adara nodded.
Xena was the first to recognize what they were looking at. “Brilliant,” she exclaimed in admiration and respect.
Adara unlatched a secret catch and Xena pulled back the rock slide to reveal a hidden cavern within. What appeared to be a slide, had in fact, been a door. The rocks and other debris were cleverly affixed to the wood and deer hide door with tallow wax to create the illusion of meaningless rubble.
Adara lit a torch near the entrance and shone the light around the interior. It was clear that no human had been inside for almost a moon. There was evidence that some smaller rodents had taken up residence. Nuts and dried corn littered the floor. When the tribe was in residence, traps were set and small scavengers dispatched without fanfare. Now it seemed the local mouse population had discovered the Elysian Fields on earth.
“Damn, we could have used those nuts.” Solari observed. After two weeks on the trail, the more tasty supplies were completely gone leaving only a small amount of dried jerky and corn meal cakes.
“Even after the long winter we had, I think we can find plenty left to restock seven women,” Adara replied. “Most food is kept in sealed clay jars. Looks like the mice knocked a couple over, but there are more.”
Xena began issuing orders.
“Okay, everyone, let’s refill our saddle bags and gather enough food for a week at least. Load up the pack animals with the additional weapons.”
“What about water?” Xena asked.
“We have a spring on the north side of the camp. The spring comes from the rocks, hard to despoil.”
Another thought occurred to Xena and she asked, “Adara, is there oil in here?”
“Yes, those two jars hold all the cooking oil we collected during the season. There should be some left.”
“Good take those jars too.” and then she asked, “What else is there that we might need?”
“These will be invaluable if the trail leads to the desert.” Adara replied, holding up a white robe in one hand and long white scarves in the other.
“It does,” replied Solari. “I saw their trail. It leads out of the mountains to the southeast.”
“Then, everyone will need to take desert attire, robes, head coverings and scarves for the face. The sun and wind are merciless out there. You don’t want to expose much skin to the elements. Death comes quickly in the desert lands.” Adara warmed to her role explaining to the other women how to live and survive in the desert.
“You heard her. Everyone find something to cover your self and meet outside on the east side of the village. We’ll eat and then head out. I want to follow the trail while there’s still light.” Xena said, issuing the orders.
While the rest of the women were searching through the pile of clothing, Pony moved over next to Xena and spoke in a low tone. “Xena, I think Adara might need a bit more time to adjust.”
“Pony, we don’t have time. If there’s a chance to find any of the prisoners alive, then we need to move out, now. Get yourself outfitted and meet us outside.” Xena’s curt answer stung the weapons mistress.
Glowering, Pony was ready to snap back a retort, when she felt a hand on her arm.
“Xena is right Pony. We need to help the others. My own mother may be among them. And I’m all right now.”
Pulling her dour look away from Xena, Pony graced Adara with an adoring smile, “You sure?” she asked.
The beautiful woman nodded once. “Very sure,” she said simply handing the weapons mistress a full set of robes and head gear.
* * * *
firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com - Any feedback is welcome. Thank you for reading. To those who have replied already, thank you so much for your wonderful feedback and for liking the story. It’s a pleasure for us to write for readers who still like the old-fashioned stories.
Continued in Chapter 12
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