copyright: a lot of these characters, such as xena and gabrielle, are owned by renpics and associates. other characters, such as many of the amazons, and (most of) the plot are m i n e. also note that the detailed amazon nation system is very much my idea so do not use my concepts without permission. i worked hard on it so don't touch it.

violence: there is violence in this story… some of it might be slightly gruesome, depends on your stomach type.

subtext: any subtext becomes main text here. there is no sex so far.

feedback: i would love feedback on this story so please email me: red_hope@yahoo.com

homepage: http://www.redhope.net

TFWWM mailing list: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tfwwm

Series: Other Series Number: 13 Story Number: 53

March 31st 2003, Monday

To Find What was Mine

By Red Hope

Section Three-B

Part 6: Xena's Fourth Year

Xena's head was bent forward and her hands covered her right knee, there was no pain. Slowly her hands caressed all around her knee as if she expected the pain to suddenly shatter her again like it had when she was put on the cross. Yet no pain exploded in her knee as she grazed her knee with her hands then her fingertips touched the top of knee high boots she wore. She'd never worn such a thing and it struck her just as odd as her now healed legs.

Gradually Xena lifted her head and held out her arms only to realize she now wore black leather gauntlets. Her eyes trailed up her arms and she had leather arm bracers on too. The palms of her hand flatly pressed against her leather covered stomach and she gazed down at the leather skirt mixed with golden chain mail. Then as if born from instinct, her right hand rested across her body and her fingers curled around her golden sword hilt. The wind blew strongly and her deep purple cape came to life and protectively wrapped around her body.

Xena finally took in her new surroundings as the wind continued to whip by her. She turned her head to the left and stared at all the thatch huts but there was nobody in this village; she was alone. And as her head rotated, a wooden dais now came into her view that hadn't been there earlier. Xena went stiff when her eyes settled upon the single figure that sat in a gigantic wood chair on top of the dais.

Experimentally, Xena took a cautious step and she found her knees didn't force her to limp. With more confidence, Xena became stoic and arrogant as if she was a ruler; she coolly approached the lone figure on the dais. When she came to the base of the five steps of the dais, she stopped and stared up at the person. Xena instantly knew it was a female and probably a warrior by the sword hilt behind her head. However Xena couldn't make out her face since it was covered by a wood mask. Her breath then held when the female warrior rose up from her thrown and proudly stood before Xena.

Xena didn't move, she was held in place by the warrior's presence and her raw strength. Xena admired the warrior's muscular form and could see the taut muscles in her arms, bare stomach, and shaped legs. When her eyes travelled back up to the warrior's covered face, she could just make out the eyes behind the mask.

With perfect grace, the warrior slowly descended the steps of the dais to meet Xena at the bottom.

Xena took one step back when the warrior stopped on the last step. She tried harder to meet the eyes of the warrior but she couldn't get past the mask that stood between them.

Suddenly the wind gusted again and blew the warrior's blond hair and colourful straw around her covered face. When the wind calmed, the warrior lifted her small hands and pressed them to the sides of her mask.

Xena's breath caught in her chest as piercing forest green eyes gazed upon her.

The warrior descended the last step and her right hand lifted and pressed against Xena's cheek. "What was mine," she murmured in a possessive yet loving voice.

Xena lost her strength to her emotions and she suddenly fell to her knees before the warrior. The warmth of the hand on her cheek spread through her face, down her neck, and touched her heart only to claim her soul.

The warrior closed in the final distance as her left hand travelled to Xena's back. Her right hand now shifted to the back of Xena's head and pushed Xena's head forward.

Xena rested the side of her head against the warrior's muscular but warm stomach. She'd never felt so many emotions strike her at once as she was taken into this warrior's protective embrace. Her eyes tightly closed yet the tears broke free and rolled down her face. "Gabrielle," she whimpered.

"Ssssh," whispered the warrior, "we can never be separated."

Xena embraced the warrior, her arms tightly clinging to the smaller warrior. Her tears grew stronger and her darkest emotions fought against her awaken heart. "Gabrielle," she repeated and her voice held so much need.

"Ssssh," assured the warrior again, "I am here. You will always be mine, Xena." She then lowered her head and pressed her warm lips against Xena's temple.

Xena shut out her dark emotions until suddenly the body in her arms went cold. The warm stomach where her face pressed against was now cold leather and she quickly lifted her head. Her eyes went dark and raged ravaged her heart and soul again.

"I will always be apart of your destiny, Xena."

Xena was instantly on her feet and backing away as her right hand instinctively went to her sword at her side. Her fingers never met the hilt and she looked to her side, her sword was gone and so were her leathers. Instead she found herself in tattered, dirty cloth much like what she'd worn on the cross. Her enraged face jerked up and her gaze rested on one of her greatest enemies.

"Caesar," she growled, his name reeking of hatred.

Julius Caesar viciously smiled at Xena and held out his arms. He tauntingly whispered, "Welcome to your destiny, Xena."

Xena suddenly realized her surroundings were again different. Her head turned left and right frantically as she took in the huge shape of the stone complex that was lined with thousands and thousands of empty stone seats. She was in the middle of a sand ring as if she was on display of some great show.

"You can't escape your destiny, Xena," called Caesar in his arrogant tone. He then laughed so loud that it echoed through the sand ring and vibrated in Xena's ears. He then faded away from sight with his laughter still echoing.

Xena was frozen with anger and hatred. Her eyes burned bright with rage and her blood hotly pulsated in her veins.

Then suddenly a husky and unfamiliar female voice had boomed throughout the entire stone structure. "Your soul will be mineee!"

Xena abruptly shot up in her small bed and threw her hot blanket off her boiling body. She growled in frustration as she wiped the sweat off her forehead. Then with annoyance, she forcefully raked her fingers through her messy midnight hair.

For a moment, she kept her face bent forward and her breathing started to settle down to normal again. Slowly, she lifted her head and got up out of her bed so she could collect her boots. But first, she collected the wood stick by her bed and used it to help her stand up, her knees barely able to help her. When she was standing her breathing was faintly ragged again but she ignored it. Instead she limped over to her boots and shoved her feet into them. She then grabbed her Chinese broadsword that was still propped up near her bed.

Xena considered getting her leather hat but decided not to as she pushed out of her small yurt. When she stepped out, she was surrounded by the smell of fire and floating in the breeze were the tastes of battle. She gazed about the small camp and saw her thirty men were settled down either outside sleeping or in their yurts.

As Xena limped through the camp, she kept her sword in one hand and her walking cane in her right hand. She finally came out of the camp and onto a crest of a small hill where she found a large rock to sit on for a moment. She was still breathing fairly heavy and her dreams tried to flood her mind. She shook her head in attempt to rid of them but the images still flashed through her head.

Xena growled and dropped her cane onto the ground with her sword on top of it. She dropped her face into her hands and willed her dream to leave her vision. Finally the images started to fade out and her blurry vision focused on the broadsword that glinted at her from the ground. Xena bent forward and ran her fingertips down the blade, a wicked smile growing longer on her face as her fingertips travelled further down the blade. Her sword had been her greatest comfort and only comfort since she'd left Greece moons and moons ago.

Not long ago it had been Xena's twentieth birthday and Xena had celebrated the best way she knew how, by conquest. She'd rained down on a small Chin town like a fierce merciless storm and left nothing in her wake except for corpses and charred homes. She hadn't lost any of her warriors that day and the spoils from the town were plentiful not to mention the message she sent out struck the Chin kingdoms hard.

Within a few days, Xena had received a message from another raider in the north, who was interested in joining her. Just the thought of his name made her feral grin return- Borias. His name sounded as wild as her and she was quite enticed to meet him tomorrow. Xena had set out to take anybody that went against her whether she antagonized them or not. Her anger and hatred thirsted for power and greatness, she planned to fulfil her hungry, dark desires because it was all she had left in her life. All that she ever knew was gone and ripped from her heart and that'd left hungry space for something else, her anger had quickly filled that void now.

Xena ran her hand through her dishevelled hair again. She breathed heavily as she lifted her head and stared up at the night sky. Her vision instantly homed in on a very familiar constellation that was attached to hard emotions. She narrowed her hollow eyes at the warrior constellation.

"I've grown into the darkness," she murmured, "a million emotions wrapped around my mind." Xena took a deep breath and when she spoke again, her voice was low but more sing-song. "I'm no closer to you than yesterday and my world is fading away. Why can't I find you?"

Xena leaned forward, her arms now rested against her knees but she continued to quietly sing. "Where are you now? How can this be fate? I can't wait, I can't. We've been stolen and twisted. I can't resist it, I can't. Can I go on… without you?"

Xena's eyes slowly closed and as she sung her voice made a slow crescendo. "I still see you in my dreams. Your name breathing from my lips as we continue our last kiss… but I'm no closer to you. Will you ever find me?" She paused and let her eyes flutter open. "Where are you now? How can this be fate? I can't wait, I can't. We've been stolen and twisted. I can't resist, I can't. Can I go on… without you?"

Xena shook her head and gazed below at her broadsword. She reached down to the hilt as she sung, "One more awakening in my anger, as I lose sight of this, but I still see you… in my dreams, forever tangled in the night, my lips slipping from yours… slipping from yours. How do I find you?"

Xena now held her broadsword in front of her face and for a brief instant, she pleasantly smiled at it. The stars and moon reflected off the shiny surface and glowed against Xena's soft yet rigid face. "Where are you now? How can this be fate? I can't wait, I can't. We've been stolen and twisted. I can't resist, I can't. Can I go on… without you?"

Xena lifted her left hand and at first gently ran the palm of her hand down the blade. "Where are you now? How can this be our fate? I can't wait… I can't wait . We've been stolen and twisted. I can't resist, I can't resist it." Xena licked her lips as she tilted her head some and now pressed her palm hard against the blade. "If only I could find what once was mine, if only…." She bared her teeth when the sword began to rip against her skin, the blood trickling out between the open skin. "I would, I would give it all." Xena's blood quickly trailed down the hypnotic silver blade. Xena breathed deeply then quietly sung, "To find… what was mine." She then pulled her bleeding hand away and picked up her walking stick.

The warlord gritted her teeth and forced her injured knees to lift her up. She straightened up to her full six intimidating feet and gave a brisk spin of her broadsword before sheathing it at her side. She glared at the warrior constellation and muttered, "To vengeance." She then smirked, dipped her head, and limped back to her dark camp.

The winter in northern Chin continued to freeze for several months after the twelfth moon. The snow heavy but not icy and the wind swirled in great lengths and strengths. The two warlords had joined forces and gradually conquered the northern lands of the Chin Kingdom. After they'd captured five villages, they were headed closer and closer to the Great Wall of Chin set on the outskirts of the Chin Kingdom. It was this wall that Xena despised because she knew the ruler, Ming Tzu, had completed to block out the Hsiung Nu tribes north of Chin. The Great Wall represented the power of not only the Chin Dynasty but of Ming Tzu himself.

However, right now Xena paid no attention to the Great Wall as she rode on her golden mare.

Argo huffed and puffed as she pressed harder against the brisk air.

"Yah, girl!" Xena spurred her horse harder then she withdrew her broadsword from her side. She waved her sword a few times in the air over her head as she came closer to her enemies. "Kill them all!" she yelled out to her men behind her.

Borias extracted his sword, his other hand wrapped up in the horse's reins, and he savagely grinned. When he was close enough, he attacked one of his enemies on horseback.

Xena lead her band of warriors around the retreating horsemen of Ming Tzu's army. She and her men encircled them then attacked them with Borias and his men's help. It wasn't long before Ming Tzu's soldiers were all killed except for two, who'd fallen to foot and off their horses.

Xena urged Argo over to them and she growled at them when they pleaded in a foreign language. Without any remorse, Xena ran her sword through one of them and a satisfied smile creased her lips when he fell from her blade. Her cold eyes then flickered to the other pleading soldier and she raised her sword to strike.

"Xena, we don't slaughter them!"

The warlord paused in the middle of her attack. Her dark glare fell upon her partner. "I'm telling you, Borias the only way to deal with these scum is through terror."

Borias's slow and sly grin appeared on his face again. "And if we kill them all, who's left to be terrified?"

Xena huffed and thoughtfully peered down at the fearful solider. She bared her teeth at him and bent forward closer to him, her sword's blade tipped his head up to hers. "Tell Ming what happens to his pathetic soldiers when he sends them against Xena and Borias."

The soldier took a step back, tripped and fell square on his butt.

Xena laughed as the Chin soldier scurried up and ran away. She rotated some in her saddle and gazed at her partner. "Borias, I'm taking the dead."

Borias raised an eyebrow as he sheathed his sword. "The dead?"

The warlord smirked and stated, "I'm going to put them to work." She then glanced over at one of her warriors. "Chuang, you're with me." Her attention then flickered to the rest of the band of raiders. "The rest of you, get back to camp with Borias." She then signalled for Chuang to assist her.

Xena and Chuang took several candlemarks to round up and drag over fifty dead Ming soldiers. Then it only took them half of a candlemark to decapitate them all and spear each head with a short pike. They then rode the short distance to the Great Wall and proudly displayed the speared heads.

The warlord was atop of Argo, her back to the Great Wall, and her eyes gazing about the lands of Chin. She scanned it and the scent of death from the battle filled her. Her ruthless grin eased across her dark features. "This will convince Ming to talk more than all of Borias' diplomacy. We sit out here in the middle of nowhere while all the riches of Chin awaits us."

Chuang half smiled and his head bobbed; in his right hand he held the last headed pike. "Both familles of Chin are very powerful, liege."

The warlord huffed and took a quiet second to straighten out the reins in her hands. "That's what makes it so perfect."

Chuang curiously stared at the female warrior and wondered what she meant. "Borias wants to form an alliance with one family first before he moves."

"Let him," muttered the warlord. She held out her right hand. "He's a fool if he thinks diplomacy will get us anything." Her hand now wrapped around the pike and she had a smug expression as the dead face greeted her. "They will form an alliance between each other if Borias waits too long."

"Do you believe that?" persisted Chuang. "The Ming and Lao have been at odds for centuries."

Xena raised an eyebrow at the warrior. "Nothing brings two powers together faster than an outside threat." She then heaved the pike up and aimed at empty space on the ground. "I say… kill them all!" She rammed the headed pike into the hard ground.

Chuang laughed and nodded his agreement.

"Let's go," growled the warlord and she turned Argo around. "Yah!" She sent her mare into a full gallop for the camp. She sensed Chuang directly behind her and when camp came into her view, she felt a sense of pride fill her. Her men were moving about and readying everything; fire pits dug out, yurts constructed, and fresh game was being skinned near a large fire.

As Xena rode into the camp, her warriors each bowed their head to her as she passed. She merely remained still, vision forward, and her back rigid. She deemed respect from her men and the first few that hadn't obeyed her she'd slitted their throat in demonstration. All the respect she'd earn was derived from either fear or her abilities as a warrior, even a crimpled warrior.

The warlord halted her mare by the corral then quietly dismounted. The attendant at the corral rushed over to take Xena's golden mare but only after Xena retrieved her sword and walking stick. She eyed the young corral attendant then nodded at him before she walked off. She decided first she'd speak with Borias, she was almost sure they'd heard from Ming Tzu by now. When she entered his yurt, she found him sitting at his table and seeming to rest for a moment.

"Xena," greeted Borias in his usual drawn out voice. "Have fun with your dead?"

"Loads." Xena grinned and took a few steps more into his yurt. "News yet?"

Borias finally stood up and folded his arms over his chest. "Ming Tzu wishes to speak to us tonight." His vision went past Xena and out of the opening of the yurt. "That is him now."

Xena had already heard the cling clang of Ming Tzu's soldiers. She side stepped a few and bared her teeth at the soldier that entered.

Borias carefully watched the soldier that was checking over the yurt.

After the soldier left, Xena walked over to Borias and hissed, "Did you see what he was wearing? Pure silk and he's just a lackey." She deeply laughed before saying, "I'm telling you, Borias these people are ripe."

Borias's expression darkened and his eyes narrowed at his partner. "Quiet, Xena."

The warlord's fingers wrapped around her sword hilt but she wouldn't draw. She knew she still needed him and in a lot of ways his outright disrespect thrilled her at times. She merely smirked but her head whipped around when Ming Tzu stepped into the yurt with a small boy and three soldiers.

"My humble yurt is unworthy of your presence, Ming Tzu." Borias then bowed to the king.

Ming Tzu bowed while saying, "Not at all, Borias." When he straightened up, he held out his hand to the young boy. "This is my son, Ming T'ien. As sole heir to my kingdom, I am teaching him to rule. He's here to learn how to deal with thieves."

Xena's interest homed in on the son and she sneered at him. Her chest shook with a silent laugh when he flinched in fear.

"Insults are not the best way to begin negotiations, Ming Tzu."

Ming Tzu slipped his hands into his blue sleeves. "You misunderstand. I have the greatest respect for thieves. Every man born to wealth has a good thief amongst his ancestors somewhere." He then bent his head to his son. "Remember that, Ming T'ien."

The boy only blinked at his father then gazed at the two thieves before him.

Ming Tzu then returned his focus to the reason for being in this disgraceful camp. He stepped up closer to the warlords. "Your offer sounds simple enough. You raid Lao's region and I remain neutral."

Borias easily smiled at that. "And in return, you receive one-third of our loot."

Xena blinked and suddenly her face was full of anger.

"Half," stated Ming Tzu.

"No deal," spat Xena, her eyes locked on the king.

"This woman is in charge?"

Xena side stepped the table in front of her and came closer to the king but the nearby guards made her stop. "I am in charge of half of these men."

"But your offer," quickly cut in Borias. He shot a warning glare to his partner in hopes it'd silence her.

"It is not an offer." Ming Tzu ignored Xena and focused on Borias. "It is a statement of fact. If you want my cooperation, you will give me half of everything you steal."

Borias inhaled deeply while muttering, "Half huh?"

Xena raised a challenging eyebrow at her partner. "You're not going to pay this pig half." She then growled at Ming Tzu, "I'm not paying you half."

Ming Tzu refrained from getting angry and neutral stated, "I'm sorry to have wasted your time, Borias. Clearly your… friend is not interested in doing business." Then with that, he turned and left with one of his guards while two remained by the son.

Borias growled and rushed out of the yurt after the ruler.

Xena ran her tongue along the front of her teeth. She then focused her attention on the small boy. Her lips curled into a predator smile and hungry darkness shined in her eyes at him.

Ming T'ien stepped back once then again and quickly left with the remaining guards.

The warlord huffed.

"He's gone!" Borias stormed into the yurt, his fiery anger focused on Xena.

"Because I called him a name?" challenged Xena, "Then he's too soft."

Borias fisted his hands as he stood before the crimpled warlord. "You don't understand these people. No matter what, you always have to let them save face."

Xena rolled her eyes and limped around the warlord. "Saving his ugly mug wasn't exactly what I had in mind." She turned around and faced him again. She held out her chest high as she stated, "Besides, what kind of deal was that, huh? We do all the dirty work and he snorts up half." Then for added affect, Xena snorted like a pig, which only caused Borias to lose his angry expression.

Borias then waved her off and shifted away. "You're a fool sometimes, Xena. What ever deal I would have made with him, I would have taken to Lao and make it a better one."

Xena's arched eyebrow appeared and she neared her partner. "What do we need either one of them for?" she murmured softly to him. "When Ming sent his soldiers after us, we defeated them."

Borias considered it while he moved into Xena's personal space. "We held our own." His hands instinctively went to the other warlord's hips. "But what if Ming and Lao were to ally against us?"

Xena's wicked smile slowly spread over her lips again. "Then we'll kill them all," she murmured.

Borias' throaty laughed erupted from him then his lips met Xena's.

Xena returned the rough kiss for a brief moment then she pushed him away. "Not until you get me Chin," she huskily reminded then without another she limped out of the yurt.

Borias seethed for a second then yelled out, "You'll be at my feet before then, Xena."

The warlord had just taken ten paces from the yurt's opening. She glanced back over her shoulder at her partner and merely smirked.

Borias just hated that arrogant face Xena shot at him. He wiped it from his vision and went about finding some kind of release from today's battle.

Xena, however, returned to her yurt so she'd have time alone to control her raging, dark emotions that Ming evoked in her. It was rare times such as this that Xena tried to gain control of herself as if some scrap of hope in her still remained in her. It would only last a second but for one second something not so dark shined far below within her.

The following day, the warlords inspected their camp and warriors to asses their situation. Xena had lost twenty men while Borias had double that amount. The rest of Xena's sixty warriors were either partially wounded or just exhausted. She felt rather satisfied in their performance yet she never gave them a scrap of praise for their efforts. In her mind, her only praise was bringing them wealth and another fight and that was all she was willing to give them.

By late that afternoon, Borias was summoned by one of his men and told that the ruler of Lao was approaching. He'd hastily gathered himself and when he marched out of his yurt, he spotted Xena riding in on her golden mare. He noted she stopped just on the edge of camp where Chuang was patrolling the area.

"Lao approaches."

Xena's head was twisted around, her cold blue eyes locked on the shaping form of the lord of Lao. "So he does." Her head faintly tilted because of her curious musings; she noted Lao was shorter than she expected. Interesting. Without thinking anymore of it, she dismounted from Argo and started for a limped walk to Borias and where Lao was meeting him.

Borias was bowing as Lao approached. "Borias extends the sincerest welcome to the head of the House of Lao."

The petite ruler removed her fur hood as her head bowed.

Xena stiffened and paused in the middle of her step. "His wife," she muttered in conclusion.

Chuang was directly behind Xena and he too was faintly shocked that Lao's wife was standing in for him. Yet he continued to follow Xena to the meeting.

Lao's wife gently smiled at Borias but from the corner of her eye she saw Xena coming in earshot. "I am Lao Ma, wife of the Great Lao. Please forgive my husband for sending his insignificant wife to handle such difficult affairs of state, but he is very ill."

Borias gave his best smile, teeth shining. "Welcome to our camp, Lao Ma."

Lao Ma offered a half smile back. " I know you are a great warrior, Borias. But I've also heard that you are a man of honour." She then turned her head to Xena and Chuang when they joined them. "You must be Xena."

Xena straightened up to her six full feet and beared a smirked smile. "Oh, you've heard of me?"

Lao Ma tilted her head and softly replied, "Yes, they say you're a dangerous woman."

"Well, they're right." Xena kept her smirk until Lao Ma's attention returned to Borias. She quickly handed of her reins to Chuang so he would take care of Argo.

"You have nothing to fear, Lao Ma. We will negotiate with honour and with fairness. I hope that we will find common ground on which to stand." Borias kept his back straight, his chin out, and he was as formal as a warlord could be.

Lao Ma merely dipped her head in acceptance. Then she followed Borias through the camp towards his yurt, where it was setup for a three person dinner. She suspected Xena was their other guest and she was right.

The three leaders all quietly sat around the table. Xena's vision was hawkeyed on Lao Ma the entire dinner but her interest was on Borias's words. She was not about to agree to any contract that withdrew from her and her men's success. She wasn't here for peace.

"I apologize for this simple dwelling."

Lao Ma gently smiled at the warlord. "It's an honour. I accept any hospitality you can spare."

"What we talk about tonight will benefit us both."

Lao Ma paused in the collection of her food. She softly stated, "Yes, it is an agreement that will make my husband most happy."

Xerna huffed silently as she wondered exactly why her husband wasn't here. Lao Ma probably had Lao killed, stuffed like a prize on her wall, and nobody is the wiser in the ignorant Lao kingdom. She had a half grin though at the amusing thought of Lao Ma stuffing her husband just to control his kingdom. Even Xena had to admit that would be quite cunning. As her eyes lifted from her plate of food, she stared at Lao Ma and assessed her once more. Yes, Lao Ma does look that cunning enough to do such a thing. But why would she anyway?

As the dinner conversation continued between Lao Ma and Borias, Xena decided only to carefully listen to them. Borias's ideas were very upfront and notable but Xena would never agree to the terms. She did not like how Borias so easily responded to Lao Ma's demands and ideas. Borias was losing sight of their original goal, Xena concluded and she fel herself seething at how Lao Ma seemed to control him. She didn't sign up to be Borias's partner to lose her control over him. And this tiny woman was not about to take her control away. Not tonight, not anymore.

Later that night, after the dinner had ended, Xena was relaxing in her yurt and on her bed. She sat on the edge of the side, her head bent forward, and she glazed eyes were fixed on her ivy dagger rolling between her hands. Was it late enough yet? She debated a few times with herself. Lao Ma was most likely asleep by now so she lifted herself up with her dagger in one hand and her stick in the other.

The warlord slipped out of her tent and silently slipped through the small camp to the other end. As she approached the back of Lao Ma's yurt, she still debated the consequences this could bring if she failed or succeeded. She only smirked and decided to go ahead with her attack.

Carefully and silently, Xena slipped through the back of the yurt and her dagger was in front of her. Xena's sharp eyes honed on her small target under the furs and she readied her dagger. "I don't know if you people pray to the gods, but if you don't, now would be a great time to start." Just as she lifted her dagger, she had Lao Ma's almost pitch black ones piercing through her. Without knowing what happened, Xena found herself lifted into the air and thrown out of the front door of the yurt, straw landing all around her. She quickly tried to recover by getting up but Lao Ma's almost invisible form was in front of her and she couldn't move.

Lao Ma quickly disarmed Xena and the dagger was gone from sight. She then bent forward to Xena and whispered into her ear, "Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion, empty yourself of desire and understand the mystery of things."

Xena was too stunned to understand what was told to her but her memory kept it. As soon as she realized Borias was towering over her, she peered up.

"What happened?" he growled hotly.

"I'm sorry, Borias. I'll be leaving immediately. I don't think an alliance would be appropriate now." Lao Ma turned and hurried into her tent to collect her things. She knew her men would be ready at her word so she did not hesitate to get her things then leave the camp.

Borias's temper was burning hot than a fire. He hissed at Xena when she got up from the ground. "It's over, Xena. You have until sunrise to get out of this camp with your men. After that, I'll attack you."

Xena turned her head to the side some; she knew Chuang was beside her, awaken by the commotion. "Ready the men, Chuang." She then gazed back at her now ex-partner. "I will attack you if you come near me or my men." Without another word, she turned and limped back to her yurt.

Borias's dark stare went colder but for some reason he had a chilled smile. If it was one thing he could count on, it was Xena's persistence and he was calculating her step by step.

Xena and her men broke camp within three candlemarks, just before sunrise. They marched north for about three candlemarks to put some distance between her and Borias but not too much. After setting up a temporary camp, Chuang had returned to Xena's side.

"What is the plan?"

Xena had her arms across her fur covered chest and she was staring into the fire in front of her. "We need more supplies, don't we?"


"And we don't exactly have the man power for a raid," muttered Xena.

"What do you suggest then?" persisted the second in command.

"A prince's ransom," mumbled Xena, her face now glowing from the flickers of the fire. She grinned at her commander. "Round up a few able men. They ride with me in half a candlemark."

"Aye." Chuang nodded then hurried off.

"Time to bring these happy families together."

Xena and her fifteen men rode at a gallop through the Great Wall and into the Chin Kingdom that was a quarter of a day's ride typically. When they came to the outskirts of the palace of Chin, Xena came to a halt with her men and looked at them. "Sun Ce?"

The warrior urged his horse around his men and joined Xena's side. "Yes?"

"You are with me." Xena glanced back at the other fourteen men. "Wait here." After receiving nods from her men, she spurred Argo into a trot with Sun Ce behind her. "We are headed to the west wing."

Sun Ce had a brief confused expression then he realized Xena's intent. "The child?" he called.

"Yes." Xena enjoyed Sun Ce's smirk momentarily then she saw the west wing of the palace. She withdrew her sword and urged her mare into a full gallop. She twirled her sword and brought it down when they came in contact with the paper thin wall. Xena quickly took out the nearest guard while two other's raced in to protect Ming Tzu's young son.

Sun Ce fought one guard while Xena was quickly dismounting.

Xena knocked the third guard's sword from his hand. She then finished him with a pinch to his neck. She bent forward and murmured, "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in a two breaths."

The soldier choked and asked, "What do you want to know?"

The warlord nodded at Sun Ce, who went to grab Ming T'ien.

"Nothing, I'm just letting you know how long you have left so you can enjoy it." Xena walked away from the dying soldier and went back to Argo. After Sun Ce had the boy on his horse, she turned Argo around and rode off. This should stir up both dynasties Xena figured; she was counting on it. She decided her first stop would be Borias's camp because she knew even if he was slightly honourable, he was still money hungry. And it wasn't long before she arrived in his camp where they were instantly greeted by an angry Borias.

"You're insane!" bellowed Borias when Xena told him what she'd done.

Xena calmed Argo with a tug of the reins then she focussed on her ex-partner. "And you're scared. Why is that?"

Borias ignored the question. "You'll have Ming and Lao breathing down my neck. They'll think I had something to do with this."

"Ming and Lao together?" innocently inquired Xena but her glowing features deceived her.

Borias glowered at her. "Nothing brings royal houses together faster than kidnapped heirs."

Xena chuckled and her voice became amused. "If I'm dealing with both of them, then I'm doubling my demands."

Borias half heard her musings but he was scanning all of Xena's men to see the child but he didn't see him. He quickly brought his focus back to Xena. "Where is the child?"

Xena chuckled and glanced back at Sun Ce. "Sun Ce, he thinks I'm going to tell him."

Sun Ce showed a toothy grin at his commander.

The warlord looked back at Borias and stated, "What I will do, however, is cut you in on the deal if you set up the exchange. We meet in your yurt in the plains north of the Great Wall. Ming brings me fifty of his best horses and twenty-five… no, fifty bags of gold. And I give him his boy. For your part, you get five percent." She briefly enjoyed the darkening look on Borias's face but she quickly added, "Oh, and that's not an offer… it's a statement of fact." Then without another word, she signalled her men to leave with her.

Borias laughed when Xena and her men were far away. "And you'll be dead, Xena. That's just a fact."

Xena and her men returned to their camp just before sunset. The warlord was quite content with her plans and when she came into camp, she tossed Ming T'ien to Chuang.

Chuang took the silent boy into the main part of camp.

Xena however took her mare to the corral for the evening. Her men followed behind as well. After taking care of Argo, she slowly walked back to her camp with a growing grin. She found Ming T'ien being watched by Chuang by a large fire where food was being cook on a spit. She nodded at Chuang to take a break and she would watch the boy.

Xena sat on a large stone and stared at the silent, standing child. "Your father is a foolish man, Ming T'ien." She received no response, not even a facial response. "Hopefully you will not grow up as foolish," she murmured. She reached down to her boot and extracted her hidden dagger. Her mate to her dagger she'd lost to Lao Ma; her favourite set at that since her childhood. She twirled her dagger between her long fingers while studying the silent boy. She read him as he read her, neither sure who would become darker in the future.

"The best way to stop an enemy, Ming T'ien is to be ahead of them. Then when you have them, kill them." The warlord gave her dagger one last good spin then stopped it with her blade out. "And make sure to mark all your enemies." Suddenly she jumped forward and grabbed the boy, who for the first time started to struggle against his captor.

Xena was much stronger and held the thrashing child tight as she smashed is small hand onto her leg with her free hand. She then gritted her teeth as she brought her dagger down towards the top of his hand. "This'll get you screaming, Ming T'ien," she promised.

Suddenly the camp was filled with a loud vibrating cry from the small boy. Each warrior in the camp merely ignored it and continued their work.

Five days after the kidnapping. Xena was contacted by one of Borias's men and her ransom was ready at his camp. Xena didn't hesitate to gather a few of her men and the boy too. She rode south to Borias's camp just north of the Great Wall as she told him. As she approached the camp, she already saw Ming Tzu and his men were there waiting for her. Her body naturally sparked with excitement at her job well done. When she entered the camp, she dismounted with her men following her. However in all her excitement, she didn't notice that Borias's men weren't minding their own business but really standing near the exchange group.

Ming Tzu's dark expression rested on the female warlord, his temper just in check. He watched her scan through the goods that she'd demanded but finally he spoke up. "The boy?"

Xena pulled back from her quick inventory of the gold. "You got a smart kid. Course, he got a whole lot smarter when he was with me." Xena briefly took in the angry look on Ming Tzu's face. "He's on the third packhorse out there under some skins."

Ming Tzu didn't hesitate to hurry off to the horse to seek out his son.

Xena smiled broadly at Borias for a moment then said, "Well that was a thing of beauty." She started to turn around until her world suddenly went black from a hard blow to the back of her head.

Ming Tzu held tight to his son as he watched Borias's men surround Xena's five men. However Ming T'ien pulled away from his father, rejecting any affection and comfort. He actually watched Borias's men make quick work of Xena's solders then he peered across at Borias.

Borias came up to the Chin ruler and direct at the unconscious Xena. "As promised."

Ming Tzu dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Good. You take the gold and horses. I get the woman."

Borias's smile suddenly appeared. "Agreed." And with that, he had his men assisted Ming Tzu with locking Xena up in a carted cage. It was Borias who locked the cage and after doing so, he whispered, "You're going to die, Xena ... and that's a statement of fact." The only response he received was a low moan. After a pat of the cage door, he walked off.

Xena sucked in a heavy breath of air and her throat caught on something. She quickly coughed up a piece of dirty straw onto the cold floor that she was curled up on. She opened her sore eyes and gazed about the dark, dirty, and smelly room she'd been locked in. After another deep breath, she slowly lifted herself up as best as she could without her stick to support her. She held onto the chain that was connected to the wall and her right ankle.

The warlord scanned the dark dungeon she'd been thrown into about two days ago she estimated. Her body was incredibly sore from being thrown around, beaten, and a few whippings. She figured it wouldn't be long before she met her death by this ruler. What she couldn't imagine was how he planned to kill her. For some odd reason, she actually looked forward to it.

She lifted her left arm and stared at the thin cuts that covered her arm. She'd heard Ming Tzu last night order the executioner to stop her sentence, which was lingchi or the Death of a Thousand Cuts. She could only imagine what Ming Tzu had in store for her otherwise if it wasn't the common practices. She certainly knew it wouldn't be the honourable death of jiaoxing, which would be strangulation with a piece of cloth. That execution was only done to those who deserved honour and no defacing in the afterlife.

Just then, her musing was cut off by her heavy cell door opening and the executioner entering.

The executioner said nothing as usual and he held out a pair of thick wrist chains that had shackles on either end. He knew the woman would give him no trouble so he easily shackled her wrists together. Then he disconnected the shackle from her ankle and after he finished, two guards entered.

Xena knew she was to leave so she started for the door where the guards waited. She sensed the executioner directly behind her. She could only imagine what Ming Tzu had in store for her death. After stepping out of the dungeon, she was momentarily blinded by the sunlight that she hadn't seen in so long. Her sore eyes ached even harder and she felt too exposed, especially her slashed arm. Just ahead was another cage cart like last time and the door was opened. She limped towards it and the two guards shoved her into it then locked her in.

"Good morning, Xena." The Chin ruler smiled down from his horse. He then signalled his appearing men to head out onto the road.

Not far off, Xena could hear dogs breathing heavily and an occasional howl. Her mind quickly raced and she realized what was planned for her. She would be the hunt and Ming Tzu would execute her death. She dropped her head against the cage and she forced herself to scheme some plan to save herself now that she had a fighting chance. There had to be some way to escape and seek her revenge later.

Suddenly the cage jerked to a stop and she shifted to the door. She gazed about the thick woods and she knew she was very far away from any town or civilization. But then something caught her attention down the road, it was a familiar group: Lao Ma.

"Welcome, Lao Ma," greeted the ruler. He offered a smile at Lao's wife. "I hope you don't mind us hunting so close to Lao territory, but the terrain here is perfect."

Lao Ma slipped from her caravan and stepped up to dismounting ruler. "Perfect for what?" She bowed and received a bow back in return.

Ming Tzu held out his hand to the warlord. "Her. The woman who succeeded in doing what a hundred diplomats could not do." He lowered his hand and finished. "Make an alliance between our two kingdoms."

Lao Ma thoughtfully studied broken down warlord then turn back to Ming Tzu. "You plan to hunt her?"

"Yes. We're going to enjoy this, aren't we, Ming T'ien?"

The son said nothing and did nothing. He merely stared as always.

Lao Ma suddenly smiled at the young boy. She bent down to the boy's height as she reached into her shen-i dress and pulled out a silk piece of cloth. "I brought something for you, Ming T'ien." She held out the gift. "I made it myself."

Ming T'ien takes the gift but immediately throws it to the ground in disgrace.

Lao Ma lost her half hearted smile and rises back up.

Xena lifted an eyebrow at the display and she was caught with that expression when Lao Ma looked at her.

"A beaten, half-dead cripple doesn't sound very sporting, Ming Tzu."

"No," quietly agreed the ruler. "But it will be entertaining."

Lao Ma merely nodded and took a few steps back. "I must go. Enjoy your entertainment." After a quick glance at the prisoner, she disappeared into her caravan and was escorted out by her soldiers.

After Lao's wife was far off, Ming Tzu turned to his son. "You could have at least looked at her gift. Let me see…."

Xena curiously watched as the ruler picked up the cloth and carefully opened it.

"Ah, she knows my nickname for you." He held out the cloth with the green dragon symbol embroidered on the silk. Ming Tzu tucked it away in his shen-i and faced his soldiers. "Remove her."

Xena fell to the cold ground and she stared up at Ming Tzu but he said nothing. She knew though so she gathered herself as best as she could and started at a running limp into the woods.

Ming Tzu turned and watched her hurriedly limp into the forest. He knew it'd be easy to hunt her down and kill her so letting her have a head start was worth his wild.

Xena raced as fast as she could, her mind was even faster with ideas. Maybe she could make it to some town? Or find a hiding spot in the woods. Then there were always the trees. Her head dropped back as she limped along. She knew with her handicapped knee she couldn't jump into the trees. She growled in frustration and quickly snatched up a thick branch for added support and maybe protection later.

The warlord wasn't watching her steps because her attention was suddenly taken by the nearness of the dog howls. She tripped over a branch and landed face first into a pile of leaves that blew up over her. She growled and pushed herself up but halfway she sensed somebody before her. She stared at the hand in front of her.

"Come with me if you wish your freedom."

Xena stared into Lao Ma's soft brown eyes and she actually considered the offer. She didn't know why she accepted and she could only reason it was because her only chance. She took the woman's hand and was helped up the rest of the way. Then there was a horse before her. She couldn't understand how she didn't notice Lao Ma on the horse sooner yet right now she was more concerned about the nearing hounds.

"Come on." Lao Ma swiftly mounted the small horse and helped Xena get up behind. It wasn't a long ride to Lao Ma's palace and when they came to the grand front doors, they hastily dismounted. An attendant took the horse and Lao Ma rushed Xena into the palace.

As they weaved through the palace, Xena asked, "Why are you doing this?"

Lao Mao didn't reply yet until they came into a large bathing room. She faced Xena. "I have been blessed, or cursed, with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don't know it yet Xena, but you are a remarkable woman capable of greatness." She stopped for a deep breath then looked about the room. "Quick. We must plan before he arrives."

Xena was briefly confused but then the dogs came to mind. Her scent, she almost forgot. When she looked back at Lao Ma, she saw the small woman adoring a colourful robe.

Lao Ma paused in the middle of her movement towards Xena when she heard somebody coming. She hastily looked about the room and pointed at the large filled stone tub. "Get in. Hurry."

Xena was so confused but she didn't hesitate as she climbed into the tub.

"Deep breath." Lao Ma then shoved Xena under the water.

Lao Ma sat on the tub's edge as the heavy wood doors swung open. "Lord," she greeted.

"Lao Ma, my hounds have followed Xena's trail here." Ming Tzu signalled his men to search the room while he continued to speak to Lao Ma.

"They're probably hungry." Lao Mao shrugged and crossed her legs. Her expression was firm and calm.

"When I arranged your marriage to Lao, I expected you to show more loyalty to me."

Lao Ma tilted her head then stated, "I was a courtesan, and you sold me. You expected loyalty?"

Ming Tzu was silent for a moment as his right hand shifted to rest on his son's mid back. "You're a strange woman, Lao Ma. Soft and hard at the same time."

"Like water.…" Lao Ma turned and peered into the pool of warm water. She saw a struggling Xena under the water. "Nothing is soft as water yet who can withstand the raging flood?" She then suddenly lowered her head into the water after a deep breath. She sought out Xena's lips and they met in an open kiss.

Xena sensed her lungs filling with air and her chest stopped burning. She stopped struggling under the water when Lao Ma quickly lifted her head up out of the water.

Lao Ma flung her wet hair around but used a nearby towel to dry it off. "Now, if you'll respect my privacy."

Ming Tzu stood perplexed for a moment. "You had better not be hiding her."

Lao Ma kept her calm expression. "My lord, I would never hide that which is yours."

The ruler paused then dipped his head in respect.

Lao Ma did the same and watched Ming Tzu, Ming T'ien, and the soldiers leave her quarters. After they shut the door, she heard Xena burst from the water with a sharp intake of air. She slipped off the rim of the stone tub and went over to a stack of towels that rested on a table. She carefully picked the top one off and quietly ordered, "Remove your clothes."

Xena raised an eyebrow then after a second she stared down at her tattered rags that covered just her private areas. First she ran her hands through her wet hair to brush it out of her face then she slowly slipped out of her rags. Her movement was slow and cautious because her body was so endlessly sore and beaten. When she was finished, she peered up to see soft brown eyes staring down at her.

"Relax," softly spoke Lao Ma.

Xena licked her lips as she set the tattered cloths onto the edge of the tub. She gradually sank back under the warm water, which soothed her aching body. Then it was the small but gentle hands that started needing her shoulders that made her mentally relax. For the first time in years, her mind wasn't racing and her guard was much more down.

Lao Ma remained silent and only studied the younger woman. While she worked Xena's shoulder muscles, she could only wonder how such a young woman had matured and blackened in such a short time. In many ways, it was beyond her wisdom and even her imagination about how Xena had become who she is. What she did know was that Xena was not meant to be this person. If it was one thing Lao Ma had faith in, it was her wisdom and her abilities to pass them onto the right people. So was this the right person? And even if Xena is the right person, is it the right time? That was a question beyond her seeing.

Xena's low moan slipped into the air and broke Lao Ma from her racing mind. She stopped the massage and took the bar of herbal soap from its dish near by. She lathered up her hands so she could wash Xena's hair first.

Xena took a moment to roll her head tightly, her spinal bones all cracked back into their places. Once she took a heavy breath, she leaned her head back some. For the first time, she noticed the pulsating burn in her left arm from the countless cuts that the Chin execution had done on her. The cuts were being cleaned by the warm water and that was a relief in Xena's mind.

Now Lao Ma was running her thin, small fingers through Xena's wet hair. She was going so slowly but so gently over Xena's head. She wasn't only washing Xena's hair but massaging her scalp from front to back and then on the sides.

For the first time, Xena closed her eyes. Her controlled mind was finally unleashed and her thoughts went wondering through everything. First a girl, then a rescuer, to a raider and pirate, now she is a warlord being bathed by her enemy. Yet there is still one constant inside of her and that has always been Gabrielle. She made have faded through time but she wasn't gone, never. Xena may be lost in her rage and anger but it was Gabrielle speaking to her in her dreams. No matter how dark and bloody her dreams became as she slaughter more people, Gabrielle was always at the end, waiting for her. What did scare Xena more than anything was the fact that when she saw herself at the end of the dream she was a monster.

And it has been that monster that had grown stronger in her and was coming to life. Xena was giving into her dark monster finding some kind of solace in the darkness because it offered her safety. But it was the power and control over this world she wanted more than anything so nobody could ever alter her life again. She would make it her destiny to control this world from Tartarus to Mount Olympus no matter who had to die in her wake.

"Stand up," whispered Lao Ma into Xena's ear.

Xena awakened from her trance to find she'd been completely bathed. She forced her body to rise up from the warm water and she was quickly covered by a towel.


Xena tilted her head a little but stepped out of the pool and followed the older woman. Her eyes naturally narrowed when she realized it seemed as if Lao Ma was almost floating over the floor. She knew it wasn't true and that it was most likely because of the large robe she wore. However Xena sensed some type of energy around Lao Ma ever since she'd met the woman. She didn't understand it but she wanted to understand it more than anything now.

The pair finally came into a bedroom, which Xena suspect was Lao Ma's. Lao Ma went to a large oriental closest where she gathered out some clothing that was clearly meant for Xena. She held out the clothing to Xena and nod her head to a screen meant for changing behind.

Xena, for the first time, bowed her head to Lao Ma as she accepted the shen-i dress but kept her other hand up to hold her towel around her body. She silently went behind the screen to change into her new attire.

Lao Ma, however, went back to her closet and inside there was a small shelf. There she had a jewellery box stored and she began searching for a set of earrings and a hair pin. By the time she discovered it, the warlord had emerged back from behind the screen.

Lao Ma had a faint smile at Xena in the smooth purple shen-i dress with golden seams. She turned her head to the right and held out her empty hand to a stool.

Xena glanced at it then back at Lao Ma. She raised an eyebrow yet said nothing as she gimped over to the stool. After sitting down, Lao Ma appeared in front of her with an earring dangling from her fingers. Xena kept her expression stone as Lao Ma bent over a little and carefully put the first earring in then the second. Next Lao Ma shifted behind her and began working on Xena's damp hair.

Within a few, the warlord's normally unruly hair was neatly twisted into a bun and held by a wood hair brooch. Then at the sides of her face were two long pieces of hair that framed her chiselled face.

Xena stood up and silently made her way to a full length mirror. She held her breath for a quick moment as she stared at her reflection.

Lao Ma was off to the side and she only watched as the warlord looked herself over.

Xena wasn't sure how long she stared at her reflection because she couldn't recall ever looking this nice. It had been a long time and it seemed to civilize something deep in her. As her finger tips ran across the rim of her sleeves, her head turned to Lao Ma.

Neither women said anything; they only studied each other for awhile. Yet it was Lao Ma that sensed the changes in Xena's attitude towards her. There was no more hatred energy attacking Lao Ma from Xena and it made Lao Ma soften to the younger woman.

Lao Ma came up to the younger woman and quietly said, "Let me show you around." Xena only nodded and then followed her out. She gave Xena the tour of the palace, starting from the east end and finishing in the west wing. When they entered the room, there was a bed in the middle of the tiny room and a human form in the centre of the bed.

Lao Ma brought Xena to the side of the bed and quietly stated, "My husband."

The warlord was taken aback but she made sure not to show it. She knew her questions about Lao Ma and Lao Tzu were about to be answered by this.

"I've heard that you keep him in a coma. I didn't believe it, but it's true."

Lao Ma bent forward over the bed. "Oh, yes. If he were actually dead, word would get out and his imbecile cousin would become king." She pulled back the sheets some from her husband while she spoke. "No, I make sure he stays alive, but in this half-conscious state."

Xena curiously watched as Lao Ma carefully pressed against Lao Tzu's throat and he moaned in response. She realized Lao Ma was using pressure points to keep him sedate.

Lao Ma then slowly started to bring back the sheets over his chest. "You understand pressure points, don't you?" After Xena's nod, she continued. "I make sure he's seen every once in a while in the garden. It helps to convince doubters."

"So you rule in his name," concluded the warlord. She had a half grin in pure amusement at Lao Ma's cleverness.

"The only way a woman could rule in the Kingdom of Chin. It's my gift to him. He was a vicious tyrant. I'm going to make him the most loved of rulers."

Xena's face twisted with confusion. "Don't you get sick of him getting all the credit for everything you do?"

Lao Ma finally looked up at Xena. "Not at all, as long as good is done." She then stepped around the young woman.

Xena turned and watched Lao Ma drift across the small room to a stand that held a book. She curiously followed the tiny woman and read over what she could in the book. "You write all your wisdom stuff, huh?"

Lao Ma continued writing what her wisdom was for today. "Yes… in his book."

Xena lifted an eyebrow. "You give him credit for that too?"

"This wisdom comes from the Heaven. What difference does it make who gets credit for it? Lao Ma or Lao Tzu?"

Xena opened her mouth but she had no true response so she remained silent. After Lao Ma finished her writing, she finally had some type of response, which caused her to smirk. "Nothing seems to phase you… except that boy I kidnapped. Every time he ignores you that cuts deep."

Lao Ma remained still but then put the reed down in between the spin of the book. She slipped her hands into the sleeves of her robe. "I know it's foolish of me." Her head dipped a little as she started for the door. "Just because you give birth to them doesn't mean we own them."

The warlord was caught in her mid step at Lao Ma's confession. "He's your son?"

Lao Ma was in the doorway but she glanced back and only nodded. She then disappeared out of the room.

Xena stood shocked momentarily. She had not expected that what so ever because she'd never heard of any rumours of such. And as she thought about it, the more she realized she should have killed that little brat. He could become the heir of both kingdoms if he ever pressed to have the Chin Kingdom. Yet a piece of her knew too this was Lao Ma's son and killing the child would only chill her deeper. So for the first time, Xena felt a piece of remorse for somebody. She shook it away and wobbled out of the room after one last glance at the sleeping Lao Tzu.

The dark warlord narrowed her eyes at the vase on the table. Her breathing was laboured and not because of any type of exercises but merely because of her anger. Lao Ma had left her here over two candlemarks ago with over a dozen vases that she was meant to break without touching. Lao Ma only gave her a few wonderful pearls of wisdom on how to break the vases but Lao Ma's words sunk to the bottom of her mind.

Xena wanted her sword and she would make fast work of the vases in a flicker. Yet she was only left with her mind as Lao Ma told her. She wasn't sure why she'd agreed to these stupid lessons of Lao Ma's last night but it was too late. For some reason, she thought she could gain something useful from Lao Ma because she seemed like such an amazing women but Xena was starting to have her doubts now. All she could figure was Lao Ma's wisdom was turning into centaur crap as far as she was concerned.

Xena's anger suddenly erupted hotter than a volcano and she slammed her foot onto the vase. The vase spewed across the floor into millions of pieces and Xena felt some gratification of ridding of the vase.

"Would you kill a mosquito with an axe?"

The warlord turned in the direction of Lao Ma's soft voice but Lao Ma was suddenly at her side. It almost made her jump in response but she held her ground as slim fingers removed her hair pin.

"This is very beautiful." Lao Ma held up the hair brooch between them. She then signalled to a vase by the stack.

Xena's eyebrow arched higher than it ever had around Lao Ma. "That's good." She picked up a vase and shuffled over to the table to place it there.

Lao Ma suddenly had a half grin but it was gone. "That could be a very useful weapon if thrown at the right body part."

That's when Xena's eyebrow lowered and her curiosity came to life again just at the mention of weapon. "You could kill someone using a hair brooch?" She returned to Lao Ma's side.

Lao Ma tilted her head as she turned the hair brooch between her fingers. "If necessary but I don't like to kill."

Xena's ruthless grin appeared. "Everyone has their preferences. I happen to like a good kill."

Lao Ma's hand lowered with the hair pin and she stared at Xena in silence then finally stated, "You're so full of anger and hate."

Xena's grin went deeper and her cold eyes lit with hunger. "Everyone's gotta be full of something."

Lao Ma suddenly spun around with her right hand extending out in a blur.

The vase blew up into shards that cascaded over the table and scattered over the floor.

"Teach me to do that."

Lao Ma tilted her head at the warlord. "Well, try it."

Xena considered it then took a new vase and placed it on the table. She glowered at it and her teeth were growing tighter together.

Lao Ma let it go on for awhile then she finally informed Xena, "You're trying to attack the bottle with your will."

Xena growled lowly and looked at her developing mentor. "What else is there?"


Xena straightened up to her full height. "What?"

Lao Ma stared at the vase then peered up at the young woman. "The entire world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world you need to stop willing… stop desiring… stop hating."

Xena let Lao Ma's words soak in her mind but they didn't mean anything to her, for now. She focussed back on the vase again in hopes for a second try at destroying it.

Lao Ma curiously watched even though she knew her pupil would not accomplish something so simply. She knew it would be a long journey before Xena could ever destroy that vase let alone learn any of her other teachings. Yet she had faith and patience because she was that type of woman and she knew this was her destiny in Xena's life. Now she saw how much anger was raging inside of Xena so she broke Xena away from what she was doing.

"Heaven endures and the earth lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves."

Xena pulled away from her focus on the vase and faced her mentor.

"Therefore, she who would live a long time should live for others, serve others."

The warlord lifted an eyebrow and simply stated, "I could serve you if that's what you mean."

Lao Ma had a gentle smile as she closed in on Xena. She took Xena's hands into her own. "Of course you can." Her smile grew some as Xena took a moment to stare at their hands together. "It's easy to serve someone you love. You feel it will make them love you more." When Xena looked back at her again, she continued speaking. "It's like a good business investment." Her head tilted to one side. "That's not what I'm talking about."

It was then that Xena realized what her mentor was purposing. Her eyes instantly darkened and her jaw tightened. "You mean that I should serve someone who hates me."

"More than that. You need to serve someone you hate, Ming Tzu."

The warlord suddenly pulled her hands free, her deep voice cut through her enemy's name. "Ming Tzu?"

"Yes, the man who had you hunted like an animal. He comes here tomorrow with his son."

Xena's upper lip slightly curled and she took a step back. "Serve Ming? I'd rather die."

Lao Ma dipped her head then drifted several steps away yet she stopped. She glanced back at the younger woman and quietly stated, "You've been a dead woman for a long time now, Xena. I offer you the chance to live." And with that, Lao Ma disappeared back into the palace.

Xena's earlier darken expression had faded and for a fleeting moment she felt remorse and it was clear over her face. She hardened again as she stared back at the vase on the table. She let out a low warcry and kicked the vase across the floor. After all the countless pieces stopped spinning and flying across the floor, Xena stood there heavily breathing and a deep growl shook her chest. She then looked across the balcony at the setting sun that was almost gone. She pulled herself together and limped over to the rail. She remained still and silent as she watched the sun disappear over the horizon and all that was left were the colourful rays of sunset.

Lao Ma though hadn't gone that far, she lurked in the open doorway to the balcony. She was deathly silent and she glowed from the surrounding firelight but it was Xena that glowed from the sunset. She was not sure how long she or Xena stood there for but it wasn't until everything was completely dark outside. All that was left was a wanning moon just over the western horizon and unknown stars glistening high above.

Lao Ma quietly glided across the balcony and came up to the warlord's side. She said nothing.

Xena didn't acknowledge her even though she clearly knew Lao Ma was beside her.

"This is the most still I have seen you," she whispered.

The warlord did not response for awhile but then she dipped her head down towards Lao Ma and whispered back, "Anything is possible."

Lao Ma's lips gradually shaped one of the warmest smiles she'd felt in her entire lifetime. "That is the wisest thing you've spoken yet, Xena."

"Mmmmm." The warlord glanced across to the crescent moon.

"Follow me," softly ordered Lao Ma. She held out her hand.

Xena hesitated but she took the small hand. She then fell in step beside her mentor.

They went into the palace and headed for the east wing. They went into a room that branched off from the rest; Xena recalled it as being a meditation room. There was one mat in the centre of the room then others in a corner. The only thing that was in the room was a thin, long table that ran across one side of the room. That table held one entire length of white candles that were all lit.

"Sit." Lao Ma held her hand out to the mat.

The warlord anticipated what she was meant to do. She leaned forward first and took off her boots then she padded across the wood floor. She lowered herself down onto her legs but kept her back straight. From the corner of her eyes, she watched Lao Ma unroll a mat beside her and kneel down next to her.

Lao Ma curiously studied Xena for a moment but she faintly smiled when Xena focussed on meditating. She too went into her meditation state, her eyes drifting shut.

Xena sighed and her body relaxed but only one hundredth of what she really could. She would never completely relax and never let her guard down. Yet it was her mind that wasn't in control for once and she thought about her life for the second time this year. Often she ignored her life and only focussed on her purpose, her mission. Today was the second day she'd considered her life's journey so far and it wasn't a pleasant consideration.

Her thoughts took her deeper and further inside of herself. Her past trickled back like a slow nose bleed and Xena was completely self absorb from any reality.

"Look what you've become, Xena."

Xena peered up at her mother and her face went pale at her mother's disapproving look.

"You're even covered in all the blood of those you've murdered," cried out Cyrene.

The warlord was merely a young teen again but she was a bloody, bruised, and wounded teen. As she looked down at herself, she realized she was coated in a thick layer of rich blood. Her golden chain mail wasn't even recognizable and her sword was too heavy for her to even hold. Her iron sword fell from her small hands and thundered against the wood floor.

"You're a killer… a murdered," whispered the horrified mother.


Cyrene took one step back. "Wasn't your brother's death enough?" she cried.

Xena frantically shook her head. "Mother, I-"

"No… no…." Cyrene again took another step away from her daughter. "You're not my daughter… you're a monster… stay away." Then she suddenly went running and Xena chased after her.

"Mother!" screamed out Xena in desperation but she'd faded to black.


The teenaged warlord stopped and scanned around in the dark, black area she was surrounded by. "Gabrielle?" she whispered.


"Gabrielleeee!" Xena once again frantically began to run but she couldn't see where she was going if anywhere.



Then suddenly Xena's running came to a complete stop when she fell to the ground from tripping over something. She quickly rolled over frantically and her eyes went wider than the sun. "Ooo gods no!" She scrambled across the black ground and fell to her knees before Gabrielle's body. "Gabrielle?" she whimpered as she touched Gabrielle's motionless body. But as Xena touched Gabrielle's fragile body, Gabrielle's body became coated in blood from Xena's hands wherever she touched. "Gods no." She now madly wiped her hands on her knees, trying to rub off the blood but her hands only got redder with blood. Xena's cheeks burned from hot tears and she tried again to shake Gabrielle awake but she didn't stir and the blood on her only spread across her body.

"Gabrielle, please wake up!" Xena hysterically shook her head while her tears mixed with her blood soaked cheeks. "Wake up!"

"Wake up, Xena… wake up."

The warlord suddenly jumped up from the mat she'd been kneeling on.

Lao Ma stared up at the shocked warlord and she knew Xena had been in a deep trance. She stood up and came closer to Xena.

Xena stepped back though and she sensed her cheeks were wet. She angrily wiped her cheeks dry.

Lao Ma dipped her head and took a step back in respect.

Xena's heavy breathing was the only thing that could be heard in the small room. She gritted her teeth against her remaining emotions then she was gone from the room.

Lao Ma lifted her head finally and she caught the last piecing of Xena's shadow disappearing down the hallway. She released a heavy sigh of worry then slowly knelt back down into her previous position. Maybe her thoughts could continue to take her on the right path of wisdom for Xena.

Xena kept her eyes shut. Her breathing had finally settled after about a quarter of a candlemark and her mind was much more under control. For once, she went back to her darker thoughts of conquest and power, which was an angry comfort to her. Her mentally plans and thoughts were finally broken by the almost silent footfall of Lao Ma. She sensed the small woman standing over her bed where she rested.

"Your thoughts are as dark as your past."

"If not darker," whispered the warlord. Her glooming blue eyes slowly opened and focused on Lao Ma.

"What is it that you want from life?"

Xena studied her mentor. She chewed on the question for several quiet moments. "Control," she simply supplied.

Lao Ma tilted her head. "Over yourself or the world?"

"I have control over myself now I want the known-world."

Lao Ma dipped her head a little. "I believe you have as much control over yourself as you do over this world, Xena."

The warlord suddenly grinned. "Possibly."

"And acceptance is control… possibly." Lao Ma said nothing else and disappeared out of the bedroom.

Xena only closed her eyes again.

Lao Ma entered the dining room to find Xena carefully setting the table for tonight's dinner. She contained her small smile of pride. She knew this was hard for the warlord and she wasn't about to increase any tension. Last night had been troubling enough after the meditating. Tonight would be another trial for Xena.

The warlord looked up when she saw her mentor enter the room. She bowed her head in respect and received the same from Lao Ma.

"Everything is ready?" quietly asked Lao Ma.

"Yes." Xena glanced at the set table then back at the smaller woman. "When is he due here?"

"Any moment now." Lao Ma held out her hand to the open door that lead into the kitchen.

Xena understood and silently left the dining room.

Lao Ma also left the room to head to the north wing where Ming Tzu was expected to arrive.

The warlord was waiting in the kitchen until she heard Lao Ma's return. As she waited, her anger for Ming Tzu boiled to the top of her, so much that her teeth gritted together. She twisted her head to the left and stared at the row of knives that glistened in the firelight. Slowly she drifted over to the rack and her fingers gradually glided down the side of the blade as she considered her options.

Just then the front door of the dining room opened and closed. Xena's hand jumped away from the blade of one of the knives but she still stared at them. It would be so easy; almost too easy. She breathed heavily because Lao Ma's voice filtered into her mind and she recalled again why she was even trying this. Gradually her hand retreated from the knives and Xena stepped away from the counter. When she stepped into the dinning room with a pitch of water, she stopped mid step and stared at Ming Tzu and Ming T'ien.

"Welcome to my home. I wish only that it were worthy of your presence." Lao Ma lifted her head after bowing it. Now she glanced at Ming T'ien and gently said, "Welcome, Ming T'ien"

Ming T'ien merely ignored her as if she was nothing.

The warlord watched the display and she had to admit she really hated that boy more than Ming Tzu. She really couldn't understand why but maybe it had something to do with her emotions for Lao Ma.

"Please, sit." Lao Ma held out her hand to the table. After her guests sat, she did the same and signalled for Xena to pour the water.

Xena quietly went around the table and filled each person's glass. She then left to the kitchen to retrieve the food.

"How are affairs?"

Ming Tzu lowered his glass after a sip. "They are worsening."

Lao Ma tilted her head in curiosity.

Ming Tzu leaned to his left some when the servant began placing food on his plate. "Yes, the gold and horses I gave him for double-crossing that whore have made him too powerful." He straightened up when she was finished serving him then continued talking. "Borias is very dangerous. He's more dangerous than that witch, Xena. He's very clever. She was a stupid thug."

Lao Ma briefly peered up Xena and noticed she stood stiff, angry, and a knife in her right hand. She blinked and looked back at Ming Tzu with an emotionless face.

The warlord loosened her grip on her knife and forced herself to move away from Ming Tzu. As she approached Lao Ma, her body became calmer and her anger lessened with each step. She bent forward and slowly filled Lao Ma's plate.

When Xena finally made her last gimped step into the kitchen, the door closed. She growled then threw the knife across the kitchen. The knife sunk into the wall on the opposite side; that's where it stayed. She let out a lower growl before going to the wash tub to put the dirty plate into it.

For the rest of the meal, the warlord stood in a corner of the room but she made sure to stay out of Ming Tzu's sight. She knew if he paid any mind to her that it would not take him long to recognize her. She did carefully listen to the conversation between the two rulers, which she enjoyed thoroughly since it was inside information. Also she learned of Borias's whereabouts and what it may seem like he was planning to do to the Chin Kingdom.

After the dinner was over, Ming Tzu and Ming T'ien were escorted out by Lao Ma. Xena made quick work of cleaning up the dining room table and putting them into the kitchen for the real servants to clean. She wasn't about to clean up that mess. When she stepped back into the dining room, she found Lao Ma wanting for her. She quickly came up to the small woman.

"Alright, Lao Ma. I did the whole servant bit and it's accomplished nothing."

Lao Ma softly smiled and stated, "You're wrong. For a few candlemarks, you actually silenced your will. It's a beginning."

The warlord shook her head. "A beginning to what huh? I should have just slice that pig's throat."

Lao Ma took one step away but paused and quietly added, "To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way." Then she left the room and Xena.

Xena twisted her head around and watched her mentor glide down the hallway. She slightly frowned but then there was a low growl deep in her throat. Yet she stopped herself and took a deep breath, very deep until her chest couldn't expand any longer. She let it out extremely slowly as if her anger dissipated with every bit of her release. Once she started breathing normally again, she made a slow walk for the outside patio that overlooked Lao Ma's gardens.

The warlord came to a stop before the same small table from yesterday. She'd tried so hard to break a vase with this unknown energy that Lao Ma controlled. Xena wanted that power more than anything because she knew it could aid her.

Xena's rich blue eyes shifted to the pile of vases near by her. She stared at them then back at the table. She shifted all her weight to her good leg and took to limping steps to the vases. She picked up one then set it on the table then after a few backwards steps, she tried again. This time, she truly tried to focus as her eyes closed gradually and her body started to relax. Her mind created a mental image of the still vase on the table.

Lao Ma remained still in the doorway to her patio. She patiently waited to see if Xena would be able to move the urn at all. She had her strong faith in Xena.

Xena was chewing on her lower lip a little bit. She stopped herself though. Her mind filled with Lao Ma's brief words….

Stop willing.

Stop desiring.

Stop hating.

Lao Ma stiffened from her relaxed position when the urn elevated off the table and hovered about a hand's height off the table. There was a slight smile creasing her lips.

The warlord kept breathing at a calm manner. She didn't dare open her eyes to see if she'd succeeded or not but she felt as if she had. In her mind, she could see the urn hovering over the table and for some reason, she felt it too.

Stop willing.

Stop desiring.

Stop hating.

Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating.

Lao Ma's voice hummed in her mind repeatedly and it gave Xena the encouragement to go further. She wanted to break the vase apart. Slowly Xena tried to begin breaking the vase in her mind yet the vase was strong, she could feel it.

Stop willing.

Stop desiring.

Stop hating.

Lao Ma's thin smile increased when she heard the urn starting to crack. She'd never expected Xena to accomplish this much in such a short time. Maybe her hopes were not so far from true.

Stop willing.

Stop desiring.

Stop hating… hating… hating… hating…

"Still, don't think what we had was meaningless."

Suddenly the urn crashed dropped and smashed into the table; a million pieces scattered all over.

Xena's hands fisted up tightly, her shoulders suddenly tense now.

Lao Ma dipped her head a little but then she slowly crossed the short space between her and Xena.

The warlord's stormy blue eyes opened to Lao Ma and she couldn't say anything, her jaw too taut with anger.

Lao Ma had soft features, her eyes filled with understanding. "That was a start… not a step back," she whispered and her small soft hand touched Xena's right cheek.

For the first time, Xena leaned into Lao Ma's touch and it calmed Xena's anger.

"Years of anger… of pain… it takes time to soothe," reminded Lao Ma.

The warlord pulled away from Lao Ma's comforting touch and quietly stated, "Or it'll consume." She said nothing else as she slowly limped away from Lao Ma, headed back to the main room of the house.

Lao Ma wasn't so far behind, her gliding walk merely a shadow's length from Xena. When they reached the large open Central Room, Lao Ma clasped her hand with Xena's.

The warlord was momentarily furious until she turned around and saw how peaceful Lao Ma's features were.

Lao Ma put her hands on either side of Xena's cheeks and brought her face close to Xena's. "If you trust to open yourself, the pain will expel itself."

Xena searched her mentor's soft brown eyes and for the first time in years, her heart felt alive again. She closed in the distance and pressed her lips against Lao Ma's in a warm kiss. After she pulled back, she found her hand interlaced with one of Lao Ma's and Lao Ma was suddenly walking her across the room. Lao Ma led her into the master bedroom and she was signalled to lie down, which she did. After getting settled down, she finally realized the room was filled with a scent of jasmine incense.

Lao Ma shifted down to the end of the bed but still on Xena's side. She gently pulled up the bottom of Xena's shen-i dress and inspected Xena's crimpled leg. She peered up at the warlord and softly spoke. "Relax."

Xena was breathing heavily but she calmed her body and mind.

Lao Ma focussed on the crimpled leg; her eyes closed and her hands hovering just over the leg. Suddenly her mind filled with an image of Xena's leg yet Lao Ma knew she had to go deeper than that. Her image exploded into pieces then recollected into a new image of the internal workings of Xena's leg. Lao Ma followed along the image, her hands slowly gliding up Xena's leg but stopped on the warlord's knee. Lao Ma's image was hovering over the twisted bones of Xena's knee and she could see how the bones had been twisted into place but never healed properly.

The warlord sucked in her breath slightly when she sensed her knee's bones were mysteriously moving but it felt relieving. There was a momentary dull ache then it stopped.

Lao Ma finally opened her eyes and stepped back.

Xena could already feel the changes so she carefully swung her feet over the bedside. As she slowly stood up, she waited for her knee to give under her a little like it always would do but it didn't. Once she was fully up and her weight evenly split between her legs, her eyes met Lao Ma's and she suddenly had a true smile.

Lao Ma returned the smile and she took a step aside, her hand holding out towards the doorway.

It was in that instant that the warlord ran for the first time in over a year. She exploded through the door and through the other rooms until she was in the Central Room again. She came to a quick stop and took a quick moment to study her knee again but when she straightened up again there was Lao Ma by her side. Xena opened her mouth to say something, anything but Lao Ma stopped her with a hand over her lips.

Suddenly there was a burst of warm wind through the Central Room and they were floating in the air. Xena gazed about the room as she was lifted higher up from the floor and she focused on her mentor. Her hand broke from Lao Ma's and she went spinning across the room as Lao Ma did the same. They then met back in the centre of the room and embraced in a long but soft kiss. After they broke apart, Lao Ma moved to the opposite side of the room and she swung her arm towards Xena, which caused a light pink cloth appeared and fly across the room. It wrapped around Xena's body and spun the warlord back to Lao Ma.

Xena's soft features warmed with a smile when she came next to Lao Ma again. She then was suddenly unravelled and on the other side of the room once more. Just as she was about to come back to Lao Ma, her attention was broken.

There in the large doorway stood her ex-partner.

Xena's attention broke and her anger flourish once more. She dropped to the ground and she wasted no time in attacking Borias.

Lao Ma lowered to the ground and her heart saddened at the sight but she separated the two with a loud explosion from the wave of her hand. "Stop!"

Xena growled and hotly look between Borias and Lao Ma. "What is he doing here?"

Lao Ma remained between them but she gazed at both as she spoke. "We're going to have peace in this land and the two of you are going to help bring about it."

The warlord's eyes darkened a few shades and she growled out, "You've got to be kidding."

Lao Ma let out a hefty sigh but then stated, "Tomorrow, Ming Tzu comes here to talk with Borias and me. We are going to include him in a three-way alliance."

Xena's anger grew stronger as she felt betrayed by Lao Ma. "If you think I'm playing servant girl to these two than you have another thing-"

"Quiet," ordered Lao Ma. "I plan on informing Ming Tzu about your presence. He has to accept that."

Xena lifted an eyebrow because she knew Ming Tzu's true reaction to that information.

"You're going to help me run the Kingdom of Lao." After she noticed Xena's demeanour slightly less angry, she continued. "You'll be my Warrior Princess."

The warlord lifted her eyebrow at the new title yet the ring to it touched her somewhere.

Lao Ma finally sensed the tension between the two slightly calmer but it was still there. "Tomorrow," she spoke to Xena, "You ask for Ming's forgiveness." At Xena's protest, she held up her hand for silence. "Today, you are going to learn how to deal with Borias." She then turned to Borias. "Xena is capable of profound loyalty, Borias. She just doesn't know it yet." She now slipped her hangs between the sleeves of her dress and quietly said, "I'm going to leave both of you alone. It serves you both your interest to get along. If you kill each other… so be it." With that, she glided out of the Central Room.

Xena and Borias stared at each other in silence.

Lao Ma heard the distant sound of footfall coming down the hallway. She'd been meditating for the past four candlemarks this evening and she had yet to hear any fighting from Borias and Xena down in the Central Room. Now she knew this was Xena seeking her out and she merely waited. Within two breathes, Xena slipped into the mediation temple and silently took a seat beside her mentor.

"Warrior Princess?" murmured the warlord.

Lao Ma lost her focus on her meditation but she kept still and eyes closed. "I believe it is fitting."

"Yes." Xena calmed her breathing and settled into a comfortable position. "Borias is still alive." A gentle smirk touched her lips.

"I know," murmured the older woman.

The warlord finally closed her eyes. "Ming Tzu will never forgive me." She tilted her head. "And he won't agree to a treaty."

"He will," persisted the hopefully Lao ruler.

"He wants the Lao kingdom too much to form a treaty." Xena paused then considered Ming Tzu's desires and Lao Ma's dreams. "Sometimes you can't have peace without some war first."

"Yet you would not know war without peace," softly reminded Lao Ma.

Xena said nothing for awhile. "What do you want with me?"

Lao Ma finally opened her eyes and Xena was staring back at her. "Simply your help to bring peace."

"Why mine?" persisted the warlord, "Especially when I want Chin."

"Sometimes the best way to stop chaos is by using it."

"Using me, you mean," quickly corrected the warlord.

Lao Ma shook her head. "I have not forced you here and you are free to go at anytime." She then turned her head away. "You are an intelligent and talented woman, Xena. I find that I can rely on you."

Xena closed her eyes again as she turned her head. "Let's hope you're correct."

The two women went silent and began to meditate together in the small temple. Xena was never sure when she'd decided that meditating was of any good but she'd come to learn trying something once was always worth something. Earlier she'd seen Borias out of the House of Lao to make sure he didn't do anything. She trusted him but only to a certain level and for some reason she felt responsible for Lao Ma. Lao Ma had welcomed her into her house and arms when Xena had tried to kill her and destroy her. And maybe Lao Ma was right when she said that Xena was capable of strong loyalty.

The following morning Lao Ma was true to her word about Ming Tzu arriving at the House of Lao and Borias was not far behind. Lao Ma welcomed them both into the house and led them into the Central Room. There waited Xena, calmer than normal but dark as ever in the face of her enemy.

"What is this?" first spoke Ming Tzu. His right hand rested behind his sand's mid-back.

Xena remained on one side of Lao Ma while Borias was on the other side. Her cold eyes burrowed into Ming Tzu.

"Xena is with the House of Lao." Lao Ma waited for Ming Tzu to protest but he did not because he waited for more information. So Lao Ma held out her hand to Xena to signal her.

Xena dipped her head a little. Her focus remained on Ming Tzu. "I seek your forgiveness, Ming Tzu."

Ming Tzu stiffened and his temper rose up. "You expect me to forgive the woman who kidnapped my son? Then, permit me to point out a detail that perhaps you missed. Xena belongs to me. She is my property."

Lao Ma quietly sighed. "Ming Tzu, I know a man of your wisdom wouldn't endanger an important treaty by holding a grudge."

Ming Tzu was now appalled. "To have the treaty I must forgive her? Then, I apologize for wasting your time." He then looked down at his son. "Ming T'ien, let us go."

Just as Ming Tzu was apart to depart, Xena's deep silky voice cut into the tense air. "Lao Ma, if I may make a suggestion. Ming Tzu is a man of great courage. I saw you should put me up as the stakes in a game of chance and see who wins."

Ming Tzu turned back to the group. "Excuse me, but I do not have to play such a game. You belong to me now." His angry brown eyes were focused on the warlord.

"I have a claim on Xena," cut in Borias, "I discovered her, so to speak."

Lao Ma picked up on Xena's idea now. "And I was fortune enough to save her."

Xena's ruthless grin appeared. "And I should say I belong to myself. It should be an interesting game." Without another word, Xena disappeared back into her room in the house.

Ming Tzu looked between Borias and Lao Ma. He was curious as to where the warlord went and why. Yet his questioning was quickly answered when she appeared again. In her hand was a satchel of something and he wasn't sure if he liked this idea anymore.

"Let's sit," announced Xena.

Lao Ma was the first to lower herself down and everybody followed her example. Xena then opened the satchel and passed around small cups that had dice in them. As each person got their cup, they began to shake the dice around in the cup.

"This is ridiculous, gambling over this worthless whore. Why don't we throw something of value into the pot?"

Xena brightened up at the suggestion. "Alright, let's say the winder gets me and a body part from each of the losers."

Ming Tzu narrowed his eyes at the woman. "What do you mean?"

"A body part," repeated Xena. "Minimum bet is a hand."

Borias widely grinned. "I'm in."

"I don't want anyone's body part," declared Lao Ma.

"Then I'm sure we all pray that you win. What about you, Ming Tzu?" You got the jewels for this one?"

Ming Tzu was clearly offended but hotly stated, "Fine. All in one throw."

The four players all continued shaking their dice in the cups and looked between each other. And it was Xena who gave a light yell and brought her cup down as the other's did too. Slowly each player lifted their cup to reveal their three dice and there was a long dead silence.

Xena gave a gruff laugh and peered up. "I win… pay up." Her evil smile spread wide across her dark features.

Lao Ma's shook her head. "This is ridiculous."

Xena's sharp eyes locked on the Ming ruler. "I want a piece of him."

"You're crazy," quickly protested Ming Tzu.

Borias smirked at the ruler and teasingly questioned him. "Then you're not going to pay up?"

"Are you?" challenged Ming Tzu.

"Yes." Borias grinned at the other warlord. "I give you my heart."

Xena deeply laughed. "I accept." Her head snapped around towards Ming Tzu. "I'll settle for that from you too, Ming Tzu… your heart."

"That's it." Ming Tzu quickly stood up. "I'm getting out of here." He stepped around the group hastily and called for his son. "Ming T'ien, we're leaving this madhouse."

Xena, Borias, and Lao Ma were already on their feet. Xena was the quickest as she grabbed a near by sword she'd been eyeing all night. "Not until I collect my winnings."

And before Ming Tzu could escape, Xena was upon him and he hunched forward when a sharp pain sliced through his heart.

Quickly Ming Tzu's guards reacted by moving past Ming T'ien and charging Xena. Yet Borias stopped one while Xena killed the other.

Lao Ma was in disbelief about how everything was happening so fast however she quickly stepped in front of her son. When Borias and Xena faced her, she prepared herself to protect her only child.

Xena smirked at the boy and coldly sneered, "Now for the kid."

Lao Ma narrowed her eyes at the pair. "What are you doing?"

Xena took a step closer but paused. "Now we can wipe out the entire line." She pointed her sword at Ming T'ien. "Then it will just be the House of Lao. We can rule the whole Kingdom of Chin… together. You can do all your noble stuff and Borias and I will keep the peace. We'll have some laughs along the way." She then started moving for Ming T'ien.

Lao Ma moved so fast that Xena had no time to react. She sent a ball of energy flying at the warlord.

Xena yelled as she was thrown across the room by the invisible energy.

Borias was momentarily shocked but he came at Lao Ma.

Lao Ma didn't hesitate to send a ball of energy at him and send him crashing into the far wall. She then caught Xena moving again so she reacted by lifting her hands.

Xena suddenly floated in the air and went soaring to the next wall. She was repeatedly slammed against the wall then the invisible energy held her up by her throat until she went unconscious.

Finally Lao Ma released the warlord and she watched her crash into the floor with a loud bang.

There was a faint groan from Xena and blood started trickling from her nose and cornered of her lips.

Once Lao Ma was satisfied that the pair of warlords would not cause anymore trouble, she called for her guards. Three of them marched in and she directed them to take Borias and Xena. After they were gone, Lao Ma looked at Ming T'ien but the young princess said nothing to his mother. Lao Ma inwardly sighed and escorted the boy out of the room.

By that late evening, Xena found herself awakening to the clitter clatter of horse hooves and the taste of blood in her mouth. She gently moaned then opened her eyes, she found herself staring at an unconscious Borias. She then realize she was trapped in a cage much like the one that Ming Tzu had put her in several days back. That forced her to get up and asses her situation.

Xena and Borias were certainly in a cage cart and being towed by four Lao soldiers and further ahead of them was Lao Ma on horseback. Lao Ma was glowing by the moonlight in a deep red cloak and she kept her back to them. Xena realized they'd just come out of the forest and she could make out the silhouette of Mount Tai Xing to her right. She could only guess that Lao Ma was actually returning them to their army since Borias had mention to her that their army was near the city of Yan Men.

Suddenly they came to a stop and the Lao soldiers lowered the cage to the snowy ground. And to Xena's amazement, three more Lao soldiers seem to materialize from behind the cage. The cage was opened and the noise caused Borias to stir and finally get up. The soldiers signalled them to crawl out of the cage, which they carefully did so they wouldn't cause the soldiers to attack them. Once they were out, the three Lao soldiers escorted them near Lao Ma.

Lao Ma was silent.

Xena and Borias remained silent.

Very slowly, Lao Ma turned her hooded head to the warlords. She stared at them for awhile before saying anything. Her eyes were dark yet the moon's light reflected her displeasure and sadness. "I will not say I am wrong," she quietly murmured to them, "as there is nonesuch." She paused as her mind turned over the events of tonight. "It will take more than me to find your souls." She tilted her head at them. "This will unravel itself."

Lao Ma then straightened up to her fullest height. "Xena and Borias, you and your army are banished from the Chin Kingdom. You have exactly five days to move out of Chin either north of the Great Wall, south of the Chang Jiang River, or west of the Xiang River. If you dare return to the Chin lands, the House of Lao and the House of Ming will attack. And you will die." She stopped and stared at the pair before finally whispering, "Go."

Xena and Borias didn't move for a moment yet the faint stir of the soldiers encouraged them to leave. The two warlords remained silent and started walking. Borias knew the army was just over the crest of this hill and he didn't dare look back. Xena, however, she peered back after so long and she wasn't surprised this time when Lao Ma and her men were long gone.

"Now what?" taunted Borias.

Xena glared at her partner and grunted. "We go west."

"West?" questioned Borias.

"West," simply stated Xena. And when she came to the top of the hill to see the two tiny armies in the valley, her army, she smiled ruthlessly. "West," she murmured.

And true to Xena's word, the army was headed west by daybreak. Borias didn't bother questioning was Xena had in mind because at this point he was fresh out of ideas. For now, he decided to go along until he discovered what his partner had in mind.

As the army travelled through Chin, Xena couldn't stop feeling as if she was being watched. She would use her sharp vision to scan their surroundings constantly yet she couldn't find the source. She figured Lao Ma had sent out scouts to follow them and make sure she and Borias left Chin. It wasn't until they crossed the Xiang River that the sensation slowly receded from her.

Right now, Xena was shifting in her saddle from the day's long ride. She just crossed the Xiang River about a candlemark ago. The army had been travelling for at least six candlemarks today and riding a horse that long could be exhausting. She then sensed Borias flanking her side now.

"So I assume we won't be travelling much longer."

Xena wasn't sure if that was a question or a statement; most likely a question. She slightly grinned at her partner and only supplied, "Not much longer." She looked ahead of herself. "We need to get a little west of Mount Jing."

"What is beyond there, Xena?" Borias had a tightened almost annoyed tone.

Xena licked her lips, her mysterious grin was back. "Women… lots of them."

Borias's eyes narrowed as he searched his knowledge of that area.

"Come on, Borias," taunted Xena. "Even you must have heard of the tribe of warrior women."

"The Amazons," whispered Borias as the candle of knowledge finally lit in his head. "You want the Amazon lands?"

"Why not?" Xena shrugged and her grin widen broadly. "It will be very easy."

"As I recall," interjected Borias, "the Amazons are in Greece. Not to mention they have two hundred women."

"Actually it is three hundred and fifty-six warriors in the particular tribe I'm interested in."

Borias did the numbers as he compared their army to the Amazon's. "Xena," he growled, "I'm not prepared to lose more soldiers." He continued to consider and his angry expression appeared. "We are not travelling across the known-world to Greece."

Xena remained silent as she swayed in her saddle. "Borias," she softly started, "you don't have much choice." Her slow wicked grin teased the corner of her lips. "I believe your army is becoming more my army."

Borias stared darkly at his partner. He knew she was right that Xena had better control over his portion of the army. It was quite possible his men would side with Xena over him. That put a small pain in his gut. "As you want… Warrior Princess," growled Borias and he immediately pulled his horse's reins to slow down.

The Warrior Princess had a satisfied expression as she lead her army west towards the setting sun. She had plenty of time to consider her plan on taking over the Amazon Nation that rested just northeast of Greece. She wanted the Thrace Amazons. And as she worked out her plans, she began to realize it would be very simple to take over the Amazons from what research she'd done on the Amazon culture. Not only would it be simple to conquer them but she realized she'd have a chance to learn new skills and fighting techniques from them.

The warlords headed west for five days and only stopping a few candlemarks before sunset. It wasn't until that reached the lands of India that they slowed down. Xena and Borias decided that it would take at least another seven to eight days before they'd reach eastern Greece. And Xena had a peeked interest in India since it'd been rumoured that India could be quite mystical and usual.

The small army finally made camp just outside of the small town of Leh. The men were ordered to step up a temporary camp since the warlords had decided to stay for the next three days. Borias was busy making sure the men were doing just that and not slopping up anything. Xena, however, was down at the temporary corral and brushing down Argo in the last rays of daylight.

Argo gave a gentle whine of pleasure.

Xena faintly smiled but didn't stop her brushing. "So what you think, girl?"

The mare twisted her head to her master's direction. She whined again.

The warlord didn't look at her horse though. "I can walk normal again," she murmured. "Something huh?"

Argo stomped her right foot and gave a brisk nod. She then twisted her neck back then was able to nip at Xena's heavy fur coat she wore.

"Mmmm I know." The Warrior Princess stopped brushing and carefully placed the brush on her mare's back. She then easily removed her fur coat since the weather had exceptionally increased in temperature. "I guess I won't need that." She tossed the fur to the ground on a bright patch of grass. "So what you think of being an Amazon horse?"

The mare whined in laughter and shook her head.

"No?" Xena smirked. "Come on, girl. Think of all the apples you could get."

Argo let out this huge sigh as if she really debated the idea.

Xena was back to brushing and was coming up Argo's right side now. "Don't worry, girl. Unfortunately this is something I'll be doing alone."

Argo had already twisted her head around to her right side. She merely stared at her owner.

"No don't worry, Argo. You won't be in that corral for a season like last time."

The mare huffed in appreciation. Even after so long, she was still slightly bitter that her master had left her in a corral of other mares. All the while her master was off on the high seas without her. But after so many apples and brushings, she learned to let it go… for the most part.

"Well hows that, girl?" Xena had finished the brushing and was patting Argo's neck. "I'll bring an apple tonight."

Argo whined happily at the promise.

Xena's faint smile briefly flashed across her face. "I'll see you, girl." She gave one last pat, gathered up her coat, and quietly left the corral.

Argo trotted up to the edge of the corral and watched her owner disappear into the camp ahead. After a heavy sigh, she turned back to the corral where the rest of the horses were and she slowly joined them.

The Warrior Princess continued through the camp until she found her partner. She'd slung her heavy fur over her right shoulder as she approached Borias.

Borias already sensed Xena coming his way so he half turned in her direction. "Yes?"

"We'll need to change our camping equipment around while we're here."

The warlord folded his arms and slowly nodded. "Tents would suit better than these yurts," he slowly agreed.

"See that it gets done, Borias." Xena started to step away but Borias's quick hand latched onto her wrist.

Borias had a dark expression. "And what is wrong with you doing it, partner?" He wasn't enjoying the treatment of being a so-called second in command.

Xena rather enjoyed the reaction too. Her smug face was irritating her partner. "I'm too busy running my army." She jerked her arm free and casually walked off towards her yurt.

Borias's throat echoed with a deep growl. He suddenly spun around and kicked the nearest thing, which was a huge barrel of water. Several of the near by men peered up and either gave him a disappointed look or an amused one. Borias noticed them and snapped, "Get to work on this camp." He stomped off.

The Warrior Princess was slightly amused by the scene but she continued to her already made yurt. When she entered, she tossed her heavy coat onto her bed then tore off her sequenced cap. After getting it off, she ran her fingers through her rough hair. "Mmmm," she grumbled.

It wasn't long before she'd dug through her things and found an old brush of hers. She took a moment to straighten her hair and untangle it. This time it was much easier to run her fingers through her soft hair. Sunset would be in less than a candlemark and she knew dinner wouldn't follow far behind. As she took a seat on her bed, she unsheathed her sword and in her other hand was her whet stone. She began the rhythmic movement and sound of running her whet stone up her sword's blade. This was her time to think and plot.

The following day the warlords had decided to take an adventure to the local town. The entire army never entered a town but only a certain portion as not to leave the camp abandoned. So Xena took the first band of her men into the town and she wasn't remotely surprised by the dark looks she received from the local people. It merely caused her to smirk.

After her men dispersed throughout the town, she began her own exploration of the village. The first thing she was interested in was any type of armoury or weapons shop. It was easy to find the small market however she lacked faith that there would be much of an armoury if at all. As Xena came to the near end of the market, she finally spotted a store front for a weapons shop much to her surprise. With a satisfied grin, she climbed the three steps and entered the store.

As soon as she entered, a dark skinned man greeted her with an expressionless face and monotone voice. "Welcome."

The warlord only nodded. Her head was dipped as glanced over the weapons that were displayed on the tables.

The store keep carefully monitored the warlord. He tilted his head slightly the slipped his hands behind his rob. "Is there anything you're looking for in particular?"

The Warrior Princess glanced at him then back at the weapons.

The shop keep refrained from sighing anymore because he'd grown accustomed to these types of customers. He watched as the female warrior came around to his table and she lifted her head to him. However her focus wasn't on him but past him so he partially turned and gazed at what caught her eye. "Aaaah." Suddenly he had a thin smile. "You like this?" He reached up to collect the weapon that hung from the wall. "It is one of my rarest and most prized pieces."

The warlord stepped closer to the table. Her attention was completely captured by the sparkling weapon. "What is it?"

The shop keep held out the weapon to the warlord. "It's a native weapon to India." As Xena wrapped her long fingers around the weapon he finished speaking. "It's called a chakram."

Xena was dazzled by the sheer weightlessness of the round weapon and as she ran her thumb across the edges, she was amazed how it was so sharp. Finally she peered up at the store keep. "How does it work?"

"Well," started the keep, "it takes practice. It is thrown much like a disc at either your opponent or an object." He tilted his head a little. "If it hits your opponent it will injure them if not kill them. If you aim for an object it could either cut through or bounce off then go into a different direction." He paused because he was studying the expression on the warrior's face. "It does take some time to master it; not only to throw it properly but to catch it when it returns to you."

The warlord held up the chakram and turned it before her eyes to examine every angle.

"It is made of steel," clarified the store keep, "and that is gold to bring out the designs."

"How much?" finally inquired the Warrior Princess.

The shop keeper typically didn't have his chakram up for sale. He'd had others in the past but none of them were as beautiful as this particular chakram or as well made as this. He chewed on his lower lip as he debated. He realized this female warrior wasn't about to take no for any answer so he started to work the numbers in his head. "One hundred fifty."

Xena lost her focus on the weapon and gazed at the man. She did the estimated conversion of money to dinars and instantly her face went dark.

The shop keeper didn't miss it and he coughed gently. "Although I could shave the price off some for you."

"I would say that's a wise idea," agreed the warlord. Xena reached into her side pouch and fished through it. Eventually she pulled out four gold coins and three nickel coins. "That should be at least a hundred and ten."

The shop keeper didn't hesitate to collect the money then he tucked it away. As he lifted his head, he began to speak too. "You should probably…." He trailed off when he didn't see the warlord anywhere in his shop now. "Get some help with it… first," he muttered. After a brief shake of his head, he disappeared into the back of his shop behind the curtain.

The Warrior Princess slipped through the crowd and started looking for a certain store. As she moved quickly, she also scanned each of the stands until she found the one she needed. After quickly making sure her new weapon was securely fastened to her side, she dove into the thicker portion of the crowd towards the stand she wanted. When she stepped up to it, she quickly discovered this was exactly what she needed for later.

Xena began picking through the clothes and tried to decide what would fit her right. She didn't need anything fashionable; just the plain and simple clothes. She first picked out a white peasant top that had three-quarter long sleeves. She then finally found a slightly worn ankle length skirt that would suit her. She took the items to the owner of the stand and held them out for the price judgement.

"That'll be ten, ma'am." The man folded his arms across his chest in hopes he'd show he wouldn't be intimated.

Xena grunted at the man's posture and she was faintly impressed. She decided not to argue with him so she pulled out the two coins and paid him. The stand owner smiled and said goodbye.

The warlord hastily filtered out of the crowd. She really didn't need anything else and if she did later she could come back. The army had another four days before they'd leave to finish their journey to Greece. Right now, Xena wanted to learn about her new toy because she could sense the excitement in the bottom of her stomach.

When she came into the stable that she'd left Argo, her mare greeted her happily. "Hi, girl," whispered the warlord. "Ready to go back?"

Argo bobbed her head while her master opened the gate.

"Come on." Xena lead her mare out and when she was far enough from the stable, she mounted. "Let's go, girl." She gave a gentle click between her lips.

The mare went into a fast walk towards the entrance of the village. It wasn't long before they arrived back at the camp and she was taken back to the corral.

After Xena stopped at her yurt to drop off her clothes, she made a fast beeline to the woods. Each of her strides got longer as she went deeper into the woods then she finally picked a spot. The perfect tree stood tall before her and Xena grinned.

The warlord took a few steps away from the tree and unfastened her chakram. She held the weapon before her eyes. "Let's see what you can do," she whispered. Xena took a stride back, pulled her arm far back, and then shot her arm forward hard.

The chakram was released from its owner and went into a blurring whistle at its target. It simply cut deep into the tree's trunk and was at a dead stop.

Xena nodded. "This will take awhile." She sighed and walked up to the chakram. She grabbed it and gave it a decent jerk but the weapon didn't come free. Xena was impressed by its strength but she gave it a harder tug and it came free. She took several paces back to her original spot however this time Xena took a more angler aim.

The chakram screamed towards the tree once more, hit it, and bounced off to come back at Xena.

The warlord wasn't quite prepared for its return but she tried to capture it in midair only to miss. Xena twisted her head around and saw the chakram buried in the smaller tree just behind her. Once she retrieved it, she tried the same manoeuvre again in hopes to time it better on catching the weapon.

As the chakram came on its return trip, Xena prepared herself and mentally calculated her catch. She reached for it and her fingers slipped around the weapon in midair. Yet suddenly her hand screamed in pain as the chakram's blade ran across the inside of her palm but Xena had caught it.

"Gods," hissed the Warrior Princess. She turned her hand over and in her balled up fist that held the chakram was a small stream of blood running free. She quickly switched the chakram to her other hand then opened her injured hand. The chakram had neatly cut her palm exactly in the middle but it wasn't too deep.

Xena took a quick moment to wrap her hand by tearing a piece of cloth from her arm clothing. After getting it tied snugly, she continued her practice with the chakram. And her practice continued much the same way; Xena threw the chakram at the tree, it reflected off, and Xena caught it with as much pain as the first time. Yet the warlord didn't stop practicing with the weapon until late in the afternoon but the difference was by then she was starting to catch it without injury.

The Warrior Princess paused in her practice and gazed at the low western sun through the woods. She gave a heavy sigh and returned her focus to the well chipped up tree trunk. Xena smirked and threw her chakram one last time. When her chakram returned to her, she neatly caught it without hurting hand despite how sore her hand had become today. Xena held up her chakram and studied it for a moment. "You're going to become quite an asset," she murmured. Given some time, she would master her new weapon.

Xena slowly started back for the camp. She could feel her hunger already. As she went towards the camp, she decided it was more time to play so she tried to spin the chakram on her right finger tips. A couple of times she dropped it but after about six tries, she easily balanced the spinning chakram on her right index finger. She then tossed the chakram in the air and carefully caught it on its return.

When she entered the small food yurt, her men peered up at her then went back to their meals. Xena went to a fairly empty table and settled down. It wasn't less than a quarter of a candlemark when one of her men brought her a platter. She said nothing and merely began eating the food. But it wasn't long before her silence was disturbed by Borias. She barely acknowledged him when he sat down across from her.

"Find anything interesting in town?" prompted the warlord.

Xena lifted her head a little and stared at him. She said nothing then went back to her meal.

Borias's jaw tightened but he remained calm.

"Have you gotten the tents?" asked the Warrior Princess.

Borias stabbed his slice of chicken a little harder than needed. "Tomorrow," he supplied.

"I take it you found a merchant that'll buy the yurts?"

Borias finished chewing his mouthful of chicken. "I did."

"Good." Xena pushed her white rice around some then shovelled it up onto her fork. "See if you can't make a profit."

"I think I know that, Xena."

"I'm glad," tormented the warlord.

Borias took a long drink from his mug. After setting the mug back down, he asked, "Where are we headed to, Xena?"

"To Thrace."

"Near Mani?" he prompted. Xena nodded to him and he considered the location. "The Amazons are due north of there."

Xena nodded her agreement to his conclusion. "Tomorrow I want to send two men ahead to scoot up there."

"Manus and Mene?"

"Yes." Xena considered some more then added, "Send them at noon."

Borias remained quiet for awhile but he was thinking a lot. It wasn't til after he finished his dinner did he break the silence. "So do I get to hear the plans?"

The Warrior Princess grinned widely. "I never thought you'd ask.

The warlords remained longer in the yurt than anybody else. They worked out detailed plans after Xena explained her general ideas. This was one of the time that Borias now recalled why he'd partnered up with this woman. It was the reason why he continued to follow along her side. Xena's plans could always create an illusion of grandeur and not always if rarely did those plans come out right. It was Borias's logical mind that kept him on the ground at times. And now he was more concerned about his place in the army that was slowly becoming Xena's. This was never in his plans from the start.

After the talk, Xena finally left and went to her yurt. Borias, however, went into the camp and checked on the men. He knew later that Xena would do the same but right now was his shift to watch them. He was also working out how to take care of the yurts for the trade to get the tents. He figured he'd do half the camp tomorrow and the next day would convert the other half. He was actually amazed he was able to find a merchant in that small town that would trade with them. But he was ready for a change, a lot of changes.

The following days the camp was a busy place. Borias and several men took on the project of taking down certain yurts and trade them for tents. Xena took it upon herself to give her men some training that she and them needed. There were several sore men and a Xena was extremely invigorated by all the small scrimmages. Many of them were sore enough not to recover on the morning when they broke camp. The small army began their march north west. Home. To Greece.

"Manus, what is the report?"

The warrior that had been sent ahead of the army as a scout now focused on his leader. The army had just stopped marching when the sun was low in the west and just east of the small Greek town of Mani. "We found the Amazon Nation." After Mene's agreement nod, he continued his report. "It is about a candlemark north of Mani in a heavily wooded area."

"Did you get an estimate of how large the nation is?" question Borias.

Manus looked at the other warlord. "Three hundred and fifty… maybe more."

Xena's faint grin grew because she wasn't off on her estimate about the nation. "Have you heard who the queen is of that nation?"

"We believe so," cut in Mene, "Queen Cyane."

"Cyane," murmured the Warrior Princess. She chewed on the name and liked the taste of it. She now folded her arms over her padded chest. "What of their defences?"

"We couldn't get too close." Manus looked to Mene for help.

"We did notice there was a patrol." Mene looked between the warlords, waiting for further questioning.

Borias quietly huffed at the information. "How large is the territory?"

"Several candlemarks walk in either direction from the looks of it."

Xena nodded at Mene's response. "Alright." She lowered her arms. "Borias or I will talk to either of you if we need anything else."

The two warriors nodded and as they were about to walk away, Xena's voice halted them.

"Manus, wait."

Manus stopped and faced his leader again.

Xena glanced at Borias and looked back at Manus. "I have another job for you," she stated after Mene was further away.

Manus mutely sighed but he dipped his head.

"I need you to head deeper into Greece. Go to all of the small warlord armies and you're looking for an army controlled by Bracis."

Manus tilted his head a little. He was now very curious as to his new mission.

"I want you to find two warriors. One goes by the name of Tracker and the other is Prostig." Xena paused in the middle of her thoughts but a slow grin crept along her face. "Tell them that the 'kid' needs them."

Manus didn't understand the last part but he wasn't about to ask. He nodded and headed off from them.

Borias turned his head to Xena. "Tracker and Prostig?"

"Old friends," merely supplied the Warrior Princess. "Let's finalize our plans." She started on her way to her tent with Borias beside her.

By the next morning, Borias was finishing up getting over twenty men battle ready. But then his attention was torn away from his duties when Xena neared him.

"My… Xena the slave," jabbed the warlord.

Xena lifted an eyebrow then took a second to push up her soft white sleeves up her arm. "Are the men ready?"

Borias didn't answer right away as he stared at Xena's new villager attire; dark brown skirt and white shirt. "Yes," he finally answered. "Everything is ready."

"Good." Xena tipped her head to one side a little. "Make sure you lead those Amazons back here."

"Xena, have some faith." Borias grinned and now faced his men. "Let's send out the invitation, boys."

Several of the men hooted and hollered since they knew they were about to fight a tribe of women. Some of the men even started whistling at the end but they started their slow march north.

Xena carefully watched her men leave with Borias but she sensed Chuang coming up to her side. "You remember what to do when you return?"

Chuang nodded.

"Go ahead and follow Borias and the men."

"Anything else?" probed the second in command.

Xena looked at him. "Make sure Borias does this right."

"Of course." Chuang dipped his head then silently walked off.

The warlord turned back in the direction of her tent and headed that way. She had a few last touch ups on her slave outfit so she could better fit the role.

Borias and the men stopped several hundred paces away from the Amazon Nation border. He waved for a few of his men to join his side. "Keep your wits about yourselves. These Amazons can be tricky." His men acknowledged him then he nodded ahead. "Let's go." Borias and four of his men approached the border and as soon as they came within fifty steps of the border, two masked Amazons dropped from the trees with their swords out.

"Don't think we don't know," hotly stated the Amazon on the right.

Borias's grin flashed at them. "We're looking for handouts."

The Amazon on the left lifted her sword, her tip pointed directly at Borias. "Leave. Now."

"We will attack," informed the right Amazon.

Borias's focus was suddenly broken away from them by another Amazon, whom was deeper in the woods and coming towards them. It was as if this Amazon had appeared from nowhere and it actually excited Borias.

When the new Amazon was in earshot, she called out, "What is your business here?" She stood taller than the other two and her strong gaze could be felt through the mask.

Borias smirked at the new Amazon. "I'm Borias."

The taller Amazon took a position between the two other Amazons. She reached up and pulled back her mask to reveal a young but strong woman. Her features seemed soft but her bright green eyes were extremely hard. "I am Cyane, Queen of the Thrace Amazons." She now rested her right hand on her sword hilt. "Now what is your business?" She knew there would be a fight shortly as she gazed past the few men and saw two handfuls of more warriors. It didn't require this many warriors to have any peaceful talks, she knew that.

"My army is slightly low on funds." Borias's on free hand went to his sword's hilt. "We've heard that Amazons are a big pay out from slavers."

Cyane's expression darkened. She started to step back just as Borias and his men moved forward. She unsheathed her sword while her two Amazon moved forward to stop her attackers. She twisted her head to the left and cupped her free hand over her mouth. As soon as she gave her birdcall, numerous Amazons dropped from the trees just behind her and all of them began to charging the enemy.

Borias gave a strong yell for his men to attack. He already drew out his sword and was immediately rushed by two Amazon warriors. He quickly deflected each of their blows with ease then countered back with a few fast swipes. He managed to kick the Amazon on the right away from him and catch the other off guard. Borias continued to fight them and finally had one down and the other was quickly on the way to losing to his blade.

Before he could be attacked again, he hastily rushed to the back part of the fight. There he found two of the men he was looking for. He gave them a quick nod of signal then he went back to the fight.

The two warriors glanced at each other and the first man, Lien, gave a yell for one of his buddies. His friend didn't hesitate to take out his opponent then began fighting Lien's enemy. This gave Lien a chance to step back and he flung off a small pack on his back. It was in moments that he removed a strongly woven net.

"Are we ready?" called the second warrior, Gelidus. He suddenly ducked when his enemy swiped at his head but he didn't need to recover as Lien ran his sword through the Amazon.

Lien twisted his sword free from the dead Amazon and looked at Gelidus. "Yes." He then twisted his head around to find Borias.

"There." Gelidus pointed to the warlord fighting a single Amazon.

Lien agreed so he started jogging towards Borias and the Amazon. Gelidus followed. Lien was coming up behind the Amazon, his net at the ready, and he was focused on his target. When he was close enough, he opened the net in mid stride then threw it perfectly over the Amazon.

The stunned Amazon didn't have anytime to recover. She was suddenly slammed to the ground by Gelidus's heavy weight but she didn't give in so easily. She began to kick at her attacker and her sword was starting to cut through the net. Then her grip was lost on her sword as somebody jerked it from her hands. Now the weight on her body got heavier as Lien helped Gelidus control her. The Amazon growled and screamed hotly in hopes of some help but that was short lived when suddenly her world went black.

Borias lifted his sword hilt up a bit after jus hitting the woman on the head. He stood back up and stared down at the young Amazon. "Get her back to camp. Hurry up too."

Lien and Gelidus gathered her up and Lien helped get the girl up onto Gelidus's right shoulder. Gelidus was luckily large and strong enough to carry the small Amazon. The pair then hurried off from the battle and back to camp.

Borias had a free moment to gaze about the small battle. He was happy to see only a few of his men were wounded and about three of them were definitely dead. As he scanned the mass of warriors and Amazons, he finally saw the one Amazon he was looking for, Queen Cyane. He spun is sword once then started towards the queen.

Cyane immediately noted that Borias was coming for her. She took a daring chance at her opponent with a stomach stab and was able to catch him in the lower gut. Her victory was short lived when Borias stepped up to her.

"You won't win," stated the queen.

Borias smirked. "I didn't want to win… I just wanted a trophy or two."

Cyane growled and took a swing at her enemy.

Borias parred the attack and return his own attack. "She is quite cute actually. Small, sandy hair, and light brown eyes."

The Amazon Queen was trying to figure out what and who the warlord was talking about. Her mind raced.

"Well I am sure she'll be worth something on the market." Borias laughed some then lunged forward, catching Cyane off guard, and taking her to the ground. Borias lifted his sword to bring it down but Cyane's blade just barely stopped him. "We'll talk again… soon." Borias smiled, withdrew, and called for his men to retreat.

Queen Cyane flipped up onto her feet and watched their new enemy hurry off. Her mind still rushed to figure out who Borias was talking about earlier. She growled. Her thoughts were stopped dead when one of her heavily breathing Amazons came to her side. "How bad, stratègos?"

The stratègos sighed then silently sheathed her sword. "Not as bad as it could have been, my queen." She was staring towards the direction that the enemy had retreated to but now she looked at her queen. "Who was that?"

"His name was Borias."

"Borias," murmured the stratègos. She considered the name, she'd never heard of him.

"Have you heard from the polemarchos, Lyda?"

Lyda turned her gaze back to her queen. "No. She's checking on the situation." She paused in her talking. "Actually, she'll be needing me shortly."

Cyane merely nodded as Lyda excused herself. She finally put her sword away and started on the situation of assessing the fight's outcome. She was worried though because it was rare for warlords to ever attack them. She was extremely curious as to why this Borias was so interested in them.

"My queen," called a familiar voice.

Cyane stopped and waited for the polemarchos to come to her. "What's the word, Olivia?"

The tall Amazon took a heavy breath and took a moment to brush back her dark brown hair. "So far, just seven dead."

Cyane knew what that meant; plenty were injured and some more serious than others.

"We have thirteen Amazons being taken to the healer's hut."

The queen nodded but her focus was lost on the polemarchos when Lyda returned to the queen's side.

"There's a problem, my queen."

Cyane's body automatically trembled in worry. She knew her answer to her question would finally be answered now.

"We're missing an Amazon… she's been taken."

"Who?" quickly questioned Cyane.

"Alti's young apprentice… Yakut."

Cyane knew exactly who Yakut was and her heart dropped. Yakut had always been Cyane's adopted sister and she'd always fully supported Yakut's desire to become the next shaman in the tribe. "How did this happen?" she finally asked.

The stratègos let out a hefty sigh. "It sounds like it was planned, my queen. She was jumped from behind by two men then knocked unconscious by that warlord."

"Alright," quietly spoked the queen. "We'll work this out after we get the others taken care of. He obviously took her for a reason, she won't be killed. Let's get everything cleaned up. I want you both and Alti in my hut a candlemark before sunset."

"Yes, my queen," replied both Amazons. They dipped their heads and hurried off to help check the status of their warriors.

Cyane continued on her way to help her fellow warriors.

First she softly moaned, her head was filled by a splitting pain and her forehead pounded.

"Heeeey, wake up," whispered a strong voice.

She gradually opened her eyes, daring to know how much it would hurt. When her eyes finally focused, pair of hard blue eyes were staring back at her.

"Come on," urged the powerful voice. "Its okay."

She lifted her hand to her pounding head and her ears rang with the sound of clanking chain.

"What's your name?" asked the women.

"Yakut," murmured the small Amazon. "What's yours?"

"Xena," gently replied the larger woman. "Here."

Suddenly Yakut sensed a cool, wet cloth pressed against her forehead. She sighed in relief and slowly her senses started to come back to her. She recalled the battle against the warlord Borias. She'd been attacked from behind and captured, at least she sure she was. When she looked at the weight around her wrists, it was confirmed by the shackles locked on them. "Where are we?"

"In a tent in the warlord Borias's camp."

Yakut sighed and straightened up against the wood pole that she was propped against. "How'd you get here?"

Xena gave a drawn out sigh. "I was captured several moons ago."

The Amazon tried to calm down as she started to realize her situation.

Xena continued carefully pressing the cool cloth against different spots on the small woman's forehead. "What happened? You must be an Amazon."

"I am," confirmed Yakut. "Borias attacked our borders."

Xena nodded a couple of times. "I heard talk about it in the camp." She pulled the compress away and moved it down to Yakut's cheeks. "Borias and his men are desperate for money."

Yakut merely listened. Her head hurt too much to think of what to say.

"Well don't get comfortable… it won't be long before you're sold to a slaver."

Yakut faintly moaned at the woman's information. "Great." She closed her eyes and tried to relax. "Why haven't you been sold?"

Xena didn't respond quickly, instead she put the wet cloth back on Yakut's forehead. "Because they like to… keep me around."

The Amazon completely understood exactly what Xena was telling her. It made her stomach twist tightly. "Where are you from?"

"Amphipolis," answered the older woman.

"That's not too far from here… about five days ride or so."

"About," agreed Xena. "Why don't you get some rest? It'll help your head."

Yakut opened her eyes briefly to look at the woman. She faintly smiled and closed her eyes again.

Xena pulled the cloth away and put it on the ground between them. She then carefully sat back down beside the Amazon. A hidden grin pressed at her lips.

Queen Cyane leaned back in her chair again. Her head was beginning to hurt from all the talking.

"We need to attack them, my queen before they decide to disappear off with Yakut," quickly shot out the stratègos.

"Are you crazy?" hotly accused the head council member. "That could put Yakut in danger."

The polemarchos straightened up. "Well we can't afford a queen's ransom for her."

"And we can't afford to get another Amazon killed," contested the council member.

"Stop!" finally ordered the queen. She was beginning to regret inviting the head council member, Talia, in coming to the meeting. She knew though that Talia had every right to be here and it was important. "Just stop bickering between each other. We have a young Amazon's life at hand."

"And I would like my apprentice back," deeply spoke a scratchy voice.

The three bickering Amazons turned their heads to the shaman of their tribe.

"Alive," added Alti.

The queen gazed at their shaman. "And you will," she promised.

Alti dipped her head. "I have every faith that you will, my queen."

"Thank you," murmured Cyane. Her focused returned to the entire group. "Now is there a plan we can come up with that doesn't endanger Yakut's life so much?"

The stratègos cleared her throat and began to speak again in a calmer tone. "I've already sent out an Amazon to find the camp and asses the enemy."

The queen nodded her approval.

"What about an attack at night?" suggested the polemarchos.

"Perhaps less of an attack and more of a rescue?" suggested Alti.

Talia nodded her agreement to the shaman's idea. "I believe that would be a safer route to start with, my queen."

"Well let's start there." The queen finally relaxed in her chair. She was silent as her two army leaders were considering their options at hand.

The polemarchos looked at the stratègos and quietly asked, "Clio?"

Lyda nodded her agreement but said, "And Merta."

"What about those two Amazons?" cut in the head councillor.

The polemarchos looked at the group. "Clio and Merta are experts at being quiet, stalking, and using everything to their advantage. They're excellent warriors."

"You're suggesting we send them in to rescue Yakut?" inquired the queen.

"Yes," confirmed Commander Lyda. "They're the only two capable."

Queen Cyane considered the idea. She turned to Alti though. "Can you help?"

The shaman softly grinned, her dark eyes only focused on the queen. "I believe I can find something to assist Clio and Merta."

The Amazon Queen nodded. "We must act quickly though."

"Time is short," agreed Councillor Talia.

Cyane looked to her two commanders and directly told them, "Get Clio and Merta prepared. I want to hear from the scout before anything else happens though."

"Of course, my queen," agreed Commander Lyda. She noted the queen's gentle nod so she signalled her second in command to get up. Together they excused themselves to leave.

Councillor Talia knew too that the queen wished to speak to Alti alone. She stood, bowed her head to the queen, and silently left.

Queen Cyane waited for the hut door to close then her focus went directly to the shaman.

"Yes, my queen?"

Cyane studied Alti for a moment or two then finally said, "I want you to find out what you can about this enemy."

"It'll be done." Alti had a hidden grin, something very common for her that chilled many people in the tribe.

"I want to know everything you… see, Alti." Cyane had slightly lifted her eyebrow. If it was one thing she didn't underestimate it was Alti's powers as a shaman. "Report to me later."

"I will." Alti deep breathing filtered between them then finally she spoke again. "I would like my apprentice back, my queen."

"I know," agreed Cyane, "and you will."

"Very well." The shaman flashed a toothy smile then stood up.

Cyane carefully watched the shaman leave her hut. When Cyane was finally alone, she sank back in her chair and just breathed.

The shaman, however, made her way back to the small temple of their tribe. She ducked into it and already felt alive in her home. She had every intention in carrying out the queen's request to see the enemy. So quietly she ascended to three steps onto the temple alter floor where she picked up her caduceus staff that was set against the nearby wall. With her caduceus in her left hand, she walked to the alter in the middle of the floor that was before a gigantic statue of Artemis. She picked up a bowl full of dark substance and two fire stones beside it. She turned around and went close the edge of the steps then stopped. Once she sat down comfortably, she placed the bowl in front of her with the stones and then she carefully lowered her caduceus stick into her lap.

Alti took a deep breath while she picked up the stones. She quietly began to hum. She then struck the stones together and sparks flew into the bowl of the dark fungi material. Immediately the fungi began to burn and the power plant's scent flowed up into Alti's face.

Now Alti's hum turned into a quiet song that only she could hear or understand. She closed her dark eyes and heavily breathed in the fungus. Slowly her mind went into a deep trance then she started to traverse the axis mundi and she entered the spirit world.

Instantly Alti was greeted by the guides of the spirit world, two serpents that slithered past in her vision. She then followed Borias's name in the realm, deeper and further she went and into Chin. Borias was a strong soul but a good soul too despite his blackened history. Alti had a hunger for good souls but more for pure souls. However this Borias interested her so she followed his soul further and wider.

Then Alti was slammed by a very dark soul. It was so dark that Alti lost her breath at the sheer beauty of the black soul. It was the soul she'd been seeking all her lifetime, it was a soul she must have, and would control. And when Alti looked deeper into this black soul, she was struck by a bright light of hope in the centre, which only made Alti laugh.

The shaman slowly phased out of the trance and the first whispered hungry word from her lips was, "Xena."

Alti didn't hesitate to get up, put her bowl back in its home and head out of the temple with her caduceus in hand. It wasn't long before she arrived back at Cyane's hut. When she knocked on the door, the queen called her in and she entered quietly.

"You have news?" inquired Cyane, who was sitting at her desk with a scroll in front of her.

"Yes, my queen." Alti neared the queen then stopped. "Yakut is safe."

Queen Cyane showed some relief but she remained silent.

The shaman's mind was working quickly now. "Borias is holding her and plans to sell her later. He will attack again later."

"I was afraid of that," muttered the queen.

"There's another too." Cyane quickly looked at her and Alti controlled her dark grin. "Another prisoner. Her name is Xena."

"Xena," echoed Cyane, a shake of her head.

Alti now shifted her hands to her hips. "She's been with the army for some time now. It seems she's of… use to them."

Cyane understand what the shaman was implying. "Well… this changes our plans a little."

"My queen, may I recommend not only do we rescue this Xena but we should welcome her to the Nation."

The Amazon Queen curiously studied the shaman. "What did you see?"

"She has a strong will… that of an Amazon."

Queen Cyane's head tilted forward and she considered her options and the Nation's options. "Do you think she would join, Alti?"

"I know she would," whispered Alti.

"Alright. We will plan on it." Cyane stood up now as she spoke. "Was there anything else?"

"No, my queen." Alti's hands fell from her hips and she slowly followed the queen to the door. "I will work on something to assist Merta and Clio."

"Please," agreed the queen.

Alti dipped her head, opened the door, and left the queen alone.

Cyane briefly stood in the doorway, watching the dark shaman glide through the hallway. Her eyes naturally narrowed because of her thoughts about the shaman. She would be relieved the day that Alti retired and Yakut would take over as the shaman. It was an unspoken truce between her and Alti. Alti went her way, Cyane didn't question her, and Alti made sure never to cross the queen or Nation in the process.

Cyane closed her door once Alti was out of her vision. She went back to her desk and continued her report on today's events. Tomorrow she and Commander Lyda would have to speak before the council and with their plans. It wasn't something she was exactly looking forward to tomorrow.

"How do you feel?" softly spoke Xena.

Yakut lowered her hand from her forehead, which wasn't banging as hard as earlier. "A lot better."

"You think you can eat?"

The Amazon just realized that food had been brought into the tent earlier. She hadn't even heard anybody come inside to deliver it. "When did they come in?"

Xena slightly shrugged. "Half a candlemark ago."

Yakut nodded. She studied the food and realized it was better food than she expected it to be. "I think I can eat something." She straightened up against the post.

Xena picked up a red apple and passed it to the younger woman.

Yakut gently bit into it, worried that a hard bit would shake her head too much. "So you're from Amphipolis?"


Yakut peered up at the dark woman. "How'd you end up here?"

Xena gave a drawn out sigh to make it seem like her story was a hard one. "My village was attacked by Borias's band. They didn't cause much damage but they did manage to take plenty of villagers."

"Yourself included," decided the Amazon.

Xena slightly nodded and now she took a comfortable sitting position beside Yakut. "What's it like in the Amazon Nation?"

Yakut had already taken another bite from her apple. After swallowing her tidbit, she gazed at the older woman and decide she was very curious about the Amazon Nation. "It's really amazing."

Xena forced a smile on her face. "How's that?"

"Well… for a lot of reasons." Yakut peered over at the small wood tray. She deposited her apple core and picked up a bowl of some kind of broth. "Every Nation is like a family. We all care for each other and help each other."

"There's more than one Nation?" cut in the older woman.

The Amazon had a grin at the women's question. "Yes, there are several Nations throughout Greece." She took a spoonful of broth and continued her discussion. "My Nation is about three-hundred and fifty women… excluding the children."

Xena's features slightly tightened as she realized she'd completely forgotten there are some children in these Nations. How else would the Amazon legacy continue otherwise? She cleared her thoughts though and asked, "Is there a queen?"

"Yes… her name is Cyane."

Xena tilted her head a little. "Is there some… government system? Like Greece's?"

The Amazon paused in the middle of her eating. She never met somebody so curious about the Amazon Nation. In some ways, it was refreshing to see an outsider so interested instead of seeing them as some threat. "Well it is a little like Greece's system… but I think more like Rome's. We have what is called a council."

"Let me guess," cut in Xena, "the council balances the queen's power."

"Exactly," agreed Yakut. She took a moment to finish off her broth and as she put the bowl back, she spoke. "There's kind of different… departments in each Nation. There's the army, the council, the agriculture, the shaman and so on."

Now Xena's curiosity truly kicked in at the mention of a shaman. "A shaman? They deal with the spiritual world? I didn't think there were any here in Greece."

"There really aren't," agreed Yakut, "but we're Amazons… so we're different."

Xena quietly laughed at the joke.

"Actually," clarified the Amazon, "we are the only Nation that has a shaman. All the rest have a priestess."

Xena had already known that from doing her homework about Amazons. What she didn't know was that the Thrace Amazons had a shaman instead of a priestess. Now that sparked another question for her. "Do you still follow Artemis?"

"Very much so," answered the Amazon, "otherwise we would not be Amazons." Xena nodded at her so she continued her original explanation she was trying to start earlier. "The reason why we have a shaman is because of Gaul. Many, many seasons back a Germani shaman from the Gaul region stumbled into our territory. Amazingly the shaman was a female but she was rather beaten and battered from a recent war between her tribe, the Teutones, and Rome. Rome defeated them just outside of Vercellae; her clansmen were dead and she was just mindlessly traveling without food or water… no supplies."

"Gods," murmured Xena.

"Eventually she came to our Nation and we took her in. At first, the queen at that time didn't think the shaman would live. The shaman refused to eat anything or drink anything but the priestess, at that time, went to the shaman. Nobody knows, not even to this day, what the priestess did but the shaman began to eat, drink and she healed."

Xena's expression was neutral but she was carefully listening to every detail.

"The shaman ended up staying in the Nation. She and the priestess worked side by side and they traded techniques, information, rituals… everything."

"So," cut in Xena, "the shaman now is really a… priestess-shaman?"

"Essentially yes… or a shaman-priestess." Yakut was remotely surprised when her joke caught a faint smile from Xena. "Today the shaman knows and does everything a shaman and priestess does." Yakut tilted her head some. "Funny enough I think there's been talk about changing the shaman's title to something else since the shaman is neither a priestess or a shaman."

"Maybe a shatess?"

Yakut broke into a smile at the mild joke. "Maybe."

"So how do you fit into the Nation?"

The Amazon already noticed the quick shift in the woman's attitudes between serious to joking. She sorta liked that easy distinction. "Well I have been there since I was eight winters old. I began with schooling on what an Amazon is and how to be an Amazon. I actually just completed all my training about three seasons ago." She fell silent as she considered her current position in the Nation. "Now I am the next shaman in line."

Xena was completely caught off guard but she made absolutely no indication to Yakut that she was shocked. "That's how you know so much about the shaman."

Yakut slightly laughed and shrugged. "Not really. It is a common tale told throughout the Nation about how we got our shaman."

Xena's focus was lost on the Amazon but her thoughts were very focused. She had plans to keep but they always could be altered here and there. She contained her wicked grin at realizing Borias had just captured the apprentice shaman of the Nation. It was such a satisfying feeling knowing that she had plenty of time to win over this future shaman and eventually use her.

"I think I like the sounds of this Nation," murmured Xena aloud.

The Amazon slightly smiled then gave a gentle laugh. "Most women have." Yakut now studied her new found friend and she realized she and her Nation would need to get Xena out of here as well. She reached over and lightly touched the older woman's knee. "I'm sure you will too."

Xena's only reply was a soft smile but her emotions were extremely satisfying and excited.

Suddenly the silence between them was broken by Chuang entrance into the tent.

"You, get up." His eyes pierced directly at Xena.

Xena gave a quiet sigh that only Yakut could detect. She slowly pushed up but Chuang grabbed her arm and jerked her up to her feet. That made Xena hiss in anger but Chuang retaliated with a slap to Xena's face.

Yakut was instantly on her feet but she was stopped by Chuang's sword that had been with drawn faster than she could move.

"Don't even try," warned Chuang. "Sit."

The apprentice shaman stared at him but there was nothing she could do. For now. Slowly she lowered herself back down but she kept her eye contact always with Chuang.

Chuang sheathed his sword at his side then returned his focus to Xena. "Come on. Borias wants you." He hauled her out of there and Xena wasn't making it easy either. Chuang though made sure to drag Xena all the way to Borias's tent and when he was in front of the entrance, he shoved Xena inside.

Xena stumbled in with perfection. When she was in the tent and Chuang followed her in, she whipped around and bared her teeth at him.

Chuang smirked, folded his arms over his chest, and tilted his head to the side.

Xena returned his smirk, straightened up while Borias came into the tent.

"How goes it?" inquired Borias.

The Warrior Princess took a deep breath. "Excellent." She tipped her head to one side at her partner. "You actually managed to do a better job than I expected."

Borias rolled his eyes and he went over to his supplies. He pulled out a water skin. "Why is that?"

"That young Amazon is the next in line to be shaman of that village."

Borias stopped in the middle of his drinking. "Shaman? I thought it would have been a priestess."

"I thought so as well." Xena treaded across the tent and faced her partner again. "This'll work out well… better than I thought actually."

"It doesn't change the plans though?" inquired Chuang.

"Not at all," replied the warlord. She took the waterskin that Borias offered her. "Have we found any scouts?"

"Yes," answered Borias, "there are two Amazons that have been watching the camp."

"It did take awhile to find them," filled in Chuang.

Xena darkly smiled at that. "They are tricky."

"They are," seconded Chuang. "But we are figuring out their patterns."

"Don't bet on it." Xena corked the waterskin.

"They're likely to change them," informed Borias. He quickly caught the skin that was tossed back at him.

Xena stepped up to Borias.

Borias slowly grinned as she got closer.

"Just give me some time to work on this Amazon." The Warrior Princess stepped into Borias's space. "I would imagine that this Amazon will know what her Nation will plan."

"Most likely a rescue," whispered Borias.

"Most likely," murmured back Xena. She slipped her hands onto his belt.

Chuang curiously watched because he knew his leader better than most. He then grinned when Xena retrieved Borias's hidden dagger from his belt.

Xena turned around and walked away as she spun the dagger between her fingers. "Once I have this Amazon's trust, then we'll lighten the patrol… go from there."

Borias ran his tongue along the front row of his teeth. He watched his partner neatly slip the dagger between Xena's breasts. "Ready?"

"I am." Xena stepped out of the tent first but her partner was on her heels.

Borias quickly wrapped his right hand around Xena's neck. "Xeeena, this plan had better work."

Xena sharply rammed her left elbow into the warlord's stomach.

Borias growled and took advantage of the situation by jerking Xena's head back with her midnight hair.

Xena growled in warning but she had to play along to some degree.

"I don't liking wasting my time," hotly whispered Borias then he released her.

"Then leave with what little men you have," countered Xena. When Borias gave her his dark look, she could only smirk.

"Remember this little plan of yours wouldn't be working out if I wasn't here."

Xena considered it for a second. Somewhat he was right but she could easily make a few adjustments with Chuang and her plans would move just as smoothly. "Perhaps… perhaps not."

Borias controlled his temper. He knew it wasn't worth causing a scene in the middle of the camp. Instead he fell silent and continued escorting his partner back to the official slave tent. He gave a brief nod to the guards at the tent then he pushed Xena inside. His attention went directly to the young Amazon. "Nice to see you once again."

Yakut quickly climbed to her feet; her chains rattled in disagreement.

"I hope you're comfortable."

Yakut's expression darkened. "I know it won't last."

Borias smirked. "Not at all but you will have more company shortly."

The young Amazon understood what Borias was getting at and she didn't like it. "Queen Cyane will fight you."

"That's what I am hoping," smugly replied the warlord. His focus then went to Xena again. "Don't forget about tonight." He leaned his head in and absorbed her scent.

Xena closed her eyes and held her anger back, stilled her initial reaction.

"Til then," whispered Borias. He silently left the tent.

Yakut watched as all the tension receded the older woman when the warlord left them. "Does that happen…."

"Pretty much every night," finished Xena.

The young apprentice lowered her gaze and hefty sigh left her. She hated not being able to do anything. It'd been trained in her for years to respond to danger and wrong. And this was a situation in which she wasn't able to do so.

"Sit down," gently instructed Xena, who sat down beside the Amazon too. "And tell me more about your Amazon Nation."

Yakut softly smiled at the woman's curiosity.

Cyane studied the morning sun that had crested over the east horizon about two candlemarks ago. She'd just stepped out of her hut and was taking a moment to absorb the new day. Each morning she would do this and it always seemed to fill her with hope again, especially at times like this. Now she was ready to confront the council with her plans.

The queen trekked through the busy village. She was headed directly for the council hut; breakfast would have to late til later. She entered the hut, went to the meeting room, and saw Councilor Talia was already there. Right after the queen sat the stratègos and polemarchos both came into the room. They silently took their positions flanking the queen from behind and stood tall.

"Good morning, my queen," whispered Commander Lyda.

Queen Cyane peered over her shoulder, a smile on her face. "Good morning, Lyda." She then twisted her head to the other side and was instantly greeted by the polemarchos.

"Good morning, my queen."

Cyane smiled at her second in command. "Good morning too, Olivia." When she turned back, she realized three councilors had arrived and sat down at their position around the table.

Councilor Talia waited for the last council member to arrive then she began the introductory to the meeting. "Councilors." She dipped her head at the four members. She then looked at Cyane. "My queen." Then lastly she gazed upon the stratègos and polemarchos. "Commanders." Once everybody acknowledged her back, she began her opening. "We have a problem with a new enemy. A warlord that goes by the name of Borias. Unfortunately he has taken one of our Amazons and plans to sell her into slavery we believe."

"Which Amazon?" quietly spoke up a councilor.

"The Amazon is the young shaman apprentice, Yakut." After a murmur of whispers between the council members, Talia continued. "The commanders have been working on strategy to rescue Yakut." She then looked directly at the queen. "Is there anything else you wish to add, my queen?"

"Yes," replied the Amazon Queen. "I spoke with Alti and asked her to see into Borias." She sighed and looked about the council. "It looks like we will not only be rescuing Yakut but also a young woman that's a slave."

Councilor Talia was shocked as were the commanders.

"Who is this slave?" spoke up a councilor.

Queen Cyane straightened up in her chair. "Her name is Xena." She listened as the name was echoed through the room by everybody. "It looks as if Borias and his men decided to keep her instead of selling her into slavery."

The quiet whispers died from the realization of what Cyane's words truly meant.

Suddenly Councilor Talia cut into the silence. "Commanders, is that a problem?"

"No it should not be," answered the stratègos. "We will only have to make a few adjustments."

"Understandable," agreed the head councilor. "My queen, is Alti assisting the Amazons that are on the rescue mission?"

"Yes." Queen Cyane straightened up a little more. "I have yet to hear the details but I believe she has something in mind."

"After the initial rescue, what are the plans to deal with Borias?" inquired a council member.

"My queen? Murmured Commander Lyda. The queen mutely signaled her authority for her to speak so she stepped up to the table. "Officer Olivia and I believe that a direct attack afterwards would be the best option."

"Are you currently working on a strategy for that?" Councilor Talia had her eyes burrowing into the stratègos.

"Of course. It is not finalized but we are close to it, councilor."

The head councilor shifted her focus to the queen. "I believe that will require a follow up meeting."

"I agree." The queen dipped her head.

"Are there any questions or concerns?" Councilor Talia gazed about her members, seeing if anybody would speak up.

"There is one thing I am curious about," started a councilor, "what will we do with this Xena?"

"I believe we will do as we have always done with refugees." The Amazon Queen leaned forward from her chair. "Offer her a place in the Nation or she may go freely."

"A wise choice." Councilor Talia smiled her agreement. "Any other concerns?" She studied everybody and when nobody broke the silence, she said, "Then the council rests for the day."

Everybody stood up at once and certain people grouped together while others hurried out of the room.

Cyane was sandwiched by her two commanders as she was trying to leave the hut.

"I believe we have our plans set for the attack after the rescue, my queen."

Cyane nodded at the stratègos's words.

"Can we not bypass the council's word this time?" questioned the polemarchos.

The queen came to a dead stop near the door. She gave a warning look to both of her commanders but waited for Councilor Talia to exit the room. After she was gone, the queen slammed the door shut and her facial expression darkened very deeply. "We are not bypassing the council's word, commanders."

"But time is of the essence-"

"Stop," hotly ordered the queen. "Half the reason this council exists is so that two commanders like yourselves don't get this Nation in trouble."

"My queen, I believe the polemarchos and I know what we are doing."

Queen Cyane took a step closer to her first in command. "Lyda, you know better than anybody else that the Nation puts as much of their faith in the council as they do in the army. That council is run by the Nation and we will not break the Nation's faith in our ability to listen as much as act." She paused and looked between her commanders. "I will not make a dictatorship of this Nation… not even for a brief second in time. Don't ever forget that your position in this Nation is to serve and protect the Nation. Is that clear?"

"Of course, my queen." The stratègos dipped her head in apology.

Officer Olivia bowed her head as well. "I am sorry, my queen."

The queen settled down and took a step back. "Now, organize your plans for the attack. I want them finalized by the high sun. Then we will have a meeting with the council to finish this."

"Right away," agreed the stratègos. "We will report to you by sun high."

"Good." Cyane opened the door and silently left the room.

The two commanders finally relaxed after all the tension the queen gave them.

"I think we picked a bad approach," softly spoke Olivia.

Lyda looked at her second in command. "I think so." She grabbed onto the open door. "Queen Cyane has never been the one to test."

The polemarchos sighed as she exited the room, the stratègos just behind her. "She does play by the books."

"And we know why that is." Commander Lyda was silent but she could tell her second in command was thinking.

The polemarchos opened the main door to leave the large hut. "If it wasn't for Cyane being queen… this Nation would be on a quick decline."

"Yes." Commander Lyda was already outside but she waited for Olivia. "She has saved this Nation."

Olivia sighed at her recollections of the days before Queen Cyane. They were anything but as light as they were today. She knew then that whatever routes that the queen chose it was for the best for the Nation. She wasn't going to contest that anymore and neither would the stratègos.

"When do you think they'll come?" Xena turned her head to the Amazon.

Yakut sighed and dropped her head against the post. "It's been two days… I doubt it won't be much longer."

Xena faintly smiled at her new found friend.

"Most likely at night… maybe even tonight," whispered the young Amazon. "Sweet Artemis, I hope so."

Xena had already instructed her men to back off from patrol and keep closer to camp. She'd instructed Borias and Chuang to make sure the men pretended to be lazy, bored, and not paying much mind to anything. She could only hope it would encourage her enemies to attack and take her and Yakut. Her excitement about her plans was growing stronger each day. She knew this would work and maybe even better than she expected.

"How much longer til sunset?" whispered Yakut.

"About another two candlemarks." Xena was sitting on the grassy ground; she'd already created a small indent in the grass from her constant sitting spot. "In another candlemark we'll be fed."

Yakut grunted at the remark. "Nothing better than a slave's dinner."

Xena chuckled. "Well hopefully that won't be much longer."

"For either of us," murmured the apprentice shaman.

"What will happen to me… in the Nation?" inquired the older woman.

Yakut heavily sighed and she closed her eyes. "Most likely they'll let you stay in the Nation then you'll have the option of leaving or joining the Nation."

"What happens if I do join?"

Yakut slightly smiled. "Well… you start the training to become an Amazon."

"How long can that take?" Xena turned her head to her friend. "I can't imagine as long as it does for the children."

"No not at all. It can really vary between each woman. Some learn faster than others." Yakut paused and considered some of the outsiders that have come into the Nation. "Some women have taken up to twelve seasons to become trained while others only four seasons. Certain things like sword training can slow them down. It depends from woman to woman."

"That's interesting," whispered the older woman. "Is there a minimum time?"

Yakut quietly chuckled. "I take it you expect to be a faster learner?"

"I am, actually."

The apprentice shaman turned her head to her friend. "I see." She warmly smiled now. "Well then, it shouldn't take you more than four seasons to become an Amazon."

Xena mirrored the smile and suddenly her hunger for the Amazon Nation grew stronger. Not only would she soon control her enemy but it will be her enemy that has trained her with better abilities and skills. She couldn't have made a better plan than this.

Yakut dropped her head back against the pole and closed her eyes. "Time will tell, my friend."

"I believe so," whispered the older woman. She was about to relax but then she detected one of her men coming into the tent. Instantly she was on her feet and in a weak defense position.

"Borias wishes your… affections, Xena." Chuang smirked and grabbed the woman's nearest wrist. "It is close to dinner and his appetite is quite large."

Yakut was fully awake and aware of the man. She'd already squatted into a dangerous position but she knew it was fruitless to do anything. What she was sure about was that she'd have this man in the next battle against this small army. She wanted more than anything to pay him back for Xena's own will. She carefully watched as her friend was hauled out of the hut.

Chuang walked directly behind Xena as he lead her to Borias's tent across the camp. "How goes it?" he quietly asked.

Xena contained her grin. "Excellent."

"The plan is working then?"

"Of course."

Chuang smirked. "I never doubted."

"I would hope not, Chuang."

The warrior's smirk grew at his leader's challenging words. He remained silent because they were near the tent. He directed Xena into it then stepped in himself.

Borias was wiping his blade clean after just sharpening it. He sheathed it then focused on his partner. "Anything new, Xeeena?"

The Warrior Princess folded her arms over her chest. "I think tonight will be it."

"How can you be sure?"

Xena watched as her partner put away his sharpening stone and rag. "Tomorrow will be too late. It'll be tonight."

"I hope so… I'm tired of being a sitting duck." Borias straightened up from putting his supplies away in his saddlebags. "After they take you and that Amazon, I'm going to back away from the Nation… work on recruiting more men."

Xena nodded her agreement. "I think it is time."

Borias grinned.

Xena though was still serious. She stepped up closer to her partner. "Listen to me, I want you to do one thing tonight."

"Go on."

"Partially pack the supplies. I have a feeling it'll save some time on the retreat tonight." The warlord walked away but she stopped and turned around. "Make sure the retreat isn't too quick."

"We already decided that," chided Borias. "You just worry about escaping with that Amazon, Xena. I will take care of the rest."

"Don't screw it up, Borias."

The warlord narrowed his eyes at his partner. "Don't get over zealous about these plans, Xena. In time's past you've gotten ahead and ruined everything."

Chuang was immediately annoyed and he stepped up to the pair, his hand on his sword hilt.

Xena held out her hand to him. "Stop." She glanced at him then back to Borias. As she lowered her hand to her side, she stepped up to Borias. "And that's simply because you've never listened to orders." She then stepped away from him, closer to Chuang. "See that you do this time or consider yourself one man army." She quickly walked out of the tent with Chuang on her heels. "I need to go to my tent."

Chuang merely nodded. He followed along side Xena until they were at her tent. He entered last and watched his leader go through things in tent.

"See that Argo is cared for, Chuang."

"Of course." Chuang dipped his head and lifted it back up. "And I'll see that your things are cared for as well."

"Do that." The warlord had knelt down in front of her small trunk. She was carefully picking through her items until she found one of the most important things to her. She pulled out her pair of matching daggers that she'd kept since childhood. It was time for her to use them again; it was time for them to protect her again. After a quick check of the blades, Xena quickly slipped the sheathed daggers into their new homes. One was in the inside of her right boot and the other in the inside of her left boot. But before she closed the lid of her trunk, she stared at her new weapon, her chakram, which she wished she could take. Finally she closed the lid and locked it tight.

The Warrior Princess stood up tall and slowly approached her second in command. "Borias may stray from our plans."

"I'll be sure he doesn't," interject Chuang.

Xena immediate reaction was a dark grin. "Good. I will be in contact."

"How long will this take?"

The warlord folded her arms over her soft white top. "Hopefully no longer than three seasons… maybe two."

"Then it begins," stated Chuang.

Xena's dark grin instantly appeared once more. "Then it begins."

Chuang's response was a deep chuckle.

"I do expect two new warriors to join the army." From Chuang's curious expression, Xena continued her explanation. "Their names are Tracker and Prostig and they're some old friends of mine. I want them treated right as they will be quite valuable later to me." After her second in command nodded, Xena lowered her arms from her chest. Suddenly her eyes were a little darker than normal and her expression almost threatening. "I want my," she growled, "army in one piece when I return, Chuang. If Borias dares threaten any part of my plans, deal with him."

Chuang understood his leader's request so he nodded. "I will do so."

"Otherwise," added Xena, "consider your life forfeited. Is that clear?"

The second in command sensed a chill roll down his back but he held strong. "That's clear."

"Excellent." Xena lost her focus on him and she noted, through the opening in the tent door, that sunset was nearing. She needed to get back to that Amazon. "Let's go then."

Chuang fell into step behind his leader when they left the tent. He escorted her back to the tent and made sure to lower his angry gaze at the Amazon. "You don't have much longer, Amazon." He smirked. "Tomorrow." He then looked Xena up and down with a hungry look and left with a small laugh.

Xena was slightly baring her teeth at him when he left. Yet after he left, her shoulders slightly slumped and her attention went to the apprentice shaman. "I hope you're right about tonight."

Yakut was hoping so too but she held a strong front to her friend. "They'll be here." She watched as Xena sat down beside her.

The older woman looked at her new friend. "Did they bring anything?"

"Nothing," answered Yakut. "I suppose they expect the slaver to feed me tomorrow."

Xena huffed. "I suppose." She then lowered her head forward while she silently sat beside her friend.

"What was Amphipolis like?" quietly asked Yakut.

Xena finally peered over at the younger woman; struck a bit odd by Yakut's question. "Why?"

Yakut slightly shrugged but explained. "I was born and raised in the Nation. I never really… well grew up outside the Nation." Her lips pressed together tighter. "I guess I'm a little naïve to any society beyond my Nation."

Xena considered it for awhile and she realized what her friend was saying. "It was… nice," she quietly started. And then as Xena thought about her life in Amphipolis all of her memories flooded back to her.

"Did you have a family?"

Xena studied Yakut for a moment; it took her awhile to answer. "I did… two brothers and my mother."

Yakut suddenly was confused. "What of your father?"

"I… don't know." Xena turned her head away. "He ran out on my mother right after my brother was born. Really only my mother has any idea what became of him… and she's never said."

Yakut chewed on her lower lip. She knew she was pulling up hard memories for Xena but she was still curious. "Were you married or anything before you were taken from Amphipolis?"

Xena quietly chuckled. "Not at all. No children either."

"What were you doing before everything happened?" Yakut was slightly bent closer to Xena. Her curiosity was peeking with every word Xena spoke.

Xena certainly noticed her young friend's interest. She wasn't going to overly lie when she knew she'd confuse her lies so she stuck to most of her truth. "I helped my mother in the tavern that she owns."

Yakut perked up at that information. "Tavern? I wouldn't have guessed." Yakut's expression was tightly woven together, her thoughts working hard. "Then you must have been close to your family… your mom."

Xena stared at the patch of green grass about four hands length away. "Yes… I was close to them."

The apprentice shaman could tell it was a hard topic for her friend but she had one last question. She wasn't becoming a shaman because she wasn't perceptive. "What's become of them, do you know?"

The older woman finally looked at Yakut again. Xena opened her mouth, her thoughts working hard to compound the truth a little but her answer fell dead. Suddenly there was an explosion of yelling throughout the camp.

Yakut was quickly on her feet as was Xena. Xena though, she was able to move and she went to the tent flaps. She was instantly stopped by the two guards that removed their swords.

"What is it?" called Yakut.

Xena only had a few seconds to figure out what was going on before the two guards would enforce their authority. She jumped back just as they were about to approach her. "By the gods," she whispered as her mind quickly processed what was going on out in the camp.

"What is it?" Yakut tried to take a step closer but her shackles denied her anymore room.


"Wolves?" whispered Yakut, she was confused.

"At least fifty of them… attacking the camp."

Yakut suddenly had a wide grin on her face. "Alti," she murmured in a hopeful tone.

"Alti?" questioned Xena. Yakut had already explained to her that Alti was the current shaman but she couldn't understand how the wolves related.

The apprentice shaman's focus returned to Xena. "Alti sent them."

"They're coming," concluded Xena.

"The wolves are simply the distraction," whispered Yakut as she realized the planned that her sisters must have formulated. She was about to add more but then there was yelling directly outside of their tent.

Xena tensed up when she heard the guards withdraw their swords. She felt every fiber in her body tell her to run out and join the fight just outside but she controlled her reaction. She stepped back a few paces until she was beside the Amazon yet her vision remained glued to the tent flap and the shadows moving across.

"In here," called a female's voice.

Yakut brightened when two Amazons rushed into the tent. "Clio, Merta." If it was one thing a shaman was required to do it was know every Amazon's face and name. It was one thing Yakut how down pat. The two Amazons instantly smiled to her.

"We don't have much time," spoke up Merta.

Clio reached to her side and unhooked a sheathed sword. "I believe you've been missing this, sister."

Yakut felt her life come back under some control when she received her sword back. "The both of us-"

"We know," cut in Merta. She looked at the woman beside Yakut. "You're Xena."

Xena's right eyebrow quickly arched.

"And we're getting you both out of here," clarified Clio. She then looked at her partner and nodded.

Merta quickly reached behind and was able to unhook a huge metal tool. "First we need to get these shackles off."

Xena stepped aside but she carefully watched too.

Merta carefully positioned the jaws of the tool around the last shackle bit closes to Yakut's ankle. She held onto the top arm and waited until Clio hand a grasp on the lower handle. "One… two… three." Merta pushed down while Clio pushed up.

There was a loud snap and some chain flew across the tent.

Merta stepped back and took a moment to rehook the tool to her back.

"We'll have to get the smith to cut off the clamp, Yakut."

Yakut shook her head and smiled. "I don't care. I'm just glad to be getting out of here." She then looked at her new friend and quietly asked, "Are you ready?"

Xena faintly smirked and answered, "I was born ready."

Merta and Clio both quietly laughed but it was Merta who went serious first. "We need to get out of here." She looked at her partner. "Clio."

Clio took the hint and approached the back of the tent with her dagger appearing from her side. It was merely two blinks of an eye before she had the tent cut open in the back. "Let's go," she softly called. After everybody rushed out, she quickly followed them.

Merta was in the lead then followed Yakut, Xena, and Clio took up the rear. Merta though carefully guided them through the camp and away from the battle scene as much as possible. Yet they only were only so far when a warrior spotted them.

Merta, Yakut, and Clio prepared to put up a fight when the enemy called for some help from some of his nearby buddies. Xena however took a few steps away from them as if pretending to be too scared to fight yet she still stayed close.

There were four warriors and each Amazon fought one except Merta who took on two of them. Merta was skilled enough to take out one of her opponents right at the start of the fight. She then remained focused on her other attacker, whom was much more skilled.

Xena carefully watched the Amazons fight and she was quite impressed with their skills and talents with a sword. She recognized many of the moves but there were a few she was unfamiliar with, which interested her. Then Xena noticed that the warrior that Merta had earlier knocked out was climbing to his feet. When she realized his intent was to attack Yakut instead, she actually sensed a small amount of anger.

Xena quickly moved forward and she moved so fast that the warrior had no idea she was coming at him. Her warrior instinct immediately had her do a high kick and her kick sent his sword flying from his hands. She then slightly grinned when he turned to her and he had a shocked expression.

Yakut by then had almost finished her opponent but she was watching Xena from the corner of her sight.

Xena had already landed another kick to her opponent's chest. Now she was throwing a punch at his face.

The warrior stumbled backwards, slightly hunched, and greatly angered. He reached to his side and unsheathed a long dagger and he held the blade down. He straightened up and started for Xena again.

Xena took a few steps back to lead him on. When he was near enough, she tried her kick again but this time her enemy was ready. He ducked away then suddenly leapt forward. Xena was taken to the ground and he was on top of her. Xena quickly prepared to stop him even if it meant exposing some truth.

"No!" yelled Yakut. She'd just ran her blade through her enemy's chest and was making a quick dash for Xena.

Xena was lifting her hands up, her index and middle fingers pressed together and targeted at his neck. Then suddenly his neck was out of target, his weight from her body gone, and there was a loud feral scream. Xena didn't wait around to find out, she'd rolled away to her right, and popped up onto her feet. She then spun around to see what had happened to her enemy.

Yakut stopped dead in her tracks, several paces from Xena.

By this time, Merta and Clio had taken out their attackers and were also watching the grizzle scene.

"Sweet Artemis," breathed Clio.

There was another loud scream from the warrior that Xena had been fighting earlier. He was on the ground, rolling around, and being torn apart by a wild, hungry wolf. He screamed again when the wolf bit into his right arm and ferociously ripped off his skin and some muscle.

Merta looked at the others and called, "We need to move. Come on!"

Yakut neared Xena, lightly touched her, and ordered, "Come on."

Xena had never seen a wolf become so beastly but she was grateful at the same time. She started to hurriedly walk off with Yakut. But Xena stole one last glance back right as the wolf lifted its bloody muzzle from the warrior's ripped open chest. Xena was completely taken by the unusually bright red eyes the wolf reflected; it was as if it was possessed and it captured apart of Xena's hungry.

"We have to get out of this camp now." Clio was picking up the pace by running now.

"Why? Is there an attack about to happen?"

Merta glanced back at Xena and Yakut. "Yes. This camp is about to go up in fire."

Xena just controlled herself at hearing the news that her camp was about to be burned. She had to rely on Borias and Chuang on taking care of her army.

"I think it's already started," called Clio. She pointed directly ahead after they made it past a tent.

Xena gazed up as several flaming arrows went speeding through the air and arched down towards her camp. She almost growled because she wasn't prepared for such an attack. It was too late now though.

"Just up here," called Merta.

Clio saw the spot where she and Merta had entered the camp earlier. She felt relief wash over her. She was the first to approach the small opening in the dense woodland so she stopped and stood guard by it.

Merta ducked under the heavy brush and waited for the others to follow. When everybody was accounted for, she led the group deep into the forest to where she knew where the commanders and the queen would be waiting for them. Their arrival would mean to the start of the main attack on the camp.

They traveled deeper into the forest and it wasn't any longer than a sixth of a candlemark before they slowed down and approached a group of Amazons.

"Merta, Clio?" called an Amazon that was rushing up to them.

Merta brightened up at seeing the second in command. "Officer Olivia."

The polemarchos rushed up to the small group of women, her face was bright and relieved. "Everything went as planned?"

"Yes," answered Clio.

"Excellent." Officer Olivia called on a near by Amazon and instructed them to go to the stratègos with the news. After the Amazon rushed off, she turned back to the group and her focus went to the apprentice shaman. "I am please you're safe, Yakut."

"I am too. Thank you for the rescue." Yakut warmly smiled to the polemarchos.

"Of course." The second in command returned the smile then her focus went solely on the stranger amongst them. "And you must be Xena."

Xena dipped her head then lifted it again. "I am."

Officer Olivia stepped up to her and held out her arm. "I am the polemarchos… Officer Olivia."

Xena took the Amazon's arm and briskly shook. "Xena of Amphipolis."

"Amphipolis?" whispered Olivia as she released the woman's arm. "Along the coast."

"The same," agreed Xena.

The second in command nodded then returned her attention to Merta and Clio. "You two are to escort Yakut and Xena back to the Nation. See that they get to the healer's first. The stratègos orders."

"It'll be done," agreed Merta.

"Good." Officer Olivia took a step back. "I must go. Report to the stratègos and I later, Merta and Clio." She didn't wait for a reply and instead hurried back to the queen and stratègos.

"Alright." Merta took a heavy breath and looked at the group. "Ready to go home?" Her question was directed at Yakut.

The apprentice shaman smirked. "I was born ready."

Clio groaned.

Xena grunted at her friend's joke.

Merta shook her head and started walking off in the direction of the Nation. "Let's go." Everybody silently followed behind her.

It wasn't long before the group made their way into the quiet Nation. There weren't many Amazons left in the Nation but just enough to protect it incase of a surprise attack. The women trekked through the village and arrived at the steps of the large healer's hut. Everybody climbed up and followed Merta in. When everybody was inside, they were quickly greeted by a healer.

"Welcome back, Yakut."

Yakut smiled at the senior grade healer. "Thank you, Canisa."

"And I see we also rescued another." The healer studied Xena from head to toe.

"Canisa, this is Xena," introduced Clio.

Canisa stepped up to Xena, her arm extended.

Xena took the healer's offer and briskly shook her arm.

The senior healer stepped back and gazed back at the apprentice shaman. "Did they feed you well?"

Yakut smirked. "Like I was a pig."

Canisa grunted, turned around, and waved for Yakut to come with her. "Follow me. You too, Xena."

Merta and Clio watched the younger women go past them. They remained by the front door, knowing Canisa wouldn't be too long with them.

The senior healer lead them into a small side room down a corridor. She directed for them to both go inside but she ordered Yakut to sit on the pallet. "It looks like you have a couple of cuts and scratches."

Yakut settled onto the small wood pallet. She watched as the healer went to a shelf full of bottles that either contained liquids, herbs, or powders. Things that Yakut was somewhat familiar with from her teachings with Alti.

"Let's see." The healer picked out a bottle that contained a clear liquid and then a clean cloth near by. She'd noticed earlier there was a deep cut on Yakut's right shoulder. She was more concerned about that than any of the others. "I need you to hold still while I do this, Yakut."

Yakut only nodded. She watched as the healer opened the bottle, put the cloth against it, and turn it over so that the cloth soaked in much of it. Then when Canisa put the cloth against her shoulder, the wound immediately screamed in protest. Yakut bit the inside of her mouth and closed her eyes.

"Sting?" quietly asked the healer.

"Yeah," murmured Yakut.

"Tell me when it doesn't sting as much." Canisa now carefully dabbed the wound with the wet cloth. She noticed the tense in Yakut's body was slowly easing. But she continued dabbing the wound or stopping and just pressing the cloth against the young woman's shoulder. "So where are you from, Xena?"

Xena slightly cleared her throat and replied, "Amphipolis."

"Oo yes. I know Amphipolis." Canisa finally set the cloth down and now inspected the wound. "What did you do there?"

"I helped my mother in a tavern."

The healer glanced over at Xena but then she returned to her inspection. She pulled back a little. "It may be getting infect, Yakut and it seems just deep enough to need stitches."

The apprentice shaman audibly groaned.

Xena actually grew curious so she neared them. She was just on Yakut's left side and peering over at the wound. "It should be sown up with a little salt."

Canisa had already moved back to the shelf unit and she stopped looking through her supplies. Instead, she turned her gaze to the newcomer of the village. After a brief silence that seemed longer than a candlemark, Canisa returned to seeking out her supplies on the shelves.

Yakut curiously stared at her friend.

Xena said nothing, she just licked her lips and took a step back when Canisa came back over.

Canisa had a needle, thin twine, and two pieces of salt in a bowl. She set the bowl down on the pallet then took a moment to thread the needle. "Yakut hold up your right arm horizontally."

The apprentice shaman did as she was instructed.

"Xena, I will need your help in a moment." Canisa placed the threaded needle down beside Yakut's leg. She then quickly grounded the white salt in the mortar with the pestle until it was almost to a fine dust. "I will need you to hold the wound closed after I put the salt into the wound." Pedestal

Xena merely nodded.

Yakut though peered over at Xena after realizing Canisa was using salt. Yet Xena wasn't looking back at her and it made Yakut slightly suspicious. She would have to remember to question her friend later.

The senior healer had the salt carefully pushed into the wound. She was now picking up the threaded needle while Xena was moving closer to hold the wound closed. Canisa gently began sowing the wound together.

Yakut had her eyes closed and she was biting her lower lip. This was when she really appreciated being a warrior for the Nation. She'd decided a long time ago that the healer's hut was much worse than the battlefield.

Within several breathes, Canisa had the wound sown tight and she was trimming off the extra thread. "Now I will need you to come back later, Yakut."

"Wonderful," muttered the apprentice shaman.

The healer ignored the remark and continued her healer's rant. "Give it about seven days. Then I want to check it out. Hopefully it won't be much longer after that when I can remove the stitches for you." The healer took her supplies back to the shelving unit but she returned with a wrap. "I'm going to put this wrap on it and keep it on for the rest of night and tomorrow."

Yakut nodded her understanding.

"And I'm going to assume you didn't eat well or drink much while you were in that camp. So please get a good meal tonight and drink plenty of water."

"Of course," murmured Yakut. When Canisa completed the wrap, she slid off the pallet and she patted it for Xena. "Thank you, Canisa."

"You are welcome." Canisa watched as Xena sat down next on the pallet. After Xena was settled down, she stepped up closer. "Any symptoms or problems?"

"None," curtly replied Xena.

Canisa nodded. She picked up Xena's left wrist and pressed her index and middle finger into the pulse point. "You have a few scratches across your face I'd like to clean up." She released Xena's wrist. "Any lacerations anywhere?"

"Old one, yes."

Canisa lifted an eyebrow.

"My leg," informed Xena, "but it was clean by one of Borias's men."

The senior healer huffed. "Where?"

Xena somewhat lifted her right leg and drew up her skirt to her knees.

Canisa stepped back some then bent forward. "Oh yes." She gently ran her fingers down the new scab that was almost as tough as leather. She estimated it had to have been a dagger that caused this type of cut. She also figured it had to be roughly five days old. She nodded her approval then straightened up. "Anything else?"

"No… just a poor diet."

The healer had already factored that into her thinking. She silently went to the shelving unit and picked out a new cloth. She'd left her cleaning alcohol, from earlier, on the pallet. It was only a quick moment before she had the cloth wet and she was cleaning the small cuts on Xena's face and neck. "A villager huh?" she whispered.

Xena detected the healer's disbelief.

"You must of hung out around the healer's home a bit," criticized Canisa.

Xena bit her harsh words that almost flew from her lips. She only said, "Something like that."

The senior healer made a low sound. When she finished cleaning Xena's face, she put both clothes into a hamper to the right of the pallet. "You're both done now." She returned the cleaning alcohol to its home. "Make sure to get plenty of food, water, and rest tonight." She now guided them out of the room and back to Merta and Clio. "And don't forget to come back in seven days, Yakut."

"I won't, Canisa." The apprentice shaman offered a warm smile. "Thank you again."

"You're welcome and no more kid napping, please." The healer watched as the group left her hut but her attention was mainly on Xena. It was increasingly curious how Xena knew the technique to put salt into a wound to keep it sterile. It was general healers that understood that trick of the trade but there were some regular people that knew it too. Canisa though couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't something Xena just picked up on, rather it was something she learned for some purpose. Canisa made a mental note of it; she would discuss it with the master healer later when she came back from the attack on Borias's camp.

"I think I will head to my hut," decided Yakut to the group.

"Of course," agreed Merta. She then looked at Xena. "We'll show you to your guest hut."

"I'll stop by later, Xena," promised the apprentice shaman. And with that, she headed off to her hut at a slow pace.

"This way," instructed Clio. She and Merta lead the silent, tall woman through the quiet village. They finally approached a hut and they went inside. Clio stepped aside and let Merta take over.

Merta let Xena get inside and then she held her hand out to the bed in the middle of the room. "Your bed of course." Then she pointed off to her right. "That small room is the washroom with a chamber pot as well." She then lowered her hand to her side again. "There is a bathing hut near by. It's quite easy to pick out." She paused as she considered things. "I'll request that Yakut give you a tour of the village after dinner. Is there anything you need?"

"No, I'm fine. Thank you." Xena offered a faint smile. "I appreciate everything."

"Well you're safe now," promised Merta. "And I'm sure the army will return with good news."

"I think so," agreed Xena.

Merta nodded her head then stepped back. "I would recommend get some rest. Yakut will be here later."

"I will. Thank you both again."

Clio already had the door open and quietly left.

Merta dipped her head for a moment then followed after Clio.

After the door close, Xena gazed over at her bed. It was small yet it was bigger than what she slept on in her army. She approached the bed then sat down on the edge. She was absolutely stunned by how soft it was under her. She couldn't ever recall a bed ever being as comfortable as this. It made her even more curious to see how the rest of the bed felt so she didn't hesitate to lay down.

The bed was extremely soft on her body. Xena released a heavy sigh and her eyes drooped a little. She then brought her hands up and tucked them under her head. After a brief stretch, she started to relax.

Yakut too was on her bed but she was sitting on the foot of her bed. She was bent forward and untying her boots slowly. She wanted her boots off more than anything right now after having them on for so many days straight. When she finally had them unlace, she yanked them off, and threw them aside. She groaned with relief and stretched out her toes some.

After a little bit, Yakut finally slid off her bed and sought out her leather sandals that was somewhere near her bed. When she found them she slipped them on and didn't even bother to lace them at all. "I need to see Alti," she muttered to nobody but herself. She knew Alti would want to see her first thing and she didn't want her teacher to be concerned any longer than she had to be.

Slowly Yakut made her way out of the hut and into the quiet village. Once she was outside she spotted Merta not far off and she knew something was up so she met up with Merta.

"Could you show Xena around later?"

The apprentice shaman smiled a little. "I will… might be a bit abbreviated."

"That's fine." Merta chuckled briefly. "I know you're both tired. I just figured you two seem to get a long."

"We do," quietly agreed Yakut. She knew they did for some strange reason and maybe it was because they were together for several days. "Thanks, Merta. Get some rest."

"I will. Have a good evening, Yakut."

Yakut offered a smile then headed off. "Goodnight." She finally arrived at her destination, Artemis's temple. She quietly entered it and once inside she heard nobody, saw nobody. She gazed about for a moment then approached the giant statue of Artemis that was front and centre of the temple. She'd always admired the statue; she admired Artemis however she'd come to realize that she'd been taught very little of Artemis. Over the couple of seasons of her teaching, she'd come to discover that Alti's main strength was in shamanism and not so much priesthood. And in many ways that seemed to bother Yakut.

The apprentice shaman kneeled down on the step of the alter and she dipped her head. For a little while, she hummed a very common tune that any shaman would at the start of typical rituals. Finally her humming washed out from the air and only her breathing could be heard. Her thoughts, however, were much louder in her mind as she thanked Artemis for protecting her at Borias's camp and bringing her home safely.

"I see you've returned safely," whispered a scratchy voice directly behind Yakut.

Yakut controlled her initial reaction to jump up. She opened her eyes and slowly stood up. When she faced Alti, she half smiled. "I have." She bowed to her teacher then straightened up again. "Thank you for the help."

"You are welcome." Alti's dark smile suddenly appeared. "I couldn't lose my legacy."

The apprentice dipped her head. "I'm in debt."

Alti's smile widened but she took a step closer. She stretched out her right arm and with her fingertips she lifted her student's head. "You can repay me back by telling me about our new arrival."

Yakut inwardly chuckled and nodded. Once Alti removed her touch, she began to talk about Xena. "She seems to have quite a spirit… I am sure you know."

"I do."

"She says she's from Amphipolis."

Alti folded her arms across her chest; her light fur coat shifted with her movements. "Go on."

"She seemed very interested in the Nation… the Amazons." Yakut shifted her weight to her right side. "I think she will stay once she sees everything. She could become valuable to the Nation."

"I can imagine," quietly stated the shaman. "I would like to meet her… soon."

"Of course." Yakut paused in her thoughts then spoke again. "I need to give her a quick tour of the Nation. We will stop in."

Alti's dark smile reappeared. "I'd appreciate it, Yakut." She then stepped back, slightly to one side. "I know you must be exhausted."

"I am," agreed Yakut.

"Make sure to rest tomorrow. We will continue the following day."

"Thank you, shaman." Yakut dipped her head once more. "'Til later tonight."

Alti watched her apprentice head for the door. "Goodnight, Yakut."

Yakut had the door open but she gazed back at the shaman. "Goodnight, Alti." She then quietly left and decided she'd go to Xena's hut next. When she arrived at the hut, she knocked on it.

Xena quickly sat up in her bed and habitually started looking for her closest weapon. Then her memories flooded back to her and her vision focused on the door when the knocking came in again. "Come in," she called.

Yakut carefully entered and tiredly smiled at her friend. "Sleeping huh?"

"Yeah." Xena glanced about at the bed then back at Yakut. "I didn't realize I fell asleep."

Yakut faintly grinned as she approached her friend. "That'll happen on these beds." She pushed her closest hand into the foot of the bed. "I think half the reason why some women join the Nation is for the beds."

"I can believe it," mildly agreed the villager. She slipped off the bed and took a moment to stretch.

The apprentice shaman lifted the two blankets and exposed the bed cushion. "Most beds are made out of straw or feathers if you're wealthy." She found what she was looking for on the bed cushion; it was a set of five small wood buttons. She unhooked three of them, opened the cushion and directed for Xena to look inside of it. "We stuff ours with wool."

Xena's right eyebrow slowly lifted up. She hadn't thought of that idea but it made complete sense to use wool. Not only was it soft but it would retain heat especially useful for the winter time. "It must take a lot of wool."

"Yes it does actually." Yakut carefully buttoned the cushion back up. "Roughly six sheep's worth of wool." She peered up at Xena. "For a single cushion. For the doubles, at least twelve. And the cushions must be restuffed once every four seasons to keep them soft."

Slowly Xena started to grin. "I take it only the queen has a double though."

Yakut chuckled while she put the blankets back over. "Not just the queen." She softly smiled at her friend. "Any couples do."

Xena was about to ask what couples were then she suddenly realized what Yakut meant. She contained her minor shock of realization. "I take it the pillows are wool too?" She glanced over at them.

"Mostly wool yes but some feathers too." Yakut took a quick glance of the hut then returned her focus to Xena. "Are you comfortable here?"

"I am."

"Good. I thought you might be hungry. We could eat then I'd like to give you a brief tour of the village." Yakut paused in consideration. "As much as I can with it being dark."

Xena slowly started to smile at Yakut's humor. "That's fine, Yakut."

"Let's start with a tour of the food hut." Yakut offered a smile and got one in return. She went to the door, opened it, and let Xena out first. She then led the way to the food hut and was for an instant, she caught herself staring at Xena. She was beginning to see exactly the strength that seemed to follow off of the supposed villager. Yakut wasn't sure what was so different about Xena but there was something there. She knew in time she would have it figured out. "Here is the food hut."

Xena had decided it was since it was one of the few huts that had any light glowing out of its windows. She followed Yakut in and when she smelled food, she felt her stomach growl in happiness. She caught Yakut's knowing grin but she pretended to ignore it.

"This way," softly spoke Yakut. She approached the entrance of a small alcove in the food hut. "Good evening," she called to the approaching Amazon.

"Yakut, why it's great to see you bake safely."

The young shaman smiled at the cook. "Thank you." She held her hand out to her friend. "Teah, I'd like you to meet Xena."

Teah warmly smiled to the new comer.

"Xena is from Amphipolis."

"An-phipolis," repeated Teah. "I haven't been there in years. Welcome to the Nation."

"Thank you, Teah." Xena dipped her head.

"I'm sure you're both hungry." Teah focused on Xena again though. "Are you particular about anything?"

"Not especially," answered Xena.

"Wonderful." Teah smiled. "The usual, Yakut?"

The apprentice shaman nodded. "Please." She watched as Teah disappeared back into the kitchen. "Teah is an amazing cook. She can do anything with anything."

Xena returned the small grin that Yakut was showing her. She turned her head away when Teah returned with two plates.

"Here you are." Teah gave one to Xena and the other to Yakut. She then gave them flatware to use. "Enjoy, ladies."

"Thank you, Teah." Yakut then made her way through the quiet hut and went to a bench.

Xena realized they were the only two in the entire hut. She figured everybody was still at the battle against her army. She retained her amused smile at the thought. Instead, she sat down and became comfortable. She only needed a moment to realize that the meal would be a good one, better than any of her ones in the army. In front of her were her most favorite: chicken, white rice, a small side salad, and of course bread.

The villager then peered across at what was on Yakut's plate, which was different. There was a small strip of salmon then a large salad that was covered by peanuts. That in turn made her extremely curious as to why Yakut's meal was different over hers. "Why the different meal?"

The apprentice shaman briefly tried to understand what Xena was asking then she realized what she'd meant. "Well this is the diet that a two-spirit eats."


Yakut grinned at Xena's confusion and curiosity. "A two-spirit is basically a very powerful shaman. It takes so many seasons to become one… if it is even possible."

"Possible? Why wouldn't it be?"

"Some shaman's spirits are not… strong enough to become a two-spirit." Yakut's lips pressed tightly together. "They are extremely rare but every shaman usually goes through the training to see if they are one."

"What are the various things you have to do?"

"Well other than this diet. There are certain things in the spirit world I must try to accomplish. If I cannot then that'll show I am not a two-spirit."

Xena slightly grinned. "Do you think you are?"

Yakut quietly chuckled and shrugged. "It is too early to tell really."

"Hmmmm." Xena's grin slipped away as she decided to start eating her dinner.

The two friends remain quiet while they slowly ate. They both were extremely worn out from their past couple of days endeavor. Yakut was looking forward to relaxing tomorrow but she could only wonder how many candle-marks that would last before the queen would want to see her. She also figured that Xena would be very busy with discussing things with the queen. If it was one thing about Queen Cyane, it was that she was extremely thorough and precise and Yakut admired that.

After they ate, they returned their dishes to Teah then left the quiet food hut.

When Yakut stepped outside next to Xena, she said, "Normally it is pretty loud and busy in there when everybody is around."

"Hmmmm. Guess with this battle…." Xena trailed off in after thought.

"The army should return soon actually." The apprentice shaman considered that realization. "We better hurry long before they do because when they show up there's more chaos here than in the battle."

The villager actually laughed full heartedly at Yakut's joke. "Lead the way."

Yakut nodded then started the tour with right where they were standing. "Of course this is the food hut but if you…." She turned around and stepped backwards and Xena followed her. "If you look at this portion of the village you'll see that this is all of the various departments in the Nation." Yakut pointed far off to her left. "That is mainly the entire army department… training fields, stables, smith hut, armory, and so on." Yakut then pointed directly ahead. "This portion is more like administration such as the council office, the queen's office, the healer's, the emissary's office, the food hut, and so on." Finally she pointed far off to her right. "That section of the Nation is really the agricultural area with the farms, gardens, livestock, and granaries."

Xena now spun around as Yakut did the same.

"All of this part of the Nation is housing plus the bathhouse, which is centered in the middle of the housing." Yakut grinned. "Naturally."

Xena smirked back.

Yakut then turned a little to her left and dropped her arms back to her side. "Then at the center of the entire Nation is the temple of Artemis."

Xena remained silent while she stared at the well fire-lit temple. She realized that it was the tallest building in the Nation. The temple was the center piece of the Nation.

"I will show you a little bit of administration area because I suspect you'll be there tomorrow." Yakut started on her way past the food hut and towards the administration portion of the village. After a little bit, she finally came to a stop in front of a large building. "This is the administration building, which includes offices for every council member, the queen, and the emissary. Also there is the council meeting room here too."

Xena only nodded then Yakut started back towards the housing area of the village.

"It's a bit pointless to show you much more since its night right now. I'm sure somebody will tour you around tomorrow to give you a better idea." Yakut then glanced over at her friend. "However we have to stop in the temple. Alti has requested to see you."

The villager's reaction was to raise an eyebrow. She felt a small charge of worry yet she was quite curious about the shaman's own curiosity in meeting her. When they arrived at the temple doors, Yakut opened it for her and she entered first.

The apprentice shaman silently closed the one of the two heavy wood doors. She shifted to Xena's side but was scanning the candle lit temple for her teacher. Her eyes then finally rested on the door tucked up on the left side of the alter floor. She faintly smiled when it opened and her mentor stepped out.

Alti stepped down from the alter floor and glided down the aisle between the kneeling pads. Her dark smile grew as she came closer to the pair.

Yakut also noticed that her teacher's full focus rested on Xena only. She also couldn't help sensing that Alti was charged with energy by Xena's mere presence. This sent a brutal chill down the young woman's back.

"I am the shaman of the Nation. Alti."

Xena's head was tilted to one side but she didn't hesitate to dip her head in respect. She rarely showed her own respect but for some reason this shaman required it. When she lifted her head again, she was caught by Alti's dark yet glowing eyes. "I'm Xena of Amphipolis."

"I know." Alti's dark smile suddenly appeared at Xena's confused expression. "I am a shaman," she reminded.

"Of course," agreed Xena.

Alti slipped her hands between the folds of her light leather coat. "Do you plan to stay long?"

Xena partially grin. "That depends."

"I see," murmured the shaman. "Well I am sure the queen would like it if you did." She then had her knowing smirk on her face. "I would like that."

The villager partially bowed her head again for her answer.

Alti then looked at her student. "Thank you for bringing Xena by, Yakut."

Yakut mimicked her friend's earlier action. When she looked up at the shaman again, she said, "It's the least I could do considering your support in saving us."

"Yes," cut in Xena, "thank you."

Alti was smiling at the pair. "I would never hesitate to protect a kin or…." She gazed upon Xena. "One in need of help." She then quickly lost her smile. "You two should rest. I would imagine it was a trying experience."

"It was," softly agree Yakut. "Goodnight, master and thank you again."

Xena also dipped her in thanks then she started for the door with Yakut.

The apprentice shaman was already out the door with Xena on her heels but she heard Alti calling back to Xena.

"Be sure to stop by tomorrow, Xena. I would like to know more."

The villager merely gazed back and after a brief nod, she silently exited the temple.

Alti's dark smile returned but it went more dangerous than normal. In her lowest voice she whispered, "You will be mine."

Xena was walking towards her hut. She'd just said goodnight to Yakut and now she was feeling pretty exhausted. She realized that an extremely soft bed was awaiting her and that seemed to make her sleepier. Just as she made it to her hut's door, she thought she heard a loud trumpet of noise coming from the gates. That forced her to turn around and she noticed a gentle glow in the direction of the gates that was marching into the village. She knew then that the Amazon army had returned from battle with her army. That made her knowing grin form and she kept from chuckling as she entered her hut. She decided her plan was beyond sleeping with the enemy, it was living with the enemy. Her enemy would train her, teach her, and eventually fund her beyond her wildest dreams.

It wasn't until the mid morning that Xena awoke by the tapping on her door. She'd quickly sat up, pushed her distorted hair back, and straightened out her brown skirt after standing up. When she opened the door, there were two Amazons waiting for her. She recognized Yakut but not the Amazon behind her yet she let them into the hut.

Yakut softly smiled at the fact her friend had been sleeping so well. "A good night's rest?"

"Very," murmured Xena in a scratchy voice.

Yakut nodded. "I'm sorry to wake you up." She partially turned and held out her hand to the stranger. "Xena, this is Thaddea. Thaddea is in the army department, specifically under the weapons master. She is a junior grade weapons master."

Thaddea stepped forward and held out her arm. "Soon to be a senior grade." Suddenly she smiled.

Xena grinned at the Amazon's tenacity. "Nice to meet you."

"You as well," agreed the junior weapons master. "And welcome to the Nation."

The villager bowed her head.

"Thaddea will be your guide today. She will be showing you around the village." Yakut paused but a brief sigh escaped her. "I will be stuck in a meeting most of the day."

"Meeting?" questioned Xena.

"Yes." The apprentice shaman folded her arms over her chest. "I have to account for myself from when I was kidnapped until I was brought back here." After Xena nodded, Yakut took a faint step back. "Thaddea and I will let you get ready. Thaddea will be waiting outside for you. Hopefully I will see you later this evening." She then turned and simultaneously signaled for Thaddea to follow her out.

"Good luck today, Yakut," called Xena.

The apprentice shaman glanced back at her friend and smiled.

Xena, for once, actually smiled back then she turned away. As she went into the washroom, she heard the hut door close. It wasn't long before she was cleaned up and ready to begin her day. When she met Thaddea outside of the hut, the first thing she learned was that she would meet the queen this morning. The queen's office was their first stop.

When they were at the administration hut, Thaddea led Xena inside and took her to the queen's office. Thaddea knocked and after the queen's order to enter, she opened the door but stepped aside.

Xena understood to enter first and once she was inside, Thaddea stepped back out and closed the door.

Xena stared down at the sitting queen behind the large oak desk. She put her hands behind her back and acted calm even though she was faintly nervous. She didn't even understand why she was nervous at all.

Finally the queen finished writing in a scroll and lifted her head. Her rich green eyes locked on Xena and she stood up. Slowly she came around her desk then she held out her arm to the younger woman. Welcome to my Nation, Xena."

Xena took the queen's arm and briskly shook it.

After the shake, the queen put her hands behind her back and remained standing before the outsider. "I am Queen Cyane."

Cyane, Xena repeated in her head. She rolled the name over in her mind, tasted it, and hungered for it again. "Thank you for everything, Queen Cyane."

Cyane offered a partial smile. "Any friendly outsiders are welcome to our Nation. And we take it upon ourselves to help any that require help."

"So I have been lucky enough to experience. I am grateful and in debt."

Cyane shook her head. "There is no debt. Besides I have a feeling you were an asset to my young apprentice shaman."

"I believe she was more my asset though."

"Perhaps." Cyane tilted her head a bit. "Regardless, Yakut is particular about her friends. It seems as if she's selected you as one of the few."

"I see," whispered the villager.

The queen suddenly turned around and went behind her desk. She sat down then spoke again. "You are welcome here as long as you see fit. You may return to Amphipolis or you are welcomed to join my Nation."

Xena's interest perked up at the insight about the offer. "Joining the Nation?"

"Yes," replied Cyane, "become an Amazon." She noted the instant curiosity that the woman had for joining. "There have been many, like you, that have stayed in the Nation then eventually joined for various reasons."

"Such as?"

Cyane's lips pulled with a warm smile. "Opportunity, a new life, new experiences, a better way of life, and in some cases to even escape a previous life." Her faint smile grew more. "I believe it is what makes this Nation so diverse."

Xena considered Yakut's story about the priestess and shaman and how that's reshaped the Nation today. She couldn't argue with Cyane's wise words. "I believe so."

"Well you have sufficient time to decide your choice. You have options, Xena." The queen then heard Thaddea opening the door once more. "Thaddea will be showing you around the Nation. It will give you a better understanding what this Nation is and who an Amazon is. It will undoubtedly help in your future decision."

"It will," agreed Xena. "Thank you."

Queen Cyane smiled then nodded at Thaddea.

Xena understood and quietly left with her guide behind her. When they were outside of the hut, she asked, "Where to first?"

"Well we will start where you started last night." Thaddea suddenly grinned. "The food hut."

Xena grinned back and her stomach quietly growled in agreement. It wasn't long before the pair were in the food hut and feasting on eggs, fruit, and bread for the morning. Afterwards, Thaddea began the long tour around the Nation and she first started with the easy part. The housing.

Thaddea took Xena to the bathing hut where she showed Xena how everything worked there. Xena noticed much of it was burrowed from Roman concepts of a large bathing pool in the middle of the enclosed hut. Then there were a few rooms that had sitting space but the rooms were filled with steam. Those were the essential steam rooms of the bathing hut.

Thaddea explained to Xena how each Amazon must conduct themselves in the bathing house. When an Amazon first entered the main entrance there was a changing room. There they could drop off their clean clothes, if any, then change, pick up a clean towel, and then would go into the bathing pool. Afterwards, the Amazon had the choice of returning to the changing room to dry off and get clothed or they could enter a steam room.

After Thaddea showed and explained everything, Xena grew quite interested in what provided the water for the bathing house. Thaddea went into the basic explanation that an underground water supply was directed into the village many lifetimes ago from the Nestus River. The water flow was directed past the agricultural department of the village then rerouted to the bathing house. The backside of the bathing house then had a gigantic internal fireplace that warmed the water for the bathing pool and the steam was emitted through the steam rooms.

Finally, Xena and Thaddea were trekking across the village towards the army sector of the Nation. Xena determined it was quite a large chunk of the Nation, which she actually admired. She was extremely intrigued to learn the in's and out's of the Amazon army. This was the part of the tour that she made the most mental notes.

"The army really has two commanders. It's between the queen and the stratègos but essentially it is the stratègos that runs the army."

Xena slowly grinned. "And the queen runs the stratègos."

Thaddea laughed and nodded. "That's pretty much how it goes. The stratègos really advises the queen how to fight the battles. The queen can also leave it in the stratègos's hands to fight the battles if she wishes to do so. It depends on the situation and the queen… also the stratègos."

"Had the queen and the stratègos ever disagreed?"

Thaddea's first response was a sight. "Thankfully not in my lifetime, no but it does happen."

"I take it the council intervenes then?"

The Amazon briefly gazed at the outsider. When she turned her head away, she nodded. "In an extreme case, yes." She came to a halt in front of a fair size hut that seemed like an office. "The stratègos is Commander Lyda. We'll see if she's in or not." Taking a step ahead, Thaddea gently knocked on the door and when heard an order to enter, she did so.

Xena followed her in and her gaze rested upon a fiery redhead woman behind a desk.

Thaddea took a spot slightly forward of Xena and her hands went behind her back, her back ridged. "Commander Lyda."

The stratègos lowered her quill then stood up to her amazing height. "Thaddea."

"I'm showing our visitor around the Nation. This is Xena."

Commander Lyda was able to reach across her desk to shake arms with Xena.

Xena figured Lyda had to be at least match Xena's height and maybe even slightly taller. "Thank you for the rescue last night," politely spoke the villager.

The stratègos faintly smiled and nodded her head. "The rescue was done by my two best warriors." Then suddenly she had an amused grin. "The attack was done by me however."

Xena returned the grin because of the joke. "I take it the battle was a success?"

"Yes." Commander Lyda held out her right hand to her scroll on her desk. "Finishing up the report as a matter of fact." Then her grin went very distant, her more serious manner back. "I take it the queen has offered you to stay or leave the Nation…?"

"Yes she has," agreed Xena.

"Well if you wish to stay in the Nation, I am always in need of another warrior."

Xena contained her knowing grin. "I shall consider it, commander."

The stratègos merely dipped her head. She changed her focus to Thaddea. "Be sure to show Xena around the army grounds."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Sorry to make this short." Commander Lyda offered another smile. "I need to finish up here."

"Of course. Thank you again." Xena turned as Thaddea did but this time Xena left last.

Thaddea suddenly grinned at the younger woman. "If I did the tour that the stratègos had in mind, we'd never make it out of the army grounds until next season."

Xena quietly laughed but said nothing. Instead she followed behind Thaddea as the long day tour continued. The tour didn't come to a final stop until they were at the temple of the Nation centered in the village. Thaddea spoke about how Artemis was the focus of the Amazon religion and any other god was disregarded. She then went into the ancient tale about how the shaman joined the village and the priestess and shaman merged into today's new shaman. But what Thaddea had to say after this was what caught Xena's attention more than anything else.

"This shaman… Alti seems to be almost separate from the rest of the Nation."

Xena tore away from the temple and stared at the Amazon.

Thaddea stopped staring at the temple and now looked at the outsider. "It's hard to explain but all of our past priestess and shamans were tied into the village. They were an… extension of the Nation almost. Alti though…." She shook her head and her expression darkened. "Alti is something else… something that no Amazon is comfortable with."

The villager slowly lifted her right eyebrow. "Something evil?"

"Maybe so," whispered Thaddea. "Queen Cyane tries to keep peace with Alti because she knows the Nation must have some figure for the religion. I think though if she had a chance to rid of Alti she would take it."

"That would cause quite a stir," murmured Xena.

The Amazon grunted. "It would but I don't think the Nation would mind so much as long as there's a replacement."

Suddenly Yakut's name sprung to life in Xena's mind.

"The queen and many of the Amazons believe that Alti has strayed too far into the ways of a shaman."

Xena now folded her arms over her chest as she considered what Thaddea was saying. "She's been disregarding Artemis."

"Sadly, yes." Thaddea shook her head, seeming to shake off the thoughts in her mind. "Well I think I've shown you everything. Is there anything else you need to know?"

Xena had a thin smile. "No, I think you covered it pretty well, Thaddea. Thank you."

"It was a pleasure." The Amazon twisted around and gauged the sun. "I'd say it'll be about another candlemark or so before dinner." She focused back on Xena. "Might I suggest taking some time to take advantage of the bathing hut."

The villager's wide grin spread across her face at the suggestion. "That is a suggestion."

Thaddea chuckled and gently touched the woman's arm. "Enjoy. I will see you later then."

"Bye, Thaddea." Xena briefly watched the Amazon walk off then she herself headed for her hut.

Xena took a few moments to relax in her hut. Then she decided she liked Thaddea's suggestion about the bathing hut. So gathered herself and left the hut for the bathing hut. Xena didn't spend much time at the bathing hut but just enough to clean herself and get dried off. Once she was back in her attire, she estimated it would be close to dinner time. She'd started her short trip to the food hut where she found many other Amazons gathering. She didn't recognize any of them but then she heard her name being called by a familiar voice.

Yakut had a warm smile as she cut into the food line next to her friend. "How'd your day go?"

Xena unknowingly had a smile at seeing her friend. "It went well. I have a good lay of the Nation."

"I'm sure you do." The apprentice shaman had a teasing grin. "Thaddea can do a thorough job."

"That she does," agreed the villager. "How'd everything go for you?"

Yakut sighed, her shoulders slightly slumped now. "It was grueling but not as bad as it could have been. I had to recite my report three times over."

Xena lifted an eyebrow.

"One to the queen, one to the stratègos, and one to the council."

Xena's face slightly wrinkled at the prospect at having to answer to three different people. She certainly enjoyed only answering to herself in her army.

"Tomorrow," continued Yakut, "I return to my lessons with Alti." She took several steps ahead with Xena as the line shifted forward.

"When do you become shaman?" pried Xena.

Yakut slightly shook her head but she didn't answer until she unbuttoned her light weight hide jacket. "It's hard to say. I will be done training long before it'll be time for Alti to retire."

"Then why the rush to get you trained?"

The apprentice shaman shook her head. "I'm not sure, honestly. The queen instructed Alti to begin training for a new shaman so here I am."

"How were you even selected?"

The Amazon took a deep breath as she went into her explanation. "Whoever wishes to become a shaman, when the opening occurs, may try. I was one of eight that applied for the position. Every Amazon is tested harshly to see if they can be a true shaman. When it is finally narrowed down to one then that Amazon becomes an apprentice."

"What can the testing entail?"

"From very simple things such as stating who the Amazons worship to extremely hard things like memorizing every Amazon's name and face."

Xena suddenly grinned at the mental image of a younger Yakut going through every Amazon to know their name.

"One thing is for sure though; the shaman has to be as good of a public speaker as the queen does."

Xena's grin grew deeper at Yakut's joke. "A little politics," she taunted.

The apprentice shaman sighed yet she smirked up at her friend. "Politics and faith."

The pair finally made it to the head of the line and they received their meal for the night. They then found a seat beside Thaddea, whom been ahead of them. The small group quietly ate until near the end when Thaddea broke the silence first.

"You two are coming to the celebration tonight, right?"

Xena paused in finishing her meal.

Yakut let out a quiet but audible groan. "I forgot about that."

"Come on," interjected Thaddea, "you two have to be there after saving your butts."

"There goes my early bed time," grumbled the apprentice shaman.

Thaddea glared across the table at Yakut. "You can go to bed early tomorrow night, Yakut."

Yakut said nothing and merely filled her mouth with fish not to say anything.

Thaddea quickly looked at next prey. "You're bringing her with you, Xena."

The outsider inwardly sighed yet she turned her head to Yakut next to her.

Yakut had been slowly chewing on her food so her mouth was still too full. She just looked away from her friend.

Xena chuckled then smiled at Thaddea. "I will. Promise."

Suddenly there was a loud groan from Yakut.

Then Xena almost jumped from her seat on the bench when Yakut banged their knees together. However true to Xena's word, Yakut and Xena were following Thaddea to the celebration in the army grounds. When they arrived, there was a gigantic bond fire in the center of the celebration area. There were many Amazons dancing around the fire and doing some ritual dance that Xena wasn't familiar with at all. The rest of the Amazons were mingling around or watching the dance but everybody generally seemed to be bunched up into social groups. That was particularly evident when Xena spotted the stratègos standing beside the polemarchos and queen.

"Lets find something to drink then sit down," suggested Thaddea. She led them to a large table where they were serving mugs of wine. Everybody picked up a mug then they were finally able to find an open log just outside the ritual dance circle.

Xena was squished between both Amazons, her space slightly invaded yet she tried to ignore it. She took a long drink of the wine and was actually stunned to realize how sweet it was.

"Good huh?" teased Thaddea.

Xena partially grinned then nodded. She then looked to Yakut. "What is the dance they're doing?"

"It's a dance to Artemis to thank her for a successful battle. It's called the victoria dance." Yakut lifted her mug and took a quick drink then when the mug was back in her lap, she quietly added, "It's a beautiful dance really."

The villager returned her attention to the dancers and watched them go around the fire. She admired every Amazon's movement and flow with the dance; she had to agree with Yakut. She was about to ask another question but then a flickering shadow seemed to fall over them.

Yakut peered up and it seemed as if a mask suddenly fell over her features. "Shaman." She quickly stood up and bowed to her teacher.


Yakut straightened back up and noticed that her teacher had on her entire shaman attire. The large antlers seemed to make Alti even taller than she normal was on her own. "Are you speaking tonight?"

"I am but I have a request."

The apprentice shaman nodded even though she already knew what Alti would ask of her.

"I would like you to do the opening, Yakut. You need the practice."

"Of course, shaman." Yakut bent down and lowered her mug to next to Xena. "When is it?"

Alti glanced over at the dancing Amazons then back at her student. "After this dance. The queen and the stratègos are on the other side… they're waiting for you."

Yakut swallowed. "I'll go over now."

"Good. Thank you, Yakut." Alti's head slowly rotated as she watched her apprentice hurry across the celebration grounds. When she was sure that Yakut was out of earshot, she glimpsed down at the outsider. "Is there room?"

"Of course."

Thaddea quickly understood what Alti wished and she made no hesitation to tap Xena's leg in farewell then she got up to leave.

Alti became comfortable in her spot next to Xena. She felt some excitement flow over her just from the mere presence of Xena near her. "Has Yakut told you what a shaman is?"

"More or less," answered Xena. She wasn't looking at Alti and instead she stared across at the fire and dancers.

"A shaman can have very great powers or very weak ones." Alti bent forward, her elbows resting on her knees. "I am the first shaman in this Nation to have great powers."

Xena turned her head and lifted an eyebrow.

Alti offered a dark grin. "Why do you think this Nation fears me?"

Xena bit her inner lip from saying some smart remark about how big Alti's antler hat was related to everybody's fears. Instead she remained quiet and listening.

The shaman turned her head away. She too was quiet for awhile and when Xena turned her head away then did she quietly whispered, "I know who you really are, Xena… Warrior Princess." When Xena's head quickly shot around, Alti smiled ruthlessly then suddenly stood up and walked off.

Xena's body was tense but her eyes were locked on the dark shaman. As Alti started around the fire, she gazed back at Xena with a knowing, dark grin. Xena's natural reaction was her eyes narrowing and all of her defenses heightened. She wasn't fearful that the shaman had found her out but instead she was highly curious as to what Alti would want from her. She knew for a fact that Alti would want something otherwise Alti would have already exposed her to the queen. She decided this would prove very interesting and maybe useful.

Suddenly Yakut's normally gentle voice boomed through the celebration and quieted all of the Amazons. Yakut stood proud on a small dais that rose above the fire pit. She waited for every Amazon to bow to her briefly then she began her opening speech.

Xena was fairly impressed at Yakut's ability to speech in public. She knew it wasn't any easy task to speak among so many and on short notice. After Yakut was finished, she noticed that Thaddea took her seat back at Xena's side.

"She's amazing, isn't she?"

"Yakut?" Xena dimly smiled. "She is."

Thaddea was going to ask about Alti but didn't when Alti herself appeared on the dais. Instead she paid attention to Alti's flowing words about the battle against Borias and the army's continued success. When the entire presentation was finished, Thaddea leaned closer to Xena and quietly asked, "What did Alti have to say?"

"Nothing much beyond the fact she was hoping I would stay in the Nation," lied Xena.

"And have you thought about it?"

Xena nodded. "I have thought about it… but I haven't decided."

Thaddea slowly nodded. "It's a tough choice." Her lips were sealed together in thought. "Do you have family left in Amphipolis?"

The villager's head dropped slightly but when she looked up again, she replied, "No."

Thaddea's heart dropped for the young woman. "That is some times the final factor in an outsider's choice to become an Amazon." Her head tilted a little. "They realize they can have a family here… a new one or better one."

A faint sigh escaped Xena. "I kind of thought so."

Thaddea patted Xena's closest knee. "Just some thoughts."

"Thank you," whispered Xena. Her attention though was drawn to Yakut when Yakut arrived back.

"Nice job, Yakut," complimented Thaddea.

Yakut groaned as she flopped back in her spot on Xena's right side. "Thanks. I was a little nervous."

The villager gave a warm smile to Yakut and whispered, "I couldn't even tell."

The apprentice shaman started to blush and Xena barely picked it out because of the fire's red glow. "Thank you," she shyly responded.

Yakut's reaction only made Xena smile and as Xena thought about Yakut's reaction more, it seemed to warm her. There was something in Yakut's mannerism that reminded her so much of Gabrielle, maybe too much. It made her want to get closer to Yakut as much as want to destroy Yakut and Xena didn't like those feelings at all.

The small group of friends remained on the log for another half of a candlemark. They occasionally spoke but for the most part Xena and Yakut were fairly tired and warned down. Yakut was especially tired because of her thoughts about continuing classes with Alti tomorrow. If it was one thing about Alti's classes, it was that they were mentally draining.

So after some more consideration about her long week ahead, Yakut rose up from her seat. "I think I may head off, you two."

Xena stretched her legs out then stood up. "I think I'll follow you."

Thaddea just shook her head and laughed. "And I'm the older one."

Yakut grunted at her friend. "Enjoy it, Thaddea."

Thaddea laughed at the apprentice shaman. "Goodnight, Yakut." She then smiled up at Xena. "Goodnight, my friend."

"Goodnight, Thaddea."

Xena and Yakut left Thaddea and their mugs by the log and they were slowly trekking back to the huts. They were both very silent yet there was some unknown tension between them. It was Yakut that revealed the unexplainable tension.

"What did you and Alti talk about?"

The villager shrugged. "She was asking if I was staying in the Nation long."

The apprentice shaman said nothing. She just processed the information and compared it to what she saw when she was watching the pair talk from a distance. And she knew for a fact what Xena was telling her wasn't adding up to what she saw. "She didn't say anything… that she shouldn't have?"

Xena didn't look at Yakut while she spoke. Her eyes affixed to the huts far ahead. "Not really. She was just asking if I'd stay and whether I wanted to be an Amazon." She paused and licked her lips. "She just knew that I'd lost my family. It kinda… surprised me."

"I see," whispered Yakut. She studied her feet moving over the gravel, her mind more focused then her vision. "Alti likes to… surprise people I've come to notice."

The villager let out a soft chuckle. "I gather so." She and Yakut then came to a sudden stop on the outskirts of the housing huts.

"Listen Xena, please be careful with Alti." Yakut had her right hand gently grasping her friend's left bicep. "I have not spoken this to anybody but I will tell you this...." Yakut stopped and searched Xena's distant eyes. "Alti is evil… very evil. The type of evil that there's no going back from."

Xena remained cool and relaxed her expression neutral. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because of what I know… because of what I see and even been taught." Yakut stepped closer to her friend, squeezed her arm, and whispered, "I know she is evil." Finally she released her hold but her concerned green eyes remained locked on Xena. "Be careful."

After a moment, Xena nodded her agreement then whispered, "I will be."

"Thank you." Yakut took a step back, away from Xena's space. "I must get some rest. Sleep well tonight, Xena."

"You too, Yakut." The villager watched her young shaman friend head off towards her hut. Xena shook her head then turned in the direction of her guest hut. When she arrived inside, she was taken aback by the tall presence waiting for her in the hut. She wasn't surprised thought who it was waiting. "Alti," she darkly greeted.

The shaman's wide grin suddenly appeared and she waved her left hand.

Suddenly all the candles in the hut lit up and revealed them both to each other.

"I thought we could talk," explained the shaman.

Xena smirked and walked around the shaman until she was close to the washroom door. "And I'm sure you have plenty to say." She then disappeared into the washroom.

"As much as you have to tell me, Xeeena."

The villager dried her face off after washing it then she placed the towel back beside the washbasin. She came out of the washroom and held out her hand to the two chairs by the small table next to the fireplace. "Perhaps we should sit."

"I think so." The shaman took a chair beside the younger woman.

Xena tilted her head and asked, "How did you know?"

"I am a shaman," reminded Alti. "I traced your spirit's trail so far in this lifetime." Her eyes were suddenly growing from a dark brown into a black. "I see you have recently returned from Chin." Suddenly her grin lit her face. "From an unsuccessful campaign."

"No campaign is completely unsuccessful." This caused Alti to laugh and Xena's annoyance slightly peeked.

"Your campaigns could do with help… especially minus your partner, Borias."

The warlord's hungry darkness completely resurfaced at this point. "I need him, for now." Her amused expression appeared. "Besides, I rather keep my enemies close to me so I can watch them better."

"Then kill them easier," whispered Alti. She then suddenly stood up and glided across the room, she went to the window. "And now you plan to take this Amazon Nation by becoming it?"

"Something along those lines."

The dark shaman spun around and leaned against the windowsill. "You won't succeed, Xena."

"And how do you see that, shaman?" Xena was casually leaned back in her chair, legs crossed, and a smirk on her face.

"Cyane is too powerful for you." The shaman slowly approached Xena again. "You cannot defeat her… alone."

"Then what do you suggest?"

Alti stood tall over the warlord, staring down at her. "That you'll need my help."

Xena's right eyebrow instantly arched. "I am curious… what do you have against Cyane?"

"Nothing," simply stated the shaman. "She's simply a wrinkle in my plans."

The Warrior Princess considered the shaman's words and the perspectives she'd been told from her friends. Her eyes were glazed over in thoughts and ideas. "And what do you offer me, Alti?"

"Everything," whispered Alti. She stepped forward then crouched down to Xena's level. "You want to know what these Amazons are. I know who your friend Lao Ma is; her powers come from denial, from self-sacrifice, from the Light. That's not for people like you and me. I want to tap into the heart of darkness, the shear naked will behind all cravings, hatred, and violence. I will become the face of death, destroying not only a person's body but their soul." Alti suddenly grabbed Xena's hands from her lap and clutched them tightly. "Help me, and I'll make you the Destroyer of Nations."

A powerful charge surged through Xena's hands, up her arms, and exploded within her body. The energy was so strong and her dark hunger ravaged it. She suddenly felt the addiction to want that same energy over and over again and it was the taste of power through fear. "I think we can work that out," whispered the power hungry warlord.

Xena and Alti continued to speak for awhile longer. Then Alti started for the hut's door and with the utmost satisfied thoughts in her mind for the future.

Yakut was halfway across the housing hut. Her fast march was taking her directly for Xena's hut because something in the pit of her stomach told her things were off balance now. She had Xena's hut in her view but she came to a dead stop when the door swung open. Her stomach dropped and that sensation made her quickly duck behind another hut, her head poking around the corner.

The apprentice shaman's heart beat wildly when Alti's tall form drifted out of Xena's hut. Her stomach pitched at all the racing thoughts in her mind. She watched as Alti started away from Xena's hut then for some reason Alti stopped in her tracks.

Yakut hunched down deeper but Alti's head turned in her direction. Yakut quickly knew what was happening and her right hand slid in between her leather coat. Her hand covered her racing heart and she quickly whispered a few words of incantation. Her heartbeat suddenly stopped dead.

Alti didn't move for several of her heartbeats then she quickly spun off in her previous direction. Her walk was brisk.

Yakut quickly whispered the incantation in reverse with the last of her breath. Suddenly her heart pounded loudly in her chest and it would take awhile for it to slow down. She stood up slowly, her left hand rested on the corner of the hut she'd been against. She now stared across the distance to Xena's hut and she wondered whether she should approach Xena about what Alti wanted. After considering it, Yakut shook her head and slowly walked back to her hut. Her mind though was racing faster than her earlier pulse; she was fearful of what rested ahead.

The leaves on all the trees had long turned and were almost finished falling to the ground. It'd been half of a moon's cycle since Xena of Amphipolis had arrived in the Amazon Nation. Yesterday had been one of the biggest ceremonies for the Amazon Nation as they welcomed a new Amazon to their Nation.

Xena had been standing between the shaman and Queen Cyane, her head slightly dipped down.

Queen Cyane was looking over her Nation of followers and her voice broadcasted profoundly. "By the sun's rise, we will have welcomed a new Amazon to our Nation, Xena." She then faced Xena. "Xena, you have been given a place among the Amazon Nation. Before Artemis, do you promise to protect and aide the Amazon Nation?"

Xena bowed her head deeper but proudly announced, "I swear before Artemis that I will serve my Nation will all of my strength."

Cyane felt a thin smile touch her lips and she signaled Alti.

The shaman turned to her right and carefully picked up the bronze colored feather that rested in Yakut's cupped hands. She then turned towards the Nation and she held up the bronze feather towards the skies. "Artemis, Xena has come to us and joins your Nation of honored female worries. Bless her spirit and let her become one with you." She then lowered the feather and brought it just above Xena's bent head.

The queen then reached up and clasped the feather as well. "Artemis, Xena has taken the caste of Amazon. She has promised to serve your Nation with all of her strength and honor that you so desire. Please guide her always even through the darkest moments." Cyane then faintly nodded to Alti. She released the feather then gathered a lock of hair on the left side of Xena's head.

Alti had already brought the feather down beside the lock of hair. She'd extracted a thin strip of leather from her jacket pocket. She first threaded the leather cord through the stem of the feather then neatly tied the feather to the lock of hair.

Xena felt them release her hair and suddenly there was a new weight. She straightened up to her full height.

The shaman faced the Amazons. Queen Cyane faced her Amazons. Then together, they called out, "Welcome Xena to our Nation!"

There was a sudden loud up roar as every Amazon welcomed their new fellow Amazon.

Cyane grasped Xena's right shoulder and whispered, "Join your Nation, Xena."

Xena smiled, nodded, and then quietly turned around to leave the dais. As she passed by Yakut, she winked to the apprentice shaman.

Yakut offered a proud smile as her friend went by.

Last night's event of Amazon caste had worn Xena out and she'd woken up tired this morning. She'd just come out of the washroom and was going over to her bed. On the foot of her bed, she'd laid out her new leathers that the Nation had provided with her upon taking her Amazon caste. She had to admit she actually liked the attire and was surprised she had any choice at all. She'd also been given a few night shifts, twenty dinars, and moved to a permanent hut that was now hers.

Xena stared at her attire and tried to imagine being a warlord wearing this outfit, she was slightly amused. Her Amazon attire consisted of a dark brown skirt that many of the Amazons wore. Then at the top of the skirt was a thick leather belt with various bronze designs attached to it. Her top was separate and would leave her stomach exposed but the top was a glossy, smooth leather with a wave design that started at the sides and waved out to the front. Finally she had sturdy boots, two pairs of matching design gauntlets, and one arm band. Luckily, she was also given a warm leather coat that was so long it stopped just at her ankles but it was sufficiently warm with wool lining.

Xena finally shifted out of her thoughts about the Amazon Nation and started getting ready for her day. She was due at the weapons master's hut a candlemark after sunrise. After hastily putting her leathers on, she then grabbed her coat that was hanging off the back of her desk chair. She went first to the Mess Hut to have a fast breakfast and she noticed while she was eating that many Amazons were studying her as they passed her. She knew they were all memorizing her body since it was more clearly exposed and complimented by her outfit unlike the earlier peasant clothes.

"My, don't we look good in that?" teased a familiar voice.

Xena arched an eyebrow at her friend. "Thaddea."

Thaddea softly laughed and sat down beside the young woman. "I see you're getting plenty of looks too."

"Mmmm," mildly agreed the Amazon.

Thaddea patted Xena's closest leg. "It'll stop… sometime."

"Not if they're smart," cut in a deep voice.

Both Xena and Thaddea turned their heads to the newcomer.

Thaddea instantly smiled warmly. "Good morning, Syrinx."

Syrinx smiled back and took a seat from across the pair. "How are you two?"

"I'm good," answered Thaddea.

Xena nodded her head.

Syrinx smirked at the new Amazon. "Still waking up?"

Xena grunted and finally a grin appeared. "Still recovering too."

Syrinx laughed. "I can imagine."

Xena had met Syrinx many days ago and had come to really like Syrinx for her sarcastic humor. Syrinx was also a little bold, having introduced herself to Xena without needing anybody else to do so.

"So are you ready for your big day?" inquired Syrinx. "It won't be like growing crops."

"Hmmmm." Xena slightly grinned at her new friend. "How different can it be to swing a sword from swinging a reaper?"

Thaddea and Syrinx looked at each other and stared.

"I think you will find out, Xena," teased Thaddea.

The new Amazon shrugged. "I'm sure."

"Have you met the weapons master?" inquired Syrinx.

"No actually. Thaddea and I tried to catch her but… we didn't."

Syrinx chuckled but before she spoke, she finished eating her eggs. "You'll love the weapons master."

Xena had finished her meal and was about to get up but she hesitated. "Who is the weapons master?"

Thaddea studied her friend then answered, "An old horse by the name of Yalenda." She then suddenly smirked. "If you're lucky, she'll let me train you some."

The new Amazon huffed and finally got up from her spot. "I guess we will see."

"Good luck, Xena," offered Syrinx.

"I'm sure I'll see you there." Thaddea smiled then watched Xena head off.

Syrinx was shaking her head. "She's going to get whipped today. I can tell."

Thaddea quietly laughed then grinned. "And I think it's only because Yalenda and Xena's personalities won't mix."

Syrinx nodded. "Exactly."

Xena quickly trekked down to the weapons master's office and found herself knocking on the door. When she was called in, she found herself standing before a much older woman.

Yalenda did not greet Xena at all, instead she continued with her scrollwork.

Xena remained silent because she knew the weapons master knew of her presence. She figured it already had to be her first test or evaluation from the weapons master.

Yalenda finally finished her scrollwork because she'd set it aside. She lifted her head and stared at the new Amazon. "You're Xena."

Xena only nodded her head.

The weapons master rose up from her chair and as she did so, she made a clear visual inspection of Xena's body. "You must have worked hard on your farm back in Amphipolis."

Xena only arched an eyebrow at the other Amazon. She decided silence in this case would be best until Yalenda actually asked something instead of stating things.

Yalenda came around the oak desk and quietly studied her new student. Her head bobbed a little then she said, "Have you ever used any weapons?"

Xena's eyebrow by this time had lowered but her grin however was in place. "I know a little bit about the sword."

"Interesting." Yalenda started to walk behind Xena but continued to speak. "Where did you learn anything?"

"I had two brothers," answered Xena.

Yalenda chuckled when she came to Xena's other side. "I see." She stopped and her hands went behind her back. "Familiar with a staff?"

"Not particularly," answered the Amazon.

"Then we will start there."

Xena chest slightly puffed up but she held her silence. She wasn't exactly interested in learning the staff but she wasn't in any position to decline.

"Lets begin then." Yalenda turned, opened the door to her office hut, and walked out.

Xena quietly left and followed her new teacher.

Yalenda marched across the grounds until she came to another hut. She went in with Xena on her heels.

When Xena entered it, she quickly realized it was an armory and well stocked one too. Her head was twisting every which way as she did a rough inventory of all the weapons these Amazons had on hand. She was amazed to see pretty much every typical weapon known in these regions right here in this armory. She noted there were predominantly swords, staffs, daggers, and bows and arrows. There were also a decent collection of axes, chobos, broad swords, sais, short swords, maces, and whips.

Yalenda immediately went to the assortment of staffs and ran her hand down several of them until she came to a stop on one particular one. "This one," she murmured and pulled it out of the rack. She gave it a quick spin then she rammed it into the sandy floor in front of Xena. She measured its height against Xena's height and decided it was perfect. She nodded. "This way."

The weapons master and new Amazon trekked across the grounds again and went to an empty sparring field. The one just adjacent from theirs was loaded with young teen Amazons in training with staffs.

Xena had briefly watched them in amusement until her teacher caught her attention again.

"Let's see just how fluent you are," stated the weapons master.

Xena inwardly sighed at the weapons master because she knew she was more fluent than ten Amazons put together. She knew these next few moons would be long as she pretended to be an inadequate fighter.

Xena took a heavy breath after just taking a quick moment to tie her hair back. She stepped back twice, next to her teacher, and she stared for a moment at her straw stuff opponent.

Yalenda had her arms crossed over her chest. "I want all of the straw out of that dummy by sunset." She glanced over to her left and stared at the low sun in the horizon. "I'd say you have about half of a candlemark before it gets dark." She grinned. "Don't waste it."

The new Amazon gritted her teeth then suddenly struck out at the dummy with her spinning staff.

Yalenda however moved away from her student and went to the edge of the sparring field. She'd been working with Xena all day after deciding that Xena didn't need much defense training but more offensive training. She'd merely skimmed over defense and jumped right the offensive attacks. It was now almost the end of the day and she figured this last beating up of the dummy would prove interesting. She stood motionless and carefully watched Xena continually beat at the dummy. Yet it wasn't long before she sensed the presence of somebody coming up to her side.

"How is she making out?"

Yalenda turned her head to the queen. "Well."

"You think she'll make a decent warrior?"

The weapons master nodded.

Cyane mimicked Yalenda's composure and studied Xena's various offensive techniques on the dummy. "When did she start this?"

"Only a few moments ago." Yalenda was quiet but she was considering Xena's training today. "She has a good defensive background… almost too good."

"What you mean?" Cyane looked at the weapons master.

"For a villager… she knows a lot."

The queen's head tilted to one side slightly. She didn't have anything to say at first because of somebody else's earlier observations she'd heard. This morning Lena, the master healer, had shown up at her office requesting to have Xena spend some time at the healer's hut. Lena went on repeat the same story that her senior grade healer, Canisa, had told her about Xena and Yakut's injury.

Cyane now found these two observations incredibly curious. She wondered if Xena had previous knowledge and experience about healing and fighting that she was failing to mention, or if it just so happened to be a knack. After some consideration, she studied the weapons master again. "Lena has requested that Xena spend some time in the healer's hut."

Yalenda quickly looked at the queen. "And that is because…?"

"Xena may have a hidden talent with healing."

Yalenda's eyes slightly narrowed and she gazed across at Xena. "Perhaps she's more than just a villager as she tells us."

"Perhaps," quietly agreed the queen.

Then both of the Amazon's attention was caught when Xena managed the dissect the dummy into six pieces. First the arms and legs were thrown apart in different directions on the ground, the body was at Xena's feet, and the head was all that was attached the wood post.

Yalenda said nothing, didn't look at the queen, and only marched off to her student.

"Perhaps," murmured the now worried queen. She turned on her heels and headed back into the main portion of the village. Her stomach felt unsettling while she'd been thinking about Xena and her advanced skills for a villager. She was walking so fast that she didn't even greet any of the Amazons that she passed. She didn't slow down until she appeared at the temple. She quickly entered it and the dark temple glowed with firelight.

Cyane realized she hadn't been in the temple in half of a moon because she'd been so busy. She certainly hadn't been in the temple in several moons at evening and she hadn't realized how dark it was inside without the sunlight. She shook it off and hurried down the aisle way to the tall figure that awaited her.

Alti bowed her head. "My queen."

"Shaman." The queen's eyes then flickered to the right when the shaman apprentice came out of the side door with her coat in arm.

"My queen," happily greeted Yakut.

"Yakut." Cyane's smile finally appeared.

"Is there anything I can assist you with, Queen Cyane?" asked the shaman.

Cyane's gaze returned to Alti. "I was actually looking for Yakut."

Yakut was surprised but she refrained from outwardly showing it.

"Are you free, Yakut?"

"I believe so." Yakut turned to her teacher.

Alti slowly nodded then said, "We are done for the day."

Cyane saw Yakut was about to question her so she cut off the apprentice shaman first. "I need you to accompany me to my office."

"Of course, my queen."

The Amazon Queen looked at the shaman and offered a smile. "I will see you this evening in the dining hut."

Alti didn't return with a response and only dipped her head.

Cyane turned and departed down the aisle.

Yakut whispered a good evening to her teacher then followed after the queen. When she got out of the temple, she approached the waiting queen. "What is this about?" she softly asked.

"We will discuss it when we get to my office," strictly answered the queen.

The apprentice shaman could only imagine what the queen was so concerned about and she knew it was something. She could tell by the energy vibrating off the queen and see it by how tense she was too. But Yakut was silent and she threw on her soft hide coat as she felt the chill in the cooling air this evening.

When they came to the administration hut, they went in the main entrance and went down to Cyane's office. Yakut was in first and Cyane came in last. After the queen closed the door, she strolled over to her desk, turned around, and leaned against it. Her attention was directly on Yakut. "What do you know about Xena?"

Yakut opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. Yet nothing came forth and she felt stuck, even caught.

"Yakut, if you know something that I don't then you need to tell me." Cyane had her hands on the edge of her desk and slightly leaning against them in support. "I have some concerns."

Yakut licked her lips then carefully questioned, "May I ask what those are?"

The queen mulled over the request but she knew that Yakut was extremely trustworthy. "I am sure you recall your wound that you suffered on your shoulder?"

"Yes," answered the confused Amazon.

"Well Lena reported to me the story about how Xena knew to use salt in your wound."

Yakut's expression was growing tighter and tighter with confusion as the queen spoke.

"I was just at the sparring field, asking Yalenda about Xena's progress. She told me she was surprised to find out that Xena had a strong defensive background."

"She seems quite… skilled," softly spoke Yakut.

"Maybe too skilled," offered the queen. She now straightened up some, her arms folded over her chest. "It only took her a quarter of a candlemark to tear apart the sparring dummy."

Yakut had a surprised expression in response. "That takes most Amazons half of a moon to do."

"I know." Cyane tilted her head to one side. "Is there something I'm missing, Yakut?"

The apprentice shaman's head was down and shaking. "I'm not ever sure myself, my queen."

Cyane sighed and stood up from her desk's edge. She crossed the distance over to the young Amazon and touched her shoulders. "Listen Yakut, I'm here to protect this Nation… your Nation, my Nation." She paused and tilted her head. "Apart of being shaman is that you must do the same and in the process you could lose friends."

Yakut sighed and lifted her head. She studied the queen's soft eyes and the gentle squeeze on her shoulders finally helped her make a decision. "I think I saw something."

Cyane nodded, removed her hands from the apprentice shaman's shoulders, and remained silent.

"Awhile ago, before Xena became an Amazon, you recall the night we celebrated the battle against Borias?"

"Yes, go on."

Yakut sighed and slipped her hands into her coat's pockets. "When I gave the opening speech to the Nation during the celebration, I noticed Alti was talking to Xena. So later that night, after the celebration, I asked Xena what Alti was talking to her about and she basically told me that Alti was curious about whether she was staying in the Nation or not."

"Did you believe that?"

Yakut slightly shrugged. "At first, I sort of did but what changed my mind was what happened later that night."

"Which was?" prompted the Amazon Queen.

"Well about half of a candlemark when I returned to my hut, I suddenly had a bad feeling about something… particularly with Xena. I quickly left my hut and headed to hers; just before I arrived there I spotted Alti leaving her hut."

Cyane suddenly had a dark look. "Did Alti see you?"

"She almost… detected me, yes."

"Do you know what they talked about?"

"I have no idea," confessed Yakut. "I never asked Alti or Xena."

"Hmmmm." The queen's head dipped and she strolled back to her desk again. "Have you noticed anything since?"

"Not really, my queen." The apprentice shaman shifted her weight back and forth between her feet after feeling her legs lightly ache at her. "They may have spoken since then but I haven't seen or heard them do so."

"Do you speak to Xena about Alti?"

"Not since the night of celebration."

Cyane's lips pressed neatly together.

Yakut's hands slipped out of her pockets and she took a partial step forward. "My queen, if I may ask, did Alti ever do a vision on Xena?"

The queen's focus returned to the young Amazon. "Yes, when you two were in Borias's camp."

"Did Alti tell you anything unusually?"

"Not particularly." Cyane went through here memories. "However she did press to have me offer Xena a place as an Amazon."

Yakut folded her arms over her chest as she considered that new information. "I wonder why," she murmured.

"Are you thinking she wanted Xena to join the Nation for a reason?"

"Most likely, yes," agreed the young apprentice shaman. "If it is one thing I've come to see about Alti, it's that she does everything to her own benefit."

Cyane tilted her head to one side. She said nothing as she realized Yakut was still thinking about something. Yet as Cyane reconsidered what little Alti did tell her about Xena from the vision it made her stomach drop. "Yakut?"

The apprentice shaman broke from her deep thoughts and returned her attention to the queen.

"Have you ever done a vision?"

Yakut held her breath for a moment. "No, my queen." She shook her head as her hands fell to her side. "I've… crossed over to the spirit world with Alti's help but never on my own. And she hasn't taught me how to trace a soul but she's told me about it." She paused and studied the queen's grinning features. "Wait… my queen, I can't-"

"You can." The Amazon Queen straightened up tall to her imposing height and neared the young Amazon. When she stood before the small Amazon, she grabbed her arms in a tightening hold. "And you will, Yakut."

"But… I haven't been shown how to… I can't, my queen. It's impossible-"

"To say no," finished the queen. "You will have help though."

Yakut's head tilted to one side in utter confusion then she realized. "Ino?" she whispered.

"Yes, Ino will help you. She's not so old that she can't remember."

"No… she isn't," softly agreed the apprentice shaman. "Ino is sharper than a sword."

"She is." Cyane gave a good squeeze to Yakut's shoulder. "I need you to help me, Yakut. As you know I trust Alti as far as I can throw her."

Yakut softly grunted at the queen's joke.

"I can trust you and I do. I will speak to Ino about helping you and teaching you how to crossover alone."

Yakut took a deep breath in hopes to bring up her courage and confidence. "Yes, my queen." She gazed directly into the Queen Cyane's rich green eyes. "I will do it."

"Good. I want to know everything about Xena… starting from birth."

"Yes, my queen." Yakut dipped her head, lifted it, and turned to head for the door.

Cyane had a faint smile behind her lips at the apprentice's dedication. "Thank you, Yakut."

Yakut's hand was on the wood handle but she turned back to her queen. "And thank you, my queen… for trusting me." And with that, Yakut silently left the queen's office.

The Amazon Queen felt a sense of security wash over her now that she knew she'd finally find out who Xena was and what secrets she may carry with her. There was something about this woman that plagued Cyane and even just the name haunted her worries.

Xena's eyes slightly narrowed when she saw the tall, dark figure just ahead between two trees. Her hands instinctively fisted up but she walked ahead down the trail that weaved through the thick forest. She quietly approached the dark figure and stood to the left of them. "Why out here?" She turned her head to the right.

"The queen is beginning to suspect," whispered Alti's deep voice.

Xena slightly smirked and turned her head away. "Let them talk."

"Only so much," agreed the shaman. "Have you contacted Borias?"

"No." The Amazon folded her arms across her chest but she didn't bother to look at the shaman. Instead she continued to study the surrounding woods in the early evening. "But I need to leave here to check them."

"I believe it would be best." Alti slightly smirked. "It seems your partner may move on if you do not show."

"Hmmmmm. There's nothing new," half joked the warlord. "He'd only be moving onto Hades after leaving."

Alti had an amused grin at the woman's threat. "Have you thought out the fact that keeping this Nation may serve more purpose than destroying it?"

The warlord's right eyebrow arched up. "I cannot imagine how."

"Artemis would make a very powerful enemy should you follow through."

"The goddess?" Xena felt a low laugh filter up her throat. "Since when did she become involved with her Amazons?"

"There is always a first and you may encourage that, Xeeena."

Xena smirked at the shaman now. "Do not tell me the shaman is scared of the gods?"

Alti's expression went darker and she stepped up to the Amazon. "I do not fear them and I am not stupid. I just find the best time and ways to strike."

Xena's amused expression spread across and she crossed her arms over her chest. "What do you suggest then?"

"Have you ever thought of being Queen Xena?"

The warlord's eyebrow again rose up and her wide grin grew.

The winter season blew into the village over several days and a moon's cycle. The Amazon grounds were frozen solid and the Amazon farmers went back to their seeds and flocks of animals. The Thrace Nation had been relatively quiet through the winter just as it always was each cycle. Yet it was only seven days before the big Winter Solstice festival and the Nation was busy preparing for it. The festival was so well known in the Thrace state that many surrounding villages would come to the Nation for the festival. The Solstice festival had become an excellent source of income for the Nation during the quiet winter season.

It'd also been two moon cycles since Xena had joined the Nation. Her progression through the Amazon training had been relatively impressive, as Yalenda described to the queen. The queen had been informed that Xena would be ready to take on the Amazon Judgment in the mid-spring since Xena would be receiving her Amazon sword this winter.

With such information, Cyane grew more worried about Xena. She luckily hadn't heard any more reports that her and Alti were communicating. Her hope was simply that Xena had a natural gift for fighting but then she'd hoped the same for Xena's medical knowledge. The new Amazon was also a part-time apprentice healer under Lena's discretion. It seemed as if Xena knew many things and quite possibly many more that Cyane wasn't aware of just yet.

Her only hope rested completely on one young Amazon, Yakut. The young apprentice shaman was working with Ino on how to crossover to the spirit world. It was something that Yakut and Ino did alone at nights in hopes that Alti would not catch. The queen had every faith that Ino could teach Yakut what she needed to know to crossover. And as the queen gazed out of her small window off to the left of her desk, she realized it was dark out and that made her think about Yakut being at Ino's hut.

"You must learn to relax, Yakut," ordered the old Amazon.

The apprentice shaman sighed and nodded to her teacher. "I know… and I am trying."

"Stop trying." Ino was sitting in front of Yakut on the floor. "Just do it."

Yakut only sighed again because she was becoming frustrated with herself. For a moon's cycle, she'd been trying to learn how to relax her mind so she could crossover but it was so hard. She'd learned how to relax her body completely, which was truly only a third of the battle because it was much harder to control one's mind. "Isn't there another way to crossover? Or to see?"

Ino gave her own sigh now. She stared at the young Amazon and her old mind sped through all of her knowledge of shamanism. It had been more seasons than she cared to count since she'd practiced her shamanism when Alti took over her position in the temple. Finally Ino came across an old lesson that her teacher had once told her more than showed her. "There is one thing," whispered Ino.

Yakut opened her eyes and peered up at the retired shaman. "What's that?"

Ino's expression grew sad and she shook her head. "Its not possible though."

Yakut reflected Ino's expression. "Why?"

Ino shook her head once more then whispered, "You must be a two-spirit."

Yakut's head tilted to one side. "What is it?"

"A two-spirit has the ability to touch any subject and instantly trace their soul."

"Sweet Artemis," murmured the young Amazon. "You mean they can skip over all of… this?" Yakut held out her hands to the small rug between them where there was the black fungi burning between them.

"Yes," answered Ino. "There has only been one two-spirit I've ever known."

"Who?" quietly asked the curious Amazon.

Ino took a deep breath. "My teacher has been the only two-spirit I've ever known." She then went silent as she considered her young student's trouble with calming her mind.

Yakut could tell Ino was busy considering the problem. So instead, she closed her eyes and tried to continue concentrating.

Ino returned her focus to Yakut and slightly smiled at Yakut's determination. She breathed in heavily and slowly released her breath. She then gently whispered, "Think about your favorite place to go, Yakut. Somewhere beautiful and peaceful."

Yakut didn't open her eyes but she carefully listened to Ino. Her mind quickly raced through her memories until she came to an old but solid memory of a trip of hers to the coast in southern Thrace. A smile seemed to ease across her face.

Ino could tell that Yakut had the image in her mind. So she continued softly speaking. "Now recall how beautiful it was and how it smelled. Remember how you felt while you were there. What sounds could you hear?" She fell silent for a few breathes as she waited for Yakut to get the imagery. "Keep imaging yourself there again. Now, chant with me."

Yakut's chest rose up and she drew in the scent of the fungi. She began chanting with Ino in a quiet hum. Suddenly Yakut sensed she was leaving her body, almost like floating and then she traversed the axis mundi within half of a breath. When she entered the spirit world, she immediately sensed Ino's spirit beside her but just as she expected the guides of the spirit world to greet her, she was surprised. Instead of the two great serpents of the realm, there was a bright rich green lizard creature that had wings, which flew through her vision.

Yakut, not expecting such a display, suddenly lost her concentration and she was thrown out of the spirit world and across the axis mundi faster than a lightning strike. Her eyes flew open and her stomach suddenly pitched from the suddenly change of events. Yakut popped up onto her feet and made a run for Ino's washroom.

Ino had carefully returned to her body but when she opened her eyes, she quickly got up. She followed after Yakut into the washroom where she heard the distinct sound of throwing up.

The young apprentice was on her knees but was praying to the wood god instead of Artemis. Her head slightly hung over the chamber pot and her eyes closed.

Ino gingerly touched her student's mid-back. She sighed and wondered what happened; they were so close.

Yakut was dry heaving for a moment then she finally sensed her stomach calm down. She pushed herself up to her feet despite her legs shook under her weight. She then reached over to the pitch on the counter. With a large draw of water, Yakut rinsed out her mouth and spit it out in the chamber pot.

Ino watched as the apprentice put the pitch back then she finally asked, "Better?"

"I think so," whispered Yakut. She brushed back a few chaotic strands of dirty blond hair. She frowned at her teacher. "I'm sorry, Ino."

"It happens," assured the retired shaman. "Be glad you had a chamber pot."

The young Amazon gave a curious look.

Ino slightly grinned then made her confession. "That happened to me in the temple the first time I traversed but I didn't have time to make it to the chamber pot."

"Oh gods," murmured Yakut, a partial smile on her face.

Ino then went slightly serious. "What forced you out of the spirit world?"

Yakut sharply grunted and shook her head. "More like threw me out," she corrected. "It was strange…." Yakut shook her head and walked out of the small washroom, feeling too cramped.

Ino came out behind her and sat down in her original spot.

Yakut though went over to the nearby window and leaned on the windowsill. "I don't know what it was, Ino." She turned her head to her teacher.

The old shaman tilted her head to one side. "Describe it to me."

"It was some… creature." Yakut shook her head then stared out the window. "It reminded me of a lizard but… much larger… maybe even larger than the temple."

Ino stared at Yakut. Her eyebrows tightly knitted together and she waited for Yakut to continue.

"It had wings though… teeth that had to be as large as me." Yakut laughed at her own description.

Ino's eyebrows unfurrowed and instead her eyes lit up with astonishment. "Sweet Artemis."

Yakut quickly turned her head to the older Amazon.

"It can't be," whispered Ino. She shook her head and focused back on Yakut. "Come sit by me."

The young apprentice pushed herself off of the sill and approached her mentor. When she was comfortable sitting next to Ino, she heard the explanation she'd been wanting.

"What you saw was a dragon."

"A… dragon?" murmured Yakut. "What…?"

"I know." Ino reached over, resting her hand on the Amazon's nearest knee. "I am sure Alti has taught you that when you enter the spirit world that it is the two serpents that welcome you and guide you."

"Yes, and I didn't see them."

"I know… you saw the dragon instead."

"What does that mean?" whispered Yakut.

Ino didn't quickly answer but it seemed as if she was searching Yakut's eyes. She couldn't be sure yet whether it was true or not. She'd been told what the dragon meant but she was too concerned it was a fluke event for Yakut. Yet she could only hope it was anything but a fluke and that the dragon was Yakut's guide. "I'm not completely sure," replied Ino, "but it doesn't mean anything bad."

"Why didn't I see the serpents?"

"I'm not sure," answered the shaman.

Yakut stared at her shaman in slightly disbelief. She knew that Ino had to know what it meant and she was holding back from telling her. She couldn't understand why but she knew she couldn't question her mentor's intentions. She only hoped in time it would reveal itself to her.

"You may not see the dragon next time, Yakut." Ino squeezed the Amazon's knee then withdrew her hand. "The serpents may show next time."

"What if they don't? What if it's the dragon next time?"

"Then don't fear it… the dragon is your guide." Ino gave her student a warm smile. "I promise."

Yakut slowly nodded her head.

Ino took a steady breath to settle herself. "I think that's enough for tonight though."

"Thank you," quickly responded the worn out apprentice.

Ino softly laughed and her smile appeared. "Get some rest tonight, Yakut. We will work on this next time. We made a lot of headway though now that you can traverse on your own."

The apprentice shaman smiled happily then she stood up. "Thank you, Ino."

"You're welcome, Yakut. Rest well tonight."

"You too, Ino." Yakut offered one last smile then she made her way out of the hut.

Yet Ino quickly called, "Yakut?"

Yakut was part of the way out of the door but she stopped and turned back to her teacher.

"What color dragon was it?"

The Amazon tilted her head to one side but she answered, "Green."

Ino nodded then said, "Goodnight."

Yakut paused for a moment. "Goodnight too, Ino." She then silently left.

After the door closed, Ino stared at the fumes of the fungi wafting in the air in front of her. "What are you planning, Artemis? Why have you sent your green dragon to Yakut?" She shook her head, leaned forward some, and covered the bowl of burning fungi with the lid to snuff it out. "Time will tell, I suppose."

Yakut trekked across the quiet, dark village. Her hut was on the opposite side of the hut quarters from Ino's. Just as she made her away around the Bathing Hut, she almost ran directly into a taller Amazon. She stepped back and gazed up at the tall Amazon. "I'm sorry."

Xena offered a warm smile at her friend.

Yakut laughed at herself when she realized who she almost bumped into. "Hi."

The older Amazon's smile went into a grin. "Hi too."

"I haven't seen you in awhile."

Xena nodded. "We've both been really busy."

"I know." The apprentice shaman sighed deeply. "Alti has really been… running me hard."

Xena chuckled and slipped her hands into her wool, leather jacket's pockets. "I've noticed. You've been coming to the Dining Hut pretty late."

"Yeeeah." Yakut softly smiled. "How's training?"

"Really good," answered Xena. She then warmly smiled and nodded her head off to the right. "Let's go to my hut. Have some free time?"

Yakut considered and decided she hadn't visited with Xena in quite some time. She smiled and nodded.

Xena lead them to her hut and she entered first. After her friend came in, she closed the door and took her ankle-long jacket off. "Have a seat." She held out her hand to the several empty chairs by the round table.

"Thanks." Yakut strolled across the hut and took a comfortable position on the wood chair. "So training is going well?"

"Yeah, really well," confessed the new Amazon.

"Learning much?"

Xena was by a small yet tall dresser where she hung her coat on a hook inside of it. After she closed the door, she turned around and studied her friend from across the hut. "Yeah, I am." She then picked up one of the three lit candles on top of her dresser and went around the room to light the other candles that hung on the walls. "How are classes with Alti?"

"Very tiring and time consuming."

Xena's head was bobbing back and forth. "What are you learning?"

"Well right now I'm just finishing up the history of both shamanism and priesthood."

"Ah." Xena had all the candles lit and the hut was much brighter compared to earlier. She returned the candle back to its home and went to join her friend at the table. "The training hasn't been… physically wearing but just more… mentally tiring."

"There's a lot to remember... until it becomes second nature."

Xena nodded her agreement. "It's starting to become second nature."

Yakut had a lopsided grin. "Its rubbing off then."

The Amazon rolled her eyes but her witty smile was in place. "I think it is."

The apprentice shaman chuckled quietly and leaned back into the chair comfortably. "I need to get back to my training. I'll be out of shape before I know it."

Xena had a curious look as she considered what Yakut told her. "You haven't been at training at all?"

"I haven't been for… two moon cycles. I've been so busy with Alti and learning shamanism." Yakut shook her head some. "I'm surprised Yalena hasn't said anything to Alti… or Commander Lyda for that matter."

Xena's head tilted to one side. "You think any of them will?"

"Could." Yakut shrugged. "Hades… I may say something to Yalena just so I can get a break from Alti." Yakut's joke drew out a deep laugh from Xena, which made Yakut smile. "I actually miss training."

"We should trade then," teased the Amazon.

The apprentice shaman forced a small laugh up despite just the idea of Xena and Alti spending together made her stomach drop. "I wouldn't wish spending time with Alti on anybody."

Xena's eyebrow instinctively arched to some degree yet she said nothing.

Yakut sensed the small amount of tension that Alti's name brought between them. She quickly tried to change the subject. "Have you been on patrol yet?"

"I don't think I'm allowed until I get my Amazon sword."

"That's right," agreed the apprentice shaman. "When will you try for it? Next fall?"

Xena suddenly grin. "This spring."

Yakut sat up some, her expression fully surprised. "Sweet Artemis, are you serious?"

"Yes." Xena smirked.

"This this spring?" asked the skeptic Amazon.

Xena sighed but she crossed one leg over the other before she replied. "This spring."

"You… must be doing well in training." Yakut finally sat back in her chair. She couldn't believe what she was hearing but it validated the queen's suspicions. "I didn't… realize…."

Xena shrugged and simply said, "It comes naturally."

"I would say," teased Yakut. "I'm impressed."

The older Amazon slightly dipped her head in appreciation. "I've always been training at the Healer's Hut."

"Really?" Yakut was clearly interested. "Since?"

"About a moon ago."

"I didn't know that either." The apprentice shaman sighed in annoyance. "I'm out of the loop."

"I would say," Xena gently bantered. "Lena seemed surprised the night we went to the Healer's Hut and I said to add salt to your wound."

Yakut's head bobbed for a moment. "She must have," she mumbled. "How is it?"

"It's really good… I've learned plenty. It's a good… skill to have."

"It is," agreed Yakut.

Xena was quiet as she watched how Yakut tried to suppress a yawn. That made her faintly smile and she stood up quickly.

Yakut peered up with partially tired eyes.

"I think its time for you to get some rest," stated the Amazon.

The apprentice shaman didn't realize she was that transparent with her weariness. "I think so," she relented.

Xena held out her hand to her friend.

Yakut smiled and clasped Xena's larger hand. Just as her skin made contact with Xena's, her mind exploded with a flash of images.

The tall, well armored man tilted his head to one side. "Goodbye, Xena." He turned but gave one last order to the soldier that now held a large mallet. "Break her legs." He then walked off, with another prestigious looking man at his side.

Xena dropped her head back until it hit the back of the wood cross. A brutal scream erupted from her lips when the soldier's mallet viciously collided with her shins.

"Yakut?" Xena quickly released her friend's hand and grabbed her shoulders. She was surprised by the extremely painful expression on Yakut's face.

The apprentice shaman suddenly took a rasping breath as the image dissipated from her vision. "Gods," she breathed.

"Are you okay?"

Yakut shook her head in hopes it'd rid of images and feelings that coursed through her body. "Yeah… yeah I think so." She quickly rid of her previous expression as she could only imagine what it looked like. "I'm sorry."

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure." Yakut's mind quickly worked to find an excuse to tell her friend. She slightly twisted to her right and touched her side. "I just felt… some kind of pain."

The taller Amazon tilted to her left and peered down at her friend's side. "I can look...?"

"No… no it's okay." Yakut straightened up some and offered a smile. "It's okay now." She sensed Xena squeezing her shoulders then finally letting go. "Thank you though."

Xena nodded her welcome. "I think you do need some rest."

"Yes." Yakut now started to move her legs but when she started moving her legs screamed with a dull ache. For a quick moment, she had a partial limp but quickly covered it up.

Xena had noted the brief limp and she was confused as to why. But when her friend was walking normal after another two steps she figured it couldn't have been all that serious. Yet Xena made sure to walk Yakut to the door just incase.

Yakut said goodnight to her friend then left the hut. She continued her short journey through the huts to hers. She still sensed a faint dull ache in her shins and she still didn't understand what had happened back there. All she wanted to do right now was get back to her hut, into her bed, and sleep it off. And when she did make it back to her hut, it wasn't long before Yakut collapsed in her bed and went fitfully to sleep.

By the early morning, Yakut dragged herself out of bed and greeted the morning happily. As she got ready, she considered what happened last night and not just at Xena's but at Ino's too. She began to wonder if somehow those two events weren't connected. She decided to let it go for now because the only person she could really ask about would be Ino. Her next class with Ino wasn't until the following night so it would have to wait until then.

After getting dressed and ready, Yakut went to the Dining Hut and picked up some fruit to go with her. She then made the short beeline to the Temple and when she came inside Alti was waiting for her.

"Good morning, Alti."

"Good morning." Alti offered a faint smile. "How was your night last night?"

Yakut nodded her head. "Quiet." She then returned the smile. "Yours?"

"The same." The shaman stood on the alter while Yakut was on the ground floor. She held out her hand to the right where there was a door to her office. "We'll start with a test this morning."

Yakut groaned some and dropped her head. "What a way to start the day."

"I thought you would enjoy that," tormented the teacher.

Yakut sighed, came up the steps, and headed for the door. Yet when she got to the door, she had difficulty getting the door open since her hands were filled by an apple and an orange. Somehow she managed to maneuver her apple into her left hand, which already held the orange so now she could get to the door handle.

"I can get it, Yakut," offered Alti.

But just as Yakut's palm touched the door handle, her hand was covered by Alti's hand.

Suddenly Yakut stiffened up and her mind was flooded by a set of racing images until it settled onto a very still one.

"And what do you offer me, Alti?"

"Everything," whispered Alti. She stepped forward then crouched down to Xena's level, who was sitting. "You want to know what these Amazons are. I know who your friend Lao Ma is; her powers come from denial, from self-sacrifice, from the Light. That's not for people like you and me. I want to tap into the heart of darkness, the shear naked will behind all cravings, hatred, and violence. I will become the face of death, destroying not only a person's body but their soul." Alti suddenly grabbed Xena's hands from her lap and clutched them tightly. "Help me, and I'll make you the Destroyer of Nations."

A powerful charge surged through Xena's hands, up her arms, and exploded within her body. The energy was so strong and her dark hunger ravaged it. She suddenly felt the addiction to want that same energy over and over again and it was the taste of power through fear. "I think we can work that out," whispered the power hungry Amazon.

"Yakut?" called a deep growl of a voice. Alti had just pulled back her hand from Yakut's.

The apprentice shaman inhaled sharply but she tried to quickly recover by opening the door. "I'm sorry."

Alti had her hands on her hips as she wondered what was wrong with the young Amazon.

Yakut grabbed her apple from her other hand and as she walked into the office, she felt the remnants of the consuming dark power that was from the vision. She tried to shake it off as she took her seat in front of Alti's desk.

The dark shaman walked around her desk and picked up a scroll. "You may work at my desk. I will give you around a candlemark to complete the test. Let me know if you finish sooner."

Yakut tipped her head in understanding. She then watched her teacher leave the room and that finally gave Yakut the chance to let out a deep sigh. "By Artemis… what is happening to me?" She forced herself to stand up, go around the desk, sit down, and she placed her fruit on the desk. She picked up the scroll, unrolled it in front of herself, and she merely stared at it blankly.

The apprentice shaman tried to push aside what she experienced earlier because she had to deal with this test right now. She took a steady breath to calm her nerves then she reached forward to pick up the quill out of the inkwell. "Here goes," she muttered.

"Have a seat, Xena."

Xena nodded to the stratègos and took a chair directly in front of the stratègos's desk.

"Did Yalenda tell you why I asked you here?"

"No, ma'am." The Amazon leaned back in her chair and found she very interested to why Commander Lyda wanted to speak to her.

"Yalenda tells me about your fast progress with training. She seems to think you'll be ready to receive your sword in the spring."

Xena nodded again. "That's what she tells me too."

"I'm sure Yalenda also explained to you that after you've mastered the sword that you go through the Amazon Judgment." Commander Lyda remained comfortable behind her desk and her focus solely on the Amazon.

"Yes, she did actually."

"Excellent." The stratègos smiled suddenly. "How are you at riding?"

Xena now had a curious expression but she was grinning from ear to ear. "I grew up with horses in my village."

"That's what I expected." Commander Lyda grinned. "I have an opening that will need filling soon."

The Amazon's expression grew quite interested at hearing the stratègos's words.

"The Thrace Nation has a small cavalry but it isn't well organized or trained. Neither I nor Officer Olivia have had time to work with the cavalry." The stratègos fell silent for a second as she leaned back in her chair. "We don't have a cavalry commander… an ilarchès." Yet again the stratègos went quiet but she started to grin faintly. "Would you be interested in being the ilarchès?"

Xena made no visual reaction yet she was stunned. This Nation hardly knew her yet they'd taken her in, accepted her to that Nation, fed her, trained her, and now the commander of the army wanted her to run the cavalry. She had never planned on any of this and it seemed to be happening too quickly. However she knew if she didn't accept the honor and position then it would throw up suspicions within the Nation. "I would be honored, stratègos."

Commander Lyda suddenly smiled. "I knew I would hear that. I have heard many good things about you, Xena. I have a feeling you will not fail me or the Nation."

Xena said nothing but did bow her head a bit.

"I will inform the polemarchos, the queen, and Yalenda of your decision. We will have to go before the council to meet approval but I highly doubt that will be a problem."

The Amazon shifted in her seat a little then asked, "I suppose this will wait until after I have gone through the Amazon Judgment?"

"Yes, it will have to wait until then however Yalenda can begin training you now." Commander Lyda tilted her head in one direction. "Have you much experience with commanding or managing people?"

Xena quietly sighed and shook her head. "Not particularly."

"Then we shall give you some experience. Despite this is a bit untraditional, I will be recommending to Officer Olivia that you take some patrol duty."

"Before I receive my sword?" questioned the surprised Amazon.

"Yes," answered the stratègos, "I believe it'll give you plenty of experience to work with the others." Then suddenly, she stood up from her chair. "However I would say Yalenda will need to teach you about the trees before patrol duty can begin."

Xena stood up in response. "The trees?"

Commander Lyda chuckled and held out her arm. "You will see."

The Amazon stepped forward and took the stratègos's well chiseled forearm.

"Welcome to the army."

Xena offered a warm smile. "Thank you, stratègos."

Commander Lyda released her future cavalry commander's arm and proudly added, "I look forward to working with you."

"As am I." Xena dipped her head then headed for the door.

The stratègos watched Xena quietly leave. She sighed in relief at hearing Xena's agreement to take the position of the ilarchès. She'd been searching high and low for an ilarchès seeing as the cavalry was in poor condition. No Amazon had met up to her standards, until Xena showed up in the Nation.

But as there were major changes happening for Xena there were also major changes for another young Amazon. By that early evening, Yakut was finished with her teacher and she was rushing across the Nation to Ino's hut. Her worries and fears were making her walk into an almost run.

Yakut banged her fist against Ino's hut door.

Within a few seconds, a worried Ino had the door open and before she could say anything, Yakut blurted so many things out.

"I don't know what's happening. Something is wrong with me. I can see things. When I touch. I don't know. Ino, I need-"

"Stop," cut in the old Amazon. She held up her right hand for silence. "Stop and breathe for a second, Yakut."

The apprentice shaman did stop and took several deep breaths to calm down. Her mentor was right, she was over reacting and there would be answers.

"Okay, first come inside." Ino stepped back and let the young Amazon in her hut. "Now please sit down." She directed to the spare chair beside her desk. While Yakut went over to it, she closed the hut door then she went to take her desk chair. "Now slowly tell me what's happened."

"I'm not sure," first confessed the apprentice shaman. "I had to come to see you."

"Okay." Ino gave an assuring smile. "Now tell me."

"Last night after I left here, I bumped into Xena and we went to her hut to talk for awhile, to catch up."

Ino nodded and whispered, "Go on."

"I didn't stay long but Xena finally told me to go because I looked tired. So she reached down to offer her hand to help me up. When we clasped hands, I suddenly had a… vision or image rush to me."

Ino now had that same concerned look that Yakut did earlier. "What of?"

"I'm not exactly sure," confessed Yakut. "But… it started out with this soldier… some military commander I think."

"What did he look like?"

"He was as tall as Xena. Dark, short brown hair… clean cut. But it was his inform that… stood out more than anything." Yakut shook her head as she considered it. "He wore mahogany brown leathers but over that he had a heavy… gold armor and a cape. His buckle was in the shape a large lion head."

Ino's eyes glazed over and she whispered, "Roman."

"Roman?" murmured Yakut, "He must have been… he was important though."

Ino suddenly focused back on her student. "What else?"

"In the vision, he said goodbye to Xena then told a solider near by to break her legs."

"Break her legs?"

The apprentice shaman nodded her head. "Xena was tied up onto a wooden cross. The soldier swung a hammer at her shins and the vision ended with her screaming."

"Sweet Artemis," whispered Ino in awe.

Yakut shook her head. "And stranger still was I felt the pain in my legs too… nowhere as strong but it was there."

Ino listened carefully but her vision fell to the space between them as she considered what Yakut was telling her. She couldn't believe it but it was true, it was the only answer.

The apprentice shaman became concerned about why her mentor was so quiet. She bit her lips but then asked, "What is it, Ino?"

The retired shaman started shaking her head as she looked back at Yakut. "I can't be but… it's the only explanation to why you had a vision merely by touching Xena."

"Why?" gently questioned the young Amazon.

"You're a two-spirit, Yakut."

Yakut sat back some and shook her head. "No… I can't be."

Ino leaned forward and gathered Yakut's hands into her own. "It's the only explanation, Yakut and it explains why you saw the green dragon when you crossed over."

"But… how can it be me? Why?"

The retired shaman just sighed and squeezed the young woman's hands. "There is no explanation why some shamans are two-spirit and some are not."

Yakut was in complete disbelief but she knew too that Ino was right. "What… what does this mean?"

"It means we have to rethink everything," answered Ino. "You're destined, Yakut."

"Destined? For what?"

Ino started to smile. "For greatness."

Yakut's head fell forward as everything washed over her. Her eyes closed tightly and her two visions within the past day flashed through her mind again. The vision of Xena and Alti's meeting repeated twice in her mind as she wondered what everything meant. She knew now that Xena and Alti had a pact and Xena's intentions were anything but to help the Nation. Then why did Yakut feel so much goodness and hope for Xena?

As she lifted her head to meet Ino's gaze, she knew she couldn't speak about her second vision… yet. She had too many questions and not enough answers before she could expose Xena. And there was something else lurking in the shadows of it all, something about Xena that told Yakut that maybe Xena wasn't this ugly monster. It was Alti who would do anything to bring it out in Xena. Yakut felt her body tense with anger towards Alti and she knew she'd have to do something to stop this, to stop Alti.

To Be Continued…

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