~ It Never Rains, But It Pours ~
by Red Raven
Disclaimers: Please see Part 1.
Dawn's rose-coloured fingers crept through the quiet Amazon village, revealing pockets of activity. In the kitchen area, dry provisions were being prepared and loaded into a wagon for the journey to Agradon's camp, ready for when the order to move came from Xena or Ephiny. Similar action was being undertaken near the smith-works where spears, shields, bows and any other weapons not intended to be carried on horseback by individual Amazon warriors were being stacked in another wagon. A small chest of salves, herbs and calico dressings was also being stowed, overseen by Pyras occasionally barking advice to anyone who would listen regarding what potion was for which kind of injury. She eventually marched off towards her hut muttering to herself about the foolishness of not taking either her or her apprentice with them and needing to prepare for when her people returned with cuts and bruises, or worse. She silently thanked the gods that at least Xena would know how to treat someone on the battle field, as long as she wasn't too busy pulling her sword from some dead son of a bacchae's chest cavity!
The object of Pyras' thoughts was awake, dressed and alert, quietly pacing the floor as she thought through the plans she would be discussing with Ephiny and Solari that morning. She stopped long enough to start a small fire in the grate and hang a pot of water to boil for some tea, then recommenced her pacing and tactics scrutiny.
"Xena, you are definitely going to leave a trench if you don't stop walking up and down." Gabrielle's sleepy voice drifted from the bed.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Xena walked over to where Gabrielle was lying and sat down on the edge of the bed. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"Oh you didn't wake me." Gabrielle sat up and yawned. "I woke up while you were washing and dressing...guess I'm starting to sense when you're not here by my side." She gazed affectionately at the warrior.
Xena reached out and stroked Gabrielle's face. "Why don't you wash and dress while I make us a hot drink? Then we can get over to the kitchen area for breakfast; I'm sure Ephiny and Solari should be up and around by now." Gabrielle nodded in response, got up and headed for her bathing chamber.
A quarter candle mark later, Xena and Gabrielle were walking through the village centre, taking in the fresh morning air and speaking to the various Amazons they passed. Nearing the smith-works, they noticed Solari trying to keep patience with Pyras, who had returned with a second chest of herbs and dressings.
"Look, Pyras." Solari raised her hands in supplication. "For the love of Rhea! I'm no healer, so it's no good trying to explain to me what all this stuff is for."
Pyras squared up to the Amazon warrior and put her hands on her hips. "You go without me or my girl, Solari. One's gotta know. No one knows, no one's healed. You all die!"
"That's a bit drastic." Solari fiddled with one of her bracers. "We'll be fine. Why don't you speak to Xena when she comes this way to check the weapons. She's the best healer around...uh, next to you, of course." She breathed a sigh of relief when she caught sight of Xena and Gabrielle approaching.
"Hush your flattery, Solari! Don't work anyway. You have no healer from the village going with you." Pyras wagged a finger at Solari for emphasis. "Xena good healer, I know this, but Xena busy fighting with you all...who helps wounded then, huh?" She tutted loudly. "I speak with Xena in good time. I speak with you now. You head of guards Solari. Head of warriors. Should know to heal, you should!"
"Yes, Pyras." Solari dropped her gaze, thinking it better to simply let the healer have her say until she turned her attention to Xena.
"Leaders should learn to heal on battlefield." Pyras mellowed her tone slightly.
Solari looked up with a smile. "I can fix a pretty good field dressing, Pyras."
"Yes, maybe you can...maybe not. You know what to put in to stop bleeding?"
"I'm not sure, but I..."
"Know what to put on a burn to cool it and stop bad scarring?"
"Not really, but..."
"Huh!" Pyras threw her hands in the air. "Why do I even try talking with you, Solari?" She turned back to the second chest and began to check the contents for the hundredth time.
"Xena! Gabrielle!" Solari raised a hand in greeting. "Noticing Pyras' disapproving stare over the lid of the medicine chest, Solari briefly bowed her head in Gabrielle's direction. "My Queen, thank you for coming here." She raised her eyes to the sky, then winked. "Our healer was just going over some of the salve and balm supplies she's kindly prepared for us to take with our raiding party."
Gabrielle smiled with amusement at Solari's formality, understanding her signals clearly. Xena strode round the wagon to where Pyras was fussing.
"My Queen." Pyras stopped what she was doing and bowed at the waist. "If you will excuse me, I speak with Xena. She seems only healer going with our people." She shot a dark glare at Solari as she greeted Xena with a warrior's handshake.
Gabrielle stepped closer to Solari and whispered. "Looks like we rescued you just in time! You seem to have your hands full with preparations and your ears full of complaints this morning!"
"Gabrielle, you couldn't have come at a better time, thanks." Solari put her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and they exchanged a warm smile. "This will all work out you know." She had noticed the look of concern in her young Queen's eyes. "Agradon is due so much for what he's done to our Amazons and other peoples and Xena's just the experienced leader we need to beat him once for all, as well as find this cup thing Artemis needs back."
"I hope you're right, Solari." Gabrielle looked towards Xena, who was deep in conversation with Pyras, then turned back to Solari. "I really do. I hope the whole event runs as smoothly as hot candle wax." She reached out to pull a thread of stray storage hay from the warrior's shoulder. "Oh I'm sure you're right, Sol. The gods...at least the kinder gods, are hardly going to bring Xena and I together and settle us with the Amazon Nation only to tear it all apart, are they? Still, it's not going to stop me worrying about my best friends. Or my lover, or my people for that matter. So please take care and stay alert, okay?" She smiled affectionately. "That's an order, my warrior!"
Solari beamed. "That sounds so good when you say it as Queen, Gabrielle."
"Oh, you know. 'My people', 'That's an order', Amazon stuff."
Gabrielle realised the significance of what Solari had said. "I guess it really is starting to sink in."
"No regrets?" Solari leaned against the wagon. "No thoughts about just running away with Xena?" The warrior princess looked up at the mention of her name.
Gabrielle was taken aback by solari's evident astuteness. "Regrets? No, I have no regrets. I think in my heart I'll always want to run away with Xena, though." She looked up in time to catch Xena's cockeyed grin from behind the medicine chest.
Even Pyras allowed herself a deep throaty chuckle. "You take our Queen for early breakfast. No good meal - no good rule! I need to get something from forest for Xena." She smiled, bowed to Gabrielle and turned smartly on her heel to walk off at a pace that defied her years.
"I'm sorry I haven't got to know her yet!" Gabrielle laughed and turned to Solari. "She's quite a force, our healer!"
"You got that right, Gabrielle." Solari snorted and shook her head. "She's a tough old bird, but she's a wonderful healer and we wouldn't be without her."
"Where is she from?" Gabrielle was intrigued. "She doesn't look or sound very Greek."
"Sounds Egyptian to me." Xena joined in the conversation. "But she doesn't look it."
"That's right Xena." Solari was impressed by Xena's knowledge. "No one knows where she's from originally, but she was raised a slave to various Egyptians most of her childhood and adult life."
"So how did a gypsy of all people wind up with Greek Amazons?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Egyptian merchants owned her and were travelling through Amazonia when she was apparently taken ill with a rash and started raving." Solari explained. "They turned up at our borders and said we could take her if we wanted to, otherwise she'd be left in the forest. So, we brought her in."
"Weren't you worried about bringing illness into the village?" Gabrielle was concerned. "Why not treat her outside the village until she was well?"
Solari laughed. "It was Eponin and a hunting party who met them at the border. You may have noticed how badly she reacts to nettle rash?" She waited for her friends to nod. "Well, Ep has a real bad reaction to mistletoe too, and she recognised the rash for what it was. As for the raving, Pyras faked it knowing her captors wouldn't want her around for long and she also knew they were in Amazon land, so she had a place to go. One sharp arrow, that woman!"
"Didn't she take a risk that her captors would have simply killed her in the forest anyway?" Ever the bard, Gabrielle was already thinking the account was worth weaving into a story.
Xena slipped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Generally speaking, Egyptians wouldn't deliberately kill someone thought to be mad and raving. Too much of a bad omen to kill a crazy! They're seen as being close to the realms of the gods."
Gabrielle was stirred by Pyras' ingenuity. "So she made them think she was mad, in order to get away and join the Amazons!" She waved an arm dramatically. "Yeah, that could work really well." She was met by amused looks from Xena and Solari. "Just, you know, composing...uh, reference for a new story, that kind of thing." She coughed and dropped her arm to her side.
"Actually, Gabrielle." Solari grinned. "Pyras simply wanted to get away from her captors, end of story. She only intended to stay with us a few days. Then the few days became a few weeks, she developed natural skills as a healer and herbalist...along with an almighty temper, and the rest is history."
"And did the Amazons rename her after her temper?" Xena smiled.
"Pyras." Gabrielle joined in. "It means, 'of the flames', doesn't it?"
"Melosa gave her that name." Solari nodded to Gabrielle and chuckled. "Partly for her temper, yeah. Her Egyptian name had something to do with being a whirlwind across the desert and a breaker of whips and we couldn't even pronounce it! But she was also named Pyras because she's as intent and unrelenting as fire where problems are concerned. Xena, I've seen her bring Amazons through injuries and illnesses other healers or physicians would have given up on."
Gabrielle looked intently at Xena for a few moments. "What did you ask Pyras to get you from the forest, Xena?"
The warrior grinned. "Oh, just a little treat for Agradon if we get close enough. Give him something else to worry about instead of being on his guard." She noticed Solari's puzzlement and the imploring look on Gabrielle's face. "Okay, it's a little plant called Nymphaean and Pyras might not even find any around here, but if she can and we can use it, well...I'll tell you all about it when we get back Gabrielle." She winked and began to walk towards the kitchen area.
"Xena!" Gabrielle turned to Solari, who was trying not to laugh. " By the gods! I hate it when she does this. She knows I'm going to be wondering about what the damned plant does, now."
"Come on Gabrielle." Solari tugged on Gabrielle's wrist. "Why else would she do it? You know she loves to tease you. Next time, just act like you know everything about everything, and aren't remotely interested."
Gabrielle was not convinced. "Yeah, I'm sure that'll work." She shook her head and gazed after Xena, before turning back to Solari with a grin. "Come on. Let's go find Ephiny and have some breakfast. I'd like to sit with you for at least one more meal before you leave to face Agradon." Gabrielle and Solari set off at a fast pace and soon caught up with Xena as she had stopped to speak with Prax and Geilissa on the way.
After the two young guards formally greeted Gabrielle, the five women made their way to the kitchen area where Solari spotted Ephiny almost immediately and called to her. Ephiny made her way over to her friends and Prax and Geilissa excused themselves so that they could eat with some of their own friends. A server quickly brought hot oats and honey, bread, fruit and herb tea over to Gabrielle and her companions and the four sat to enjoy each other's presence, for a while purposely speaking about anything other than the task ahead.
Once she finished her bowl of oats and licked her spoon free from honey, Gabrielle brought up the avoided subject. "Has word come back from the scouts yet?"
"Not yet." Ephiny sipped her tea. "But we expect news very soon."
Solari joined in. "We'll be ready to go, the moment Xena wants to set off." She exchanged a nod of understanding with the warrior princess. "The warriors are ready, weapons and provisions are prepared, even the horses know we're getting ready to go! All we need now is to know where we're going."
"I only hope he's not camped on the coast so he can make a run for his ship." Ephiny picked up an apple and leaned back in her seat. "Or by some gods-forsaken swamp where we'll all get bitten alive by mosquitoes!"
"If mosquitoes pose the greatest threat, I for one will be more than content." Xena gazed into her mug of tea, before looking up at Gabrielle and smiling.
"I think I could cope with that." Gabrielle smiled back, though her eyes betrayed her fears. "If you all come back with nothing worse than insect bites I'll be very happy."
Xena studied Gabrielle's face, committing to memory the exact shade of her green eyes in the morning light diffusing through the trees. "Gabrielle, if you pass the time we're away by writing up our last half dozen adventures together, I think we can promise to be on our way home before you get to the last one."
The fondness in Xena's look made Gabrielle's heart skip a beat. "I'm hoping my duties here will be enough to keep my mind away from worrying about you and my Amazon sisters, Xena." She found her smile despite the anxiety beginning to gnaw at her senses. She picked up a peach, expertly tore it in two and offered half to Xena.
"Thank you." The warrior smiled at Gabrielle as she sat back in her seat with the fruit.
"Ephiny, Solari, how do you rate the Amazon army's ability in performing the Oxen's Horns, along with the Dragon's Teeth move?" She bit into the fruit and munched intently, careful to avoid the stone that was in her half of the peach.
Ephiny and Solari exchanged glances, before Ephiny answered. "Xena, you know our army can perform the Oxen's Horns with their eyes shut! As for the other manoeuvre, what did you call it...the Dragon's Teeth? That's a new one on me, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Me neither!" Solari was busy coating a hunk of bread with some honey. "I'm sure I would have remembered a move with that name if I'd come across it."
Xena smiled. "I would have been concerned if you had come across it. Would've meant you ran into my army years ago! It was one of my old strategies and an effective one at that."
"Excuse me." Gabrielle swallowed her last piece of peach and sipped her tea. "Oxen's Horns? Dragon's Teeth? Xena, I realise you're talking about how to attack Agradon, but what do you mean exactly?"
Xena was pleased at Gabrielle's interest in battle tactics, though preferably always from a safe distance. She devoured the remaining peach flesh but held onto the stone. "Well, just like an oxen's horns travel away from each other and then curve inwards..." She slid her fists across the table to amplify the action. "Two groups move up and around the enemy like this." Her hands moved either side of Gabrielle's mug of half finished tea. "Then a third group, the head of the oxen if you like, moves forward. When the three groups are in position the enemy's usually surrounded and you all attack at once!" She threw the peach stone straight into Gabrielle's mug where a satisfying splash sprayed the contents onto the table. "Gotcha!"
"Hey I'm still drinking that!" Gabrielle complained.
"So have a fresh one." Xena grinned. "Didn't anyone tell you an Amazon Queen is allowed more than one mug of tea in the morning?"
"And didn't anyone tell you not to play with your food?" Gabrielle's annoyance soon melted into laughter. "Don't worry, I'll have another later. Tell me about the Dragon's Teeth." Ephiny and Solari both leaned forward to listen carefully to the strategy that was new to them.
"Nothing too amazing, really." Xena began to explain. "From the Oxen's Horns, as long as the three groups are far enough apart so they can't injure one another, one of the most effective attacks is with waves of flaming arrows to confuse and then take out the enemy. That's the Dragon's Teeth."
Gabrielle frowned. "Waves of flaming arrows?"
"Don't worry." Xena smiled. "I know what you're thinking, Gabrielle. I don't want to use any kind of fire attack in this raid. If Agradon's holding Prisca, he could just as easily be holding others against their wills and I don't want to see Prisca or other innocents come to harm by our attack anymore than you do."
"What do you have in mind?" Ephiny downed her last mouthful of tea.
"Some kind of smokescreen we can let loose into Agradon's camp from arrows without barbs on them." Xena picked up an apricot and nibbled it thoughtfully. "Just enough to send his men into confusion and give us a good chance to sweep into the camp before they know what's hit them."
"Oh you mean like that time we faced the Horde with the Athenian army?" Gabrielle visualised what Xena had in mind. "We helped cover that soldier, with a smokescreen so he could get out of the stronghold and try to run for reinforcements." She noticed the wide-eyed looks on Ephiny's and Solari's faces. "Uh, I guess I didn't mention that little adventure to you, did I?"
Xena's eyebrow raised slowly. "No I guess you didn't, Gabrielle." She realised Ephiny and Solari were longing to ask about the event. "Later, if you don't mind. The story will have to wait for a while." She turned back to Gabrielle. "You were right though, it'll be just like that, only denser this time." She grinned. "Little adventure? Gabrielle that was a bit more than a little adventure."
"Xena, I don't mean to throw water on your oil lamp." Solari grinned apologetically. "But haven't we left it a bit late weapons-wise to make what we need for a smokescreen?"
"Not when you've got bright royal guards around like Prax and Geilissa and warriors like Areope and Dirce." Xena allowed herself a satisfied smirk. "I managed to speak to them yesterday on the practice fields and this morning we have enough arrows, small pots and ingredients ready to make a wagon-load. If we all make a few each during the nights we're camped out, we'll have more than enough for an attack."
"How do you want to deal with Agradon's men once we're in his camp?" Ephiny asked.
"With as little blood spilled as possible." Xena smiled. "I've no doubt a lot of his army will fight and we'll have to face it as if we're dealing with an all out battle, but with the confusion from the smokescreen they won't know how many warriors are attacking. With a lot of noise and a little luck, they'll think they're outnumbered and should give up the fight pretty soon then."
Solari grinned. "I've an inkling that they'll lose heart pretty fast when they gather the warrior princess is commanding an army again."
"It had crossed my mind, but I'm not relying on it." Xena raised an eyebrow. "Still, once we're in, I want you and our warriors to let me take on Agradon by myself." Ephiny and Solari glanced at Gabrielle, than back to Xena.
"If you're sure that's necessary?" Ephiny waved to a server and gestured for more tea.
"I believe I'm supposed to handle it that way for the sake of this challenge." Xena regarded her friends thoughtfully and then smiled. "I really wanna do the right thing in all this and not just for me...for the Amazon Nation, for Gabrielle and for you Ephiny, and in a strange way I feel like I owe Artemis."
"Xena?" Gabrielle gave the warrior a hard look. "You really do intend to face Agradon alone, don't you?"
Xena smiled affectionately. "Gabrielle, you and I discussed this carefully. We both know I have to deal with Agradon one-on-one."
Gabrielle didn't return the smile. "What I remember from our discussion Xena, is that it doesn't matter if Agradon ends up on the end of your sword or the sword of an Amazon warrior."
"I know, I know." Xena dropped her eyes and sighed. "The truth is Gabrielle, it would be easier to storm through Agradon's camp, dispatch every soldier and mercenary, then kill Agradon." She looked up to meet Gabrielle's steady gaze. "What would be best though, is for his men to go home and for Agradon and his seconds in command to be brought back alive to be tried for their crimes." Gabrielle nodded slowly, recalling an earlier discussion about the raid.
Ephiny sensed what Xena was intending. "That would be very good for the Amazon Nation as a whole, Xena." She turned to Gabrielle. "There are plenty of people beyond our boundaries who think of us with ridicule at best, or at worst as a group of savages. If we bring Agradon back for trial, we can invite the authorities of neighbouring lands to attend on behalf of their peoples who've suffered Agradon's onslaughts in the past."
"That sounds sensible." Gabrielle agreed. "So, in the eyes of the Nation Xena will be showing as much wisdom as brawn and in the eyes of prejudiced peoples we'll be showing our honour and justice as much as our battle skills." Gabrielle's tone became sardonic. "In other words, reveal to others the wisdom and skills we know we already possess without having to prove them to ourselves!"
"That's about it." Xena was relieved to see Gabrielle's smile returning. "It also means I can try to keep Agradon outta the way of those warriors, like Charis, who would have good cause to just run him through then and there."
The server had returned with a newly prepared infusion of herbs and fruit. She refilled the four mugs, carefully discarding the catapulted peach stone and wiping up the spillage. Then she moved on to other groups of Amazons, greeting them and offering the fresh tea. Xena leaned on the table, resting her chin on her knuckles and regarded her friends. She was grateful for the bonds of loyalty being forged out of mutual respect, rather than from fear or the greed for power she was once so used to as a warlord. Before she realised what she'd done, Xena offered a silent prayer to Artemis, requesting her guidance and protection, both for those travelling to Agradon's camp and for those remaining at the village, Gabrielle in particular. She couldn't help but laugh quietly to herself after her supplication.
"What's funny, Xena?" Gabrielle caught the warrior's eye. "You seemed somewhere else then, leagues away."
"I think I probably was." Xena grinned. "I was just thinking about Artemis and I..." She didn't have time to finish her sentence as a royal guard came running towards the kitchen area.
Spotting Gabrielle, the guard swiftly dropped to one knee and bowed her head. "My Queen! Please forgive this intrusion. One of the scouts has returned. She is recovering by the well and has news for you of Agradon."
"That's it, let's go!" Xena rose to her feet.
"Xena." Ephiny's calm, authoritative tone stopped the warrior in her tracks. The Regent said nothing more, but gestured first to Gabrielle then to herself.
Xena frowned, puzzled, then took a sharp intake of breath. "Oh gods! Sorry... Just remind me from time to time. I'll get there eventually." She offered a cockeyed grin by way of apology. "I guess it's time for you and Ephiny to get things moving, Gabrielle."
"Thank you, Xena." Gabrielle stood up. "So what are we waiting around here for? Let's go!" She walked quickly over to the royal guard and thanked her for the message, then headed for the well, soon caught up and accompanied by Ephiny, Solari and Xena.
The four reached the village centre, anxious for the news that would send the Amazon raiding party on their way. Propped against the well, the Amazon scout was being tended by Pyras, her exhausted horse having already been led away to the stables for some well-deserved attention. As the scout became aware of both her Queen's and Regent's presence, she tried to rise but was held back by the healer.
"You be still! Queen understands." Pyras bowed her head respectfully in the direction of Gabrielle and Ephiny before turning back to her charge. "Time later for formal greeting. You rest now and drink some water."
Gabrielle knelt down and rested her hand on the scout's shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
"No, my Queen." She smiled weakly and managed a whisper. "Just very dry and I could sleep for a day or two." She swallowed hard and coughed. "Agradon is camped by the forest of Calydonis in Dardania." She looked up and located the faces of Xena and Ephiny. "He's down to about seventy or eighty men and they seem to be spending a lot of time drunk. I think they're making the most of being on land again." She allowed Pyras to bring the water ladle to her lips.
Xena knelt beside Gabrielle and addressed the scout. "You've done a great job, thanks." She smiled. "Did you manage to note the layout of the camp at all?"
In answer, the Amazon withdrew a piece of folded papyrus from her belt and handed it to Xena.
Xena unfolded the creased object and scanned it carefully. Although blurred from the scout"s sweat, the charcoal markings were clear enough to show the general layout of the camp and in particular Agradon's tent. She turned back to the scout. "Did you see Prisca, by any chance?"
"I'm not sure, Xena." The scout took another sip of water. "Just behind the camp and to the west there's a river. When I circled round I could see three women fetching water under the supervision of a guard. I think one of them was our sister, but there wasn't enough cover to get nearer the river to be certain."
"Thank you. You rest now." Xena stood up and handed the papyrus to Ephiny and Solari for their perusal.
Gabrielle spoke tenderly to the scout. "Is there anything you need...I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"Pasiphae, my Queen. My name is Pasiphae."
"Can we get you anything Pasiphae, or tell anyone you're home?"
"My bond-mate, Polymela will be tending the goats and sheep." She smiled at Gabrielle. "He's a bard, like you my Queen, and a good man. If someone would tell him I'm back, I'd be very grateful."
Gabrielle looked up and found the affectionate grins of Coronis and Eponin. "Would you find Polymela, Coronis, and ask him to come into the village?"
"Of course I'll go, Queen Gabrielle." She bowed her head briefly before turning to go. "I'm sure the flocks can look after themselves for a while."
"Thanks." Gabrielle got up and watched Coronis squeeze Eponin's hand, before the Amazon settled into a steady jog towards the west gate of the village. She turned to Xena. "I suppose you'll be off soon, now?"
"Just can't wait to get rid of me, can you!" Xena winked and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Soon my love, yes." She reached out and clasped Gabrielle's outstretched hand. "We'll be back fast, though. Dardania's about a day and a half away on horseback; Agradon's nearer than I expected him to be. We'll be back in five days...maybe six at most."
"If you're going to round up my army then, I'd better come with you." Gabrielle's tone was light, but her gaze pleaded for Xena not to simply race off with the chosen Amazon fighters. "I can make sure you haven't forgotten anyone or anything."
Xena smiled at the comment, but recognised Gabrielle's look for what it was and felt her insides melt. "Come on then." She slipped her arm around Gabrielle's waist and they moved off towards the smith-works at as slow a pace as the urgency could allow.
Ephiny and Solari followed. They were both troubled over the imminent separation of their friends and the pain and worry it would no doubt bring; they were especially concerned for Gabrielle. They drew level with Eponin and before they passed, Ephiny grabbed her hand. "Eponin, I know you're just getting to know Coronis and it's a wonderful time for you both right now, but could you both...I mean would you..."
"If you're trying to ask me to keep an eye on Gabrielle, don't worry my friend." Eponin smiled at her Regent. "Coronis and I keep thinking up duties for Gabrielle to attend to, laws to become acquainted with, general Amazon 'get-to-know-you' visits to be part of...she won't have too much time to fret, trust me. And if she needs someone to talk to in the evenings, we'll just happen to be free." She chuckled. "So will Tethys and Lycidice, so as you can tell, it's all taken care of. Gabrielle will be fine." She reached out to take a hand from both Ephiny and Solari. "We'll all be fine, as long as you come back without any bodily parts missing and that goes for our fearless warrior princess too! Watch her back and each other's, okay?"
"Okay, you've got my word on that." Ephiny squeezed Eponin's hand.
"Mine too!" Solari grinned.
"I'm happy then. Good journey my friends. May Artemis watch over you and guide you; and may Athena grant you wisdom in battle and strengthen your sword arms." Eponin kissed her right palm and laid it against her heart, then stretched out her clenched fist in salute. Ephiny and Solari mirrored the gesture and then walked off to catch up with Xena and Gabrielle.
Eponin watched them go as she slowly made her own way towards the main entrance of the village. She was disappointed not to join her sisters and Xena on the rescue mission, but she could at least stand with the Amazon priestess at the gates and support the blessing for the fighters as they rode out.
Xena and Gabrielle reached the smith-works where those Amazons ready to leave were sharing quiet goodbyes with friends and loved ones. As was usual on such occasions, the village was open to family and outlander bond-mates from the nearby villages within Amazon lands. Gabrielle was almost oblivious to the Amazon salutes that greeted her and the polite bows from the outlander men and women, though she managed to raise her hand and smile in return as she and Xena passed by.
Argo was already saddled and bridled for Xena and the mare nickered softly as her mistress approached. Gabrielle slipped her hand into Xena's and squeezed, only letting go to allow the warrior to check her horse. As Gabrielle turned and consciously took in her surroundings, she noticed Timalcus and Iphitus embracing and sharing whispers of affection unheard by others. She also watched Charis clasping the hands of friends and receiving words of encouragement from Tethys regarding Prisca. Prax and Geilissa too were saying goodbye to friends as they received slaps on the back and words of support, Geilissa as always smiling broadly. Each way she looked, Gabrielle could see Amazons sharing intimate moments with friends, family or bond-mates as they prepared to be separated for a time. She made a mental note to invite her mother, father and sister soon, so that they could see for themselves just how special these people were; the people to whom she now belonged. They had no need to think she was mixed up with an army of female barbarians, as her father believed, or with 'that unpredictable warlord' as some in Poteidaia still regarded Xena, usually stemming from her father's own opinion.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. It wasn't easy to maintain the dignity of Queen when in truth she wanted to cry and beg her friends not to leave and face Agradon. She felt a strong hand on her shoulder, but knew it didn't belong to Xena. She turned to find Ephiny's gentle smile and reached out to hug her Regent without hesitation.
Gabrielle whispered into the Amazon's shoulder. "I'll miss you, Ephiny. Please be vigilant and come back in one piece, okay?"
"That's my intention, Gabrielle." Ephiny squeezed her friend and rubbed her back affectionately. "Someone's gotta come back to keep an eye on our Queen and make sure she wears the mask properly." She pulled back from Gabrielle and regarded her seriously for a moment. "You are and will be a great Queen, Gabrielle. Each one of us that leaves here today is coming back to be part of this village again, part of this people and part of you." Gabrielle felt choked up in response to Ephiny's words.
"Yeah, that's right." Solari came forward. "And I've definitely gotta get you back for dropping me on my backside yesterday!" She embraced Gabrielle as Ephiny let go and stepped away.
Xena finished making sure that Argo was carrying everything necessary and had the saddle positioned exactly as she required. She waited patiently for Ephiny and Solari to complete their goodbyes with Gabrielle. They soon parted, moving towards their horses and Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, gently turning her round so that they were face to face. Wordlessly, they slowly wrapped their arms around each other and simply held one another for a time.
Gabrielle eventually broke the embrace. "I don't want you to go, Xena."
"I know." The warrior smiled and cupped Gabrielle's chin in her hand.
"But I realise you have to go, so please be careful."
"I will." Xena leaned forward to seal Gabrielle's lips with her own in a long, tender kiss.
As they broke apart, Gabrielle rested her head on the warrior's chest. "I'll miss you constantly, Xena. I shall count every candle mark until you're back with me."
Xena rested her chin on Gabrielle's head and closed her eyes. "And I'll miss watching the sun set and rise with you... it won't be the same without you by my side."
"Come home safely Xena, and bring my Amazons home safely too." Gabrielle leaned back and looked up warmly at the warrior.
"That's what I hope to do, my love... and my Queen." Xena smiled, kissed Gabrielle's nose, her forehead and her lips once more, then turned and gracefully mounted Argo. "We'll be home before you know it." She glanced over her shoulder at Ephiny and nodded.
"Amazons!" Ephiny called to the warriors loudly and clearly. "Mount up."
Once in the saddle, every Amazon faced Gabrielle and bowed their heads, right fists clenched over their hearts. Gabrielle felt a pride she had never known before swell in her own heart and, when she looked in Xena's direction, she found that her warrior had also adopted the tribute. It was all she could do not to cry from the mixed emotions welling up inside.
Ephiny glanced up and caught Gabrielle's attention. She smiled and leaned forward in her saddle, whispering just loudly enough for Gabrielle to hear. "If you can find your voice, my Queen, you may wish to give a word of encouragement as we leave."
Gabrielle nodded and quietly coughed, almost successfully dislodging the lump caught in her throat. "Amazons!" She found her voice. "May Artemis guide and protect you as you leave the village today and keep you safe until your return. Be swift, be sure, be strong and come home victorious!" She brought her right palm to her lips, rested it against her heart and then clenched her fist, raising it in salute.
As Gabrielle stepped back, allowing the Amazon party to pass by without trampling her, she cast a final long look at Xena. She hoped that her warrior would come to no harm and return to her again. She also silently prayed that this would not be the last time she would see her alive and whole.
With Xena and Ephiny leading, the Amazon warriors made their way to the main gates of the village. They passed by under the watchful gaze of Eponin and several guards, saluting and wishing their sisters well. The priestess to Artemis also watched them from the gates, arms outstretched as she praised the patron of all Amazons and implored the goddess to bless and watch over her people by day and by night.
By the time the group had disappeared under cover of the forest, Gabrielle had returned to her quarters where she sank into the nearest chair and gave in to the tears she could no longer restrain. She cried from her concern over the Amazons facing the challenge with Xena and from the recognition of her own daunting challenge to rule this people and serve them as their Queen every day for the rest of her life. Mainly, she cried simply from missing Xena and knowing it could be several days before they were together again.
Eventually Gabrielle cried herself dry, her tears giving way to muffled hitches. She took a few deep breaths and calmed herself, then went to the corner of the hut to splash water on her face from a water-skin. Telling herself all would be well, that Xena would outsmart Agradon and Aries too for that matter, that the Amazons would come home safely and Prisca would be coming home too, Gabrielle made her way out of the hut and was greeted by Coronis.
"You're on duty this morning?" Gabrielle managed a half-hearted smile for the royal guard.
"No my Queen." Coronis grinned disarmingly. "I mean, Gabrielle. Your morning watch is here though, if you need them." She nodded towards the edge of the wooden porch-way, where two Amazons bowed their heads respectfully, before looking up to await any order or request they might be presented with. "I was just passing... really."
"Really?" Gabrielle gave Coronis a long look. "Coronis, I've travelled with Xena long enough to know a conspiracy when I see one." Her smile broadened unconsciously and she shook her head.
Coronis reddened in response, dropping her gaze. "I uh, sort of promised that... Well, Eponin thought you'd want..."
Gabrielle came down the wooden steps from the hut. "Thanks for your concern. I guess in a way, it's comforting to know people here want to look out for me." Her tone softened. "But I also realise there are some things I'm just going to have to get used to now, like Xena being away for a while or Ephiny or Solari leaving the village for a time." She regarded the Amazon and felt a sudden longing for her sister Lila. "Walk with me, Coronis. Let's go and find Eponin."
"She went to the river, I think... after watching Xena and our sisters leave the village." Coronis fell into step with Gabrielle and they headed for the west gate, the royal guard following at a discreet distance.
"Did you find Pasiphae's bond-mate, Polymela?" Gabrielle asked as they walked.
"Tending the sheep and goats as expected, yes I found him."
"And he's with Pasiphae, now?"
"I expect so. He and Pyras took Pasiphae to her quarters. I'm sure after a good meal and a long sleep Pasiphae will be fine. She wanted to get back to us with the news of Agradon fast, so she hadn't slept or eaten in a couple of days, and only stopped from time to time to rest her horse."
"I'm glad she'll be alright." Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. "Coronis?"
"Yes, my Queen?"
"How do husbands and wives, uh... work in an Amazon village?"
"Quite well in our tribe, actually." Coronis responded with a grin. "As you know Gabrielle, Lannis, the village of my birth, is not far from here. That's where several Amazons have husbands, including our blacksmith Oenus." She pointed northwards as they reached the west gate. "The villages of Sinope, along with Garamas and Pylas lie just beyond those trees over there, all within Amazon boundaries and under our protection."
Gabrielle looked across to where Coronis had indicated. "Garamas I know. Xena and I passed through there after leaving the Amazons once. They used to produce pottery there, didn't they?"
"Still do." Coronis gestured towards a group of willow trees off to their left and they altered direction. "We help them rebuild their kilns from time to time as they eventually crack from use. Garamas and the other local villages are also places where many of our sisters have made commitments to outlander men and women as their bond-mates."
"Isn't that difficult?" Gabrielle stopped walking. "I mean, our codes and laws don't generally allow outsiders to live in the Amazon village, even less so men."
"It's not so bad really, Gabrielle." Coronis smiled. "Local outlanders and Amazons alike are aware of the codes we live by here, as an Amazon tribe. Our people and people of the local villages in Amazonia understand and accept that a certain amount of separation will be necessary. But we are not jailers, Gabrielle. Any Amazon sister who cannot accept such a situation with their partner is free to settle in the local villages and become an outlander. Similarly, if a sister takes an outlander woman for a bond-mate, we grant the opportunity for the outlander to become an Amazon and live in our village."
"Do many leave the tribe in favour of local village life?"
"In truth very few, Gabrielle."
"Are there any other honorary Amazon men, like Timalcus." Gabrielle picked a long stalk of grass and nibbled the end. "Or is he unique?"
Coronis laughed. "Many in the village would definitely call Timalcus unique, whatever else they call him, and Iphitus is certainly the envy of quite a few Amazons! As for being the only one no, two other young men have the title of honorary Amazon. Both are sons to Amazons and both were granted the title after they helped fight a blaze in our stables one night. They rescued all our horses and one frightened little girl who had somehow got stuck on the roof!"
Gabrielle smiled. "How old were they?"
"About fifteen or sixteen."
"Well they deserved to become honorary Amazons without question." Gabrielle chuckled. "Did Ephiny grant them the title?"
"Uh huh... last autumn, I think it was." Coronis shielded her eyes against the morning sun and scanned the area ahead as she and Gabrielle came to a halt. "Eponin's by the river over there, sitting under that group of willow trees... It's her favourite spot to think."
Gabrielle squinted in the sunlight, before placing a hand over her eyes. "I'd like to carry on talking with you both, about more of the ways of the village." She spotted Eponin beneath the trees, as Coronis had said. "Then I'd like to spend some time with the village crones... Since Ephiny can't be here to bring me up to date with general village business, I'd better start somewhere." She dropped her eyes for a moment. "At least it will keep me occupied."
Coronis caught Gabrielle's expression. "Gabrielle, my Queen, please forgive me for my boldness. I have every confidence in Xena and I also believe in Ephiny, Solari and all our sisters accompanying them. They will return victorious I'm sure, but until they do there is nothing you can do about it, so please..." Coronis reached out and rested a hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Be our Queen and be concerned for those of us here at the village. Artemis will look out for those facing Agradon." She dropped her gaze. "I mean no offence to you Gabrielle, either as my Amazon sister or as my Queen."
Initially angry at Coronis, Gabrielle allowed the royal guard's words to sink in. "You're right, of course." She sighed heavily and for a few moments studied Coronis, who still had her eyes cast down. "Look at me Coronis..." The guard raised her eyes and met Gabrielle's steady gaze. "Please know that I don't want you or anyone to fear me in the Amazon village. There's no earthly reason to."
"I spoke out of turn, Gabrielle."
"You spoke out of consideration for the village and for me, Coronis." Gabrielle smiled warmly. "That's the sort of royal guard I need around me... And you're absolutely right about Xena and our warriors out there! I can pray for them and I can hope for the best possible outcome, but there isn't anything else I can actually do; nothing else anyone can do. It's in the lap of the gods now." She and the guard observed each other, nodding in quiet understanding before Gabrielle broke the silence. "It just isn't very... It isn't easy to stop worrying about someone who means so much more to me than my life."
"You mean Xena?"
Gabrielle nodded in response.
"That, I can understand... Gabrielle." Coronis grinned. "I've never been so grateful for a black eye!"
"I'm sorry?" Gabrielle was puzzled.
"Eponin, her eye. It's the reason she's not going with the others to face Agradon!"
"Oh, right, now I understand."
"I've said that I believe in our victory over Agradon, and I do! I trust Xena and Ephiny to run rings around Agradon and his men with our fighters! All the while though, I'm glad Eponin is here and not there."
Gabrielle chuckled affectionately. "You care for Eponin a great deal, don't you?"
"I have for a long time, Gabrielle. I was beginning to think our incredibly clever head of the royal guard was either too blind or too stupid to realise how I felt. Either that or I was too blind or stupid to see she didn't have any thoughts or feelings about me!" Coronis laughed and shook her head. "As it turns out, we've had similar feelings for each other for some time now, but neither one of us had the courage to say or do anything about it." She and Gabrielle began walking towards the trees again.
"By the gods Coronis, that is starting to sound all too familiar!" Gabrielle waved to Eponin, who was now aware that she had company. "Come on, that shade looks too good to leave to just one Amazon." Gabrielle and Coronis quickly joined Eponin beneath the willow trees and the three were soon engrossed in discussing village life, codes, customs, practices and the irresistible village gossip.
It was past midday by the time Xena suggested they rest the horses and take a break from the saddle. The nearest water-source was located and the Amazons quickly organised themselves into five groups of ten warriors; two tending the horses, two on watch, two checking weapons, two providing water breaks and two sharing out a short ration for each Amazon in their group. Xena smiled to herself, impressed by the spirit of co-operation amongst the women and the apparent ease by which they applied self-discipline. She thought back with amusement to her days of leading an army and wondered how many fistfights might have broken out by now over who would or wouldn't do what during a similar break in journey.
"Xena." Ephiny came over, pulling Pasiphae's charcoal diagram from her belt. "If our scout is right about there being no cover along the river behind Agradon's camp, then perhaps we'd be better off splitting up and coming through the Calydonis forest from the north and the Rhacius hills from the south. "She indicated the approximate areas on the map." We can get fairly close that way and attack at a given signal."
Xena listened intently. "I think you're right, Ephiny. I've been thinking along similar lines myself, but I'd still like to check the river to the West." She stabbed the centre of the map with her index finger. "If the camp is close enough to the river's edge we could cut round and come up from there too."
"Sol said something this morning about a plant Pyras gave you for Agradon... Some kind of surprise?"
Xena grinned wickedly. "Nymphaean. It'll make a man impotent for about twelve days. I figured that we'll make camp far away enough to stay clear of Agradon's scouts, but close enough so that we can watch his camp for a day or two and somehow get that little surprise into his food and the food of his men."
Ephiny looked puzzled for a moment. "So what's that going to achieve Xena, apart from... Well, apart from the obvious that is?"
Xena was silent for a few moments before answering. "There are women being held in the camp, most likely against their wills, and we're gonna be reconnoitring for a day or two." Xena's voice unexpectedly dropped to a whisper. "So, if we can prevent a possible rape during that time it'll be worth the effort. I can't go through... I mean I don't like the thought of someone facing a violation that's preventable and I don't want it on our consciences that we were too late to stop it just because we didn't attack the moment we got there!" She kept to a strained whisper but her outburst gave Ephiny the sense that Xena was burdened by something overwhelming.
"You're right." Ephiny grasped Xena's arm, smiling warmly. "We should think of the women in the camp and aid them in any way we can while we're waiting to attack." She left unspoken the sudden questions flooding her mind. She remembered from Gabrielle's own account what had happened in Britannia, but Xena didn't talk very much about it. Ephiny suspected that Xena could not reconcile her responsibility for Gabrielle with her sense of guilt for not reaching her quickly enough in Dahok's temple and being unable to prevent the violation that took place by the demon. All so long ago now it seemed, though no doubt painfully fresh in her friend's mind. She wondered if the memory was as bad or worse for Gabrielle. Ephiny looked into the trees for a time before returning her gaze to Xena, studying the warrior's face and waiting for the pained expression to go. She also made a mental note to somehow broach the subject soon and help Xena talk it out if she could. She was certain this was one dark memory Xena could not turn to Gabrielle with, as she had done with so many other issues. Ephiny decided that, as a friend, she would rather risk facing Xena's temper than ignore the hurt and guilt she evidently still carried alone.
Xena stared at the ground, feeling vulnerable for allowing her calm exterior to slip, but grateful at least that it was with Ephiny, a trusted friend. Eventually she sighed, looking up and grinning slowly, wanting to lighten the mood again. "On the other hand of course... Well, let's just say I'm a stickler for 'poetic justice' as the bards say these days. It'll serve Agradon right to find that he can't uh, can't actually... that he just can't!"
Ephiny was glad to join in with the renewed banter. "You don't see any um... problems arising from that, Xena?" Ephiny dropped her hand from Xena's arm and covered her own grin.
"I'm hoping we won't see anything rising." Xena forced herself to keep a straight face. "That is the point of the exercise, after all."
Ephiny chuckled. "We have got to stop these bad jokes, Xena."
"Yeah I know, sorry." Xena looked over the map again as Solari approached.
"Here." The Amazon warrior stretched out a hand to Ephiny and Xena. "Thought you two could do with one of these each." She handed them both a short ration.
Xena held onto the small cake-like object, roughly the size of a chicken's egg. She sniffed it, bit into it tentatively and chewed thoughtfully. "Hey, that's pretty good!" She announced after swallowing. "I'd heard you'd got better at making these, what's in it?"
"Seeds, honey, nuts and spices." Solari answered. "And a few other things I have no idea about. It's something Pyras and our cook thought up between them."
"Reminds me of something the Spartans make for long journeys and for battles." Xena munched contentedly.
"Yeah, that probably had some influence, knowing Pyras' travels in the past." Ephiny finished her cake and licked her fingers. "Now then. We need to decide on the best assault to take this son of a wolf-bitch by surprise."
"Hold on Eph, that's a bit harsh isn't it?" Solari grinned. "I rather like wolves!"
"Yeah!" Xena agreed. "And I shouldn't think Romulus and Remus, true sons of a wolf-bitch, would take too kindly to being compared to a monster like Agradon! Or having the she-wolf that mothered them insulted like that!"
"Xena's right, you know." Solari tried not to laugh. "Next time we visit Athens you'll have to apologise and burn some incense by that huge statue of Romulus, Remus and the wolf that mothered them."
Ephiny looked from Amazon warrior to warrior princess and back again. "You two are going to drive me completely insane, you do realise that don't you?" She shook her head. "Totally, absolutely crazy. The Furies will be out of a job!" She folded her arms and regarded her partner and friend, now both chuckling. "When you've quite finished?..."
"Oh, absolutely!" Xena coughed and regained her composure.
"Yeah, right!" Solari placed her hand on her hips and bit her lip to stifle her giggles.
Ephiny tutted loudly and held up the map so all three of them could see it. The easy levity gradually gave way to serious discussion as tactics were considered then either agreed upon or dismissed and ideas were suggested and then pursued or dropped. Battle scenarios were doodled in the dust, to be frowned at or laughed over as the three warriors worked out what might lie ahead of them and how best to deal with it all. It was Solari who eventually looked towards the Sun and suggested the Amazons would be refreshed enough and the horses rested enough to continue the journey.
Ephiny spoke one short order to her people and, just as they had done when they stopped to rest, the Amazons made rapid work of organising the horses, their equipment and themselves, ready to recommence travelling. A final shout from the Regent and the small army moved off once more, leaving no trace to suggest they had even dismounted.
Gabrielle, accompanied by Eponin, had spent most of the afternoon with the crones Tethys and Lysidice, and the village record keeper Historias. At first nervous, she had quickly warmed to Tethys, whose past exploits had formed many of the stories she had grown up with in Poteidaia. Gabrielle appreciated the wisdom of the older Amazon, forged from so many seasons of experience and adventure. She also quickly liked Lysidice, a quiet, thoughtful Amazon steeped in their laws and customs but also well-versed in poetry and the antics of the gods. Historias, she was unsure of initially; so motionless and almost silent, her strangely pale grey eyes taking in every sound and movement of the others. However, when Lysidice quoted from Aristophanes, one of the popular bards and play-writes, Historias had laughed out loud and Gabrielle thought it was one of the most magical, joyful sounds she had ever heard. Then the record keeper spoke about the calendar details she kept for the village, events, births, deaths and much more. Gabrielle was captivated by this gently spoken woman, her rich vocal tones and inflections bringing to life what would normally be seen as mundane occurrences and her animate smile somehow brightened the room. Nevertheless, Gabrielle was surprised to realise that these three women who were so important to the village, were not merely being polite and indulgent towards her as a young woman, but were treating her with courtesy and utter respect as their Queen. She felt accepted by them, honoured and yet humbled by the entire situation.
Since then, Gabrielle had returned to her quarters, content to read about the history of the village, from a collection of scrolls Historias had been pleased to entrust to her. She was fascinated by the reigns of Semele and Demophon, grandmother and mother to Melosa. She was pleased too, to find the accounts of their bond-mates. Melosa's grandmother Semele had been a strong disciplinarian over the Amazons, usually fair but occasionally ruthless in her rule. She had married a kind and noble sea captain who had given up a life at sea to travel the land and finally settle in Nomius, just south of the Amazon village. Demophon had married a man identified as a powerful warlord who had experienced a vision of Apollo and had left his old life to become a travelling healer, which was how he ended up in Thessaly and met Demophon. Gabrielle couldn't help but smile at the account, finding a few similarities with a certain other ex-warlord and deciding some things evidently ran in the Amazon family, blood-tied or not! Demophon had been as gentle as her mother had been tough and was apparently a truly wise arbitrator in times of dispute. She had agreed treaties with lands beyond Amazonia that encouraged trade, enabling the Amazon village and Thessaly itself to thrive. Only the war with the Centaurs had damaged trade routes and relations with neighbouring lands, although there seemed to be little information concerning how the war actually began. It pointed to a temple artefact being stolen by a Centaur thief, but it was unclear what had been stolen or whether the theft had ever been proven. Gabrielle rolled up the scroll with a smile. At least she knew how the war came to an end with Melosa for the Amazons and Tildus for the Centaurs bringing their peoples together to fight a common enemy and find peace together, with a little help from Xena and herself. That had been her own inspiration to suggest and advise on agreements and treaties with other 'neighbours' after she had accepted the Queen's mask.
Gabrielle sighed and allowed her thoughts to drift to Xena, picturing her leading the Amazons, strong and powerful on Argo's back, skilful in battle, but without the bloodlust of so long ago. She reluctantly shrugged the thoughts away and got up, carefully packing away the history scrolls into their case. She went over to the fire and hung a small pot of water to heat for some tea. Avoiding the concoction Pyras had prepared for her, to aid sleep, Gabrielle instead chose a sweet berry infusion the cook had sent over as a small gift to welcome her back. Returning to her table with a full mug and a couple of apples, Gabrielle picked up one of her unfinished stories to go on with for the evening. Pulling a candle closer, to counter the rapidly failing light, she began to unroll the scroll. She scanned the first few lines with affection, reading the account of how she first met Tara, the young woman who had actually challenged her for the position of being Xena's travelling companion. She read the record of their fight, smiling from time to time and absent-mindedly running a finger down her right ear to find the one tiny indented scar left by Tara's teeth. Gabrielle wondered where she was now. She also hoped she was following the right path and was at peace with herself... and others.
Bringing both hands back to the scroll, Gabrielle unrolled it to the end to find the perfectly white arrow Artemis had given to Xena. She had not checked which scroll she had slipped the arrow into yesterday, so she was surprised when it rolled onto the table.
Gently picking it up, Gabrielle turned it in her hands and studied the barb, the shaft and the flight. It looked like a fine marble, but closer inspection revealed the object to be made of no earthly material. She mused over which of the gods may have crafted the arrow, if not the moon goddess herself. She leaned closer to the candlelight to see if she could locate any markings. As she did so, the arrow began to sparkle inside, giving off a small but unmistakable light of its own. Gabrielle gasped and sat upright again, the light fading from the arrow immediately. She moved towards the candle again and the light glowed; she pulled back from the candle and the light ceased. Slowly moving towards the candle and away again, Gabrielle watched with amazement as the light grew and dimmed within the arrow.
"Now is that any way to treat a gift from the gods, Gabrielle?" The voice out of nowhere made Gabrielle jump, but her fear soon turned to awe as the sudden bright light announced Artemis' presence. The radiant light faded to a gentle glow and the immortal stood tall and regal in white and gold silks. "It's not a toy, you know."
"My goddess and my Queen!" Gabrielle dropped to her knees and bowed her head.
Artemis regarded Gabrielle with fondness. "Rise, child. Come sit with me and talk a while." She settled into a chair by the table and gestured to Gabrielle to take the nearest one next to her own. "It's about time I visited my Chosen One."
Gabrielle got up tentatively and walked slowly round to where Artemis was sitting.
"I don't bite, Gabrielle. Well, not mortals anyway!" The comment was enough to relax Gabrielle and she walked more easily to the other chair and sat down. "So, you show no fear or respect where Ares is concerned, yet you seem to fear me, hmm?"
Gabrielle didn't know whether to be astounded most by Artemis' beauty, her maternal and gentle voice, her playful words or simply by her presence. She was glad at least not to forget her manners. "Artemis, it isn't that I fear you..." Feeling suddenly shy, she smiled sheepishly and looked at her hands for a few moments before looking up to regard the immortal's kind face and patient manner. "I'm not really afraid of you at all, but I do respect you and know you to be strong and perhaps one of the more... considerate members of the Pantheon. I suppose I always hoped for the chance to speak with you. As for Ares, I..." She looked at the goddess expecting to be chided if she insulted the god of war.
"Go on Gabrielle, I'm intrigued to hear you on the subject of my dear brother." Artemis leaned forward with an elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand.
"I don't like him! I don't trust him, I don't like the way he uses people and plays with their lives only to snatch them away in battle, I don't like the way he used Xena in the past and I don't like the way he still toys with her!" Artemis smiled to hear Gabrielle gathering momentum, as if a volcano had erupted and was now spewing it's innards in an unstoppable flow. "His arrogance is appalling, whether it's towards mortals or immortals! He's obnoxious and doesn't care two dinars what damage he causes to people or the mess he leaves for other gods to clear up! He's always out for his own gain and I'm sick of the way he constantly pursues Xena as if his code is the only life she should know and his godhood should be the only influencing power in her life!" Gabrielle hung her head, having run out of energy and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Did I mention that I don't like him?"
Artemis forced herself not to laugh. "You did, child. Do you feel better for that...torrent, or do you wish to continue to berate him to me?"
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I realised, back when Ares had his sword stolen and lost his powers 'til Xena helped to recover them, that even the god of war is a necessary though unfortunate fact of life. Without him there is a certain amount of self-control that's lost and chaos receives a free hand to influence most people." She studied the immortal's face and found nothing apart from affection. To Gabrielle, it was both disconcerting and comforting at the same time. "It's just that... Artemis, I don't understand why or how he got his way with this stupid challenge, or what he really hopes to achieve from it. He won't win! He can't...win. Can he?" She looked hopefully at the goddess.
"Gabrielle, do you ever wonder what it might be like to fly?" Artemis smiled.
"I, uh... Fly? I don't understand." Gabrielle frowned in puzzlement. "What's that got to do with it?"
"Answer me child. Do you ever wonder what it might be like to fly? Come on Gabrielle, you're a bard with extraordinary imagination! So, has the bard ever wanted to be a bird?"
Gabrielle raised both eyebrows and pursed her lips thoughtfully, deciding it was better to go along with the immortal's game, whatever resulted from it. "Okay, yes!" She shrugged her shoulders. "I've wondered what it would be like to soar in the sky like the eagles or race around like the migrating swifts that pass through. It must be wonderful to be so free."
"So why don't you just fly then?"
"Because I'm not a bird, Artemis! Please my Queen, where are we going with this?"
"Humour me child, you will understand the point I'm making."
"Alright." Gabrielle sighed and thought for a few moments. "I'm a human being and I'm not designed to fly. I'm subject to... natural laws, ordaining that I stay firmly on the ground. How's that?"
"Perfect, Gabrielle. Now then, why do you think this challenge has, for good or ill, been laid down by Ares and accepted by Zeus for Xena?"
"Because the Pantheon is subject to the whims and tantrums of immortal idiots and tyrants?"
"You go too far, child!"
"I'm sorry Artemis." Gabrielle dropped her gaze to the table.
"Though in some respects, that does actually sum up what has happened." Artemis regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully before speaking again. "Gabrielle, as you study Amazon traditions, codes and practises you are becoming aware of Amazon loyalty to me and to the laws that guide and protect you all, yes?"
"Yes." Gabrielle looked up.
"And without the Amazon laws, do you think you would all live and act responsibly together as a true nation? A recognisable people?"
"I'd like to think we could, but I suppose it would be unlikely."
"So then, just as humans are subject to natural laws that keep them on the ground and birds are subject to laws of flight; just as Amazons are subject to the laws here, so too are immortals subject to certain laws. And we abide by them on the whole, even Ares!" Artemis gestured towards Gabrielle's mug and it gently rose into the air and floated into her hand. "Do you mind, Child? I'd appreciate a sip of your tea."
"Not at all." Gabrielle couldn't hide her grin. "Your touch won't turn my mug into something magical, will it?"
"You let your imagination get the better of you sometimes." Artemis took a sip. "Your cook certainly has a way with sweet berries." She smiled and returned the mug back to Gabrielle in the same fashion she had taken it. "Now then, the hard truth of the matter is that Xena once gave her allegiance to Ares and although she walked away from him a long time ago, he never relinquished his claim on her."
"Don't I know it!" Gabrielle leaned on the table and listened intently.
"Ares has requested a rightful challenge to win Xena back once for all or lose her completely. This was granted and agreed to by Zeus..." She held up her hand to silence Gabrielle who had opened her mouth to object. "And as such we are bound by my father's decision. The outcome will decide Ares' hold on Xena or his...exile away from her. Forever, Gabrielle."
"But why now, Artemis? Why, when we couldn't be happier with each other? We have a future here with our friends, our... family!" Gabrielle could feel herself becoming choked up and tried to calm herself before emotion could get the better of her. She took a deep breath and quietened herself. "It's like he's just being spiteful."
Artemis leaned towards Gabrielle and stroked her cheek, gently trailing her fingers down to cup her chin. "It's like he's just being scared."
"Scared? Scared of what?"
"Not what, Gabrielle. Who."
"Ares is scared of Xena?"
The immortal sat back in her chair. "Oh he's wary of Xena and what she's capable of but no, Ares isn't scared of Xena he's scared of you, Gabrielle."
"Me? Ares is scared of me!" Gabrielle burst out laughing, finally placing a hand over her mouth to still her giggles. "That's funny, Artemis. You almost had me believing you... Ares scared of me, yeah sure. The god of war is frightened of a small blond woman..." She looked at the immortal to find her patiently waiting to continue. "You're not serious are you? I mean, you are joking aren't you?"
"I am absolutely serious. Ares, god of war, immortal, my brother, fears Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Amazon Queen, teller of stories, poet."
"But that's ridiculous! For what possible reason could Ares be even remotely...? Oh, wait a moment." Gabrielle paused and Artemis waited for her to unravel the not very complicated puzzle. "It's still Xena. I've taken her away from Ares and kept her away, haven't I? Or at least, that's how he sees it."
"That's it, in short." The immortal smiled. "Loathed though he is to admit it, you are the only thing that stops him re-conquering the warrior's heart and regaining her allegiance."
"So why doesn't he just get rid of me?" Gabrielle asked honestly. "Not that I'm willing to give him that option of course."
Artemis laughed. "Oh Gabrielle, Ares wouldn't dare! Firstly, he wouldn't risk my wrath for interfering with any of my Amazon Queens in that way and neither would he dare face Athena for hurting a noble people and insulting me. He may be the god of war, but he's like an infant compared to the strength and power of Athena. Secondly, I should think the easiest way to ensure Xena's defiance towards Ares would be for him to send you to Persephone and Hades before your time, Zeus forbid!"
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "So this challenge really is a last desperate attempt on Ares' part to have Xena as his... prized General once more?"
"That's about the sum of it."
"He'll cheat! He won't adhere to Zeus' rules."
"Oh I don't doubt that he'll try, Gabrielle." Artemis appreciated the young woman's directness. "But take heart my Chosen One, he will have to deal with almost all the gods if he tries and Zeus could happily strip him of certain powers should he offend us by attempting to cheat." She regarded Gabrielle, so beautiful in the candlelight and deep in thought. "I suggest we change the subject now."
"Alright." Gabrielle looked up and smiled slowly. "What's the white arrow for, Artemis?" She nodded towards the object lying on the table.
"But not to that particular subject." Artemis smiled, cocking her head to one side. "You will know soon enough Gabrielle, but it is for Xena to discover and not for you."
"Well you can't blame me for asking." She leaned on the table and rested her chin against the back of her hand. "Are they safe, goddess... My Amazon sisters and Xena, are they all safe?"
Artemis closed her eyes for a moment, before leaning closer to Gabrielle. "It troubles you greatly, doesn't it? Not knowing, I mean."
The goddess sat upright and looked about Gabrielle's quarters. "Do you have something like a large platter or a glass of some kind that you look at your reflection in?"
Gabrielle was about to question the immortal's motive, but thought better against it. "There is a bronze plate over there, holding fruit. I'll fetch it for you if you'd like me to."
Artemis rose before Gabrielle could, walked over to the plate and tipped the fruit onto the chest beneath. "This will do nicely." She returned to the table and placed the large oval plate in front of Gabrielle. "Now then..."
Gabrielle frowned, puzzled. "Forgive me Artemis, I don't get it."
"Oh you will in a moment child, be patient." The immortal ran her index finger round the rim of the plate, then stroked her palm across the centre. "That's better. Now look closely..." She remained standing behind Gabrielle and rested a hand on her shoulder.
Gabrielle stared into the bronze plate, assuming this was what Artemis wanted her to do. Several heartbeats passed by and she was about to ask the goddess why she was staring at a lump of bronze, when a swirl of mist appeared in the middle of the plate and rippled across the surface to spill over the edge. Gabrielle's mouth dropped open when she saw the mist, but as it dissipated she gasped loudly. She could see Xena sitting by a fire sharpening her sword; a familiar image, but under the strangest circumstances. It was as if she was looking through an open window. Sitting across from Xena, Ephiny and Solari had their heads close together and were deep in conversation.
Gabrielle looked up at Artemis. "Is this a dream? What is it? How can I see her?"
The goddess squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder. "No, it's not a dream, you are awake. You see her because I grant it. You wanted to know whether Xena and your people are safe." She gestured to the vision. "Here is your answer."
"They are alright aren't they!" Gabrielle smiled, so pleased to see her beloved's face. She rested her head against one hand, allowing her hair to tumble forward into the plate. With the other hand, she gently trailed a finger along the length of Xena's hair and down the side of the warrior's face.
Xena leapt up from where she was sitting as if propelled by a lightening bolt. She stood with her sword outstretched and cupped her cheek with the other hand.
"Gods Xena!" Solari stood up, drawing her own sword. "You gave me such a start! What is it? What do you hear? Is it Agradon?"
Xena rotated through each cardinal point as if anticipating an invisible enemy, lowering her sword only when she reached north again and realised no one was near, other than Amazons and their horses. "I don't know... something touched me."
Ephiny had also risen, sword in hand. "A spirit? One of the gods?" She watched Xena gradually lower her sword and allowed her tone to become more than a little sardonic. "A breeze perhaps? Xena you're just getting jumpy!"
"I don't get jumpy, Ephiny. I just..." She lowered her hand and brought it to her lips and nose, inhaling. "I don't believe this. It's Gabrielle!" She raised her hand over her shoulder and brought a handful of hair around her face to inhale again. "By the gods... it is her! It's Gabrielle's scent!" She grinned broadly at her friends.
"But how could it possibly be Gabrielle, Xena?" Ephiny re-sheathed her sword and sat down again, her action copied by Solari. "Maybe Ares is playing some kind of stupid trick on you."
"No, not Ares." Xena thought for a moment and smiled. "He's bound by Zeus not to interfere during the challenge. But I think you're right about there being a god involved." She walked over to her companions and leaned forward. "Smell my hair and tell me that's not our Queen. I mean my Gabrielle!"
Ephiny and Solari laughed in unison, but did as they were asked. The expression on both faces was enough to confirm to Xena that at least she wasn't going insane.
"Okay then." Xena stood to her full height and lifted her sword over her shoulder and into its sheath. "I'm going for a walk." She noted the look of concern from both Ephiny and Solari. "Don't get worried, I'm not even going as far as the camp perimeter. Just need to be alone for a little while." Without waiting for an answer she strode off quickly and was soon covered by trees and the night's mantle.
Once Xena was sure she was out of sight and earshot from Ephiny and Solari, she hissed loudly. "Artemis! Come on, come on! I know you can hear me." She turned towards a group of dense shrubs. "You promised me that if I called on you, you'd be here." She spun round, making her way over to a tree stump covered in briars, and called to the goddess again. A moment later her senses tingled. "Okay, now I can feel your presence! Would you please make yourself visible so that we can talk?"
Divine lights began to appear and Xena suddenly realised that this was not Artemis, although she sensed benevolence and no threat. The god or goddess had taken form but remained in the shadows observing Xena, which annoyed rather than unnerved the warrior.
"Do you think we could talk now or are you only here to watch the show?" Xena had lowered her sword, but refrained from sheathing it.
"Xena, you truly are a remarkable mortal, but so disrespectful!" Deep but feminine tones seemed to float through the surrounding forest. "I can see why my sister has enjoyed watching over you during your life." A moment more elapsed, then an audible sigh was followed by movement as the immortal came forward. The sight that confronted Xena was enough to make the warrior gasp and drop to one knee.
"Well now, there's a turn up for the scrolls if ever there was one!" The goddess walked towards Xena. "I see the Amazons may be teaching you some manners after all. Do you greet me with worship, mortal?"
Xena looked up slowly to find the welcoming smile of a beautiful woman in dazzling silver armour and white silks trimmed with gold. A silver helmet, sporting a long white plume, rested between the immortal's hip and the crook of her arm. A bejewelled sword hung at her side, a shield and bow with quiver hung from her shoulder. Xena returned the immortal's smile with one of her own. "I greet you as a warrior I honour and respect, Athena. Though I admit, I never thought to see you face to face."
"Because of your dark days and heinous reputation as a warlord, Xena?"
"Something like that."
"On the contrary my human friend, when I first learned of how the Destroyer of Nations had forsaken Ares and chosen a path of wisdom and redemption instead, I was very interested in you." Athena offered her hand to Xena, who took it tentatively and stood up to re-sheath her sword. "Had it not been for the fact that your life was a little overcrowded by my siblings, I would have taken more than a passing interest... and much sooner."
"And you are here now, because...?"
"I promised Artemis I'd come to you if she were otherwise engaged when you called."
"So Artemis is with Gabrielle just now?"
"Yes, she's there. I gather you were startled by Gabrielle's touch. That wasn't exactly meant to happen."
"My sister thought she would be nice to her Chosen One, given that she'd never visited her visibly before, and decided to allow her to see that you and the Amazons with you were alright. Unfortunately, she didn't anticipate Gabrielle becoming tactile with the vision."
Xena grinned. "That's so like Gabrielle."
"Anyway Xena, if you were just a little concerned about what was going on, that's all it was."
Xena quietly nodded, then addressed the immortal seriously. "Athena, are you bound by the same rules in all this that apply to Artemis and Ares?"
Athena smiled. "Not exactly. I was merely bound by Zeus not to tell you that the rules do not apply to me. However, since you actually asked me directly... now you know."
Xena thought for a moment and then realised Athena was waiting for some kind of response or request. "I still intend to deal with this in the same way had you never appeared, goddess. I mean, I'm not about to ask you to intervene or grant us special powers of any kind."
"That's wise Xena, I'm glad of it. I could help you in that way, but we'd never hear the end of it from Ares!" Athena laughed; a carefree and joyful sound. "I'm pleased that you wish to be so honourable in this matter. However, since that is the way you want to handle the situation, let me at least impart a little news to aid you."
Xena nodded her consent and the goddess continued. "Agradon is down to precisely forty-eight men, much to his dismay. Also, you can sleep soundly tonight, all of you. None of Agradon's scouts are anywhere near this area and nothing untoward will occur. If you leave at dawn tomorrow and head directly for the Calydonis forest you will sight Agradon's camp by early afternoon. Make your plans swiftly and attack by the following dawn." She raised a hand to urge Xena not to interrupt with an objection. "If you delay beyond that, Agradon will strike camp and move on; he needs to look for new recruits for his depleted army."
"And the chalice, Athena?"
"It's there Xena. Look for a tent with a symbol of two black snakes intertwined. It's in there, along with a few other treasures."
"That is helpful news." Xena silently turned over in her mind what Athena had related. "Thank you, Athena." She looked up and smiled in gratitude.
"You are most welcome, warrior."
"It's good to know we actually outnumber his men now, but last I heard he had seventy or eighty! What happened? Where'd they go?"
Athena sighed heavily and gestured to two mossy tree stumps. "I wish I could say they simply saw the error of their ways and left Agradon's army." Immortal and mortal sat down together. "Sadly, it was Agradon's attack yesterday on, of all things, a defenceless hospice! That's what turned their stomachs enough to make them finally leave his army. He rode in and, with a few of his men he began killing the patients and those locals who were visiting them. It was for no greater reason than the sport of it!"
Xena placed a hand over her mouth and closed her eyes, whispering to herself. "I thought my army and I did some terrible things, but... Oh gods, what is wrong with him?"
Athena nodded and continued. "A few survived and were able to confirm how some of Agradon's men turned against him and tried to stop him in his tracks, but they were too few to hold off those loyal to him. Of the men that turned, about half of them died fighting and the others fled. Agradon managed to catch three of them. He was so furious and so filled with bloodlust, he had them dragged to Apollo's statue, along with the two physicians and five nurses there." Athena bowed her head and her voice dropped to a whisper. "They were all raped and then killed, the women and men alike."
Xena sighed heavily and shook her head in disbelief.
"When other villagers ventured back to the place, they found a blood bath in the hospice and, at Apollo's statue the victims there had been strung up, their throats cut. My brother was desperately saddened that his statue, meant to inspire hope, had become a place of such brutal torment and savagery. He destroyed it last night and in it's place created a small shrine in memory of the hospice staff."
"How can the gods allow this, Athena?" Xena shuddered at the vision now in her mind and tried to still her growing anger. "How does this... this monster and his evil men continue to be allowed to live?"
"Xena , listen to yourself! It was not too long ago that prayers were spoken in earnest along the same lines concerning you and your army."
"But I never allowed anything like that to happen! My men had some sense of where to draw the line and so did I!" Xena stood up, feeling the need to pace off some of the conflicting emotions rising within her.
"A matter of degree and dimension Xena, that's all." The immortal's gentle voice did little to calm the warrior. Athena stood up, leaving behind the helmet she carried, and reached out both hands to firmly grasp Xena's shoulders. Anyone other than Gabrielle might well have been thrown against a tree, given similar circumstances, but Xena had no choice other than to stand still and gradually relax. "That's better, young human." She smiled softly and released one of Xena's shoulders. "Listen to me and hear me well. Mortals are not slaves to the gods and well you know it; you all have freedom of will to choose good or ill. For what it's worth, Agradon's time is about to end at your hands, one way or another. As for those poor dear souls murdered at the hospice, some have entered Elysia, some the garden of memories and one or two now tend Hade's personal gardens. They are at peace, you have my word; but peace is certainly not what awaits Agradon, nor those of his men who perpetuate these abominable crimes."
Xena looked as though she were about to weep, but she took a deep breath, shrugged her shoulders and stood to her full height. "Alright. You're right, Athena. Tomorrow we find Agradon's camp; the day after, we attack and bring him to his sorry knees!" She found her smile and presented it to the goddess. "As for me, for whatever it's worth from this mortal warrior, I lead the Amazons for Gabrielle and for the Thessalian tribe, but... I also lead them for Artemis and for you."
"Xena, this tribute I accept with a happy heart." The goddess suddenly grinned. "However, I doubt this... devotional act will be mentioned to your Queen and soon-to-be sisters?"
Xena laughed. "Probably not. You know me better than I realised."
"And love you for it, my mortal friend." The goddess regarded Xena for a moment longer, then turned to the tree stump and retrieved her helmet. "Should all go well Xena, I trust I may expect an invitation to your joining with Gabrielle?"
Xena raised an eyebrow and grinned. "With all Amazon hospitality due to you, Athena."
"Splendid! I look forward to it." The goddess began to fade from view, then returned in full physical form once more. "Just one other thing Xena and please, accept it with the affection with which it is meant."
"Alright, what is it?" Xena suppressed her sudden suspicion and maintained her good humour.
"I know you harbour deep within your soul, something that hurts you and chains you to a false guilt. Because of it's nature, you refrain from speaking with Gabrielle who is so much your confessor and moral guide in life. You wrestle with the question of sharing this... this weight with another friend. Do not hesitate, Xena. Her love for you is strong, her trust and belief in your capacity for good are immense. Go to her and talk, you will discover a freedom you thought closed to you."
"Thank you, Athena." The single tear that trickled down Xena's cheek was the only indication that the immortal's words had struck the warrior's heart. Neither her voice, nor her demeanour altered. "I mean that honestly."
"I know. And now I must go." Athena faded, until Xena sensed her presence disappearing. "Good journeys my warrior. Be swift and sure in the battle ahead." With that, she was gone and the forest resumed its shape where once the goddess had stood.
Xena walked slowly back to find Ephiny sitting by the campfire waiting for her. She also recognised Charis talking with Solari.
"Everything fine, Xena?" Ephiny stood up.
"Just fine, Ephiny."
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Solari leaned forward to stoke the fire.
"Not exactly." Xena looked from Solari back to Ephiny. "But it was useful." She walked over to Charis. "Thanks for stopping by. Are they ready?"
"Yes Xena." The young royal guard stood up and bowed her head briefly in greeting. "We all managed about four each, so there are four hundred or so in the wagon now."
"Excellent. Well done." Xena reached out to Charis and clasped her arm warmly. "Keep alert and stay focused on the battle ahead my friend, remember it's no good rescuing Prisca only to find we lose you. Don't be so intent on finding your sister, you forget to watch your back, understand?"
Charis grinned broadly. "Yes I understand, Xena. Thanks for reminding me."
"Good." Xena looked up at Ephiny and Solari. "Now unless our Regent needs anything from you...?" Ephiny smiled and shook her head in response. "Alright. Go and get a good night's sleep Charis, and spread the word that we leave at dawn for Dardania."
"I will." Charis turned to Ephiny and bowed her head. "Goodnight, my Regent."
"Goodnight." Ephiny responded. "And thank you, Charis. Sleep well."
"Solari." Charis and Solari nodded to each other, then Charis turned back to Xena. "I'm very glad that you have returned to us with our Queen, Xena. Our future will be happier with you both in the village."
Xena grinned. "I hope so, Charis. Now go and get some sleep."
"Goodnight, Xena." Charis stepped past the warrior and walked away towards another campfire where a group of Amazons gathered, finishing a meal and talking about the battle ahead.
Xena watched the Amazon warrior go, before she turned to Ephiny and Solari and asked them to join her. The three of them sat together as Xena related everything about her encounter with Athena and all that the goddess had revealed concerning Agradon, the chalice and what had happened at the hospice. They voiced their sorrow for those murdered and then went over their plans again, deciding which Amazon fighters would make up the three groups when the army divided for the planned Oxen's Horns formation. They also confirmed with one another that Ephiny and Solari would head up the 'horns', with Xena bringing up the 'head', all of them ready to use the now prepared smoke-missiles. As they settled their plans, they shared a flask of port Solari had supplied and the mood lightened.
The night wore on and soon the Amazon camp was quiet, apart from the occasional comforting bird-call from watch to watch, confirming all was well. Of the others, only Xena and Ephiny remained awake, quietly speaking with each other by the glowing embers of the banked fire. Xena had silently roused Ephiny from sleep, requesting her to leave the arms of Solari and talk with her. She quietly and falteringly confessed to Ephiny how desperately she felt regarding the events in Britannia, how she believed she had let down the one person she truly loved. Xena saw it as tantamount to murdering Gabrielle's blood innocence herself, along with the young woman's trust and belief in her as her truest friend and protector. She thought it ironic that this heart and soul 'murder' had eventually led to her actual physical attempt on Gabrielle's life. For the latter at least, she could look forward to a cleansing through Amazon Law, but for the former... how could she ever forgive herself, despite Gabrielle's own forgiveness and commitment to her?
"Xena..." Ephiny's voice was gentle and her touch warm as she clasped the warrior's hand. "My friend, I was not there and so I can't really comment on all the facts, but one thing I do know and that is what happened in Dahok's temple was not your fault."
"I should have been there, Ephiny. I should've stayed with her."
"It wasn't your fault, Xena."
"I left her with that... that group of evil devotees and that bastard Krafstar! I shouldn't have left her. I should have been there!"
"But you didn't know that this group worshipped Dahok, did you?"
"No, of course I didn't, Eph. If I'd had the tiniest inkling who they were... If I'd known they weren't what they seemed, I'd have kept Gabrielle on the battlefield with me and Boudica, where she would have actually been safer!"
"You thought they were another group of those strange Hebrews you've met a few times, right?" Ephiny moved closer to her friend. "Those who only worship one deity?"
"Yeah, we both thought that's who they were." Xena picked up the still half full flask and swallowed a mouthful of port. "Krafstar sounded so kind and peace loving, just like that David, the leader we got to know when we helped the Hebrews fight the Philistines. He talked the same kind of language and I was convinced Krafstar followed the same strange, but harmless faith. So was Gabrielle."
"So you left Gabrielle with a group of people both you and she thought were basically good and kind; you believed she'd be safe away from the battlefield?"
"Well... yeah, that's about it."
"And yet you still believe what happened then was your fault?"
"I should have... "
"Been there for her, yes I heard you the first dozen times or so!" Ephiny cut Xena off in mid sentence. "Xena, if I or any one of us here had been in that situation we would have done the same. All our Amazons love Gabrielle deeply; the gods know I love her as my friend and sister! There isn't one of us who wouldn't give lifeblood to protect her and keep her safe. You did what you believed was right, out of love and out of care for Gabrielle. The moment you suspected something bad was happening at the temple, you left the battlefield to be with her." Ephiny raised a hand and grasped Xena's shoulder. "You forgot Caesar, you forgot Boudica, you had no time for the sweet taste of revenge... all that mattered was finding Gabrielle and making sure she was safe. You did that!"
"I didn't Ephiny!" Xena shrugged the hand from her shoulder. "I didn't stop it! I wasn't fast enough! Everything fell to pieces for Gabrielle and I let it!"
"Xena, you're mortal. You can't be in one place for one heartbeat, then somewhere else the next."
"That's not the point!"
"That's entirely the point, Xena. You're as mortal as the rest of us! You have so many wonderful skills, but you're still limited to being human. And anyway, judging by what Gabrielle told me, you couldn't have fought that demon however quickly you'd got there! It wasn't a solid, physical presence, it wasn't anything you could have run through with your sword! It was flame and it was spirit and it just swept her up into the air! She told me how you had your hands full with that minotaur creature that attacked you anyway. Once you got rid of that thing you pulled Gabrielle outta the flames and got her outside the temple! What more were you supposed to do, huh? As for when she killed that priestess, Gabrielle told me she had come to terms with that horrible mistake she was tricked into making. She's always seen her loss of blood-innocence as her responsibility and never blamed you, Xena."
Xena stared at Ephiny as she'd just been slapped. "Gabrielle told you all this...?"
Ephiny took a deep breath and sighed. "Yeah, she told me it all and said that she hoped one day you'd let it go and forgive yourself. She's well aware that you haven't so far."
"She told you that?"
"Yes Xena, Gabrielle told me that. She told me it all." Ephiny tentatively raised her hand to Xena's face and rested it against the warrior's cheek. "So you see, the truth is that if you can't let this go, you're really hurting the one who's already forgiven you for... well, as you see it, for not being there in the first place. You're not allowing yourself to be free and that hurts Gabrielle more than you realise. It insults her love for you Xena and her belief in you."
Xena lowered her eyes and Ephiny decided enough had been said. She dropped her hand from the warrior's face and let it rest on Xena's wrist, turning towards the campfire to watch the flames as she quietly hoped her friend would step out of her self-imposed mire of guilt that she'd waded through for too long.
"I guess you're right, Ephiny." Xena's whisper was almost missed by the Amazon. She cleared her throat and spoke again. "Of course you're right. You and Gabrielle." She looked up at Ephiny and smiled.
Ephiny returned the smile, astounded to realise Xena's face and throat were drenched in tears, though she hadn't made a sound to suggest she had cried. She also saw for the first time the remarkable mixture of power and fragility that made up the beautiful woman before her and felt humbled to have this side of Xena revealed to her; a side probably only ever seen by Gabrielle, Ephiny was certain.
"I couldn't stop it, Ephiny. I wish I could have, but... Oh gods, I'm so sorry I couldn't get there in time!" Xena began to tremble and Ephiny reached out instinctively to hold her friend. "I tried so hard, Eph."
"I know, Xena."
"I tried so hard... I just wasn't fast enough." She began to shake involuntarily from the sudden outpouring of her feelings.
"I know." Ephiny drew Xena into herself and held her maternally against her shoulder, allowing her to sob. "It's gonna be alright, Xena. Let it go. Let it all go." She closed her eyes against her own tears, threatening to fall in sympathy, and concentrated on comforting her friend. She lost track of the time while she held onto Xena, allowing her to cry herself into exhaustion on her lap.
Far from sleeping through the event, Solari had been aware of all that had been shared between Xena and Ephiny, but recognised the warrior's need for a single trusted friend with whom to share her burden. Once she was certain Xena had fallen asleep, Solari rose silently to make some fresh tea and mulled port for Ephiny and herself. They drank quietly and clasped each other's free hands gently across Xena's back. A full two candle marks had passed since the conversation by the fireside had begun and a third before the warrior stirred and slowly sat up, taking in her surroundings.
Xena regarded the two Amazons who now looked at her with an affection neither could be bothered to hide. She couldn't help but smile sheepishly. "I uh, I don't know whether to thank you or to kill you." Her voice cracked slightly from her dry throat and Solari offered her own mug. "Thanks."
"It's nearly cold, Xena."
"It's just fine, thanks Solari."
"I suppose you'd better just stick with saying thanks, Xena." Ephiny clasped the warrior's shoulder. "As killing us might prove a little awkward to explain in the morning. Besides, you need us both for the Oxen's Horns remember?" She smiled. "You okay?"
Xena closed her eyes and nodded. "Apart from one Tartarus of a headache, I feel great; like I've just been pulled out of a river where I was drowning."
"I think you've been drowning in that river for quite some time, Xena." Ephiny exchanged a serious look with the warrior. "Thank you for trusting me as a friend."
"Yeah well, I guess I'm starting to realise there are one or two more people I can trust apart from Gabrielle and Cyrene." She grinned suddenly and reached out to shake Solari's shoulder. "That includes you too, Sol!"
Solari laughed. "Well that's true, but I'm probably more use for helping to work out your frustrations on the practise fields. Ephiny's the one who's good with the sensitive stuff."
"Like Gabrielle." Xena smiled.
"Yeah, just like Gabrielle." Solari agreed. "They're both great with the sensitive chat stuff and the like."
"Would you two not talk about me or Gabrielle like we're a couple of wet nurses, please? Honestly!" She addressed Solari. "I can still give as good as I get in combat and Gabrielle dropped you on your arse a day or two ago, remember?"
"She sure did! I've still got the bruises from it!" Solari smiled at Ephiny. "Alright, I get the message."
Xena stood up. "It'll be dawn in three or four candle marks. We should get whatever sleep we can." She walked over to where her saddle was propped against a tree and picked up her water-skin. Once she had rinsed away the traces of salt from her face she came back to the campfire, where Ephiny and Solari had already settled down on their bedrolls again. "Thanks Ephiny, for... for being who you are and for your friendship. You too, Solari. I won't forget this."
"You won't be able to, Xena. You're stuck with us now." Ephiny's voice drifted up from where she lay enfolded by Solari's arm. "Unless that skull of yours is too thick to allow for the fact that you're loved?"
Xena chuckled. "No, guess not."
"Good! Now let's get some sleep Xena, before I feel the need to render you unconscious for the sake of our friendship, okay?"
"Okay." Xena moved across to her own bedroll and lay down to look at the stars. She felt as if a heavy burden truly had been lifted from her shoulders and, as she drifted towards sleep, she hoped Gabrielle might have looked up at the same stars this night knowing that Xena loved her more than life.
The remainder of the night passed uneventfully, as Athena had promised it would. In the same way, the morning unfolded peacefully and the Amazon army made good time after striking camp at dawn and heading for Dardania. Still several hundred leagues from Agradon's camp, the Amazons halted their journey and set up their own camp ready to prepare for their assault on the warlord.
As soon as duties were established and guards posted for the watch, Xena called Solari, Charis and Iphitus to her. With Ephiny's agreement, Xena and the three Amazons rode out to locate Agradon and his men. It wasn't long before they sighted the Calydonis forest and they swept round into the trees. Leaving their horses tethered, they silently travelled the last league on foot, soon reaching the forest edge. From a position still inside the forest, they could clearly see Agradon's tent. Nearby was the tent with the black snake symbol Athena had spoken of, which held the chalice Xena needed to recover. The four remained where they were for half a candle mark, pointing out various areas of importance to each other, such as how close the river was, where the arsenal seemed to be situated and where food was prepared.
A moment later, Xena hissed to her companions. "Get back! Someone's coming!"
They scattered silently behind trees and into shadows, watching as two women carrying baskets came into view and entered the forest.
"And for Hades' sake, find some decent mushrooms this time!" A rough voice pursued them. "Machaerus will have the lash for you again if you don't! See if he doesn't!" The owner of the voice stopped short of the forest and walked back to the camp.
"Perfect." Xena whispered to Solari. "Think we can manage these two? I don't get the impression they're too in love with Agradon's men." Solari grinned and nodded to Xena, then the two of them moved without a sound towards the women, now intent on their task of collecting forest fare as quickly as possible.
Xena came up behind the taller of the two and placed a hand over her mouth, pinning the woman's arms to her sides and causing her to drop the basket, spilling its meagre contents. "Don't be afraid. We're Amazons and we're here to get you out, but we need your help first. Do you understand?" She paused, please to feel the woman nod against her hand and relax after her initial shock at being grabbed. "Alright then. I'm going to let you go. If you attempt to scream, I'll run you through before you get the first note out. Understand?" Xena felt the woman nod again, so she slowly let go and stepped back.
The woman turned around to look at her assailant. "I won't scream. We've learned that it does no good around these animals anyway, it simply... incites them." She smiles cynically. "So, you're Amazons and you've come to rescue us?" She regarded each stranger in turn.
"That's right." Solari let go of her quarry and they exchanged nods. "You have one of our sisters here."
"Actually there are four Amazons here." The smaller woman spoke up. "Three from a tribe in Mesopotamia and one from Thessaly." She noticed one of the younger Amazons open her mouth to say something but then change her mind and remain silent. "Which are you from?"
"It's alright Charis." Xena hadn't missed the guard's response to hearing Thessaly mentioned. She turned back to the woman. "The Thessalian tribe."
The taller woman sighed, then smiled. "You've come for Prisca. Forgive my... suspicions, but it wouldn't be the first time Amazons have attempted to rescue the women here. That's how we ended up with the women from Mesopotamia. You'll need more than a handful of warriors to beat this warlord's gods-forsaken hide and take his camp."
Xena and the others nodded slowly, realising that the woman probably referred to an opportunistic rescue attempt by an Amazon hunting party or some such group that would have numbered no more than eight or ten at most.
Xena finally answered. "We are well prepared."
"You've come with an army!" At last, the woman's demeanour became friendly, as she watched Xena nod in response to her surprisingly accurate guess. "Perhaps I spoke too cynically and too soon. My name is Thebe and this is Briseis. We are priestesses to Apollo... or were, before the villages we served were sacked and we were captured."
The women and Amazons exchanged greetings, then Thebe pointed out that they would not have much time before their guard returned to look for them. Iphitus stepped forward and suggested that she and Charis collect the berries and mushrooms and whatever else they could find, while Xena and Solari spoke with the women. This was agreed and although reluctant to accept the plan, Charis walked off with Iphitus, picking up the baskets as they went. By the time the two young Amazons reappeared with almost full baskets, Thebe and Briseis were ready to return to the camp. They took their baskets from Iphitus and Charis, grateful that they could return with so many berries, mushrooms and edible plants.
Thebe turned back towards Xena, gesturing with a leather pouch containing the nymphaean. "It'll be a pleasure to put this in their food this afternoon. It should dampen their sport for the evening." She dropped the pouch into her basket, covering it with a handful of berries, then she reached out and took Xena's hand. "Please see your plans through. Don't leave us here."
Xena smiled and clasped the priestess' hand warmly. "We're not leaving any of you behind, you have my word. Are you certain you can carry through your part of the plan?"
"It shall be done as you've suggested and I swear that no one will know of our conversation until everything has taken place. Briseis and I shall say nothing."
"It's safer that way." Solari confirmed. "Now you'd better go. May the gods watch over you."
"And you, my friends. May they grant all speed and skill to you tomorrow." With a final nod of farewell, Thebe walked out of the forest and back to the camp, closely followed by Briseis.
Xena waited for a few moments, making sure no one else was about to enter the forest from Agradon's camp. Satisfied, she and the others left as silently as they had arrived and returned to their horses. On the ride back, Charis brought her horse level with Argo and thanked Xena for asking her to join the scouting party.
"I was glad to have you with me, Charis."
The Amazon was quiet for a few moments. "Xena, did you ask them about Prisca?"
"I was wondering when you were going to ask me that." Xena smiled wryly. "Both Thebe and Briseis told me that they've got to know Prisca. They say she is as strong and spirited as when they first met her three seasons ago after they had been taken captive in Rhodes."
"Our Agradon gets around, doesn't he. Anyway, they said Prisca has always believed her sisters would come for her and since they arrived back here on the mainland, she's been convinced it's just a matter of time."
Charis was thoughtful before speaking again. "I still can't help wondering why Prisca hasn't made a run for it though, especially now Thessaly's less than two days from here. She must know where she is!"
"Oh, she knows. I'm sure of that." Xena slowed Argo to a walk as the Amazon camp came into view, giving Solari the chance to signal the appropriate birdcall, announcing their safe return. "Briseis said that some of those who've tried to run carry the marks of being beaten severely once caught, including herself and Prisca. Also, Agradon has had a pair of hunting dogs for a while now. Apparently, they're both like friendly puppies within the perimeters of the camp, even with strangers, but if someone runs and Agradon gives the word to hunt them down, they can be pretty vicious and never fail to catch their quarry. Thebe said she tried to run once. Her shoulder carries scars from the bites she received from Agradon's dogs after they ran her down."
Charis sighed heavily. "I suppose they decided to just stop running."
"I suppose so." Xena smiled. "At least now they don't have to wait much longer, right?" She reached out affectionately and patted the young warrior's back.
"Right." Charis dismounted, offering to take Argo to feed and water her with her own mare.
Xena happily complied, swinging down from her saddle before stroking Argo's ears and telling her to be nice to Charis. She watched the Amazon lead Argo and her own horse away, grinning to hear Charis talking to both horses and the mares responding with snorts and nods as if the three were deep in conversation. Solari came up and stood by Xena, handing her reigns to Iphitus who was happy to follow Charis' lead.
Ephiny came over with mugs of port. "You look pleased with yourselves." She handed Xena and Solari the refreshment. "Evidently it went to plan?"
Xena took a long draft and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "It went well enough."
Solari spluttered into her mug and laughed. "Oh gods, ever the mistress of understatement aren't you, Xena!" She wiped away the port that had sprayed up her cheek. "Ephiny, we couldn't have asked for a more successful scouting mission. We located Agradon's tent and the tent where the chalice should be found; we made contact with two of the women held prisoner there and I believe we can trust them." Solari looked up at Xena, pleased to see her nod in agreement. "We also discovered that Prisca's alive and okay."
Ephiny took in a deep breath and sighed in relief. "Oh that is good news." She looked across the camp to find Charis and Iphitus tending to the horses. "Charis must be much happier now."
"Yeah, I think she's a lot happier now." Xena smiled. "And able to concentrate more on the assault tomorrow."
Ephiny cocked her head to one side. "That's why you took her with you, isn't it Xena? But how could you know Prisca actually was okay?"
Xena drained her mug. "I didn't. I just knew that if we found out Prisca was safe, Charis would be an asset tomorrow. If the news wasn't so good... Well, Charis would remain at camp. Then again, I felt sure Prisca would be alright and I had no intention of giving Charis bad news about her sister." She looked up at the sky, then back at Ephiny. "It's late afternoon. We should have a good meal together, talk about tomorrow, laugh, drink a little, encourage everybody... you know, the usual leader - soldier - camaraderie stuff." Xena looked from Solari to Ephiny several times and then grinned. "Is that not what Thessalian Amazons do the evening before a battle? Not disciplined enough? Should we get them sparring together, or something?"
Ephiny laughed softly. "No Xena. What you suggested about the meal and everything is perfect. I just didn't expect it to come from you, that's all." She watched Xena's eyebrow lift. "Oh don't misunderstand me, it's just that you're not exactly renowned for your love of a crowd at meal times, are you now?"
"I suppose I'm not." Xena chuckled. "Then again, perhaps there's room for change after all. Come on, let's get things moving." Xena walked towards a group of Amazons and began requesting that they prepare the fresh provisions, along with the small amount of game they had caught during the morning's journey and fetch firewood to cook on. Others soon joined in, organising an area where they could all sit with one another for the evening, then collected together wineskins and water skins.
Solari grinned to Ephiny as she watched the proceedings overseen by Xena. "I do believe the ice princess is melting, Eph."
"I do believe you're right, my love." Ephiny laughed in response. "Come on Sol, let's lend a hand. We should face that bastard with a good meal and a good night's sleep behind us."
"Ya got that right!"
Preparations were soon in full swing and the only Amazons not involved with the lighter hearted duties were those on watch, anticipating any sudden enemy attack and ensuring the safety of their sister Amazons. Afternoon drifted into evening and evening melted into night. As appetites were sated, glasses lifted in praise to the gods, good cheer and blessings drunk to one another, conversation gradually turned to the assault at dawn. Ephiny stood up to speak to her people, confirming the plans set down and being backed up by a word now and then from Solari or Xena. The discipline and training of the Amazons soon became apparent to Xena as various warriors asked questions and made reasonable comments, revealing that they understood exactly what their leaders expected from them. Eventually, everything was covered and there was nothing left to talk about. With Ephiny's approval, the women began to break away from the main group to check weapons, change the watch and inform the previous watch of all that had been spoken of.
Xena took a few moments to praise Solari quietly for the morale and discipline of the Amazon army. Solari appreciated the comments and for a while shared a few anecdotes with Xena concerning some events involving her warriors, such as one or two of the more interesting bets they had gambled on together. She confessed to Xena that one of those bets was on how many buckets of water would be left in the Queen's tub, after Gabrielle and Xena had finished in the bathing chamber the afternoon after they had left the practise fields.
"You didn't!" Xena was astounded.
"Uh, 'fraid so, Xena."
"Hera's left tit! I can't believe you'd bet on..." Xena caught Solari's eye and laughed. "For the love of all that's peaceful Sol, don't tell Gabrielle."
"I won't, but I think she..." Solari cast her mind back to Gabrielle's comments during the feast at the Amazon village. "I have a feeling she sort of suspects anyway."
Xena tutted and shook her head. "Well I'll be a... Who won the bet?"
"Oh, it was a draw between Aerope and Iphitus so they shared the purse."
"Which amounted to...?"
"It was about fifteen dinars each."
"The purse was thirty dinars!"
Solari laughed. "Well yeah, we have to find something to do in between battles, ceremonies and rituals ya know."
Xena grinned. "Well maybe next time you have a bet on something interesting you'll invite me in on the fun, okay?"
"Sure, Xena." Solari tapped the scabbard at her side. "Well, I want to check my own weapons over and make sure those smoke missiles are safely stowed for the morning. Wanna join me?"
"Sure, I'll come with you." Xena took up the pace and she and Solari walked over to the wagon where the smoke missiles had been placed. "There was one other thing, Solari."
"I just wanted to say thanks for letting me speak with Ephiny alone last night. It's not easy to talk about certain... bad things and when they involve Gabrielle it's harder still, ya know?"
"I know yeah." Solari glanced at Xena and smiled briefly. "And it's okay. I'm glad you opened up to Eph and talked out some of the awful stuff that happened."
"I still just wanted to say thank you." Xena reached into the wagon and ran her hands over the nearest missiles.
"You're a friend, Xena. We're gonna be there for you, right?" Solari stood opposite the warrior, turning the weapons, ensuring the fuses weren't too long and the clay pots were sealed correctly around the arrow shafts.
"I'm beginning to realise that." Xena stopped what she was doing and looked at Solari. "You didn't pick up a wineskin on the way over here by any chance, did you?"
"Better than that." Solari grinned and unclipped a flask from the back of her belt. "Here, catch!"
Xena easily caught the flask and pulled out the stopper. "Port. Solari, you're perfect." She lifted the flask to her lips and took a draft, then re-corking the bottle she tossed it back to the Amazon.
Xena and Solari applied themselves to checking over the rest of the weapons, pleased that each missile appeared perfectly made. Stepping away from the wagon, the two walked back to where their saddlebags and equipment were stowed, to fetch their stones and pieces of hide used for sharpening and cleaning their personal weapons. Xena fed the campfire some wood, from the pile provided, then joined Solari and together they attended to their swords, enjoying the comforting sound of whetstone slowly rubbed against steel. They remained side by side, jovially conversing about their favourite weapons and finishing the flask of port while they worked, until Ephiny returned. She had spent time with each group of Amazons, encouraging them and talking about the victory they would surely have the next day when they ousted Agradon, captured the chalice and rescued their sister and the other women there. Xena and Solari quickly polished their swords and then gave Ephiny their attention as she related how the Amazons were eager to fight with Xena, morale was high and Agradon was about to enjoy his last night as a warlord and free man.
It wasn't too long before the three of them recognised their need for sleep and settled down on their respective bedrolls for the night, final hopes and concerns being voiced quietly as Morpheus drew them, one after the other, into dreamless sleep.
Dawn's arrival revealed Agradon's camp to be silent apart from the sound of snoring and the occasional rasping cries from three bold crows that had swooped down to argue ownership over the contents of a spilled cooking pot. Movement came in the shape of a group of women and two armed men, quietly making their way to a large tent decorated on two sides with the intricate symbol of intertwined black snakes. Less than a heartbeat after they entered the tent, a single arrow with a flaming tip soared skywards and appeared to hover for a few moments as its vertical climb ended, before plummeting earthwards to land harmlessly in the river, west of the camp.
The signal given, suddenly the sky became peppered with small dark objects trailing tails of fire. They homed in on the camp from three different directions and as they rained down, shattering on contact with the ground, the contents were ignited by a short fuse to produce thick clouds of dense yellow smoke. The noise of objects smashing and breaking in the camp roused those asleep around campfires from too much wine and ale the night before. The sleepy occupants of tents were also brought to their senses by the din, now increased by several voices yelling that the camp was under attack. Three men raising the alarm were quickly silenced as their heads met with the still falling smoke missiles and they slumped to the ground unconscious.
Trying to become alert and ready with their weapons, Agradon's men were plunged into further disorientation with the rising smoke causing their eyes to water. They were unsure from which direction their unseen enemy was approaching and uncertain how many the invaders might number. It didn't take long to realise they were being charged from all sides. A short distance outside the camp, from the trees in the north, the Rhacius hills in the south and from the eastern side rose three distinct voices one after the other, as the signal to attack was shouted by Xena, then Ephiny and Solori. The Amazons moved in unison as each group swarmed into Agradon's camp on foot.
The preliminary assault to deal with Agradon's watch had been swift and easy. Several guards had been posted around the camp perimeter and the Amazon leaders knew these had to be taken out quickly and silently if their dawn assault was to succeed. Now all six men were gagged and tied to trees; Xena's Amazons had found two asleep on duty and one relieving himself, Ephiny's group had taken two, again asleep, the sixth guard had conveniently run straight into Solari's fist, too busy chasing a pheasant to watch where he was heading.
Despite numbering fewer than the Amazons, most of Agradon's men fought hard and furiously, hangovers and lethargy forgotten the instant they saw the enemy advancing on them through the smoke. The Amazons were well prepared for a hard fight and none had the intention of assuming a peaceful surrender.
Prax and Geilissa worked side by side or back to back as they parried away blow after blow, looking for openings in their enemy's defence before lunging through to disarm where they could, dispatching lives where their was no choice. They caught a brief glimpse of Xena's chakram circling past, close to their heads, dissecting a spear heading directly for them. Geilissa just had time to raise a hand in thanks, grinning at the warrior princess before circling low to throw another of Agradon's men off-balance as he lunged for her.
Xena caught her returning weapon in time to bring both fist and chakram up to catch a descending enemy sword, following through to render her opponent unconscious with a perfectly timed elbow to his chin. Iphitus and Charis were behind Xena, engaging three men wielding short swords. Charis moved like lightening when she saw her chance to roll forward and grab one of the men's over-sized cloaks. He ended up wrapped tightly and unable to move from the confines of his mantle, leaving the two Amazons free to deal more easily one-on-one with the remaining two men. Xena whooped with glee as three more of Agradon's soldiers tried to rush her and she leapt into the air to twist over their heads, drawing her sword to face them as she landed.
Near the ashes of the central campfire, a dozen men had surrendered to the Amazons outnumbering them and were now on their knees with hands bound behind their backs, swords and other weapons lying where they had were dropped. Areope was helping to collect the discarded weapons when she cried out and sagged to one knee, an arrow clearly protruding from her hip. Dirce and another Amazon spun round to locate the sniper, catching sight of a lone soldier frantically trying to restring another arrow. By the time he raised his bow to his again he was staring down the shaft of one sword resting on the bridge of his nose and realised another one was pointing at his ribs.
"I think you ought to drop that now, don't you?" Dirce growled.
The soldier nodded quickly and allowed the bow to swing down and drop to the ground. A burst of white light was the last thing he was aware of before dropping like a stone, unconscious from a sudden blow to his temple.
"That's for being such a damned coward!" Dirce checked the hilt of her sword for any damage from the soldier's head, before she and her sister Amazon stooped to each grab a leg and then dragged the man over to the others to have his hands bound.
Areope was being tended to by an older Amazon warrior, who had cut some of the arrow's shaft away, but recognised it would take the skilled blade of Pyras to remove the barb, the rest of the shaft and deal properly with the injury. Bleeding was minimal while the arrow remained lodged and so Dirce simply ordered her friend to remain still until she could be carried back to the Amazon camp and then made as comfortable as possible for the journey home. Areope was happy to comply, realising she could not carry on fighting and settled on trying to find the least agonising position in which to rest.
Solari and Ephiny had met each other towards the back of the camp and now effectively fought their way towards the central area. Solari successfully ducked the sweeping blow from an enemy blade and circled round to deliver a high kick to her opponent, breaking his nose and causing him to drop away from the fight.
"Can you see Xena?" Ephiny yelled over the clash of her own blade parrying a raised enemy sword. She pivoted fast, dropping to ground level as she rotated and mule-kicked her enemy's legs from beneath him. Still turning, she raised herself to her feet again and rendered a short sharp kick to the side of his head, leaving him oblivious to his surroundings.
"Just look for the highest pile of bodies!" Solari shouted back as she took on another soldier rushing her from behind a tent. A rapid succession of jabs and parries came to a sudden halt when the Amazon cried out in pain as her opponent's sword slashed through her left arm. "You lucky bastard!" Solari lashed out with her sword hand and knocked her enemy's weapon out of his grasp, then powered through with the same hand to crunch fist and hilt into his face. She let the soldier crumple into the dust, knocked out cold. "But that's the closest you'll ever get to me!" She spat. Ephiny laughed in response, not so much from Solari's comments but from relief that she was not badly injured.
Freed for a time from onrushing soldiers, Ephiny and Solari cautiously made their way eastwards across the camp to locate Xena. It wasn't long before they recognised the warrior's signature war cry and looked up to see their friend hurtling backwards in tight back-flips to reach two young Amazon warriors, outnumbered and backed up against a tent. With her final landing, Xena twisted round to throw a right cross below the ear of one assailant and he dropped instantly. Grabbing the groin and shoulder of a second soldier, she lifted him with the merest of grunts and threw him over her head like a sack of grain, to land bruised and winded. A swift kick to the back of another's knees and he sank to the ground, slumping fully from the fist that crunched into his jaw. Two more soldiers felt their necks imprisoned in the vice-like grip of Xena's hands, released only when their heads were thundered together and they simultaneously fell to the ground, unconscious. Content that the two Amazons could now fend for themselves against the remaining two men, Xena stood back to watch the women fight off their attackers. They killed one during the combat and managed to disarm the other, forcing his surrender.
"Well someone's enjoying themselves!" Solari called.
Xena caught the comment and turned round to greet Solari and Ephiny. The smile on her face faded instantly when she saw her friend's arm. "Sol! Get some pressure on that, for Zeus' sake. You look like a stuck pig!"
"Thanks Xena, I knew I could rely on your sympathy." Solari looked around her and settled for a discarded cloak, from which she tore a strip and bound her wound with Ephiny's help.
"It's a deep cut, but you'll live." Xena laughed. "Probably needs a couple of stitches though."
"Is that an offer, Xena?" Solari grinned.
"Sure, I'll stitch ya together when we get back to camp."
Ephiny looked round at the camp and noted how few pockets of resistance were actually left. "I think it might be safe enough to turn our attention to finding the chalice and Agradon."
Xena nodded and jabbed her thumb in the direction of a nearby tent. "Well, since that one with the snake symbol's nearest..." She turned towards it and walked over, Ephiny and Solari following close behind. As she reached the main opening, Xena flipped the tent flap up and over a guy rope with her sword to provide more daylight for their search.
The tent was the largest in the camp and it was not too dark inside to see that it was filled from top to bottom with piles of boxes, crates and chests. Some were stacked in such a way, they could be treated like corridors.
Xena closed her eyes and listened intently for a few moments, before turning to her companions to whisper. "Someone's in here and there's more than one of them." She inhaled silently and grinned. "I think we've also discovered where Agradon's dogs are being kept." She motioned for Ephiny and Solari to take one route between some box stacks, while she took another.
As Xena silently rounded a corner, her senses bristled. She knew she was about to confront someone or something and was certain it wasn't one of the dogs. She sprang forward, her sword outstretched, to confront two figures in the shadows. One of them was just a boy, the other a young man. Both were scared, but both stood their ground.
"If you mean harm to our friends, we will fight you." The older one trembled, but maintained a steady grip on his blade.
"Friends?" Xena smiled, and confidently lowered her sword. "Neither I nor any Amazon will harm you for trying to protect the women here."
The man studied Xena for a few moments and then took a deep breath. "Oh thank the gods." He lowered his sword and breathed a sigh of relief, turning to his young companion. "Drop your sword Calus, it's all over."
The fair-haired boy didn't need to be told twice and happily re-sheathed his sword, calling over his shoulder. "It's alright, we're safe. There's an Amazon in the tent and we can all go home now."
The older man shared a grin with Xena over the boy's comments as he reached a hand towards her. "I am Gelanor. My young friend there is Calus. We're not actually part of Agradon's army, we just cook for them."
Xena happily took his arm in greeting. "My name is Xena. The Amazons and I are certainly here to make sure you and women here get home again." She looked over Gelanor's shoulder to see several women, some with swords, beginning to stand up behind a small stack of boxes. She recognised Thebe and Briseis as they came forward and wondered which of the others was Prisca.
"Xena?" Gelanor raised his other hand to clasp Xena's shoulder. "The warrior princess, Xena? That Xena?"
"Some people call me that." The warrior kept her tone even. "Hopefully with a little more friendliness now than in earlier days."
Gelanor bowed his head briefly before looking up again. "I'd heard that the warlord had turned good. Even stuck under Agradon's keeping, we hear rumours about you." He let go and stepped back. "Xena, I'm not a very good swordsman, but my sword is yours. I'm so glad to meet you. It will be an honour to fight with you."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "You've got a brave heart, my friend. Thankfully, the fight's just about over, but if you really want to help me right now you can take Calus and these women and head due east from here. After about a candle mark you should walk straight into our camp. Stay there and wait for the rest of us to return, okay?"
"Yes, I can do that." As Gelanor happily accepted Xena's request, Thebe and Briseis approached.
"Thank you Xena." Thebe greeted the warrior. "Our thanks go to you and all the Amazons."
"You're very welcome." Xena happily took the extended hands of both Thebe and Briseis. "But save your thanks for when we're all safely back at our camp. It's not entirely over yet."
"You're right, of course." Thebe nodded.
Xena cocked her head to one side. "I thought we were going to meet you all in the forest, Later."
"We weren't sure we could get past the guards in the end". Briseis spoke up. "Thebe suggested we hide in this tent and it seemed a good idea."
Xena nodded. "Well it seems to have worked so far." She glanced towards the other women. "Which one of you is Prisca?"
A young blond woman came forward to stand by Gelanor and take his hand. "I'm Prisca." She smiled at Xena. "I must admit I'm very glad to see you Xena, and know that my Amazon sisters are all around us."
"There's one sister in particular who's gonna be very happy to see you too."
"She's here? Now?"
"She is." Xena reached out gently, but firmly to stop Prisca running out of the tent. "If you'll just be patient for a little while longer and let Charis and the rest of us finish the job here first, you'll be reunited with your sister very soon back at our camp."
Prisca's look of disappointment quickly vanished. "I'm sorry, Xena. It's been a while since I paid full attention to Amazon discipline. Of course you've all got to finish sorting out this place." She hesitated for a moment before speaking again. "Is Charis still a good warrior, Xena?"
Xena grinned. "In truth, I've been proud to have her with me today." She placed one hand on Prisca's shoulder and the other on Gelanor's shoulder. "Now then, will you please get outta here so we can stop worrying about you?"
"Right. We're gone!" Gelanor looked over his shoulder. "Calus, come on. We're leaving now." He began walking between the boxes, sword hand extended and his left hand still holding Prisca's, the rest of the group falling into step behind.
"Gelanor. Prisca. Stay alert, okay? Be wary, all of you and keep your blades to hand." Xena called after them as she followed. Reaching the open, Xena watched them making their way to the edge of the camp, Gelanor continuing to lead and Prisca stopping only to pick up an additional sword from one of Agradon's fallen soldiers. As they progressed east, a weak and tired soldier stumbled after Gelanor from behind another tent.
"Gelanor, you traitor! You should be fighting these bitches not helping them!" He lashed out at the young man, slicing through his shirt, but he missed the torso he was aiming for.
More from luck than judgement, Gelanor struck an upward blow and caught the assailant's sword hand, forcing him to drop his weapon. Xena watched, impressed by the left cross Gelanor dealt the soldier, splitting his lip and bringing him to his knees, the chakram she held aloft ready to rescue her new friend from the attack, now re-clipped. She realised Gelanor was in control now, but before she could call out to prevent his next action, he raised his sword and drove it deep into the soldier's chest. Dismayed, Xena made a mental note to talk to him later, about the barbarity of running through an unarmed opponent, but she changed her mind when she heard Gelanor's words to the dying man.
The soldier stared at the sword hilt protruding from his chest, his heartbeat fading fast, as his slayer knelt down before him and grasped his chin so that they were eye to eye. "Marpesius, you twisted son of a banshee!" Gelanor hissed. "The blooded lip... that's for the beatings you gave me and for the time you dared to use the lash on my betrothed. The sword is a gift on behalf of the men and women you butchered at Apollo's statue. May you rot in Tartarus you sick bastard!" He watched the soldier slump to one side, before bringing his hands to his face and giving in to sobs that wracked his body violently. Prisca gently laid a hand on Gelanor's shoulder and he stood shakily to place his arm round her waist. They moved off, heading eastwards once more, without any further incidents.
Xena watched them go. From Gelanor's reaction, she recognised that he had never taken a life before and had some idea of the inner turmoil he now had to deal with, however worthy of death his victim had been. There was no need to chastise Gelanor, he was no killer at heart and would punish himself enough in the days to come. She shook her head sadly and turned back to the tent.
Xena walked through the boxes again as Solari came round a corner. "There you are, Xena! Uh, I think you should know... I mean, you're not gonna believe this..." She stopped to sweep her fringe out of her eyes. "Okay. What I'm trying to say is... Ugh Hades! Just come and see for yourself!" Solari spun round and headed back the way she had come, Xena walking behind her.
They came to an open area in the tent where Ephiny was making a fuss over two very affectionate and exuberant young mastiffs. The dogs would bound away from Ephiny as far as the tent confines would allow, race back and circle round the Amazon, rolling on their backs while Ephiny tickled their ribs, then leap up and race off again. All the time, Ephiny was calling out appropriate terms of 'good dog' and 'clever boy' while the animals played.
Xena stood with her arms folded, amused by the sight for a time but eventually tiring of the scene. "So what's the point of this, Solari? We knew the dogs were in here."
"It's not the dogs you need to see, Xena!" Ephiny called out while she quietened the dogs and managed to get them to sit. "Look in that corner." She jerked her head in the direction she meant and Xena glanced over.
"There's nothing over there except a couple of food bowls and a water bowl, Ephiny."
"Take a closer look, Xena." Solari urged the warrior.
Xena sighed impatiently and walked nearer to the corner. "Like I said, two food bowls and a..." Xena shook her head and knelt down to pick up the chalice of Zeus, tipping out the water and standing up again. "I don't believe this." She ran a hand down her jaw and stared at the object she now held at arm's length. "I can't believe this is happening. We find the chalice before Agradon can work out what he's actually got, only to discover we now have two immortal mastiff puppies... I just don't believe this!" Solari and Ephiny came over and stood either side of the warrior.
Solari ran a hand over the cup. "Surely dogs being made immortal doesn't count, does it? I mean, Ares intended men to drink from this thing, become immortal and make up an army, right? I don't think god-like dogs are valid at all!"
Ephiny ran a finger round one of the handles. "Is this the actual chalice, Xena? How do we know those dogs are really immortal?"
"You could run one of them through with a sword and see if he stays standing." Xena grunted. "I'm kidding. It must be the one. Look at the pictures on it! Here's Hephaestus making the chalice. Here's Hera giving it to Zeus." Xena turned the cup round. Here's Zeus and Hera making up and here's Zeus and Hera uh, making up more intimately."
"That position cannot be humanly possible!" Ephiny jabbed the picture with her finger.
Solari smirked. "An objection from the woman who's done the wild thing with a centaur, that's rich, Ephiny!"
Ephiny pursed her lips and dug Solari in the ribs with her elbow.
Xena laughed, despite her imminent concerns regarding the chalice. "Whatever! But it's definitely the right chalice." She was silent for a moment. "Well, Prisca and the other women are on their way to our camp right now, so they're safe at least. As far as the chalice goes, I guess the gods involved are gonna have to fight this one out between them. Though as surely as there are fields in Elysia, you can wager that Ares is rubbing his hands with glee!"
"He may well be Xena, but don't be too hasty to think it'll get him anywhere! He hasn't won this challenge yet."
Ephiny and Solari drew their swords, but couldn't work out where the voice originated. The dogs sat up, tails wagging, and Xena simply shook her head and grinned, recognising the voice of Artemis. She offered her greetings to the unseen goddess and asked her to go on.
"I simply wanted to reassure you Xena, that as far as we are concerned, Ares definitely meant humans when he set this challenge. Somehow I don't think he envisaged an army of mastiffs now, do you?" Artemis had not appeared physically and her voice seemed to ripple through the tent and across the boxes and chests like a stream over pebbles. "Ephiny. Solari. Do please put your weapons away, I'm on your side remember?" The Amazons complied and stood quietly in awe to listen to their goddess. "You fought bravely today, both of you. I am proud of your abilities, as I am of Xena and all your sisters." The voice paused briefly. "Xena, this is not over yet. Agradon cowers in his tent with three of his four seconds, it appears the fourth one lost his life to that young man you sent off to your camp with the women. In case you're wondering, the Amazons are waiting for you to confront Agradon, in accordance with your orders."
Xena nodded. "I'll get over there immediately Artemis." She handed the chalice to Ephiny and headed for the tent's opening.
"Keep your wits about you, my warrior. He's a sly creature." Ephiny and Solari started to follow Xena, but they halted in their tracks when Artemis addressed them again. "My children, keep that chalice safe now and take it back to the village. I am still trying to convince my father that it would be better off melted down or simply kept on Olympus somewhere, rather than in one of my temples again."
Ephiny managed to find her voice and answered the still-invisible immortal. "We will do as you request, Artemis."
Solari's gaze fell on the mastiffs, sitting quietly. "What about the dogs, goddess?"
"The two mastiffs." Ephiny joined in. "They are affectionate, but they are hunters too and they are not the kind of animals I would be happy to take back to the village where there are children running about and..." She was unsure what to ask the goddess. " They are immortal, after all!"
"Oh those dogs!" Artemis' musical laughter floated across the tent. "Well, the dogs I have for excursions into my forests would not really welcome new additions into the pack. However, I'm sure one of the gods would love to have this pair at their side. If not, maybe Hades can think of something. He's good with dogs... At least, he seems to like Cerberus." With that, each of the mastiffs suddenly disappeared in a burst of light, their playful disembodied barks echoing around the tent. "Now, you'd better catch up with the warrior princess. She may need a little help getting past those Generals to get to Agradon. Fare you well, my children, and stay alert!" A gentle breeze moving past the two Amazons was the only indication that Artemis had gone.
Ephiny and Solari turned together and sprinted after Xena, concerned that she might not wait for them. As it was, they all but ran into the back of the warrior, who had been stopped by Charis asking about Prisca and the other women. They could tell by the young Amazon's face that she was relieved by the news of the women's safety and how they were already on their way to the Amazon camp.
Ephiny stepped forward. "Charis, you've fought enough today. Head for our camp, be reunited with Prisca." She held out the chalice. "Take this back with you, wrap it up in something and stow it very carefully." Charis took it and Ephiny grasped the young Amazon's shoulder. "It's very important that this is kept safe. Please make sure you deal with it before you stand down from your duties, okay?"
Charis smiled at Ephiny. "You're letting me see my sister rather than help finish clearing up this place first, my Regent. I'm grateful for that and you have my word that I shall carry out your orders before I stand down."
"That's all I ask. Now, go on back to camp and give your sister our warmest greetings."
"I shall, Ephiny. Thank you, my Regent." Charis bowed her head briefly to Ephiny, smiled at Solari and Xena, then turned and walked quickly across the camp. She stopped to unravel a cloak from a dead soldier and wrapped the chalice efficiently before sprinting off in the direction of the Amazon camp and the sister she longed to see.
Xena regarded her two friends. "Come on, it's now or never!" She drew her sword and unclipped her chakram, Ephiny and Solari mirroring the action with their own weapons, then the three of them made their way towards the tent they knew to be Agradon's. The mixture of unarmed, surrendered soldiers and Amazon warriors provided a scattered, though ready-made audience.
As the three Amazon leaders approached the tent, in line with it's entrance, Xena heard a muffled shout from inside and tensed in readiness as three large dark shapes emerged. Agradon's three Generals rushed at the women with swords raised. As if part of a well-practised dance, Solari and Ephiny both stepped sideways and outwards, tripping their opponents, while Xena launched herself into the air, twisting to land directly behind the third assailant.
"Xena! By Ares!" The heavily armed second-in-command growled as he spun round to meet the airborne warrior. "I've dreamed of seeing you again. It'll be a pleasure to kill you."
"Machaerus!" Xena smiled sweetly. "I wondered where you ended up after ya left my army. I'm touched to find you still think of me." Xena finished her sentence with a satisfied cry, side-stepping the soldier to knock his blade away with her chakram as he lunged for her. "I see your balance hasn't improved over the years!"
Machaerus turned and lunged again, red-faced and angry at the warrior's taunts. Several blocked slices and parried jabs followed in quick succession, then he suddenly sliced downwards, an expression of sheer delight replacing the look of anger as he felt his sword make contact with Xena's ribs. His joy was short-lived.
"Hey! Do you have any idea how much a good set of leathers costs me?" Xena ran her left hand across the small tear below her right breast. "You just have no manners at all!"
The soldier yelled in frustration and ran at Xena, who leaned sideways and brought up a hard, well-timed knee into a soft, unprotected groin. Machaerus suddenly had no interest in his sword, dropping the weapon where he stood and sinking to his knees with a barely audible whimper. A few moments passed and the soldier blacked out.
While Xena had been dealing with her opponent, Solari had taken on a skilled swordsman, who matched her stroke for stroke and step for step. She was beginning to tire from the fight, seeing no openings to either injure or disarm her opponent. Finally, she sensed the General was starting to flag from his own exertion and tested his reflexes with a series of dummy jabs and swings. Certain that her enemy was slowing, she willed her strength and speed to remain just a few heartbeats longer, waiting for the chance to wrong-foot the soldier once more. He stumbled awkwardly as Solari made for his left, twisting to the right at the last moment, then hit the floor in a tight ball, rolling past her opponent and jumped up behind him. Solari's face revealed her grateful thanks that she had been fast enough to get behind the soldier. She sent a powerful punch into the back of his head, rendering him unconscious before he even hit the ground.
Solari and Xena acknowledged each other's success with a raised hand as they walked towards one another and stood by a half empty rack of spears and shields. Turning towards the sound of steel clashing against steel, they watched Ephiny completing her own fight with the last General standing. She had out-manoeuvred her assailant efficiently, finally managing to rap the knuckles of his sword-hand with the flat of her blade, forcing him to drop his weapon with a howl of pain. She then dropped low to the ground, using a sweeping kick into the soldier's calves to knock him off his feet and flat on his back. He appeared to lie winded and motionless as Ephiny stood over him, catching her breath, but he suddenly sat up and threw a fistful of dirt into the Amazon's face. Ephiny blindly took a step back, caught her heel against something unseen and fell backwards, to lie blinking and frantically trying to rub her eyes clear from the dust. As her vision began to return, she looked up to find the General standing over her with his sword raised, ready to plunge it into her heart.
Ephiny closed her eyes, thinking of Solari and Xenan, hoping she would one day be reunited with her lover and son; she also thought of Phantes her beloved friend and father to Xenan, preparing to see him shortly. She waited for the burrowing fire she expected to feel in her body from an enemy blade but felt nothing, instead she heard her name being screamed in duet. The deathblow had not been dealt and the Amazon looked up, relieved, but puzzled. The General still had his sword raised above his head, but now he was staring at the barbs and shafts of two large spears protruding from his chest. As soon as Xena and Solari had realised Ephiny was in danger they acted as one person, turning spontaneously to the weapons rack next to them, each taking hold of a spear and hurling it at Ephiny's potential slayer, calling out the Amazon's name as they loosed the weapons. The force behind the spears was so great from their determination to save Ephiny, the soldier was completely skewered. Ephiny raised her eyes to the soldier's face, which registered surprise more than pain. He gasped once, as a fish on land, dropped his sword behind him and fell dying as his legs gave way.
The Amazon stood up, picked up her sword and walked slowly over to Xena and Solari. "Well, that was close! Thank you... both of you. Nice to know your aim's not off."
Xena quietly ran a hand down Ephiny's arm. "We can't go losing one of our major wedding guests now, can we?" She smiled affectionately, then turned towards Agradon's tent.
Solari was tenderly wiping away the traces of dirt from Ephiny's face. "I don't know what I'd have done if I'd lost you then, Eph." She blinked away the wetness in her eyes.
"Probably learned to be a good mother to Xenan for me." She grinned at Solari. "But I'm still here, aren't I? Thanks to you and Xena, that is." She took a deep breath and sighed. "Just Agradon to get now and we can all think about going home."
The tent was dim, though lit by candles and Xena walked cautiously forward, aware that Agradon was somewhere in front of her and no one lurked behind her or in the shadows along the sides of the tent.
"So, Xena." The sweet, almost refined voice of Agradon oozed towards the warrior; a sound that belied the brutal warlord who spoke. "From warlord to do-gooder, now a whore to the Amazons! Not the greatest advance in your career, wouldn't you say?"
"Compared to your profession Agradon, I reckon 'whore to the Amazons', as you so delicately describe my association, is a noble occupation."
"You had a magnificent army Xena, treasures beyond imagination, the respect of Ares. You had everything!"
Xena smiled, remaining calm and refusing to rise to Agradon's bait. "Actually I had nothing back then, except a little power and the fear of a lotta people. I was glad to let it all go, in the end."
"You fell asleep!"
"Oh no, Agradon. On the contrary, I woke up."
"Whatever, Xena. You lost out. You could've conquered every known land."
"In the manner you do, Agradon?" Xena kept her sword raised and watched Agradon shift position, moving nearer. "What? Good old raping and pillaging?"
Agradon leered. "Best two pastimes I can think of."
"Yeah well, you never were a great thinker, were you now." Even in the tent's dim light, Xena noted Agradon's expression become harder. "Trouble is of course, I heard today that you'd lost your touch with one of those pastimes."
"What do you mean?" Agradon grew agitated.
"Seems you can't uh, rise to the occasion and perform anymore, isn't that right? That the steel in your dagger's turned soft?"
Agradon's mouth dropped open. He had said nothing since discovering with horror the day before that the gods, or someone conspiring with them, had robbed him of his manhood. In his mind, he had been left with something akin to a cadaverous length of flesh that did nothing but lie against his thigh. "What are you, a witch now?"
Xena smiled in the half-light. "Just your average friendly herbalist."
"What've you done to me, Xena." Agradon growled.
"Something to make you wrestle a little more carefully with common decency." Xena was aware that Agradon was now less than four sword lengths away. "It should keep you in check 'til we getcha behind bars, where you belong while you wait for trial and, no doubt, a more humane execution than you give to your victims."
Agradon was beginning to shake from anger, but his voice remained strangely calm. "Well what can I say, Xena?" He drew his sword. "Except that neither you or your army's gonna imprison me!" He snarled and lunged for Xena, slicing at nothing but air as the warrior pivoted to one side.
Agradon spun quickly and cut downwards with his sword. Xena blocked the weapon with her own blade, pushing with her body weight to force the warlord backwards a few steps. He replied with a series of jabs and sideways slices, each of which Xena parried away. They stepped apart and sized each other up, both concentrating on one another's movements, trying to anticipate what the other's next action would be.
"It's going to be such a shame to kill you, Xena." Agradon breathed heavily.
"So don't. Let me have your sword now and I'll tell everyone the fight was a draw."
"You'll end your laughter when I've run you through." Agradon began to circle around Xena, looking for a weakness in her defences.
"I'm not laughing, Agradon. A cold bastard like you never warrants laughter, only pity and disgust."
"Careful, Xena. Go back a few years and we were not so different, you and I."
For a fleeting moment Xena flinched, the warlord's words cutting deeply into her conscience. Agradon sensed his opportunity and took it, striking low with his sword and then whipping upwards, managing to catch the hilt of Xena's sword with the tip of his blade. The warrior watched in disbelief as her sword flew through the air to embed itself in one of the thick central tent poles, but before Agradon was able to take advantage of the now empty-handed warrior in front of him, Xena back-flipped away. Running back at Agradon, she leapt over him at the last moment to somersault once, landed and leapt again to snatch her sword from the pole. She grinned as she softly hit the ground, raising her sword to the warlord in mock salute. "Well Agradon, you had your chance. Looks like ya missed it. Now it's my turn!" Xena didn't wait for a response, but gracefully jumped once more into a forward somersault, to land directly in front of the warlord and deliver a hard, high kick into his throat.
Agradon clutched his free hand to where the pain exploded but remained intent on thrusting his sword towards Xena's stomach. She parried twice, before snaking her sword down and round Agradon's blade, to lift it from his hand and send it flying harmlessly into the wall of the tent.
Xena quickly inspected her wrist and upper arm. "Well waddaya know? No cuts for once! I wish Ephiny could see this." She grinned at Agradon and launched the heel of her left hand into Agradon's chin, the force of the powerful locked wrist behind the blow ensuring that the warlord crumpled.
"Alright! Enough! I yield." Agradon groaned, clutching his chin and throat as he raised himself to his knees and bowed his head.
Ephiny came into the tent and stopped by the entrance. "Looks like everything's under control."
"More or less." Xena rested the tip of her sword on Agradon's shoulder. "What do you think? Ready to go, Agradon?"
The warlord had dropped his right hand to his side and was very slowly moving his fingers towards his boot. He mumbled something incoherent and doubled over as if in pain.
Xena leaned forward slightly, concerned that Agradon was having trouble breathing, but not trusting the situation enough to kneel down and check him. "Didn't catch that, Agradon. What did you say?"
The warlord's voice began with a whisper and grew to a shout. "I said, Xena you stupid bitch, no Amazon whore's gonna take me anywhere!" Agradon's hand lashed upwards with the dagger pulled from his boot and drove the blade deep into Xena's upper thigh.
Xena grunted and staggered back a pace as Ephiny charged to her friend's defence, raising her sword as she ran. Agradon was trying to decide how best to wrestle Xena's sword from her, being unable to see where his own had fallen.
"Ephiny, no!" Xena raised a hand in protest, as Agradon just had time to look over his shoulder and notice the Amazon Regent was right behind him with her sword raised.
"Oh you poisonous snake!" Ephiny's sword glinted in the candlelight before slicing downwards, leaving Agradon's severed head to tumble slowly from his shoulders and settle between his knees, where it lay pooling blood. The right hand of Agradon twitched as his body slumped over and laid still.
Moments of silence followed, seeming like an eternity as Ephiny and Xena regarded each other; Ephiny's now dripping sword still held in mid air.
The silence was broken by Solari rushing into the tent, sword in hand and trying to take in the surroundings of the dimly lit tent after being in bright morning sunshine outside. Realising all was quiet, she re-sheathed her sword and walked towards Ephiny and Xena. "What's all the noise about? I thought..." She trailed off when she registered the head and body of Agradon, Ephiny holding a bloodier weapon than she had entered the tent with and Xena clutching an evident wound. "Hades testicles! What happened? No, I can see what happened, but... what happened?"
Ephiny lowered her sword. "Damn." She cursed under her breath and dropped her weapon. As Solari joined her, she related the events that had led to Agradon's death.
Solari began to mitigate what Ephiny believed to have been a mistake, pointing out that Agradon would have been executed eventually anyway. She told Ephiny that towns and villages across the country would be pleased that she'd killed him and she had no need to think her actions were wrong. Besides, she may well have just saved their best friend from worse injury.
Xena had allowed herself to sag against a large wooden chest, where she tentatively felt the handle of the dagger embedded at the top of her left leg. Deciding to pull it free, she slipped off one of her bracers and put it between her teeth then took hold of the handle and pulled with one steady movement and a guttural groan. Dropping the bracer from her mouth and clamping both hands down on the wound, she concentrated on her breathing and willed herself not to give in to the nausea that hit her.
Ephiny and Solari came over to see how badly injured Xena was, Ephiny picking up the bracer she noticed the warrior had dropped.
Xena smiled and lifted a hand to take back the thick leather bracelet. "Oh damn!" Her smiled fell and she returned the hand to her thigh.
Solari knelt by Xena trying to see the wound in the poor light. "This is bad isn't it?"
"Yeah. It's bad." Xena let go a heavy breath in annoyance.
Ephiny stated that there was little they could do in the half-light and they should move Xena out of the tent where they could see what they were doing and tend the wound. Together, Solari and Ephiny found a large shield, slipped it beneath their friend and carried her carefully out of the tent and settled her by the tent's entrance.
The morning light confirmed Xena's fears as she looked at the blood covering most of her leg and beginning to soak into her leathers. Despite the pressure she maintained, blood seeped through her fingers.
"Oh gods, Xena! He's cut something major here, hasn't he?" Ephiny suddenly felt cold, realising the wound was extremely serious. "It's pouring too freely."
Xena remained calm and spoke matter-of-factly to both her friends. "We need to pack this well and then get me to Pyras. I've seen this type of wound before and I've yet to see anyone survive it." She tried to smile encouragingly. "But there's always a first time, right?"
Solari bit her lip and clapped her hands together. "Alright what do we do, Xena? We left one of Pyras' medicine chests outside this camp before we attacked." Responding to Solari's words, Ephiny called one of the Amazons gathering nearby and sent her to get the healer's chest.
"Get hold of as many cobwebs as you can gather, to pack the wound. They'll help stem the bleeding." Despite the situation, Xena almost laughed out loud at Solari's expression. "Get some clean linen or cotton from the medicine chest, along with the large yellow pouch in there; it'll contain heracleon and will slow the bleeding, though it won't stop it. Then it can be tied down with bark or a piece of tough hide."
"Xena, there are no doubt cobwebs around here, but they're gonna be filthy!" Solari knelt down to be level with the warrior." You're asking for that wound to be infected!"
Xena leaned forward to whisper to Solari. "Ya need to be alive to treat an infection, Solari. Every time my heart beats, my blood's pumping outta this leg. If we don't get it packed, I'm not gonna survive to tomorrow, let alone the two day journey back to Thessaly. Understand?"
Solari nodded slowly. "Understood." She briefly rested a hand on Xena's shoulder then stood up and barked various orders to Amazon warriors as she and Ephiny worked purposefully.
Within half a candle mark, Ephiny had organised most of the Amazons into groups to deal with their prisoners, sort through the stolen treasures for evidence of ownership and head back to their camp to tend to the freed women from Agradon's camp. Solari chose Iphitus, Prax and Geilissa to aid her in tending to Xena's wound and to help prepare a litter after managing to argue Xena down from thinking she could ride Argo. Soon, the small group with Solari was set to ride steadily and directly to the Amazon village, leaving Ephiny with the rest of the army to complete the work they had to do in Dardania.
Solari hugged Ephiny after making sure Xena was safe and comfortable on the litter attached to Argo, promising that once they got back, she'd have her own wound stitched. "What do I tell Gabrielle, Eph?" She felt her wrist grabbed tightly and turned to find Xena staring at her.
"Don't lie to her, Sol. Don't treat her like something delicate. Just tell her the truth, especially as I could be dead before we reach the village. If we make it, I probably won't be conscious by the time we get there." Xena let go and Solari turned back to Ephiny.
Ephiny leaned past Solari to bring her face close to Xena's. "I pray we see each other again my friend."
"One way or the other Eph." Xena studied Ephiny's face. "If it turns out to be by Charon's boat, promise me something, my friend."
Ephiny swallowed hard, unable to prevent the solitary tear that rolled down her cheek to fall and splash on Xena's shoulder. "Anything."
"Look after Gabrielle for me. Help her to be a strong Queen. But mainly, just look after her and tell her... Tell her I shall always love her."
"You have my word, Xena." Ephiny hesitated, before kissing Xena's lips gently. "Good journeys, my friend."
"Don't go all soft on me now Eph." Xena grinned. "Shall I give your regards to Phantes if I get to see him?"
"Yeah." Ephiny stood up. "Yeah, you do that for me. If it comes to that, but it's still 'if'for now, okay?" Xena quietly nodded in response and Ephiny turned back to Solari. "You heard Xena, Sol. Tell Gabrielle... Tell Gabrielle Xena might not make it. If... if it happens before you get to the village, tell Gabrielle Xena will be waiting for her wherever the gods have ordained."
Solari nodded without saying another word then climbed onto Argo, the mare not used to the Amazon but knowing the precious cargo she pulled behind her was her mistress. Solari gave the call to move and the group nudged their horses into a steady walk, watched by Ephiny. The Regent silently prayed to Artemis, asking that if she had any real sway over the situation, now would be a good time to sort it all out.
Continued in Part 5.
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