For disclaimers see Part1
Chapter Four: A Call to Arms
They both slept 'til way after sunrise and were only awakened by someone banging on the front door. The weapons master reluctantly rose and opened the door; facing half of the council of elders and the mothers of three of the girls she had reprimanded the day before, all talking loudly at the same time. She looked at them with still sleepy eyes for at least five candledrops and was unable to make herself understood. She finally put her index finger and thumb to her mouth and produced an ear-piercing whistle that effectively silenced them all.
"Good morning, I suppose this ruckus is about what happened yesterday afternoon between some of the first time apprentices and Xena's nephew, Lyceus? -- No, I'm not willing to listen to you now. You have complaints, bring them before the council. As Queen Melosa's chosen representative I hereby summon a council meeting, exactly one candlemark from now." She rapidly turned around and threw the door shut.
"You know what, mum, you would have made a horrible weaver. You don't have the patience."
"Well, you may be right and I'm really glad that I don't have to do this council stuff for the rest of my life. I want you to be at my side during the council session, after…"
"After I go and apologise to Lyceus, yes. Do you know what they are all worked up about?"
"I have a pretty good guess. The mothers of your friends are upset because I dared to order their oh so innocent little girls around by making them apologise. And the elders are upset because they think that it would have been their task to decide upon your punishment and not mine. They also think that the whole incident should have been brought to their attention yesterday."
"How do you know?"
"That's what you get from listening to their badgering for years and also from spending a whole winter reading about Amazon law and customs, Thanny. Now, let's get cleaned up and don't forget to grab something you can eat on your way to the men's encampment. I'll start the session by letting them vent their anger and irritations first. It'll clear the air and will give you more time."
About one and a half candlemark later, the reservoir of Eponin's patience and calm was running dangerously low. The back door suddenly burst open and Thania stumbled in, completely out of breath. Immediately, irritated and annoyed voices mouthed their protest and Eponin barked to them to shut up or else have their staves shoved up to their rear end. It worked. The girl quickly calmed down and began to tell her story.
When she arrived at the men's encampment, only one of the other girls had made an appearance. She still was in Toris' and Lyceus' tent due to the fact that she simply had collapsed soon after her arrival. Xena's brother found Coryma's body covered with lash marks and heavy with fever.
"Anara, get your healing kit and follow as fast as you can. Guards, Coryma's mother is with the Queen, I want her mistress arrested immediately and you," she angrily looked at the assembly, "this meeting is adjourned. Thanny, wait for me in the infirmary."
It didn't take Eponin more than one candlemark to find out what had happened to the girl, take her back to the healer's hut to be tended to, fight down the urge to kill her mistress and call another council meeting. Once again they were about to complain, but now she no longer was willing to listen to them.
"Shut up, all of you! I already lost enough time listening to your senseless bickering. This is what will happen now: I'll give you the facts about yesterday afternoon, I'll answer your questions, sensible questions and then we all will hold trial over Coryma's so called mistress. I don't have Queen Melosa's patience or her good heart. Nevertheless she gave me command, so feel free to file charges against me as soon as she returns."
It only took a few candledrops to recount yesterday's happenings and then the questions began. The mothers were surprisingly easy to reason with and they even more surprisingly wanted to go with their daughters to apologise to Toris and his son. As soon as they had left the council's hall, it was just Eponin and the elders and they weren't half as easy to satisfy. They reluctantly agreed that she was right to deal with the other girls as she did but, just as she had suspected, they contested her right to decide upon Thania.
"We all accept your authority as the Queen's representative, weapons' master, but the law says that whenever neither the mother nor the mistress of an apprentice is available, it's the council's duty to care for the girl and to mete out punishments."
"I'm well aware of the law, honourable elders. There's only one thing you are not taking into account. Thania's birth mother is here and she already has decided upon her punishment. I sentenced her to kitchen duty for the next five days." Eponin paused to let her words sink in. "Thania is my daughter! - And now, we have a more serious matter to discuss, Coryma's mistress, whom I will not honour by speaking her name."
"Every mistress has the right to discipline her apprentice however she deems fit." One of the council members shouted.
"Where by Athena's shield were you when we had to deal with physical and sexual abuse of innocent children?" Another voice retorted.
"This is something completely different and you all know it." While the elders continued to pointlessly argue, Eponin ordered two of the guards to go and get the prisoner. She once again whistled to get their attention.
"Amazon law clearly states that physical punishment is only to be used for adult members of the tribe. It also declares that it can only be applied with the consent of the delinquent."
Another round of discussion and murmuring ensued but the council fell silent when the guards entered the big hut with the other woman in tow.
"Mistress of Coryma, we fought side by side more than once. I know you as a fierce fighter but I also know you as a good friend and a dedicated teacher. Are you ready to answer my questions?"
To the utter surprise of most of the assembly the woman fell to her knees and answered. "Eponin, representative of Queen Melosa, I know I acted against Amazon honour and dignity. I will answer your questions and I will accept every punishment for my wrong-doings."
"What happened yesterday evening?"
"Coryma was late. I had told her to come back two candlemarks before sunset because she wasn't finished with her lesson on historical strategies yet. When she entered, she immediately knelt in front of me and told me what had occurred. She told me that she had dishonoured the Amazon Nation, that she deliberately endangered a younger child and that she had lied to the weapons' master. She told me that she had to be punished and punished hard. I didn't believe her, I couldn't believe that the child I was so proud of had done the things she claimed doing. Then she recounted every detail of this afternoon's events…."
"I lost my temper, I lost control. I took the ruler I had intended to use to point out certain angles of attack for our lesson and began to beat on her. I don't know how long, how many…"
"Do you have a habit of beating your apprentice?"
"I had never before raised my hand against her. I can't even recall what happened. I hadn't been drinking but when I woke up I was still in the central room with a headache worth at least half a keg of beer. I stumbled to Coryma's room but all I found was a note telling me that she was gone to apologise to the boy. I didn't know that I had hurt her."
The woman's eyes dropped to the ground, her posture spoke of guilt and remorse but Eponin had one last question. "Do you think that you can be trusted to never again do something like that, Etare?"
"No, I'd like to assure you that it will never happen again but I can't. I don't know what made me do it in the first place, so I also don't know how to hinder it the next time. After my punishment I'd like to retreat to the sweating hut to explore my conscience."
Eponin was about to answer when the front doors opened to one of the scouts struggling with two other guards. "Artemis' bow, isn't it possible to get through a council session without being interrupted?! -- What do you want?!!"
"There's a large trek of wagons and riders headed our way. They will be at the edge of the forest around sunset, weapons' master."
When Akyra entered the hut in the Centaur's village, Gabrielle was with her. She ran towards her tall lover and was rapidly engulfed in strong arms. "I was so afraid for you, Xena. These people, they hate you, they want to kill you. I'm so glad you're okay."
"Gab, Gabby, my love, calm down. It's all right. They won't kill me. I wouldn't have come here if I thought they would. Remember, I promised. Everything will be all right, love, but you also have to understand that they have every reason to hate me. I killed their brothers, their sons, their mothers and their fathers when I fought them ten years ago. I almost wiped them from the face of the earth. And they have a right to punish me for coming here without being invited. -- Please, don't look at me with those innocent, unbelieving eyes of yours. I'll answer your questions soon but now there's something more important to do."
"I just had to see you; had to make sure that you were all right. I was so worried. When this woman came to get Akyra, I simply ran after her. I don't want to intrude."
"No, stay my love! I'm glad you're here; I always feel much better when you're with me. And besides, we'll need all the help we can get." The tall woman slid an arm around Gabrielle's waist before turning towards the silver haired Amazon. "Akyra, I don't know how…."
"You're gonna ask me to do once again what I don't do any longer, right?" The impatient older woman asked.
"Yes, venerable one." Xena answered without hesitation. "There's a young woman in there, heavy with twins. One of them is a breech. I'll have to cut them out of their mother's womb, that's the only way. To give all three of them a fighting chance, you'll have to help the mother to control her heartbeat and the flow of her blood. Please, you already made an exception for Thania. Without your help we both would be dead by now. Please, do it again."
"Xena, it was difficult enough then, but the woman you're talking about probably doesn't know even the basics. I can help her and guide her but the better part she will have to do on her own. Centaurs are not known to choose their women because of their spiritual strength."
"Phantes is different and the woman we're talking about is very special. She's my friend. She's an Amazon. She's of royal blood. -- It's Terreis." Xena added after a short moment of deliberation.
"Terreis??? You're kidding! -- No, you're serious. -- I suppose Queen Melosa is not to know about her." Xena nodded. "I'll do it, if she hasn't forgotten all about her roots, we'll stand a chance -- but I hope you know that this will cost you, Xena."
"Yes, I know." The tall warrior answered with a sad smile. "You'll get your wish, that's a promise."
Both, Gabrielle and Marianna were burning to know what the others were talking about but they both had enough sense to know that now wasn't the moment to indulge their curiosity.
Candlemarks later, the moon already had made its descent, two sets of lungs greeted the night with piercing cries. The umbilical cords had been wrapped around the forearms of the babies thus maintaining them in some sort of unbreakable warrior handshake. The midwife tended to the new-borns while Gabrielle assisted Xena in suturing the mother. There wasn't too much bleeding and the raven haired beauty was certain that Terreis would be all right -- provided that Akyra was able to guide her back.
Xena sat down under the window, cradling Gabrielle in her arms, her eyes fixed on the bed. She hated being helpless and she hated having to wait but Akyra had made it abundantly clear that trying to interfere would only endanger them both. She tried to keep her mind from all the things that could have gone wrong this night and also tried not to speculate on what would happen when the time came to honour her promise to the old Amazon. When Cyane had tempted her with it, she hadn't been ready -- and she more than doubted that she ever would be, after all she was a warrior, not a …
She felt Gabrielle's heartbeat matching her own while stroking the younger woman's hair. Her eyes, however, were directed towards the bed. When the night was at its darkest, Terreis' eyes fluttered open and trying to sit up she took a deep breath. Xena checked on her patient, thanked Akyra and left the hut holding the still sleeping blonde securely in her arms. She immediately was escorted to Kaleipus' hut.
When the first rays of sunlight reached the bed, Terreis once again opened her eyes. It took her some time to recall what had happened. She tried to prop herself on her elbows but was held down by the familiar hand of her husband kneeling next to the bed. He kissed her and told her that they now had two beautiful daughters, their hair the colour of his fur and eyes of a dark brown, just like her own. He scooped her up in his arms and carried her into the living room where they were lying on the couch in a makeshift crib. And they were more than beautiful, they were perfect, two legs and ten toes; only their arms still showed the marks of the umbilical cord deeply embedded in their skin.
"I don't know, my love, but it's not important. They're perfect and they're ours. Perhaps it's a gift of the Gods. I don't care. But now I'll get you back to bed. Marianna said that you will need a lot of rest. -- She also said that even if she gets to see one hundred summers she never again would be able to participate in something as crazy, as impossible and as awesome as last night. You know, we now will have to think about two female names, Tyldus or Kaleipus certainly won't do for them."
Terreis now found out that laughing at the moment wasn't that good an idea. "I'm sure we will come up with something suitable. -- Where's Xena? I thought she would still be here and I'm surprised that Marianna didn't insist to stay by my side."
The young Centaur carefully put his wife back on the mattress and tucked her in. He didn't look her in the eyes when he said. "Marianna is with the council. She insisted on talking to them before they decide upon Xena's punishment for trespassing. She was very impressed with her."
"Is Xena allowed to speak to the council herself?"
"No, she's a slave to the Amazon Nation, Queen Melosa will speak on her behalf. Meanwhile they all know what Xena has done for us, they won't decide on anything too harsh, I'm sure."
"Harsh. That's a question of definition. The Amazons obviously still think that justice can be obtained by whipping and flogging. Did you see Xena's back? Most of it was covered up by her leather dress but I clearly saw recent marks of a whip. Do you know what happened?"
"No, my love. All I know is that she is wearing a slave's collar but is treated as any other warrior by the Queen as well as the other Amazons. Try to get some sleep. I'll go to the communal hut and listen in on the meeting. I'll tell you what they came up with." He kissed her on the forehead and left the room.
It was close to midday, Xena was standing with her back to the door, staring out of the window. At the inner courtyard of the Centaur village's stronghold Centaur and Human children were playing ball. All the communal buildings, the council hall, the grain storage, the barn, the well, the quarters of Kaleipus and Tyldus as well as a central fire place, kitchen area, enough space to house the entire population in case of an emergency, a fully equipped infirmary, and an armoury; all these essential buildings were situated in a circle in the middle of the settlement. Xena knew from experience that it could easily be cordoned off from the rest of the village to create a last line of defence. Short of burning it to the ground, there was no way to get in. But that's not what Xena's mind was dwelling on at the moment. Her heart was back at a dark night ten summers ago.
She clearly remembered walking out of the cave-like outcropping she had spent the last three quarters of a moon in; citing a conference with the God of War himself to explain her absence to her men. It had been a night of a full moon. Her meeting with the leader of the Centaurs was to take place at a small clearing in the middle of the forest. She was alone and so was Kaleipus but he came to her with his sword drawn. She remembered his words as if it had been yesterday.
"Stop it right now! You won't get the Ixion stone. All of us are willing to die to keep you from that power! And Borias, the man who betrayed Xena to become the greatest friend of the Centaurs, told us everything! He may have died at your command but he will live forever in our legends."
Thinking about Borias and the last time she had seen him, lying on the ground with unseeing eyes, didn't hurt as much now as it had all those summers ago but she still didn't know who had acted against her orders and killed him. She had wanted him captured alive.
Xena tried to picture in her mind's eye what the Centaur dwarfing her by almost two feet had seen this night. Her dark hair had been cascading down her back and she had been clad in a long black cloak held in place by equally dark clasps. She knew her face must have been pale; she knew she had been tired.
He had laughed when she had told him that she was prepared to withdraw her army. "The Destroyer of Nations isn't known to bargain!"
He had been right, the Destroyer of Nations never would have but Xena had had no other choice. She had thrown back the cloak and unveiled the child. She still wondered how she had been able to make her voice sound steady and calm.
"Take this child. He is my son and the son of Borias. If he stays with me, he'll become a target for all those who hate me and he'll learn things a child should never know. He'll become like me."
She also remembered his answer. "The son of Borias will be raised as my own."
She had been relieved while at the same time a whole quiver of arrows seemed to pierce her heart. Somehow she had found the way back to the encampment of her army but she didn't exactly recall how….
The voices of children happily playing and a hand gently touching the small of her back brought her back to the present. Gabrielle's arm sneaked around her waist and she felt the smaller body snuggle close at her side. They now both were watching the players.
"Tell me about your son, Xena."
"How did you know?"
"Yesterday, seeing the two of you side by side. It's more than evident. He has your eyes, your face, your smile. He even moves like you. Look. The way he brushes back the hairs obscuring his vision. That's all you. Tell me about Solan, how did he get his name?"
"It was Kaleipus' choice. The day before Solan was born, Borias, his father, sneaked into my tent. He wanted me to come with him and make peace with the Centaurs. He wanted me to give up my quest for domination and begin a new life. Settle down with him, become a family. I sent him away and I laughed. Raising a child, me! I wasn't ready to give up my dreams."
"Xena, please, it's me you're talking to. Try and be honest with yourself. That's not the only reason you gave up your son. Your eyes tell me what you feel for him. Tell me the truth, my love."
The tall woman turned sideways and looked the younger blonde in the eyes. "You're right, Gabrielle. I thought it would be easy, getting rid of the child and continuing with my life as if nothing ever happened. I was wrong.
"A lot of people think that giving birth ends when a baby takes its first free breath but that's not true. My son has grown inside of me every day, stronger and stronger. I can try to deny it but I can never ignore it.
Simply winning a battle from this day on wasn't enough for me. I was more interested in how to gain my victory. It suddenly became important to also keep the non-combatants safe. Solan is the reason why I interfered in the war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, why I forced them to make their peace with each other. I never wanted him to follow the way of the warrior, to know the fears and hurt coming with war but it seems this time the fates are not…."
Loud knocking stopped her from saying anything further.
Shrill whistling was the only way to stop what to Eponin sounded like a whole flock of geese in an uproar. "What by Hades' boots are you? Squabbling old women or Amazons? -- Keep quiet while I question the scout." The weapons master now turned her attention to the young woman in front of her. "Solari's a good teacher, so don't tell me that's all you have to say!"
"Of course not, weapons master. The exact numbers will be here in about two to three candlemarks but we counted thirty to forty soldiers, about three and a half score of children and a score of civilians. We're not yet sure but one of the men looks like the tall Commander Xena sent away to Corinth. It's not my place to decide but I don't think that they're here to cause any kind of problem for us or the village."
"All right, this is what we'll do: I want a squad of Royal guards ready to ride out in a candlemark. Three representatives of the elders should also be there. I also want one of the craftswomen. We'll meet them halfway. The session is ad…"
Once again Eponin's words were cut short. Another member of the Royal Guards hurriedly entered the council's hall, carrying a small piece of parchment. "Queen Melosa sent a message from the Centaur village."
"Read it to the council." Eponin answered.
"Eponin, members of the council. An army largely outnumbering them threatens our allies, the Centaurs. I want you to send all the warriors we can afford without compromising the safety of our village to the Centaurs' where we will set up a line of defence.
"This is the first time we really have to prove that we honour the peace treaty with our neighbours. So, I'm looking forward to showing to them that the Amazons are worthy allies. The enemy army is still about a quarter moon away. I expect our forces in three to four days. I want you all at peek efficiency when you arrive. Melosa, Queen of the Greek Amazons, Priestess of Artemis."
The woman then looked at the weapons' master. "There's an addendum, meant for your eyes only, Eponin."
The dark haired Amazon took the small slip of paper, as always amazed about the amount of text the Queen was able to put on something this tiny. It said. "The only other Amazon village near enough to send troops is the one to the north just outside of Greek territory. They still send their tributes but we haven't seen head or tail of them for more than three summers now. So, I don't expect them to come to help the Centaurs. I still remember the heated discussions I had with their regent regarding the peace treaty but summon them anyway. -- Eponin, I'm sorry to cut short the time with your daughter but I'm also looking forward to once again have you at my side in what probably will be a difficult fight. With all our forces combined they're still outnumbering us about two to one."
Before any more babbling and squabbling could break out, Eponin's voice rang out over their heads. "No, there won't be any more discussions. I have neither patience nor time for such bullshit. The orders of the Queen were very clear. So, you can rant all you like, but I have more important things to do. -- I'll read the Queen's call for arms to the village at the main square. The horn will be sounded as soon as this meeting is adjourned and then I'll ride out to meet the wagon train or whatever it may be. Etare, your punishment will be suspended for the time being. I want you to get all our warriors ready to move out at first light. I'll be heading the army. Anara, I know you well enough to realise that you won't stay behind. You always were in the middle of things. So, choose your representative here wisely. Yolica will take over for me. She will be in charge of the village, together with Solari's second in command."
Surprisingly there were no further discussions and soon Eponin's stallion was saddled to get her to meet the wagon train. At the forest's edge another scout confirmed the first report.
About two candlemark's ride out of the forest they were met by an advance group of the wagon train consisting of Palemon, Theodorus and six other riders. They soon agreed that they would postpone any serious conversation until all of them were settled at the camp with Xena's soldiers and brother. The Amazons were just as curious to know what brought Palemon back so quickly and with all those children as he was burning to have some news about his General.
The closer they came to the village the more the tall Commander feared that Xena would already have been found guilty and executed for her crimes. The messenger who had told them about the battle against Darphus' army had left the Amazon village shortly before the trial began.
After she had been escorted to the council's hut by four heavily armed Centaurs, no one was more surprised then Xena when she heard the council's verdict. Though she was found guilty of illegal trespassing, her only 'punishment' was a period of probation of three moons to prove to the Centaurs and Humans in the village that she no longer was a bloodthirsty warlord. She even was allowed to wear her weapons and armour and would be treated like any other of the Amazons. Tyldus, the council's speaker, however, also emphasised that for his part he still didn't trust her and that their leniency was due to the fact that her teachings had saved their women's lives.
A scouting party, including Solari and Silea, had been sent that morning to gather more information about the slowly approaching army. Travelling at top speed it would take the scouts a whole day to reach them, another half day to find out as many details as they could and a whole day to get back to the village. Meanwhile, all the others could do was to wait; and to prepare for the worst.
The council session about Xena's future standing with the Centaurs had occupied the better part of the village inhabitants, so the real preparations only now were about to begin.
The hunting parties that had left with the scouts were just coming back. Artemis had been kind to them and it would take the cooks the rest of this and the better part of the next day to prepare all the field-dressed carcasses for storage. Personally, Xena didn't think that Ares' army would settle for a siege but it also didn't do any harm to be prepared for the worst and all the non-combatants had something to do while the warriors were busy with polishing their weapons and armour, with making javelins, arrows and crossbow bolts.
Gabrielle, Theano, Ephiny and Akyra were helping in the kitchens. The royal guards were with the Centaur warriors. The Queen was in conference with Tyldus and Kaleipus. So, Xena unexpectedly found herself with nothing to do.
She already had checked on the new mother and her baby girls. Terreis had been anxious to get out of bed and resume her role as head of the village's scouts but the tall warrior finally managed to convince her to stay in bed for another three days and only to take on light duty afterwards. She would be able to command the scouts but not to go with them. It took a rather graphic description of what could happen if she tore the sutures not only holding her skin together but also reattaching the muscles in her abdomen.
There also was the question of how to deal with Queen Melosa. Simply staying in the hut and out of sight would be the easiest way out, but Terreis sense of duty never would allow this. When she left Xena's army and settled down with Phantes after the peace treaty had been signed, she knew that one day she would have to face her older sister and the shadows of her own past. But, at least, she wanted to stay on her own two feet when speaking with Melosa. Xena supposed that was the real reason behind her willingness to stay in bed.
Xena decided to take Argo for a walk and visit Borias' grave. It was on top of a hillock about a quarter candlemark's ride north of the village. She first headed west towards the mountain range, then to the north and turned back by going south-east thus describing an almost perfect circle. She let Argo choose the pace and the mare took the opportunity to run full out.
The tall woman found the marker where she had last seen it, almost five summers ago, in a blooming meadow in front of an old oak tree, looking protectively down on the village. She had heard the rustling of leaves and the unmistakable sound of someone trying to breathe lightly even before reaching the grave; and she internally debated of calling him on it or letting it go. Finally, without looking towards the tree she said. "You can come down now, Solan. I know you're up there."
She felt his eyes on her. "Get away from my father and mother."
Xena still didn't turn around. "I came to pay my respects."
The boy glided down the tree and the warrior woman couldn't help smiling inwardly at his surprising agility. The scabbard with Borias' sword was still hanging from his waist, the tip of it almost touching the ground. She could almost feel his hatred. "I didn't kill your father. I wish you'd believed that."
Solan knelt next to the grave. "You killed him and my mother was left all alone."
"What do you know about your mother?" The question slipped out of her mouth and she immediately regretted asking. She could see the boy's shoulders stiffen.
"What do you care?"
"I care." Was all that came to her mind, but then she decided that she really needed to know. "What was she like?"
"My uncle says, she was wonderful. She never thought bad things about anyone, even you. She had a smile like a breeze on a warm day and she could sing like Orpheus. I wish I could have heard her sing."
Solan still had his eyes on the gravestone and so he missed the short moment of complete bewilderment crossing Xena's face before she continued her questioning. "Did your uncle ever tell you that she didn't want you to become a warrior?"
Still on the defensive the boy answered. "How'd you know?"
"Well, a woman like her, without evil in her heart, wouldn't want her son to take up a sword."
"My father fought you," Solan angrily retorted, "fought and died for something noble…."
Xena couldn't keep the anger out of her voice either. "Don't confuse nobility with anger and revenge. Your father wasn't like that." Her voice became more normal now but she wasn't able to cover up all the emotions running through her mind. "I know because we were very close once. Did you know he could sing. We used to sing toge…."
Solan bolted away.
They were close enough to the village for the boy to be safe, so Xena decided not to follow him. Instead, she took his place next to the gravestone and traced the engravings with her fingertips. Outwardly the picture of calm composure, her mind was reeling and though usually she wasn't one for words, this time she gave voice to her thoughts.
"Kaleipus did a good job raising your son, Borias, … our son. I can't possibly blame him for wanting to kill me and he has such a high opinion of his mother. 'Mother', I shouldn't even think this word. No one deserves to have someone like me as a mother. I may no longer be the ruler of Greece but I'm still a murderer -- and that's what I'll always be, no matter what Gabrielle and Theano persist on telling me.
"Solan is such a bright boy. I don't want him to be a warrior. You should have heard the argument I had this morning with Kaleipus, well, perhaps you did. I know the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. However, he was right. My son, our son must have the right to choose his own path. But still, I don't have to li…"
Xena fell silent, hearing the rustle of very light hoof-beats trying to sneak up on Argo: a Centaur-child.
She didn't try to creep up on the boy, but slowly came towards him from the front. He looked up, but didn't shy from her presence. "You're Xena, aren't you? You're very tall for a Human female."
"And you're very smart for a young Centaur-boy, Xenan. Won't you be missed at the village?"
"Oh no, they're far too busy at the moment. Besides, Solan and I spend a lot of time here. It's one of his favourite places. I just was trying to find him and then I saw your horse. She's beautiful, she's carrying, too."
"Usually Centaurs and horsemanship don't mix. How do you know?"
"Usually, a Centaur doesn't have an Amazon as a mother. -- Do you know where Solan went?"
"Did your mother ever tell you that you're too smart for you own good?" The woman retorted, only barely remembering what her friends, Phantes and Terreis, had told her about the by human standards premature development of Centaur children.
"More than once. Where's Solan?"
"I made him angry. I suppose he returned to the village, as we also should. It's getting late. It wouldn't do to miss dinner, would it, Xenan?"
"Let's go. I'm hungry." Xena took Argo's reins and comfortably walked side by side with the boy.
While Xenan was amiably chatting about games of hide and seek and other pass-times, Xena wondered about his reactions towards her. His mother was her friend, but living with the Centaurs, he certainly had heard a lot about her history with his people. He should have been more prejudiced. Perhaps he was too young to make sense of it.
When they entered the village they met a group of young, heavily armed Centaurs. They still were about twenty paces away, but their body language spoke clearly of their less than friendly disposition. It was what she had suspected entering Centaur land, but it was nothing she was ready to confront an innocent child with. So, Xena decided to try and talk to them first.
These people were supposed to be their allies, but as she had suspected, it didn't work. After listening to their insults for some time she bent down to Xenan and told him to go, take Argo, and alert his father. He galloped away when the apparent leader of the group said.
"You shouldn't be allowed any contact with our children, Destroyer of Nations. You will poison their souls. -- The elders think, that we will need you to defeat this latest threat to our Nation, but I say you're nothing but a fraud, Conqueror."
"Well, if I am, there's no reason for you to be afraid of my being here." Xena answered with only a hint of a smile that didn't reach her eyes. She knew that they were far beyond caring; they probably also didn't have the faintest idea of what they were so eager to get into. And a big part of her also was eager to get things started. So, the tall warrior didn't have to wait too long for her challenge to be registered.
Four of them were now behind her; they stood still but were nervously swishing their tails. Together with their friends they were forming an uneven circle with Xena as the centre point. Centaurs were a proud race; they wouldn't attack her all at once. The leader gave an almost imperceptible nod to one of his friends on his right side, who charged her with his sword drawn. She simply rolled out of the way and kicked the upper part of his front leg in. The next one came from behind; he reared on his hind legs, trying to crush her head with his powerful front hooves. Xena dropped to her knees, her arms shooting upwards with lightening speed; she caught his legs just above the hooves, managed to bend them inwards and thus toppled him over face first.
Two down, six to go. Soon only the leader was left to try and attack her; and he did, with a staff. She deftly avoided his side sweep, but then was taken by surprise by his next move and landed hard on her back. She instinctively rolled left and his staff hid the earth where only moments ago her head had been. Xena got back to her feet.
Out of the corner of her eyes she saw another side sweep coming. Instead of simply ducking away from it she launched herself in a flying flip and landed on his back. Her long arms reached over her surprised opponents head, grabbed his weapon and jerked it painfully back. She could feel his muscles fighting against her own. He reared, but her powerful legs securely held her in place. She pulled his arms steadily towards her, just to the point were his shoulders were about to become dislocated. The moment his front legs once again touched ground, she got her feet on his back and somersaulted over his head, way out of reach of his staff.
The woman warrior, once again, was in a circle of, now, slightly bedraggled opponents. She presented a picture of outward calm, never once betraying the loud but steady pounding of her heart. The dark part of her soul, the one always associated with Ares' gift wanted to take them all down with swift strokes of her still unsheathed sword. The rational part of her mind, however, told her that the skill level she just had shown would go a long way to get the Centaurs more comfortable with her and the Amazons.
"I never will get bested by a human female. They're just good for breeding. Centaurs attack." The second of her attackers yelled.
But then again, maybe not.
Only four out of eight Centaur warriors followed his enraged summons. This time she had to draw her sword to fend them off -- and the urge to do more than that rushed through her veins like a powerful drug. She could feel it getting stronger with every sword strike and spear thrust she avoided or deflected. Her blood was pulsing in her ears. The almost completely healed boar scratches just under her upper arm protector were partially reopened by a chance attack and the smell of her own blood invaded her nostrils. The part of her ready to get lost in this rush of blood was getting stronger with every heartbeat and the only thing keeping her from acting on those impulses was the thought of the expression on her lover's face, a mix of bewilderment, understanding and disappointment.
Suddenly, there was a horn signal that Xena had only heard once before in her life. It meant: 'Retreat!' She immediately stopped her sword attack in mid-motion, slightly shuddering under the brunt of the first Centaur's sword. Her eyes were wandering from one of her opponents to the other and though they evidently took more time to react to the call, they also halted in mid-attack. The raven haired warrior had a hard time keeping her body from taking advantage of the situation and kill them all.
Her mind prevailed. She slid out from under her opponent's blade, stepped aside and sheathed her own weapon. She was trembling from head to toe. The need to kill pumped through her body like poison and it took all her willpower to stay and listen to the voice now ranging throughout the whole village, but only reaching her ears as if through several layers of thick leather.
"What by Hades' boots do you think you're doing? Xena was granted guest status in our village. Centaurs don't attack their guests. You dishonoured our whole nation."
"Tyldus, please," Queen Melosa's voice interrupted. "This seems to be nothing more than a sparring match."
The tall Centaur turned his attention to the Amazon Queen. "A sparring match that got totally out of hand. Besides, the Conqu…, Xena may not know where the exercise grounds are but my warriors do. I also came here before you did and as long as they were busy with one on one attacks I wouldn't have intervened. As things were, however, I didn't have a choice. I'm responsible for the training of our young warriors. They are my responsibility and they will have to face my judgement.
"If there is any way for the Amazon Queen to recompense a slave to the Nation I humbly and strongly suggest you do just this. Xena could have killed every one of them more than once in the last few candledrops and she would have been in her right but she didn't. For this we owe her. -- And, you others, every one of you, you will spend the night doing the first perimeter watch, not only the first but also the second shift. And, I want you all at the exercise ground at sunrise tomorrow where you will receive your new assignments."
In her peripheral vision, Xena could see her opponents and the crowd gathered around them slowly dispersing. She still stood ramrod straight, still feeling the rush of blood in her ears. Several candledrops passed.
Then there was a hand reaching up to her left cheek. Her body immediately recognised it and sought out closer contact. The fingers trailed down her neck, along her shoulders, just barely touched her upper arm bracer, slid down to her wrist and then softly squeezed the still sensitive palm. Some of the tension seemed to be seeping out of her at the touch alone.
"Come!" After walking swiftly for about a quarter candlemark, they came to a small hut just out of hearing distance of any other building of the village. Gabrielle opened the door but her tall companion stopped dead in mid-step.
"No, I can't. I …, I have to go away. Now." She said, her heart still pounding in her chest.
"Xena, I know what you need and I'll give it to you. And we both know that this is the better of two ways to get you back to normal."
"I'll hurt you."
"No, you won't. You didn't the last time and you won't now." Gabrielle answered locking her pleading eyes with Xena's. "Please, just this once. Let me do something for you."
"It's not the same. Last time, it just was a sparring session that got out of hand. I could feel Ares' call but it was nothing but practice, a game." After the slight respite just after the fight, Xena had a hard time keeping her emotions under control. "This time was different. I wanted to kill them and I still can feel this energy running through my body. I'm not sure if I'd be able to control myself this time."
"Xena, just do it. Trust me. Everything will be all right, my love."
"I don't want to hurt you." The tall warrior retorted, but her resistance had lost quiet a bit of its earlier vehemence.
"Trust me, my love."
Xena sighed, but unhooked her chakram, loosened the sheath of her sword on her back and began to unclasp her armour. Meanwhile the blonde bard was busy taking off her leg protectors. Taking her by both hands, the younger woman once again pulled her towards the door. "Gabrielle, I …"
"Xena, you're my heart. Act on your impulses, I love you and I can take it. Just do it."
Xena abandoned her doubts and stepped inside. Ares' call still was strong and loud in her blood, louder even then after the fight against Darphus' army. Outside, Gabrielle had been the one urging her on, now, the roles were reversed.
As soon as the door was closed and the bolt securely pushed in place, the younger woman fell to her knees, her eyes demurely on the ground. A tiny part in her raven haired lover's brain knew that reliving her past as a body slave was extremely hard for the blonde, but there was another, darker part of her now in charge.
Gabrielle rose from her lower legs and undid the knot holding her tunic in place. "Stand up, I want to see all of you, wench!"
She flinched internally at the cruelty in her lover's voice and even more when she cast a glance at icy cold eyes having lost their customary shades of blue to be replaced by glinting silver. This indeed was different than the last time and she knew she somehow had to get through to the woman behind the warlord's mask.
"I love you, Xena."
"You will address me as 'lord'." The other woman snarled while swiftly cutting the smaller woman's clothing open at the front with one of her boot daggers.
"Yes, my lord, I love you."
The warrior now ordered her to take off her breeches and sandals, leaving her naked. "On your knees. My boots, open the laces. Hands on your back, use your mouth."
Gabrielle's mind flashed back to the last time they had made love, when it had been her speaking these words, but this evening her mind was far away from the playfulness of a few days ago.
"Yes, my lord, I love you."
Her teeth closed around the hardened tip of the leather laces and the slip opened at the first try. She repeated the action with the other boot. The laces now easily fell away from the upper two levels of hooks needed to snugly fit the sturdy footwear around Xena's lower legs. Gabrielle continued to tuck at the laces until all the hooks were undone.
"You may use your hands to remove the boots completely."
"Yes, my lord, I love you." When finished, she briefly sought eye contact with the tall woman but instead of locking eyes with her, Gabrielle's gaze once again found the ground.
"Look at me. You should be trembling with fear but I don't see fear in your eyes. Aren't you afraid?"
"Yes, my lord, I'm afraid, but I love you."
For the fraction of a heartbeat Xena's eyes changed colour but then the silvery coldness was back. "Get on the bed, face first. I need to find something to tie you down."
"May I help you, my lord? There's something in one of the saddlebags."
"Go and get it."
Gabrielle began to rummage through the bag holding most of her things and soon produced a bundle Xena had taken for blank scrolls when checking their gear before they left the Amazon village. She opened it and revealed among other things, six long leather straps, a black scarf, and most prominent of all, a leather harness with an intricately decorated ivory phallus attached to it.
Xena regarded the harness with a cold smile. "So, you came prepared. Before long, you'll have every reason to be sorry for your thoughtfulness, girl."
"I'll never be sorry for loving you, my lord." The younger woman answered while scooting on the bed. A strap was fastened around her left ankle, but instead of securing it to the bedpost, Xena ordered her to turn around. She quickly was spread eagled to the four corners of the big bed and the warrior looked down at her with a predatory glint in her eyes. Gabrielle tried to reach her with a smile, in vain.
Xena lit the torches on either side of the bed, quickly undressed and donned the custom-made harness. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat when she looked at the perfect body of her lover, who now was exuding a raw, sensual energy she rarely displayed.
The tall warrior straddled her blonde companion and ordered her to suck the ivory giant. At the inside of the harness, a small knob made sure that her clit was stimulated with every movement of the big phallus. Gabrielle's skilful manipulations soon brought her to the edge of orgasm, but instead she hastily repositioned herself between the spread legs.
Two hands were squeezing her breasts and the young woman couldn't help but cry out in pain. During the last time, after an especially hard sparring session with the soldiers of the First Order, the first cry of pain from her lover had been enough to end Xena's bloodlust.
Now, a mouth descended on her right globe and gave her more reason to cry out. The warrior's eyes were shining silver-blue, all her attention focused on the body beneath. Gabrielle, to her utter surprise, found herself not lost in pain but also in arousal, something she never had had happen before.
While tears welled up in her eyes, she whispered. "Please, my lord, take me. I need you, I love you."
But the tall woman warrior took her time. Her hands once again were fondling breasts arching into the contact, thumbs and index fingers expertly but without gentleness rolling the nipples. When her nose had reached the level of Gabrielle's belly button she was assaulted by the scent of the other woman's arousal now mingled with her own. A low growl left her throat, echoed by a loud moan coming from above her head. With one swift and fluent movement she shifted her weight on her right arm only; her left hand guided the phallus towards the younger woman's vagina, just introducing the tip.
She bent her head towards the younger woman's ear and whispered. "You're not allowed to come without permission." And was answered by an equally whispered. "I love you, my lord."
Xena started out with slow movements, entering deeper with every thrust. When the whole length of the ivory tool was firmly inside she stopped; by the small strokes against her clit, she literally could feel the blonde's vaginal muscles pressing against it, squeezing it. Her thumb massaged Gabrielle's hard nub. Her hips began to move back and forth, changing the angle to create a circular motion, thus once and again hitting the most sensitive spot of the younger woman's anatomy.
She relished the sound of breathing getting faster and faster, could feel the accelerated heartbeat under her nipple licking tongue. The golden sparkles in Gabrielle's green eyes were calling to her, the whole face a silent plea. But she didn't want her to come, not yet. She once again bit down hard on the already marked breast to get her back to reality.
The bard, however, was too far-gone. The pain registered in her brain at the same moment as the phallus hitting her secret spot and she toppled over the edge. Her orgasm strong enough to make the leather straps holding her in place crack under the strain. She cried out Xena's name and sank into oblivion.
When Gabrielle once again opened her eyes, she still was on the bed. Her arms still were fastened at the edges of the headboard; the leather straps at her ankles were dangling loosely. Her legs were stretched wide open. Two more leather straps fastened around her knees and the upper end of the bedposts bound her in some sort of spread-eagled jack knife.
A low voice coming from the left side of the bed caught her attention. "You came without permission." She turned her head. Xena was smiling but the smile didn't reach her silvery eyes. "You have to be punished."
It took her some heartbeats to find her voice. "Please forgive my failure, my lord. I spoiled your fun and deserve to be punished. Please, don't have mercy on me. I love you, my lord."
A small voice inside Gabrielle's head asked where this was coming from. Who as a slave she had hated to be punished, hated having to ask for it, hated having to be thankful for the punishment, suddenly knew her words to be true. And with sudden insight, she also knew why. Whatever the warrior's eyes were telling her, she still trusted her lover, trusted her with her body and her soul.
"Don't worry. Mercy is not what I have in mind, girl." The raven-haired woman said almost conversationally. "I thought about flogging you 'til I climax but I won't. I know what your problem is. Your front hole is just too sensitive, so now, I'll take you by the ass."
Gabrielle's breathing stopped for a heartbeat and she pleaded with her captor. "Please, my lord, I'll never be able to take something this big. You'll tear me apart. Please, my lord, don't do it." She sought for her lover in the eyes of this stranger and didn't find her -- but still she trusted the other woman.
"You're mine to do with as I please." Was the growled reply.
Xena now was on her knees in front of the bound woman but Gabrielle didn't dare to look in her eyes. Two big hands firmly gripped her hips and lifted her upwards. The phallus still glistening with her juices inched closer and closer. She already could feel the tip touching her sphincter.
Finally she closed her eyes, resigned to her fate and whispered. "Do with me as you please. I love you, Xena."
"Oh Gods, Gabrielle!" The taller woman's head jerked back, she saw Gabrielle's tear streaked face, cut all of the younger woman's restraints with one swift movement of a dagger and tore at the harness as if it were on fire. She jumped from the bed and retreated to the farthest corner of the one-room-cabin. Her eyes, now a pale blue, were reflecting the horror of what she almost had done to her lover and best friend. She sank to the ground.
Gabrielle cautiously stretched her muscles, her heart still pounding in her throat. One look at Xena and she knew that there was no bloodlust left in her companion. She went towards her but the woman retreated even further into the corner.
"I love you, Xena. I knew you'd never hurt me. Please, look at me."
"I did. I hurt you. I bit you and drew your blood. I, I raped you. I promised to always protect you, but instead I raped you. I'm a monster."
The young bard took Xena's chin in her hand and looked deeply into her haunted eyes where fear and self-disgust were warring for dominance.
"I love you, Xena. I did from the first time I almost drowned in your then tired eyes, after you saved my life; and I always will. You own me, my heart and my soul and my body, my today and all my tomorrows. Please, come back to me."
"I raped you."
"No, you stopped, like I knew you would. I love you. Remember what you taught me: 'To conquer oneself is to know the way.' Today you conquered the dark part of your soul and you did it for me. If it even were possible I'd love you more for it. Please come to bed and make love to me."
"How can you even think about making love now? I hurt you, I…" Xena's hand was shaking when she touched the bite marks at the other woman's breast. When Gabrielle calmly took her hand and gently kissed its palm, the last of Xena's barriers fell. She began to cry and for a long time the blonde held the taller woman in a loving embrace, slowly rocking them back and forth until Morpheus claimed them both.
When she once again opened her eyes, it was in the middle of the night and Xena was still sleeping with her head in her lap. She caressed her shoulders and back, relieved beyond belief to have her Xena back. When her lover finally woke, they went to bed, not once losing contact with the other's skin. They snuggled together and in the first candlemarks of dawn they gently made love thus banning the demons of the night and both of their pasts -- at least for some time.
When the young blonde woke from a short but deep and refreshing sleep, the sun was already up, but its rays were blocked by a naked body standing at the only window of the simple hut. She rose from the large bed and pressed her own body against her lover's back, her arms circling the taller woman's waist, stroking a flat, smooth stomach.
A couple of candledrops later, one of her hands was slowly lifted upwards. She felt soft lips at her wrists, kissing the marks left from the restraints. Surprisingly there only were slight bruises and no rope burns. She also could feel points of wetness falling on the back of her hand. Xena was crying, as always, without making a sound.
More candledrops passed, there were slight tremors running through Xena's body and the green-eyed woman couldn't stand the silence any longer. "I love you, Xena."
"Gabrielle," the tall woman answered with a voice that had nothing familiar, "you have to leave me. Staying with me is too dangerous. I'll go and tell Queen Melosa what happened tonight and gladly submit to the punishment for attempted rape. That's the only way."
"Are you completely out of your mind, Xena?" the younger woman retorted and forced herself between the windowsill and her lover. "I won't leave you. I love you; you are my heart and my soul. My body knows when you enter a room without having to see you. You're the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing in the night, you're in my dreams. I need you, my love. Don't throw away what we have just out of misguided guilt, please. Look at me; don't hide behind your pride. I love you, Xena."
Still overflowing blue eyes found green ones. The tall warrior could see tears glistening at their inner edges, these eyes were pleading with her. Gabrielle slowly pulled the other woman's left hand towards her and began to pose tiny kisses on the knuckles and fingers. The loving gesture let the walls Xena had spend the candlemarks since dawn rebuilding crumble upon themselves. She sank on her knees, desperately clinging to her smaller lover.
Xena whispered. "I'm so afraid I'll hurt you. Next time, I might not stop. Next time, I might even kill you."
"There's something I have to tell you, my love. What you did yesterday happened with my consent. I knew what I was getting into from the beginning, but that's not all. When you bit my breast, I… It's hard to tell, I, I never thought it possible. When you bit me, I was aroused and … and even in the end, I knew that it would be all right, that I would be all right. I love you."
"You're only saying this to ease my mind. I hurt you and I could do it again in a heartbeat."
"No, my love, you won't. You didn't last night and you never will. I trust you and have faith in you. Please, look at me. I believe in you." The kneeling woman turned her head. "I know it would be easy to say that what you did yesterday, that this person wasn't you. But we both know it's not true. Darkness and violence not only are a part of your past, they also are a part of you, of what and who you are. You need the darkness to fight and to win, to survive, but it doesn't control you. The light in your heart always will defeat the darkness. Please believe in yourself."
"I don't know if I can, Gabrielle, I hurt you. It can happen again."
"Xena, please, cut yourself some slack. After the fight against Darphus' army, when you came back to the village, I could feel the darkness emanating from you. It was there but it didn't control you. It did last night but that's understandable. You're in an emotionally very difficult situation, right now. Ares is pressuring you -- oh, please, don't look so surprised. I know you didn't tell us everything about your conversation with the God of War, but I can wait 'til you're ready.
"Anyway, there's Ares and seeing your son for the first time in years, the threat against the Centaurs, the Ixion stone, delivering the babies, your memories, the hostility of the people in this village. The fight yesterday was only the last straw. No one would have been able to withstand this much tension and pressure without losing it somehow. -- I know, it might happen again and I hope that I'll be there to take care of you, then as I was yesterday. I love you, Xena. I'll take the risk."
"There are no excuses for what I did to you, Gabrielle. I don't deserve your love."
"Let me be the judge of that. I love you, Xena. Please, if you can't believe in yourself, believe in my love for you, believe in my belief in you."
"I love you, Gabrielle. I love you so much." For more than a quarter of a candlemark they stood motionless and in silence, with Xena still on her knees, her head pressed against the blonde woman's firm abdomen. "I still have to speak with Queen Melosa. I have to be punished."
"Xena, please don't. Let it go, do it for me."
"But I…" A slender finger gently sealed the tall woman's lips.
"I know, my love, but you are harder on yourself than anyone else could. Nothing the Amazons could come up with could ever be as harsh as you are to yourself."
"What are you talking about, Gab?"
"Xena, my love, you're a brilliant general, an even better fighter and a very complex woman, but sometimes you're as predictable as…" Gabrielle's stomach made its presence known, loudly. "…well, as predictable as the monster living in my stomach. Last time it took you almost a full moon before you were once again able to touch me without fear in your eyes. I know that you will torture yourself with images of last night, that you will be afraid of your own shadow whenever we are together. That's punishment enough because I really hate to see fear in your eyes. Last night is nothing the Amazons have to know about, at least not more than they already suspect. Do it for me."
Xena's pride wanted to contest the younger woman's words but another part of her had to acknowledge that her lover was right. She gently kissed the smooth skin in front of her. "You win, my love." Murmuring endearments between kisses the warrior's mouth found its way to Gabrielle's nether region where her tongue began an intricate dance. The blonde's hands anchored her at her lover's shoulders, leaving pronounced scratch marks when she reached her pinnacle.
Chapter Five: Revelations
Xena was about to carry her lover back to bed when she stopped in mid-motion. "We'd better get dressed, Theano is com..." She was silenced with a passionate kiss.
They were still catching their breaths when a sharp knock at the door brought them back to reality. "We'll be out in a candledrop, Theano." Gabrielle yelled back and proceeded to kiss the raven haired woman still holding her firmly in her arms. Another knock. Another kiss. Another knock. Gabrielle sighed and slipped out of her lover's arms. Grabbing a fresh tunic out of her saddlebag she went to open the door when the older Amazon's head appeared at the window.
"All right, the two of you, you had enough playtime. Xena, Queen Melosa and Tyldus want your input regarding the village defences and traps. Gabrielle, Akyra and I need your help gathering medicinal herbs and roots. Hurry up, you already missed the morning meal, you don't want to miss the whole day."
"You? Gathering herbs?!" Xena said while putting on her leather dress, totally disregarding the fact that the older woman just had seen her in all her naked glory. "What did Akyra bribe you with? You don't like grubbing in the dirt."
"Xena, be good. I'm sure Theano does it for the company -- and you should really show more respect for your second mother." The younger woman quipped in with an impish smile.
With a twinkle in her eyes, Xena responded. "You're right, Gabrielle. Please forgive my disobedient tongue, venerable elder."
"This afternoon, at the training grounds, I'll show you 'old', little one, and now move your lazy behind, there's work to do, both of you." The Amazon lawyer answered with a mock growl.
The morning sun was tentatively reaching through the thick canopy of leaves over her head when Eponin was riding towards Centaur territory -- at the point of a long trek of Amazon warriors and most of Xena's soldiers; she furtively glanced around, taking in the riders behind her.
Palemon was animatedly talking to one of the few soldiers that had survived the battle against Darphus' army with Theodorus at his other side. Behind him were Cyrene, Cassandra, Toris, and Meleager. She couldn't see it, but she knew that one of the supply wagons was driven by the young Persian, Tarik, and another one by his wife, Shirin. She still didn't understand why these civilians and a handful of others had insisted on accompanying the war party, and she could even less understand how she had been talked into letting them.
The weapons' master's mind wandered back to the night before. The encampment of Xena's soldiers didn't offer enough room and other necessities to house all of the newcomers. So, they decided that the younger children and their caretakers would stay at the Amazon village while the other adults made camp at the clearing. When she returned to her quarters in the middle of the night, after exchanging the most important news, and arguing in vain with Xena's mother; Eponin knew without the shadow of a doubt where the raven haired warrior got her stubbornness from.
She only wanted to sleep but first had to deal with last minute preparations, and with an Amazon youngster who also insisted on going with the army. She had tried to explain that it simply was too dangerous, but her daughter didn't listen to reason. "I don't want to loose you, mum."
"I'll be back, Than, I promise. Nothing will happen to me, and I don't want to leave you behind."
"Then, don't." The stubborn girl interjected.
"I have to. Your safety is more important than anything else to me. I failed you once." The stoic weapons' master answered with a sad smile. "I won't let any harm come to you." Sensing another protest, she continued. "Please, let me finish. If I let you come with me, a big part of my mind will not be on the fight or on trying to keep the Queen safe, it will be with you, with your safety. And if I don't …"
"I know, if you're distracted you can easily get killed, and I'm not good enough to fight at your side." The girl said dejectedly.
"Yes, baby girl. You're not good enough yet, but one day you will, and then I'll be proud to have you at my side during a battle. I'm glad you understand. I'm proud of you. Perhaps, one day, caring for my safety, it will be your turn to tell me to stay home while you go and fight for the nation." The weapons' master's attempt at lightening the girl's mood completely failed, so Eponin changed the subject. "Besides, I have an assignment for you, you and Lyceus. There were a lot of children with the wagon trek. I want you and your friends to help them, play with them, make them welcome. They're orphans, and I'm sure you can have lots of fun together." She saw the ill-concealed twinkle in her daughters eyes. "Hey, without driving the elders crazy. -- Promise!"
After a long candledrop of deliberation, Thania answered, slightly pouting. "All right, I promise. But I still don't like being left behind, not one bit." Eponin smiled, and opened her arms to embrace the feisty girl.
"I'm proud of you, Thanny."
A voice from her left snapped her out of her memories. "Weapons' master, I want to thank you for taking us with you."
"I didn't have much choice, did I, Cyrene? You would have followed us, anyway. -- When I first met your daughter, I was sure that she was the most stubborn woman in the world, but now I'm no longer sure. -- You waited such a long time to talk to her, why can't it wait 'til we're back from the Centaurs?"
The older woman looked at her with a very familiar hint of a smile curving her lips. "Did it ever occur to you that she could die during this war, Eponin? This is perhaps my only chance to get to know her."
"She won't die, Cyrene. She's the best fighter I ever saw. With Gabrielle she has a reason to come back from the battlefield, and she's far too stubborn to die before she has suffered through the last part of her punishment in front of Artemis' temple. No, it didn't occur to me."
"Tell me about it, please."
"Tell you about what, exactly?" Eponin knew that she was stalling for time, but this really was a question she'd rather not have to answer.
"The trial, the punishment. Tell me why?"
"Why? I don't know why, Cyrene. That's one question only Xena can answer, perhaps she thought it was the right thing to do. At the trial we had to force Xena to defend herself, but in the end it worked out. You better ask Theano about it."
"Theano? What has she to do with this whole mess? Well, if she was there, at least she did a good job at defending Xena."
"Theano was the prosecutor. She was the one at the other side of the whip during the forced interrogation, but without her help it would have been much more difficult to come to a fair verdict."
"Amazon law states that whenever a defendant refuses to answer the questions of either her own attorney or the prosecutor, there is the possibility to encourage truthful answers by having the accused whipped. It's an old tradition and this time it really worked."
"Whipped? Theano whipped my daughter?"
"Yes, and she really did a good job. It was fair."
"Fair? Being whipped during a trial, fair? And this so-called sentence. Being whipped half to death three times in three moons, that's not what I would call fair. What by Hades was Theano thinking? She's supposed to see to her safety. Did she forget everything she told me about Amazon traditions?!"
"A second mother is not to keep her charge from making mistakes. Her primary goal is to keep her soul safe, and that's what Theano did. The way she did it may be unconventional but there's nothing conventional about your daughter." When the older woman didn't answer, Eponin continued. "Apart from the older scars, the lash marks from the forced interrogation were still visible when the first part of her punishment began. She cried out for the next to last stroke but otherwise held her tongue. I never saw someone as strong and as brave before. And when after asking Gabrielle to join with her, she bade me to help her back to the village I was at least as proud as the day I was named weapons' master."
"What about the second punishment? Even the first one must have brought back a lot of dark memories for her." A voice from her right asked. When she turned her head she saw the blonde warrior named Cassandra. Her eyes spoke of her curiosity but they also gave away a great deal of genuine concern and compassion.
"You're probably right but she never speaks about the gauntlet. She only told me that this was the price she had to pay for misjudging her men, misjudging Darphus. Well, at least this scum bag is taken care of, once and for all."
"Darphus? I thought he disappeared for good after Xena cut his balls off." Cassandra queried.
"He led the army attacking us more than a moon ago. Xena killed him, rescued her brother and the other outsiders, and led us to a glorious victory though we were outnumbered three to one." Eponin was glad for this change of topic though she also knew that it wouldn't last.
"Gauntlet? What are you talking about? No one survives a gauntlet."
"No one but Xena," Palemon unexpectedly answered. "On the way back to Greece, after her campaign against Persia, the men of her advance group decided to have some fun with one of the undefended villages, close to the Grecian border. When Xena came back, the village was in flames, and she had a hard time to stop the raping and pillaging. Darphus convinced the other men that Xena intended to keep all the spoils of war for herself and they made him their new leader. He refused to fight the General one on one, but she somehow had to give the few survivors enough time to get away. Accepting the gauntlet was the only way to keep them otherwise occupied."
"She saved the lives of more than thirty villagers, elders, women, and children, that day. When I asked her about it, she told me that a few scars on her back where a small price to pay for these innocents lives." Cassandra continued. "You were talking about the second whipping, weapons' master?"
Eponin internally sighed. "Xena is a very strong woman, inside and out, but the knowledge of what would happen let the second whipping have more impact on her than the first. I didn't tell you yesterday but Xena made a deal with Artemis."
"A deal? That's unlikely. She always kept her distance to the Gods, despite my best efforts. If she had been protected by one of them, perhaps…."
"I don't know what she was like before she came to us, Cyrene, but the Xena I know prays almost every evening at the temple of Artemis. She prays to Gaia, the Goddess of the Earth and mother of Gods. She told me once that she choose the older Goddess because she rarely tries to interfere with the life of mortals."
Eponin ignored the older woman's disbelieving frown and turned her attention to the blonde.
"The night before the first punishment, the great Artemis granted Xena a favour. Given her amazing healing abilities, Xena feared that the punishment wouldn't have the effect on her it should have. So, she asked the Goddess to take them away, at least for the punishment itself. At the time, she didn't know that the jury had taken her abilities into account when deciding on the number of strokes. Now, it's too late to change anything.
"Xena was and is still healing faster as most other people would but her sensitivity to pain was considerably heightened. She also told me that she lost her innate sense of how well her body was healing.
"I suppose that's why the second whipping was emotionally harder on her. She now knew exactly what she was in for. She told me that towards the end, the pain had been almost overwhelming and that she had to fight not to lose herself in it. Yes, the second whipping was harder on her -- not that anyone would have been able to tell. She didn't even once cry out this time, but I could see it in her eyes when I helped her back to the village."
"How does Gabrielle take it?" Cassandra asked.
"You know her?"
"I only met her twice, Cyrene, but she undoubtedly is one of the most kind-hearted, most loving and caring persons I ever saw. She loves Xena, and Xena returns this love with all that she is. They only have to be in the same room, without being next to each other even a blind man could see their love. I'm sure she at least tried to change Xena's mind about this whole punishment business."
"You're right, Cassandra. She tried, but finally she understood that a warrior has to follow the voice of her heart and her conscience. She still isn't happy about it, but she respects Xena's decision."
"Tell me about her life with the Ama…"
The day went by quickly, and Xena strolled to the training grounds with the knowledge that the non-combatants, the children and elders, would be safe within the confines of the village. She found Theano already waiting but instead of her earlier promise, Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen.
"Hello to you, too. Yes, I had a wonderful day, myself."
"I'm sorry, Theano, but I can't help but worrying whenever I don't know where she is. Hello, my second mother." Xena answered, with a sheepish grin, disregarding the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"Some of the women were gathering herbs and berries with a bunch of children. The children were bored; Gabrielle offered to tell them a few stories. They're at a clearing about two candlemarks' fast walk east of here. She promised to be back before dinner. Don't worry, she has her staff, and they are within hearing distance of the outer watch. -- And now, I think we should address this 'elder' remark."
Their sparring started out rather slowly but soon attracted quite an audience. Well into the second candlemark (and the nth chance for Xena to end this match,) she suddenly dropped her staff and fell to her knees when a piercing pain assaulted her head. It disappeared as quickly as it came but now the queasy feeling in her guts was back with force.
The older Amazon urged her to lie down for a few candledrops, and insisted on Akyra taking a look at her. The tall warrior first brushed her off, then her stomach revolted but having skipped the midday meal, she only came up with dry heaves. Akyra and the village's healer couldn't find anything wrong with her, and speculated that her body just needed something to eat, so the proud woman was escorted to the dining hall. She wasn't hungry but managed to keep down a slice of bread and half a pitcher of cider.
The sun was down and Xena's anxiety was growing though the physical effects had all but vanished. She was in the middle of saddling up Argo to search for the younger woman when one of the inner perimeter guards escorted Gabrielle to the central square, supporting most of her weight. There were blood stains at her tunic and a makeshift bandage around her head.
At the beginning of her third story, a band of enemy soldiers had invaded the clearing where she and the kids had settled down, about two scores of heavily armed men.
"I knocked a few of them out with my staff but meanwhile they had rounded up the children. There was nothing I could do. Their leader offers a deal; an exchange, Xena and the Ixion stone for the children. The exchange will take place the day after tomorrow at midday on top of the hill three candlemarks' ride east of here. Then they knocked me out."
"The leader, was he about my height, with hair not quite as dark as mine, and a scar disfiguring the right side of his face?"
"Yes, how do you know?"
"Dagnine, he was one of my lieutenants when I fought the Centaurs all those years ago. At the time he was even more obsessed with the powers of the Ixion stone than I was, and he obviously still is. He always overestimated his own fighting abilities but he's cunning and ruthless. Even then, I never would have turned my back on him. He never kept his word, if there was any other way out. I doubt that he can resist the temptation to sell the children as slaves; Centaurs should bring a very good price. How many children are we talking about, Gabrielle?"
The exhausted younger woman closed her eyes and mentally counted. "Twelve. -- Xenan and Solan are among them, Xe."
Within a heartbeat, the tall warrior was on Argo's back, ready to storm away but the voices of Queen Melosa and Kaleipus -- and mot of all Gabrielle's hand on top of her thigh stopped her. All she really wanted to do was to go and find their camp and kill them all. However, she had to concede that she probably would need help to get the children back without putting them in harm's way. Less then a quarter of a candlemark later, the rescue party was ready, consisting of eight Centaurs, including Kaleipus and Phantes, all of the Amazons except for Gabrielle and Akyra, and three mounted villagers.
"Wait, I'll go with you." A female voice shouted from about hundred paces away. Every head turned towards the slender figure who obviously had a hard time staying on her feet.
Queen Melosa made two steps forward, then froze and whispered. "Terreis." She began to run towards the younger woman, she had thought dead for more than six summers, murmuring under her breath. "Terreis, daughter of Hippolyta, you have a lot of explaining to do." When she reached her, the curly haired woman collapsed in her arms.
A moment later, Xena was at their side, scooping the former Amazon up in her arms as if she were nothing more than a child and carrying her back to her hut. Fortunately, the sutures in her stomach were only strained but not broken from the exertion. Bed rest was now even more important than before but the stubborn woman refused to see reason.
"Xenan is my son, I have to go!"
"Think about the babies, Terry. Think about his sisters, they also need you. We'll get him back, I promise. The girls won't have to grow up without their big brother. I won't let any harm come to him, to any of them. Please, you have to take care of yourself. Promise that you will stay in bed, for at least another two days, please." The injured woman reluctantly nodded. "Queen Melosa, would you please keep my friend company and see that she really stays in bed?"
"Oh yes, I will, I won't let her out of my sight." The Amazon Queen growled, still overwhelmed by the fact to find her younger sister alive. "Go and get the children back to safety, and you, daughter of Hippolyta, you have a story to tell." She added sternly though her eyes betrayed the depths of her emotions.
With Akyra now taking Queen Melosa's mount, the departure of the search party was no longer delayed. They found the dead bodies of the outer perimeter watch, and a candlemark after leaving the village they came to the clearing in question. It was getting dark, too dark to properly see. They had to wait until the moon and the stars were out to effectively follow the trail left by the kidnappers. Another two candlemarks later, they once again were on their way.
At first the children had been walking, leaving ample evidence of their passage. These tracks suddenly disappeared, but even with the faint moonlight Xena was able to make out that now some of the hoof prints were slightly deeper than before. The tracks also indicated that the horses were from then on going in a fast canter.
The whole night through they followed their enemy, leading the horses. The Centaurs would have been able to go faster but Xena neither wanted to lose the tracks, nor was she willing to risk even one of their horses by rushing along. She knew, they would need all of their speed to get the children out of the enemy's camp.
When dawn was breaking, they rested for about a quarter of a candlemark. According to the hoof prints the enemy by now had a head start of at least eight candlemarks. She was worried but with the sun slowly rising they finally could pick up their own speed. They steadily were moving north-east, following the tree line. At midday, the enemy still was six candlemarks ahead of them, but the tracks suddenly turned directly north, further into the forest.
Xena brought her party to a halt. "Venison, roasting over a fire. Their camp is near. Ephiny and I will check it out."
"I'll be with you." Phantes said. "I know, Centaurs are not known for stealth but I had a very good teacher."
Xena only nodded, slid from Argo's back, and the three of them disappeared between the trees. They easily manoeuvred around the double guards posted within hearing distance of the camp. The campfires indicated the presence of not two but at least six scores of soldiers though only about half of them were visible. Ephiny and Xena crept closer, and learned that the rest was busy digging for the Ixion stone at a nearby cave system.
The children were in a wooden enclosure at the right edge of the encampment, with manacles at their feet and hooves. So, letting them run away wasn't an option, they had to be carried out. Within a candlemark, the scouting party was back with the others and Xena outlined her plan.
"The soldiers busy with mining are not expected back before sun-down, so we have to hurry. There are only two guards keeping an eye on the children, they will be easy to take out but I still doubt that the escape will go completely unnoticed. Solan is kept apart from the others, in a cage dangling from a tree, at the other side of the encampment. I'll get him out of this cage and thus create a diversion. Meanwhile Ephiny and Theano will set the horses free. We will make it as difficult as possible for them to follow you. I'll hold them back for as long as I can, and with a tiny bit of luck, they will follow me and not you and the children."
"What makes you think they would, follow you that is? Eleven children are more valuable then only one. Why should they follow Solan, and where do you intend to go?" One of the Centaurs asked.
"We'll go towards the mountain range. There, it will be easy to lose any pursuer. At the least he will have to split up his forces, not to lose both of his prizes. I know Dagnine and I'm sure that he will order most of his men to go after me, not Solan. He hates losing and he thinks he has enough men and the leverage to best me in a fight. Before I go and get Solan, I'll make him furious enough that he all but forgets about the other children."
"Sounds like a good plan to me." Theano gave voice to the others' opinion, only Kaleipus was violently shaking his head and twitching his tail.
"I don't like it. This plan of yours is good for the others, but it's far too dangerous for Solan. The boy may have the heart of a fighter but he doesn't know how to defend himself. I don't like it."
"I don't like it either, but I don't see any other way. Solan and I can take to the trees, that's an advantage Dagnine and his men don't have. We'll head straight for the mountain range. The underbrush there is too thick to follow on horseback. It probably will add a day to our return journey but once we lose our pursuers, we'll be home free.
"I'll do the best I can to keep him safe and sound. Besides, the more men on my trail the less trouble for you and the others. When you get the children," Xena turned her head towards the other Centaurs and their human companions, "each of you can take one child, while the Amazons guard the retreat. Their bows will keep them at a distance."
"All right, we'll do it your way. But Xena, I want you to take care of Solan as if you were his mother."
"I will, Kaleipus." She answered softly, her face as unreadable as ever. Only Theano also saw the pain carefully hidden behind these incredibly blue eyes.
Half a candlemark later, all of the perimeter guards were tightly bound and gagged to keep them from alerting the others. Theano had volunteered to take Argo back to the village, but at the moment she was silently creeping towards the enemy's horses, dagger at the ready to cut their bonds. Ephiny meanwhile was soaking one of the hay bales with oil. A burning arrow would set it ablaze as soon as Xena gave the signal. They then retreated back to the tree line to take their positions in the tree tops.
Meanwhile Dagnine checked on Solan, playing with the key to the cage he was wearing around his neck, and bragging to his second-in-command about his cleverness. When he entered his tent situated in the middle of the encampment, he was in for a surprise.
The enemy's leader stopped dead in mid-motion. There on his bed sat Xena, leaning against the many cushions littering its surface. Her long legs were comfortably crossed, and she looked as if she didn't have a care in the world. "You are an amazing woman."
"And you haven't changed a bit. Still as charismatic as ever." Xena answered, sarcasm seeping from her voice.
"No, no. I have changed, a little bit. Look," Dagnine tore at his shirt, showing off a scar of a knife wound. "that was from Tersites. I heard you took care of him. And I'm smarter, a lot smarter. You see, I found your fatal flaw. You were right to keep him secret so long, and giving him to the Centaurs, a stroke of genius. But I know, and I possess."
Xena's face still wasn't betraying her growing anger. "So, you know. Who told you?"
"I have friends in high places. The other brats were just a bonus, the Centaurs especially. I will enjoy seeing them sold on the block."
'Ares! of course. Yes, it made sense.' Using her son was the perfect way to get her to back off. Xena was thinking while she said. "I always knew that deep down in your heart you're nothing but a coward, Dagnine. You proved it all those years ago when you didn't have the guts to show your face after defying my orders and losing half of your men. You're showing it now, hiding behind innocent children. Tsk, tsk, tsk!"
His scarred face distorted with rage, Dagnine made a step forward as if to strike her, but then he suddenly relaxed. "Says the woman who ran away from ruling Greece to become an Amazon slave, a plaything for their Queen. Admit that you were too weak to rule."
"That may be as it may be," she answered with an enigmatic smile. "Let's get back to business. You were always a bargaining man. I assume that's what you wanna do, otherwise you would have called your guards by now."
"That, and the fact that you could kill me in two steps. -- Oh, but you'd never see your boy again, would you? -- Very well, there are three things that I do want. One: the stone."
"Don't have it, don't know where it is." Xena answered shrugging her shoulders.
"I do, it's in the Ixion caverns. Somewhere near those hills. It's only a matter of time before we find it. Which leads me to number three: I want you out of the way. Leave the valley."
"Not without my son."
"You're hardly in a position to bargain now, are you? I'm sure you'll get through all these guards and into this cage but your son would be dead. No, I'm the one who has the power now, Xena. You are at my beck-and-call." He said with triumph.
"You forgot the second thing."
"Oh yeah, well." With three steps he reached the couch. Sitting down next to the raven haired woman, he put an arm around her shoulders. "For remembering that I have your son, I just want a bit of warmth, of human kindness."
"If only you were human." Xena retorted while easily knocking him out with her elbow. She then took the key to the cage he had on a leather band around his neck, bound his wrists behind his back, and left the tent the way she had entered it by a newly cut hole in the roof.
After seeing the rescue party off, the Queen of the Amazons returned to Terreis and found the younger woman deeply asleep due to the herbal tea Xena had made her drink. She sat down and studied her peaceful face, noting the changes more than six summers had brought. There was a faded scar at her right biceps, the remnants of a large gash probably going straight to the bone, and a few laughing lines at the edge of her eyes. Her mind began to wander back to the time she last had seen her in the flesh, when the princess and a scouting party had gone to investigate some problems at the western border.
The Queen refused to delve deeper into the past but couldn't help and remember the time, a couple of days after their departure, when she had first heard about her sister's death, when the traitor Velaska had bragged about killing Terreis and throwing her down the cliff just outside of Amazon territory.
Velaska, a wave of cold rage swept through her whenever she thought about the traitorous woman.
After the death of Velaska's mother in battle with the Centaurs, Melosa's mother, consort to the Queen, had taken the orphan in. Though Melosa's junior of some years they grew up like sisters. When Velaska was twelve, having successfully finished her first apprenticeship, Terreis was born. Their mother died shortly after from blood-loss. Melosa from the first moment had felt very protective of her small sibling, not so Velaska. After almost letting the child drown one summer day a couple of years later, the young warrior was send to another Amazon village at the coast where Melosa's aunt just had been named regent.
Shortly after Melosa succeeded her mother's lifebond as Queen of the Greek Amazons, Velaska returned, and was greeted with open arms by the newly appointed Queen. Terreis in the meantime had become a good warrior herself; she was very popular with the younger warriors and craftswomen, as a friend and a lover. She held the right of caste, and during the council sessions proved that her sister's trust wasn't misplaced.
There had always been tensions with their northern neighbours, the Centaurs, minor skirmishes and even the occasional battle, but there never was a reason to risk an all-out war with them. However, that was all Velaska was talking about after her return.
She filled the heads of the young warriors with dreams of glory and of becoming a part of the renewal of Amazon greatness. She filled the hearts of the older warriors with dreams of revenge for their loved-ones fallen in battle. She preached that not Artemis but Ares was the true patron god of the Amazons, that every Amazon following the peaceful, self preserving ways of the Goddess of the Hunt was betraying her true calling.
She didn't speak openly but loud enough to be heard and loud enough to undermine Melosa's position. Only the support of Terreis and her friends enabled her to keep the peace. Finally, Velaska unanimously was banned from Amazon territory -- and soon was all but forgotten.
'Til the day she returned, breaking Terreis bloody staff over her right knee and challenging Melosa for the mask of the Queen. Melosa's favourite weapon next to the bow always had been the staff but she knew that it was extremely difficult to deliberately kill someone with a staff. You had to literally beat your opponent to death, and with a fighter as good as Velaska she undoubtedly would get her share of bruises or broken bones. On the other hand it would allow her to give the younger woman a chance to yield.
In retrospect, she never was able to explain why she had been so sure to win, but she was, and she did. She vividly remembered the moment when her temper had snapped. Velaska was trying to taunt her by describing how she had pierced her sister's heart, and thrown the innate body down a cliff. The younger woman already had at least two broken ribs but she still was attacking.
Melosa ducked a high strung back sweep and brought her opponent down on her knees. She swirled around, fully expecting her move to be blocked, instead it struck Velaska's neck. There was an unnaturally loud crack, her neck was broken and she fell to the ground.
A burial detail went to the cliff only a candlemark later, led by the Queen herself, but there weren't able to recover the bodies or even get close enough to identify them.
"You're looking rather grim, Queen Melosa. I hope I didn't cause your foul mood." A still familiar voice brought her out of her musings.
"Yes and no. I remembered the day, when Velaska told me about your death, and how I didn't believe her until I saw the dead bodies of my sisters at the bottom of the ravine. I should have insisted on going down and getting them, then I would have known."
"I'm glad you didn't, my sister. When I came to, I was lying on top of them, and even I had a hard time, to tell them apart, to recognise them. Apparently Velaska had had some fun with their bodies before tossing them over the edge, I'll never know why she didn't the same to me." The younger woman answered with bitterness in her voice.
"She told me that her sword had pierced your heart."
"It would have, but she aimed for the left side. I was lying on the ground, with my leg broken and my sword two body lengths away. I could see the blood lust in her eyes. She plunged her sword in my chest but I survived because she didn't know that I'm not like other humans. It's strange, we lived in the same hut, and later in the same village for years, and yet she didn't know. Xena knew after speaking with me for less than a candledrop. -- Speaking about Xena, what by Hades' helmet did you do to her? A slave collar. It's just not right."
"I'll tell you about Xena, later. First I want to hear what really happened this day at the western border, and why by Tartarus you didn't come back." The Amazon Queen answered while trying to keep calm.
"You're right, my Queen, I owe you an explanation. And I freely submit to Amazon justice for leaving the village without permission, marrying a Centaur, and giving birth to his children." Terreis said trying to bow to her older sister.
Queen Melosa put her back into the pillows. "I don't want to judge you, I just want to understand. And speaking of your children, I think I hear them calling for attention."
"Yes, it's time to feed them, and they probably also need changing. If you could bring them over, I'll do it and still keep my promise to Xena."
Melosa stood, and shortly after was back with two bundles in her arms. She inquisitively looked at her sister and asked. "But they're human."
"And they're girls. I don't know how and why it happened but Phantes tells me that we should take it as a gift from the gods." The babies were quickly fed and cared for, and soon were contentedly slumbering on the big bed, next to their mother and their aunt.
Queen Melosa finally came back to their central subject. "I know, when I sent you to the western border we didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things, namely issues concerning traditional Amazon law and justice, but that's no reason to simply disappear."
"That's not why I didn't come back, Mel, please believe me. I always knew that you did what you thought was right, and though I didn't understand it then, I do now. You can't lead an army by committee. And sometimes physical punishment is the only way to reach people as physical and hands on as the Amazons.
"No, we certainly would have had more discussions, in the council and in private but with time and experience I would have understood. -- I didn't come back because…. We were five, and when we came to the western border Velaska used us as target practice. At first we didn't know who attacked us. We were shot upon, attacked from behind, my sisters died one after the other, and there was nothing I could do."
"But Terreis, Velaska was crazy, it wasn't your fault."
"My head knows that, now, but my heart still believes that I failed my sisters, my tribe, and my Queen. That's why I didn't come back. I was afraid to see the disappointment in your eyes. I'm sorry, Mel."
"I think I understand but I hope from now on, you won't be a stranger to us. You don't plan on running away again, right?"
"No, Queen Melosa. I can't change what happened in the past but over the years I also learned that my remorse also shouldn't keep me from remembering the good times. And I think I really would like to have the chance to reconnect with this part of the past, my sister."
"I'd like this very much, little sis. -- Hey, you still have a story to tell!"
"Guess I do." The younger woman took a deep breath. "I remember crawling away from the dead bodies of my sisters. I tended to my wounds, without even thinking about it. Hunting was out because of my broken leg and the blood loss, but somehow I survived. I suppose I had good teachers. Anyhow, between feeling sorry for myself and feeling guilty, I just couldn't get myself to go back and face my sisters.
"I walked away, as far away from Amazon territory as possible -- and I ended up in Corinth where the Conqueror was recruiting for her campaign against Persia. I joined her army as a scout, and soon began to understand why her soldiers were so loyal to her. On the return journey we became friends. Don't get me wrong, she was my commanding officer but we also talked and argued and had fun.
"One year later, we heard that the skirmishes between Amazons and Centaurs were becoming more frequent and more dangerous. Xena sent me and a couple of others on a reconnaissance mission, and we found that the rumours were true."
"One of the things I'll always regret. Eponin just had been named the new weapons' master. One of the other women felt more worthy; she challenged her and was defeated, soundly. She was relegated from the Royal guard and joined the hunters. I thought she had learned her lesson but I was wrong. It was almost like a repeat performance of what had happened with Velaska. She managed to convince some of the hunters to go and attack the Centaurs to finally push both of our nations into an all out war. That started the rumours."
"Yes, I know. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this. With me at the village it might never have happened."
"Stop it, Ter. It's useless to cry about spilled water. It happened. And thanks to Xena, we now are the better for it. When we heard of her army approaching our borders it brought us and the Centaurs together because we now had a common enemy -- or so we thought."
"Yes, I know. That's what she wanted you and the rest of the world to think. She went here in force, and all of her advisers thought she would destroy the Amazons and the Centaurs once and for all. And for a while, that's what I also thought, though she had told me from the beginning that she wasn't out to harm either one or the other. With part of the army in the background, she had all the incentive she needed to get you to talk."
"Oh yes, I know, she did. Though I never understood why. To consolidate her reign it would have been better to let us and the Centaurs fight it out, another frontier fort and all would have been said and done."
"That's what her advisors and her commanders also told her. She only told them that she had other plans for both nations. I decided to wait and see what she wanted to do. And there was never a sign that she wanted to attack the Amazons, so once again I trusted her. She sent me to the Centaurs as mediator and Phantes was the one dealing with you. We got to know each other, and finally we began to talk -- and fall in love. That's all there is to say."
"I'm sure there's more to it than that but I can wait. But I still don't understand why. Over the passed two moons I got to know Xena pretty well, I think but still… She's not the easiest women to read -- and this slave thing was basically her idea."
"Sounds like her. She had personal reasons."
"The boy with the sword who can walk through the tree tops?"
"Solan, yes, he not only has her eyes."
Less than five candledrops later, Xena was crouching on the sturdy branch that the cage holding the blue eyed boy was hanging from. She got his attention by using one of the Amazon's bird calls. After tossing him the key, she tried to loosen the knot of the cord the cage was held by without causing the whole thing to simply crash to the ground. It didn't work. While Solan still fumbled with the key, the tall warrior uncoiled her whip. The tip wrapped itself around the ceiling bars of the cage, and she slung the other end around the branch to gain more leverage.
The whip was too short to lower the cage all the way down, so she began to pull it upwards. Solan finally managed to open the padlock holding the cage's door but instead of trying to get out as fast as possible, he reached for his sword, causing the cage to swing forwards and back.
Having cut the original cord, Xena needed the strength of both of her arms to hold and steady the heavy cage with her son. The boy finally took hold of the weapon. The freely swinging door banged loudly against the blade and attracted the attention of the guards. Xena saw one of them aiming a crossbow at the boy's chest, and to her, the world dropped into slow motion.
This was not going according to plan. She gave the agreed-upon signal to the others, a hunting hawks cry, fastened the whip, flipped out of the tree, and caught the crossbow bolt before it had a chance to get near the boy's skin. At the same moment, the oil-soaked hay burst into flames spreading instantly to the rest of the hay supplies and sending the horses running in all directions. The raven haired woman snatched another three bolts out of the air before she managed to get Solan out of the cage and down on the ground.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the rest of the children being taken care of by the other members of the rescue party. A group of five soldiers was now charging her. She roughly shoved Solan behind her body, and silently cursed herself for not seeing them sooner. They already were too close to effectively use her chakram. Nevertheless, she unhooked it from her waist and at the same time unsheathed her sword. Her blade repelled the attack of three of her opponents while the round weapon cut the throats of the other two in one swift motion. She heard the boy's surprised gasp. A line of archers formed about thirty paces away, and before they even had a chance to ready their bows or take aim, those were cut to pieces by Xena's flying weapon.
One of the archers then shouted a warning about their others prisoners also escaping, and Xena used the ensuing confusion to give her son a boost up towards the treetop. She then somersaulted over one of the men trying to best her from behind and knocked him unconscious with the hilt of her sword. The better part of Dagnine's men had turned their attention to the children's escape. Xena was about to taunt them, when the voice of their leader rang throughout the encampment.
"Get Xena and her brat! The others are not important. I want Xena!" He yelled at the top of his lungs with his hands still firmly bound by his own leather strap.
The woman warrior dispatched another two of his minions, propelled herself upwards, seemingly without any kind of effort, and disappeared behind a curtain of leaves. She found Solan huddled against the tree trunk. There was something akin to astonishment in his eyes but for the most part they reflected worry and anguish. "Xenan is hurt. We have to get him out of here."
"Don't worry, Solan. Kaleipus, Phantes and some other friends are already taking care of him and the others. To make it easier for them, I'll need your help, Solan. We have to get the men to follow us, not our friends. Terreis is a good…."
She was cut short by Dagnine's triumphant voice. "They're stuck up there in the tree. Get the archers and crossbows ready. I want them to nail down every single leave moving out of order." Without needing to see him, Xena knew that he now was straightening his shoulders and taking a deep breath. His voice was almost imperceptibly higher when he continued. "Xena! I'll get you. I'll get you both. I'll have you down on your knees, begging for the life of your son. But he'll die with your own sword piercing his heart, just like I killed Borias with his own weapon. The last thing you'll ever see in this life will be Solan dying -- and the blood of your son will be on your hands, Xena."
The wide-eyed look on Solan's face told the tall warrior that she had a lot of explaining to do. She was as unprepared for the warlord's revelations as the boy was, but she also knew that now wasn't the right time or place. They still had to get out of the camp, and had to bind the enemy's attention on their own escape giving the others a better chance.
So, she locked eyes with him, nodded, and whispered. "Later. -- Do you see the low-hanging branch to your right? I want you to use it to get down, hurry to the other side, and take to the next tree. That's the easy part. I also want you to make them believe that you're hurt. Give them the impression that we're easy pickings. I'll keep them busy while you get away and also distract them from the others. We have to hurry, so… Solan." He still looked at her with disbelieving eyes but finally nodded.
Solan jumped down the low branch, tucked his body in a roll, and quickly went towards the next tree line at the edge of the camp, with a pronounced limp. Xena wasn't at all sure if it really had been play-acting. The archers once again positioned to cut them down broke rank when they saw the boy, and hurried to catch him. The tall warrior flipped down in their midst and began to take them out one after the other.
The camp was in an uproar. Some of the men tried to capture the few horses that hadn't run away yet. Others were cut down by Amazon arrows seemingly coming out of nowhere. There was no sign of the other children. Instincts honed in hundreds of battles made Xena duck just in time to escape a sword thrust from behind, Dagnine's sword.
"That's really disappointing, Daggy-boy. Can't do any better, can you? Still lousy as a swordsman." She taunted him. "I'm not nearly as easy to kill as women and children. If you want me, you'll have to come and get me." Sweeping her left foot around, she knocked him from his feet, jumped over his prone body, and with a series of cart-wheels was at the edge of the forest, only two feet away from where Solan still was hiding. A few Amazon hand signals let him take off towards the mountain range, and Xena sent a silent 'thank you' to Terreis for teaching him so well. The warrior followed close behind, smiling grimly at Dagnine's shouted commands.
"Leave the damned horses alone. I want that bitch captured, her and her bastard son. -- Send a runner to the second unit. Tell them to spread out. We'll encircle her like the wild animal she is. Hurry, you stupid fools."
For the next couple of candlemarks they made good time but their pursuers still were within hearing distance. Xena signalled the boy to continue on while she rigged up a few surprises. She had just finished with the last of her traps when her sensitive hearing picked up a faint sound that immediately sent her running as fast as she could.
The boy must have run into a group of enemy soldiers coming from the other side. Xena cursed herself for leaving him on his own, her mind racing with scenarios, one bloodier than the other, while running along. Just before the underbrush became too thick for a horse to safely pass through, there was a gap between the trees. A seasoned Amazon warrior wouldn't have had any problem at all, but to a child it called for a tricky manoeuvre.
Solan was on the ground, entangled in a net in a circle of six men with their swords pointed at him. They were arguing about the best way to get their prisoner back to the encampment.
Xena mentally kicked herself for allowing this to happen. She took a deep breath and launched herself from her vantage point in the tree top, yelling her famous battle cry. The startled men took two steps back when she easily landed between them, effectively shielding the boy with her own body. She tossed one of her boot daggers towards him, so that he could cut himself free -- and then the fight was on.
By the time Solan had freed himself from the net, there were five bodies on the ground, three dead, two moaning and bleeding while their last companion preferred to run.
Xena helped Solan to his feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, just embarrassed. I should have seen them; I should have focused on what was going on in front of me. I… I'm sorry!"
"Don't be sorry, just improve." She answered with a smile to take the sting out of her words. "They came from the front, from the mountain range, didn't they?" The boy nodded, and Xena knocked out the two survivors after making sure that their injuries weren't life-threatening. "All right. That's what we'll do. We'll prepare a false trail for them to let them think the ambush forced us to change direction. This way we'll get them to search the whole forest for someone no longer there. Then we'll double back and pass through their lines."
For once everything went according to plan. They encountered no other patrols and soon found themselves at the foot of the mountains. There were about fifteen men mulling around, probably waiting for new orders. The boy -- who until then had been exceptionally level-headed -- now panicked and darted towards one of the cave entrances to the left of the men, leaving Xena no choice but to follow him.
Their run didn't go unnoticed but surprisingly none of the men even made an attempt to go after them. They were in a small cavern from which three tunnels departed in different directions. Xena stood just inside the entrance and listened to one of the soldiers giving orders.
"You two, over there by the fire, go and find General Dagnine. Tell him that the woman and the boy just ran in a cave. We now have them in a trap. There's no other way out of the cave system the boy ran into. We'll wait for his arrival but I want the entrance prepared to be closed for good. As far as I'm concerned they both can rot in there. This will be your job." Xena imagined him pointing towards a couple of his companions. "Us others will get our bows and crossbows ready in case the woman is stupid enough to attempt an escape. Even the mighty Conqueror can't ward off ten arrows at the same time."
"This time, I really fucked up. Now, we will get killed, one way or the other. I only hope at least the others got away." The boy mumbled after also hearing the soldier's words.
"Solan, I'm sure Kaleipus wouldn't be happy to hear you use such foul language. And I admit that we do have a problem here, but that's no reason to give up." She smiled at him in encouragement. "Dagnine certainly won't just close up the entrance. We hurt his pride by escaping. As soon as he arrives, he'll insist on going in and get us. He wants to see us dead but he also wants to do the deed himself. His pride will overrule his reason. That's why we have to go further in and explore these tunnels as best as we can. We have to find a way to defend ourselves against his men."
"How can you know what he'll do?"
"I fought him, and I fought with him. The way a person fights can tell a lot about them, and from what I saw today, he hasn't changed since I last saw him about six summers ago. He always had the tendency to let personal issues come in the way of reason. This time will be no different. Let's go and find a way out of here. I promised Tyldus that I'll take good care of you, and I never go back on my word. Choose one tunnel to explore."
"But we don't have any torches."
"I know, we'll simply have to use our other senses. It will be okay. Just stay close behind me. Which one?"
"The left one."
As soon as they stepped in the tunnel, the last remnants of daylight vanished. Xena's right hand kept contact with the rough wall while her left held the sword and moved it rhythmically from the left to the right; each time lightly brushing the stone. The sounds and echoes told her that they were walking almost straight ahead with a slight incline downwards and to the left. There were no other tunnels crossing.
The boy and the tall warrior walked on for what her innate sense of time told Xena were about three candlemarks. By now the others should be easily out of reach of Dagnine and his men. They probably would arrive back at the village in the middle of the night. She was brought out of her musings by Solan's stomach announcing its presence.
The woman sheathed her sword and began to rummage in her right belt pouch. She only had some dried jerky and a couple of trail bars but it would have to do. Xena handed him one of the bars, leaving the jerky for later. They didn't have any water and the dried meat was slightly salty. They stopped to eat their meagre meal and then continued on at the boy's insistence.
The tunnel they followed got constantly steeper. Soon Xena had to once again put her weapon away, and tried to steady herself with both of her hands touching the rough walls. She hoped for a reprieve but another half candlemark later the ground also got slippery. She could hear the boy's increased breathing.
Xena slipped but managed to stay upright; then she stopped dead in her tracks. A whiff of slightly colder and more humid air suddenly came from below, and all her instincts told her that there was danger ahead. Unfortunately, for Solan it was too late to stop. He lost his balance and together they tumbled down a hole in the ground.
Feeling the ground coming nearer she automatically prepared to tuck herself in a ball and roll out of the way. She slowly stood, and found herself unharmed. Solan had a harder time to get back on his feet but at first sight seemed no worse for wear. To her surprise the walls of this new tunnel were embedded with some sort of crystal that somehow emitted enough light to see were they were going. They followed the broad passageway and soon came to a large cavern. She still didn't have any idea where the light came from but in there one could see almost as good as in plain daylight.
Solan suddenly stood and sat down on a boulder. "Ah, wait! My arm hurts a bit."
Xena bent down, examined his arm, and knelt in front of him. "Solan, your arm is broken. I have to deaden the pain while I set it."
She hit a pressure point at his neck. "It doesn't hurt." The boy commented with surprise.
"I can only cut off the feeling for a little while." The tall woman answered, and kept on talking while she was working on him. "When I put it back, it's gonna hurt worse than before, okay?"
"Okay." Solan said after swallowing hard.
"I need a splint." Xena said while reaching for his scabbard.
"What good is a sword without an arm to hold it?" She pulled the weapon out of its sheath, looked at the hilt for the fraction of a heartbeat, and gave it to her son.
Solan reluctantly nodded. Xena fastened the sheath around his arm with some leather straps decorating it. While she was working the boy asked. "Why did you come for me?"
"I thought that maybe you could use my help. You were very brave at the camp. You didn't freeze."
"I was too scared to freeze. And besides, it was me that got us into this mess. I panicked." He answered avoiding her eyes.
Xena crooked her index finger, put it under his chin, and lifted it up, so that he could see the sincerity in her eyes. "Solan, it's all right to be afraid every once in a while. Even hardened warriors sometimes have a fit of panic. I saw it happen. It's a perfectly normal reaction when one was in a very dangerous situation, and then the tension lessens, and suddenly he finds himself faced with even more danger."
"You didn't panic." He stubbornly insisted.
"No, not this time. Over the years, I got used to situations like this. They tend to make me more aggressive, usually."
"You would have gone after the men outside if it weren't for me, isn't it?"
Another smile graced her face. "Yes, I probably would have tried to get out this way, but the man we overheard was right. Even I can't catch ten arrows at the same time. I would have tried but by now I could have been dead. Sometimes fear can be a voice of reason. All day today you were very brave, you showed very good instincts. Most people react the other way. Your father also was very brave."
"He was a great warrior." Solan gave back with pride.
"His bravery wasn't in being a warrior. It came from knowing what was in his heart. He recognised what was right, and he stood up for it." Xena answered softly.
"Yes, against me. That was very important to him, even though he and I were very close friends for a very long time."
"I don't wanna talk about my father anymore." The boy said evasively, but after a while curiosity got the better of him. "Before he became good, did he hurt a lot of people?"
Xena first swallowed and then answered. "Yes, he did, but if it weren't for him the Centaurs wouldn't be alive now. Kaleipus, your friends, they'd all be gone."
"You would have killed them." It wasn't really a question.
"Yes, I would have killed them all." The still kneeling woman said with sadness in her voice. "Thanks to Borias I didn't do it, and for that I owe him more than you'll ever know." She now was finished fussing with his make-shift splint. "This is the best I can do for you right now." She stood up and sat next to him on the boulder, ready to undo the pressure point. "This is going to hurt. Ready?"
After she was done, tears were pouring down his eyes, and she took him protectively in her arms, gently rocking the smaller body. To her surprise he didn't stiffen but leaned into the touch. Xena knew that they should get going once again but she also was reluctant to let go of him. Some candledrops later, he asked. "Is it true what this man said, their leader."
"Yes, it's true. Borias is your father but you were born from my body."
"Why did my uncle lie to me?"
This was a question she hadn't expected. "It was the only way to guarantee your safety, at the time. When I came back to the Centaurs to sign the peace treaty with the Amazons your uncle and I agreed that we should keep it this way. We didn't want you to become a target. Apart from Kaleipus and me, there only were two other people who knew the truth."
"But why? Didn't you love me?"
Her warrior's instincts told her to make him believe that she left him with the Centaurs to get rid of an unwanted burden. This way he probably would hate her but he also would stay with them, and thus stay safe for the rest of his life. But her heart didn't listen to her complicated reasoning. So, she answered. "I loved you, I still do, Solan." Her gaze for a moment turned towards the ground then she once again found the boy's eyes that still reflected confusion and hurt. "It's hard to explain. Ten summers ago, I wasn't a very nice person. I only would have ended up hurting you, just like you were hurt now, just because of me."
"Solan, please listen to me. I'm sure you heard a lot of stories about the Conqueror, about the Destroyer of Nations, didn't you?" He hesitantly shook his head in confirmation. "Do you really think that someone like this, someone with evil and darkness in her heart should have been allowed to raise a child? It was better to let you believe that both of your parents are dead."
"My father could have helped you."
"He tried, Solan, I didn't let him, I was so obsessed with conquering the world, I didn't listen to reason, and I didn't listen to my heart. Borias was a very wise man. He found his way a lot sooner than I did. But perhaps he really would have been able to change my mind, had he still been alive. I'll nev…" Xena fell silent and put a finger to her lips. The echo of heavy footsteps reached their resting place. "I'm sorry, we have to go. We'll talk some more later."
Solan insisted on carrying his father's sword in his free hand. The big cavern only had one exit. Some sort of doorway, so small Xena had to duck through. They found themselves in a great hall with an altar at its centre, highlighted by an opening in the ceiling.
The boy whispered with awe in his voice. "The temple of Ixion."
"One of them. When my men searched the mountain range, they found at least three of them but we never located the stone."
The altar was bare except for a tripod like receptacle for the stone -- about one foot tall, its lower ends are curved upwards like ivy seeking purchase at a tree trunk; in the middle six brass bands are forming a globe to symbolise mother earth, and three other vines are curved upwards as a resting place for the stone.
"Your father found the stone, all these summers ago. All the evil from Ixion's wicked Centaur is in that stone." Xena continued without telling the whole truth about the powers of the stone. "He hid it to keep me or anyone else from finding it."
The fading impression of a big hand attracted the boy's attention. "These hand prints -- that means, they're my fathers?" He asked while putting his left hand in the marks.
"We got to find a way out before Dagnine and his men get here."
Solan turned his head from the contemplation of his hand and the faded prints back to Xena. "But you can take them on. What you did on top was incredible."
Xena didn't answer but contemplated the sturdy air roots descending from it. Most of them were firmly connected to the wall. The tall warrior hoisted the boy on top of the altar, told him to hold tight around her neck and began to pull them both upwards, using one of the few root vines dangling freely. The sound of running feet prompted her to climb faster but suddenly a dagger cut through their rescue line. They dropped back to the altar while Dagnine shouted. "Grab the boy."
Xena flipped to the ground and launched herself sideways, bringing down two thirds of the warlord's escort. She immediately jumped back on her feet and kicked one man straight in the chest, quickly followed by another equally effective kick. A third one ran straight into her elbow. A cartwheel and a flip brought her back to Solan's side who still was standing on the altar.
Dagnine threw another dagger, aimed at Solan's heart, but the woman warrior easily caught it. His men were down, writhing on the ground or not moving at all, so Xena tried another escape. She negligently flipped the dagger back towards his owner, without trying to kill or maim him but causing the scarred man to jump back in panic.
She put her left arm around Solan's waist, and launched the both of them straight upwards. She grabbed the vine high enough to rely on the power of her legs to hold them securely at their rescue line and used her free right arm to pull them the rest of the way to the ceiling. She didn't look down, but her ears told her that the enemy soldiers were slowly getting back on their feet, and she knew that she had to hurry.
Chapter Six: Allied Forces
With effort she propelled the boy over her head; he suddenly dangled half-ways over the edge of the ceiling opening. He tried to also get his legs over, and lost the grip on his father's sword. He instinctively reached for it with his broken arm but only managed to loosen the leather strips holding his make-shift splint in place. Sword and sheath fell to the ground. The hilt of the weapon first hit the altar, then fell to the ground, and a big green stone popped out and rolled over the edge directly in front of Dagnine's feet.
The scarred man bent down and picked it up. A cruel smile distorted his ugly face. "Xena, I have the stone. I have the Ixion stone." He was shouting and closed his fist around his treasure. "This is your end, Xena. As soon as all the Amazons and Centaurs are killed, I'll come for you. Run away as long as you can."
Holding the sword of her former lover in her hands after her first encounter with her son, Xena had known about the treasure hidden in its hilt. She mentally was kicking herself for not having better taken care of the weapon. When one of Dagnine's men grabbed another root, she had to forcibly shake herself out of her state of shock. She quickly dug two flint stones out of her supply punch and set fire to the vines. This way they wouldn't have to worry about being chased any further.
She helped Solan to get on his feet but the boy's eyes still were locked on Dagnine, the stone, and his sword. He whispered. "The Ixion stone, now we are doomed. I didn't know."
"Solan, look at me." The boy didn't move. "Please, look at me." He slowly turned his head towards the tall woman. "Yes, that's better. The fight isn't over yet. Ixion's evil creation will never be able to overcome all the good the Centaurs stand for."
"Solan, we found a way out of the darkness of the caves. We'll also find a way to survive Dagnine's madness. Dagnine now will turn himself into the Great Centaur but this makes him neither immortal nor invulnerable. We'll find a way to outwit him. That's a promise."
"But how? You don't know what he's going to do."
"We will survive, Solan, you and me, the Centaurs and the Amazons. This is all my fault. I knew the stone was in the hilt of Borias' sword, of your sword. I should have better taken care of it."
"How did you know?"
"I could feel it." Not wanting to explain any further, she continued. "I never lost a war, and I certainly won't start now. There's too much riding on this one."
"Tyldus says that arrogance always is the first step towards defeat." The boy defiantly answered.
"He's right, but I'm sure, he also taught you that a warrior without self-confidence would do better to stay at the fireplace than venture to a battlefield." She answered while keeping one ear on the retreating footsteps of Dagnine's men. "I don't have a plan, yet, but together with Kaleipus, Tyldus, and Queen Melosa we will find a way to keep the Centaur village safe. -- There's about two candlemarks of daylight left. We should get going."
"Okay. What do we do with my arm? It really hurts. I think I twisted it while rolling over the edge. Can we use your scabbard to make another splint?" He said trying valiantly to keep his evident discomfort from his face.
"I'm afraid, no. Mine doesn't have any leather strips to fasten it with. It's clipped to my armour. But I can hear what sounds like a small creek nearby. If my memory is correct, there, we'll find a more permanent solution."
Solan didn't know what she was talking about but followed her without arguing as she purposely strode through the forest and then along the narrow but powerful stream towards the tree line. About fifty paces further a hillock of about six feet height and 25 feet length stretched towards the water. Its other end touched the base of the mountains.
Xena searched the area with her eyes. First, she found an almost round stone and placed it next to Solan on the ground. Then she brought another stone, flat and rather large, and positioned it next to the first one. She then went to the top of the hillock, knelt down and quickly was back with an armload full of white crystals. She went back three times to gather more. The tall warrior once again knelt down and began to ground the crystals using both stones thus creating a fine powder.
Solan observed with fascination while she proceeded to put the powder in a small hole in the ground, not more than an indentation really. Finally, he asked. "What are you doing?"
"It's for your arm. This stuff here is called plaster. It comes in a great variety of forms and can be used for a lot of things. Mixed with water, the powder first becomes a paste, and a few candledrops later it becomes hard, very hard." She answered while continuing with her work. "I first saw it in the Norse Lands. They use it to easier transport their injured after a battle. So, when one has to be carried for a long time, it can be done without putting any further strain on the bones or muscles. A lot of my men would have died on the way back from Persia without its help. It also can be used in construction work, if you put it between the stones of a wall, the wall becomes much more stable and solid. -- So, that's it."
"Where does it come from?"
"I don't know. I only know that it often is found where there are mountains, sometimes near former volcanoes, like here. It also is found next to lakes with saltwater. It works, that's all that counts. -- Solan, now I need you to be very brave. I once again have to set your arm."
"Will you use this jabbing thing?"
"It's called pressure points. Yes, I will, unless you don't want me to."
The boy vigorously denied her assumptions. "Kaleipus didn't raise a fool. Why should I feel pain when there's an easier way out. No, go on, do it."
"I knew you're a smart one." Xena answered with a smile. "But first we need something to put around your arm. I won't put this stuff directly on your skin." She then stood, loosened parts of her breast armour, took one of her daggers and cut through both straps holding the linen tunic she always wore under her leather dress. She wriggled out of the shirt, refastened the armour plates, and began to tear the cloth to hand wide stripes. "Now, we're ready to begin."
Xena once again deadened the nerves leading to his arm, and with a gut wrenching 'pop' realigned his bones. She bent the arm at the elbow and told Solan to hold it this way with the other hand. When the boy grabbed his wrist, she gently repositioned the grip to his fingers. She then wound the linen strips around his arm, careful to cover every square inch of skin, from the palm of his hand to over the elbow.
"Hold it this way. Now, comes the messy stuff." Forming a bucket with both hands, she quickly poured water over the plaster powder. Stirring it with a stick, she soon had a homogenous white paste. "All right, we now have to hurry. This stuff hardens faster than still water in the middle of winter." The tall warrior scooped up handfuls of the gooey substance and put it on the boys arm. Soon a smooth surface covered the broken limb, with wrist and elbow equally immobilised. Before the plaster cast had any chance to really harden she cut away some of it to give Solan more freedom of movement, especially at his hand and thumb.
"How does it feel?"
"It's really tight, and very hot. I don't think I can stand it for very long."
"The heat will go away in less than a quarter candlemark, and soon it also will get more comfortable. The plaster expands when it hardens, that's why it's so good for building. It won't be tight for long, but still will hold your arm securely. I have to undo the pressure points but now the pain won't be as great as it was before. The ends of your broken bone no longer grind one against the other, and your muscles no longer are needed to keep them still."
"Will you hold me while you do it?" Solan asked hesitantly.
She took him carefully in her arms, not really believing his request, put her fingers at his neck, and asked. "Tell me, Solan, when you're ill or injured, do you heal faster than your friends?"
"Yes. Aunt T says that's it's a gift of the Gods. Do you too?"
"Yes, I do. When I was a child, younger than you are now, I had a broken leg. To me, it took an eternity to mend, but in reality it only was half a moon, and later I learned broken limbs usually need at least twice or three times as much time. I think you'll be rid of this thing in no time at all." While speaking, she undid the pressure point, and was awarded with only a flinch from the boy.
Afterwards Xena and Solan followed the small river for another candlemark. Dusk was on them, and Xena spotted a big tree with comfortable branches that would make a great shelter for the night. She doubted that Dagnine would bother to send some of his soldiers on their trail but she also didn't want to take any chances, with Solan at the moment in no condition to outrun the enemy in the trees.
"We'll spend the night up there. Put your arm around my neck and hold on, I'll get us up." The tall woman bent her knees to give better access to the boy. He sneaked his arm over her shoulder but instead of holding on to her neck, he grabbed the breastplate of her armour.
Xena bent her knees further and propelled both of them straight upwards. Soon they were sitting on two sturdy branches next to each other half-ways up the tree. They were completely hidden from view, and the smaller branches around them would keep them from toppling over and falling down during the night.
Solan, however, had trouble finding a comfortable position, and finally asked somewhat annoyed. "Why did you have to make this damned thing so damned big? With my elbow and wrist free, I could have easily climbed this damned tree myself."
"You know, Solan, you should learn to put some variety in your cursing. Three times 'damned', that doesn't bode well for your imagination." Xena answered with a hint of amusement in her voice but Solan only glared at her in response. She smiled and continued.
"I know that you could have climbed this tree by yourself, even with your arm as it is. This way, it just was faster. With your wrist and elbow immobilised, your arm will heal faster, and it will be less painful. Give me your hand, I'll show you why."
The warrior woman undid the bracer on her right arm. "Now hold my arm a couple of inches over my wrist. That's how it feels when the wrist is kept still. Now, I'll move it, only a little bit, and you tell me what happens."
"Your arm moves along with your wrist." He loosened his grip but kept contact with her skin. "I think I understand. Moving the wrist, means to also move the broken part of my arm, and if it moves, it can't mend."
"Yes, that's it. I'm not very good with words but if you want to talk…"
"No, not now. I have a lot to think about."
"Okay, then let's try and catch some sleep. Tomorrow morning, I'll catch us some fish to eat, and then we'll head back to the village as fast as we can." The boy nodded and tried anew to find a comfortable spot. He sighed and closed his eyes, still visibly not at ease.
Xena loosened the clips holding her back- and breastplates in place and stacked the armour pieces next to her sword in a small fork. She told the boy to scoot forward and seated herself behind him. Her long arms pulled him back until he rested against her. He stiffened but didn't resist. With one hand resting on his plaster cast and the other stroking his hair, she began to sing an old lullaby.
Lullaby and good night, in the sky stars are bright. Around your head flowers gay, set your slumbers till day. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed.
Lullaby and good night, thy mother's delight. Handsome and brave, thy father's great pride. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed.
Lullaby and good night, fates are smiling all right. Wisdom, love, honesty -- your future should be. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed.
Lullaby and good night, in the sky stars are bright. Around your head flowers gay, set your slumbers till day. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed. Close your eyes now and rest, may thy night be all blessed.
His breath soon began to even out; he slightly turned in her protective arms until his head was snugly nestled under her chin. But to her the old song didn't bring peace but memories of the past.
During the final stages of the treaty negotiations, in the middle of the night Xena was sneaking through the streets of the Centaur village and to Kaleipus' hut. She simply wasn't able to resist the temptation and climbed through the window of Solan's room -- not for the first time.
This night, she found him high with fever. She silently cursed herself for not bringing her healer's kit. Solan's skin was burning and he was shivering violently. The fever was too high to simply let it run its course. She had no choice but to wake up the one-eyed Centaur in the next room to get the herbs she needed. He wasn't thrilled; actually she had a hard time to convince him to get what she needed. But when he saw that the boy was not sleeping but unconscious, he put his misgivings aside. Meanwhile, Xena washed his body with cold water, and put a fresh night shirt on him.
When Kaleipus finally came back to his hut, Xena prepared a strong tea. In order to make him swallow the concoction, she gently lifted him up, and slid behind him. She held him in her arms and was happy to have forgone her armour against her guard's advice. The Centaur was standing in the doorway but didn't interfere. About half a candlemark later, his eyes fluttered open. Both adults sighed in relief.
Xena had half expected him to shy away from her touch, but he didn't. He quickly fell asleep; his breathing rhythm still wasn't like it should be. The healer in Xena, however, knew that she couldn't give him more of the powerful drug. So, she did the only thing she could think of. She sang.
In the predawn twilight, only candledrops after the boy's fever had broken, the tall warrior slipped out of the house and returned to her camp.
Xena returned to the present when the boy in her arms moved slightly. She extended her senses as far as possible but couldn't hear or smell anything unusual. She didn't dare to sleep herself but she relished the feeling of having her son in her arms. Unwanted, her thoughts drifted back to the day he was born.
Borias had changed sides only a couple of days ago. He had betrayed her, and she didn't tolerate betrayal. She had ordered her men to capture him alive. Whatever they had shared, this wasn't something she was ready to forgive.
She knew, even without Borias' help, the total annihilation of the Centaurs was only a question of time, of days rather than quarter moons. There was no need to risk the life of her soldiers by senselessly attacking their stronghold. They only had to keep them in, and wait -- and that's what she intended to do.
She remembered the last time they had talked, sort of. He had talked. He had wanted to take her away from the army, to raise their child without war and violence. He wanted to give them a chance at peace and happiness -- but at the time she didn't understand. She wanted to rule the world, without regard for the price she or anyone else would have to pay. So, she had sent him away.
Later that evening, long after sunset, she was roused from sleep by the first contractions hitting her hard. At the time, she didn't know much about giving birth; only what she had overheard when her mother was called to a neighbour in labour or came back from helping one or the other of the village's women. She desperately tried to remember when the unmistakable sound of an attack snapped her back to reality. She immediately recognised Borias' battle yell and the sound of Centaur hooves. Her warrior's instincts sent her to her feet but half way up she collapsed at the pain suddenly ripping through her lower body and taking her breath away.
When she finally was able to leave her tent, the first wave of the Centaur's attack had been repelled by her men. She gave orders to clear up the camp and dispose of the corpses. Her eyes fell on the inert body of a man close to the fire ring next to the rear of her tent. Borias was without his sword, he was lying with his face in the dirt. She carefully examined him. He had been stabbed from behind. Another contraction hit her, and she knew that she had to hurry to reach her hide-out before her water broke. She instructed her lieutenants to hold the current position, to defend themselves if need be, and never to attack on their own. She told them that Borias once had been favoured by the god of war himself and that Ares also had wanted him alive to be punished for his betrayal. Now, with Borias dead, she had to seek the council of her patron god.
This night, almost ten summers later, she still wondered why Dagnine and his peers so easily had accepted her story. Even more surprising was the fact that Ares hadn't tried to use the potential power her words gave him over her. With her calling him her 'patron' he could have pressed his point -- and at the time he probably would have succeeded. Her almost insane ambition would have made her easy prey; she would have welcomed his help and gladly pledged herself to him. She slightly shuddered at the thought because now she knew that the god of war never acted in the interest of mortals but only in his own -- and if she could help it, Xena of Amphipolis never would be the plaything of the gods.
Her fingers played with Solan's light brown strands of hair. Borias had told her about his childhood and youth, so she knew that given time, they would darken but never would be as dark as her own. He also had the same cute little dimples at the corners of his mouth. A sigh escaped her lips when she once again couldn't keep her mind from wandering back to the past; though her memory was sketchy in some areas.
When she jumped from her horse's back at her chosen destination, her water finally broke. The site she had chosen had thick brushes almost as tall as she obscuring the view to her hide-out. A narrow path led up to what from a distance looked like a rock overhang but at closer inspection was a cave with an entrance area big enough to house her horse and a big fireplace, a few yards into the cave there was spring water pouring out of the left wall. Xena managed to unsaddle her grey mare before the next contraction sent her to the hard ground. She had everything prepared days ago, food, firewood, a stack of linens, a big cooking pot, and other items.
Xena somehow managed to light the already prepared fire and to unroll the sleeping furs. The next contraction came and she knew that it was too soon, way too soon. For the first time since leaving Chin she tried to use one of the meditation techniques she had learned from Lao Ma -- and it really was working. Her breathing evened out, her stomach muscles relaxed; she soon was able to get up and put some water to heat.
With the next contraction she suddenly became aware that not all was as it should be, something was very wrong. Xena panicked. She tried to stand up and find help, someone more experienced but she didn't even make it to her knees. The same kind of pain that already had got to her in her tent now was back with a vengeance. She instinctively curled in a fetal position, well, as close as she could get to one; wishing to be able to knock herself out. She wasn't prone to imagination, else her mind would have been busy conjuring up visions of herself bleeding to death, a stillborn child or other horrors. Then she probably would have missed the subtle change of position of the baby. It wasn't enough to get it out yet but it was a beginning, a promising beginning.
Having arrived just after daybreak, the sun was now almost at its turning point. She had managed to get rid of her clothes and was lying on her sleeping furs. An herbal tea had her muscles relaxed. Her eyes were closed and her hands roaming over her swollen stomach. The baby still hadn't completely turned and she tried to force the issue from the outside. She felt the tiny body squirming in protest, something, a foot or a knee, connected solidly with the back wall of her uterus. She shot upwards in reaction as if trying to protect herself against an enemy, attempted to once again even out her breathing, and saw the blood oozing out, covering her thighs and the sleeping furs.
Not for the first time this day Xena was thinking about her mother and that she undoubtedly would know what was wrong and what to do against it. She reached for the linen scraps she had prepared for the baby. Another contraction threw her on the furs before she could put them between her legs to stem the flow of blood. It was stronger than the last time and made the baby shift another couple of inches. By the third time, the bleeding had slowed down to a trickle and the body of her child finally was in place.
From listening to her mother speaking with other women she knew that now would be the right time to push and she did, methodically clenching her well developed stomach muscles. She felt the baby move. Another kick or punch sent a wave of pain through her whole body and she lost consciousness. She opened her eyes to darkness, the roaring fire reduced to smouldering embers she soon had rekindled. She vaguely became aware that she was running a fever when the next contraction hit. She had barely enough presence of mind to push with all her might.
She felt first the head and then the shoulders slipping out of her. The rest of the body soon followed, and she was acting on instinct alone: cutting the umbilical cord, registering that the baby was a male, cleaning his face and making him cry out in protest, disposing of the after-birth by tossing it in the fire, making him drink, and falling asleep with his tiny body on her chest.
Xena took stock of her surroundings and her body before opening her eyes to the midday sun glaring down on her. Everything seemed fine; the fire was out, her horse calmly stood nearby. Her hands were resting on a warm skin. She tried to sit up but her muscles refused, she felt weak as a kitten. After numerous attempts she managed to roll to the side, gently putting her son on the sleeping furs next to her and shielding him from the sun with her body. Using a water skin and some more of the linen she cleaned him up as best as she could. He was hungry. She knew it wasn't the best idea letting him drink from her as long as she was running a fever but she also didn't have any other options. He latched onto her nipple, and the next thing she knew was waking up to his squirming body, obviously uncomfortable in his dirty diapers.
He fell asleep immediately after being changed and fed. Xena looked at him. She knew the eyes behind his closed eyelids were blue, as blue as her own. She didn't know if it was because most babies have blue eyes or if it was hereditary. His hair was blonde, like his father's had been when he was still a child. It hurt to think about him, so instead she concentrated on counting his fingers and toes. Finally she took stock of her own condition. She didn't try and stop the fever, taking it as a sign that her body was busy healing itself. The bleeding had stopped, surprisingly there wasn't anything else torn. As weak as she still felt, she must have lost a lot of blood. She had to clean herself and the furs up not to attract any scavengers, shield the baby from the sun and get something to eat.
She still wasn't able to sit up normally but painfully got on all fours and then forced herself up in a sitting position. Her abdominal muscles screamed from the abuse, it hurt to breathe and she was light headed. She tried to push herself to her feet, lost her balance, and crashed face first back on top of her furs. The sun was going down when she finally came to. The baby was crying. Xena took a deep breath and was surprised to find the fever gone. When the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon, he was once again sleeping. She prepared and lit another fire, unrolled the second sleeping fur, lit a torch and went to clean herself and the furs. She also washed the used diapers. Her body was still aching but since Caesar she had trained herself in putting the pain out of her conscious mind.
They quickly developed a routine. Feeding, changing diapers, sleeping. With every candlemark she grew more and more attached to the boy -- and she finally accepted that Borias had been right. 'If he stays with you, he will become a target.' -- 'If he stays with you, he will see things no child should ever see.' -- 'If he stays with you, he will become like…' His honesty still hurt but it had been the truth. She wasn't fit to be a mother; there was too much darkness in her life and in her soul.
But what to do? Take him to her mother, letting him grow up at the inn? She knew he would be loved but she also knew that it wasn't really safe. Not safe enough for her son. Since her return to Greece there already had been three attempts on her mother's life, intercepted by the spies she had left at Amphipolis when taking to the sea two summers ago. She couldn't burden them with the responsibility for a child; it was hard enough to keep an eye on Cyrene and Toris. At first, giving him to the Centaurs seemed absurd and insane. They had no reason whatever to protect her son, on the other hand, they would do everything to protect the son of Borias.
Xena didn't know if it was her innate sense of time that did wake her or the unfamiliar weight resting on her chest. She relished the feeling of her son tucked against her body, but before her mind could wander to speculations about how it would have been to see him grow up to the smart, kind-hearted youth he now was, Solan moved in her arms trying to ward off the pre-dawn chill. She didn't want to lose this feeling, but she also couldn't ignore the fact that they had to get going to warn the village about Dagnine as soon as possible.
As she had promised the day before she offered to catch and grill some fish before starting their journey once again. Solan refused, stating that they now had something more important to do, and they easily could find some berries or nuts on the road. Once again she was amazed at the similarities between her son and herself. There also was enough jerky left to tide them over for another two days, so they would be able to cut short their rest periods. Xena would have felt better if she at least had been able to fill a couple of water-skins but she didn't have any. Finding water shouldn't be a problem in this area, but still …
The fastest way to get from one point to another in this case wasn't a straight line. They first had to follow the mountain crest, a few hundred feet below it. The sun was up by now, and the two of them kept a steady pace. The pride Xena was feeling for her son was growing with almost every step. Finally they came into view of a pass. She knew this was the only way to enter the Centaur's valley from this side. It was extremely steep and tended to be prone to rock-falls, so it was unlikely to serve as an access route for an army or anything else except for mountain goats. That's why Xena almost automatically discarded it.
They continued on for another half candlemark when Solan suddenly stopped in mid-step. "Look, there's a big black cat over there. What's it called?"
Xena turned her head. The panther she had 'talked' to only a few nights ago was sitting there, the tall female. They were farther away than even the most powerful arrow could ever fly but still she was able to feel the animal's eyes burning on her skin -- and then her black head turned towards the mountain pass.
"It's a panther, Solan. Usually they are very dangerous animals, but this one is special. I think it's trying to show us something. We should go and have a look." From where they stood the pass looked like the mouth of a dragon, wide open and turned towards the sky, complete with pointed teeth.
"But we have to hurry and warn the others about Dagnine and the Ixion stone."
"I know, but I also learned to trust my instincts. And right now they're telling me to take a look at the other side of the pass. We can go together or you can stay here and wait for me. It'll take me about four candlemarks to scout the area and get back."
"I'll go with you. I don't want to stay alone." They hurried towards the pass, with Solan doing his best to keep up with Xena's longer stride. One and a half candlemark later they had reached the great boulder where the boy had spotted the panther. The animal was gone.
Another half candlemark later, they crested the pass. The steep incline that should have been there, had been replaced by some sort of man-made ramp, granting easy access to any kind of vehicle. But this wasn't the only reason to worry. At the foot of the mountain was a large army camp. It was obviously well ordered, the tents laid out in neat rows, guard towers evenly spaced all around the encampment. The tree trunks at the foot of the mountain were witness that they had been there for a long time already -- and what the wood had been used for was also more than obvious. In the centre of the camp was a whole arsenal of siege engines. She counted 35 campfires and knew that on top of Dagnine's forces they now would have to deal with another army of about 350 men. Xena longed to get down there and take a closer look but in plain daylight and with her son to worry about she didn't dare.
Without uttering a single word, she let the boy back to their side of the mountain. "Solan, we have to hurry back. We have to tell Tyldus and Kaleipus about this new threat." She sank to one knee. "I want you to step behind me. Put your arm around my neck, and your legs around my waist. I'll carry you, this way we'll be faster."
"No, I can walk on my own. I can run. I won't slow you down, I promise. My arm is broken, not my legs. How would you feel in my place?"
"All right, you win, Solan. We'll run together."
They soon arrived at the foot of the mountain and started into the forest. It probably wasn't the safest route to take but it would bring them straight back to the village. Solan visibly was running as fast as he was able to but for Xena it only was a leisurely jog. Half a candlemark later, the boy's foot got caught in a root. He stumbled, lost his balance, and fell. He instantly tried to get back up but his leg didn't support his weight, and he grunted in pain. One look at his ankle told her that it was sprained and should be soaked in cold water. Unfortunately, right now, they didn't have the time.
This time, he didn't protest to being carried. She had to look where to put her feet but nonetheless quickly picked up speed. Around midday, they stopped for a short break at the edge of a small river. When they started again, Xena was making full use of her long legs. Though she could feel the strain from the additional weight on her back, her ground-eating strides brought them to the edge of the forest a couple of candlemarks after midday. If she would be able to keep up the pace, they would be back at the village around midnight. Her thighs already were burning but she knew that she would put the pain aside easily, just like she always did.
A few candledrops after leaving the comforting shadow of the forest, Xena heard the distinct, familiar, and very welcome snicker of a horse. She whistled and as if appearing out of thin air Argo immediately was at her side. The mare was without bridle or saddle but now they would reach the Centaur village around sunset.
And they did. Xena knew that there was a lot to talk about, strategies to devise and plans to put in motion. But first things first, Xena thought to herself when an obviously relieved Kaleipus swept Solan unceremoniously in his arms. The woman warrior herself moments later had her own arms full with a crying blonde. She agreed to meet with the other leaders a couple of candlemarks later, scooped up Gabrielle, and carried her to the hut where they had spent the night before last.
To her surprise there was a bathing tub waiting for her and a tray with cold cider and something to eat. "Let me help you with your armour, Xena. I prepared the bath as soon as the perimeter watch reported Argo coming back. That horse of yours gave us all quite a scare when she broke out of the corral in the middle of the night. But I'm glad, she did, otherwise you wouldn't be here yet. I hope the temperature is …"
The young woman was silenced with a kiss. "You're babbling, my love. I missed you, too. Care to join me in the tub?"
She didn't have to ask twice. The young woman was naked and in the tub before Xena had finished peeling out of her leathers. The tall warrior's eyes lit up, and she quickly followed. She closed her eyes in bliss when the warm water began to soothe her sorely abused muscles.
Small soapy hands were running over her front, and suddenly getting clean was no longer at the centre of Xena's mind. She tried to get in contact with Gabrielle's skin, but the smaller woman firmly put her hands back to the rim of the tub. She then continued with her tender ministrations but she wasn't smiling. It was as if she not only had to see but also to feel that her lover was back, and that she was unharmed. And the tall woman knew better than trying to dissuade her from her explorations. They were late for the strategy session.
Xena first listened to Solari's report of the scouts. They would have to deal with about 170 horsemen and 300 foot soldiers, with the survivors of Dagnine's advance party more than 500 men in total.
"Silea, tell me more about the layout of the camp." The question took the young Amazon off-guard. She blinked in surprise and searched Terreis' eyes before answering. The still recovering woman had insisted on taking part in the planning, after all she was the Centaur's chief scout.
"The guards are posted at regular intervals all around the encampment, within viewing distance of each other and the camp. Most of them are alert and focused, but a few don't take their duties very seriously. They were easy to slip by.
"The eastern corner of the camp is well ordered, just like it should be; the tents in neat rows, the latrines and fires well cared for, a corral for the horses, even a bathing area. The rest of the camp was a mess, tents pitched up without any regard for security, sometimes dangerously close to a campfire. Weapons and provisions carelessly stacked one over the other. I can't even think how someone should be able to efficiently run an army under these circumstances. And the stink, their body odour alone should scare the wild life away for leagues around."
Xena adopted a thoughtful expression. "Phantes, what can you tell me about Dagnine's second in command?"
"Yes, when we took the children, what did he do?"
"He…, yes, when I think about it, it was rather strange. He didn't do anything… Most of the men were focused on you and Solan, but he stood in the middle of this pandemonium of horses, men, and fire as if he were vastly enjoying himself. It was as if he was nothing more than a slightly amused observer."
"Yes, now it's beginning to make sense."
"Xena, could you please be less cryptic, and tell us what you found out. Patience isn't one of my strong points."
"I'm sorry, Queen Melosa. I'll explain but first there is some bad news." In her usual matter of fact style, Xena told the war council about Dagnine now being in the possession of the Ixion stone, and about the second army stationed at the other side of the dragon's pass.
"That's just great, 500 from one side and 300 from another. If we send in every able-bodied Centaur and Human of the village, we still can't muster more than seven scores of fighters. Even with the Amazons bringing in about the same number, we still don't stand a chance." A council member burst out.
"Perhaps Dagnine will leave us alone, now that he has the Ixion stone?" A hesitant voice came from the doorstep.
"Solan, what are you doing here? You should be at the infirmary." Kaleipus growled.
"I ran away. The healer wanted to take off this plaster splint but with it my arm doesn't hurt. I don't want to give it up. Please."
"I'll speak with the healer, Solan." The tall, grey eyed Centaur answered.
"Please, let me stay." Kaleipus reluctantly nodded, and Gabrielle invitingly padded the chair next to hers.
"I'm sorry Solan, but he won't leave us alone. It is said that once the evil of Ixion's creation is restored to life it's primary goal is to destroy everything that reminds him of the good Ixion gave to the Centaurs. At the moment, Amazon and Centaurs for Dagnine are stepping stones on his way to conquer Greece, as soon as he turns himself into the Great Centaur, the need to destroy all of you would take over anyway."
"How can you be so sure that he won't use the stone in any other way, Con… Xena? There are other ways." One of the Centaur elders said.
"That's the only method of using the powers of the stone I told him about. When he held the stone in his hand, his personal power was all he was thinking about. He wants to rule Greece but he wants to conquer it himself, without the help of an army. In his mind, that's the only way to best me.
"To become the Great Centaur, he has first to melt the stone down. The liquid then has to cool down, then he will drink it." Xena explained to the benefit of Solan, Gabrielle and the Amazons. "The whole process will take about three days. So, he won't come here before the day after tomorrow. Enough time to come up with a plan to take him out, choose a battlefield, and find a way to get rid of this other army."
"The crossbow men and archers should be able to take care of the Great Centaur." Tyldus answered.
"I don't think that ordinary arrows are able to penetrate his skin. No, I suppose we'll need something bigger, much bigger."
"Xena is right." The same elder than before said. "The book of wisdom states that no ordinary weapon can harm the Great Centaur. It is written that he has the strength of a hundred Centaurs, and that he will be fifteen feet tall."
Silence suddenly was thick in the room, only broken by the scratching of a quill on parchment. Xena was bending over the central table where some maps had been unrolled and was calmly sketching, slowly capturing the attention of the others. No one questioned her, and no one said anything. A few candledrops later, she stretched and turned around to a pair of curious green and visibly frightened blue eyes. She smiled at her son and for once let the warmth of her smile also reached her eyes.
"As I said, we'll need something bigger than a simple crossbow. Do you think your blacksmith can make something like this?" She asked and gave the piece of parchment to Kaleipus.
The one-eyed Centaur studied it. "That's great. A giant crossbow hitched to the back of a supply wagon, loaded with a crossbow bolt with a tip as tall as a man's head. -- Yes, I think it can be done but I better go and get Lattenis to start right now. One and a half or two days are not much time." He turned and left the room.
"There's one problem, though."
"I know, Tyldus. This has to work with the first try. If he even suspects something like this, he will be able to avoid the bolts. With all the equipment on it, the wagon won't be easy to move around. So, we have to somehow get him in place without being obvious. I should be able to focus his attention on me."
Xena and Tyldus then discussed where to await the attack of the Great Centaur. They finally agreed upon a stretch of land a two candlemarks' ride outside of the village. The location Tyldus first had favoured was more than a day's ride away, and thus would offer more security for the village but less time to prepare for the attack.
At the chosen site, there were large boulders on both sides, some of them as big as a hut. The great expanse of lush green pasture was usually used for farming but at the moment left bare to give the soil a chance to regenerate. A band of trees bisected the pasture, ideal to hide the crossbow wagon and a part of their army. Xena and Kaleipus volunteered to attract Dagnine's attention and get him where they needed him. The question of the other army was postponed to the next day to give everyone the chance to come up with new ideas.
The room soon was empty, except for the Centaur leaders, Queen Melosa, Xena, and Gabrielle. "Tyldus, Kaleipus, wait. I want you to know that I'm responsible for the loss of the Ixion stone. I should have taken better care of Borias' sword."
"How can you be responsible? Even we didn't know that the stone was no longer in one of the temples." Kaleipus answered.
"You knew. So, that's what the pensive expression was about when you picked up the weapon after the boy's attack. But how? It looked like any other sword." Queen Melosa was wondering.
"Yes, I knew. When I held the weapon in my hands, I could feel it. -- Ten summers ago, I felt its presence but I wasn't able to pinpoint its location, and I also knew that it was in the village when I came back for the peace negotiations." Xena's eyes fell on Gabrielle, and she continued. "Ten summers ago, I could feel its call like an imperious demand, but this time it was a warm and somehow familiar feeling. -- I'm sorry, I failed the Centaur nation by loosing the sword, and I gladly accept the consequences."
"We will balance the scales when this war is over, Xena, but please know that what happened was an accident, nothing more." Tyldus answered softly. "The Ixion stone to the Centaurs always was more of a threat than a blessing, perhaps it's good that when all is said and done, it will be gone for good. -- But now, we should all try and get some sleep."
They left the council's chamber. But before they definitively went to their respective huts, Xena said. "Tyldus. Thank you!"
"You're welcome, Xena." Was his answer, and for the second time her name didn't sound like a curse in his mouth.
Xena spent the first candlemarks after sunrise in council with the Centaur leaders and the Amazon Queen, discussing her plans for the second army waiting just beyond the dragon's pass. While the first steps were set in motion by the healer and the keeper of the Centaur book of wisdom, she went to help out at the smithy.
That's where the messenger announcing the arrival of the Amazon army found her, lending her strong arms to the task of banging the different parts of their giant crossbow in shape. For a heartbeat her whole body stiffened when she heard who was accompanying the war party.
Xena told the Amazon runner that she would be by as soon as her current task allowed, knowing full well that they'd need at least the rest of the day to get all the parts together -- and feeling strongly that this would be too soon in her book. She just wasn't ready to take on her mother; instead she focused on her work. She didn't even stop for the midday meal.
"Xena, take a break, Queen's order." Eponin said from the doorway, one and a half candlemark after the others came back from the dining hall. "What'd you say about a quick bath? There are a lot of things to talk about and decide upon."
"I have work to do here, weapons' master."
"Two of our sisters will be here shortly to take over for you, Xena. You are needed elsewhere. Besides, you really do need a bath, my friend."
The shadow of a smile tucked at the Xena's lips. "You won't give up, right?"
"Not in my nature. By the way, the Centaur blacksmith will sure be glad to get his smithy back. You certainly took over five candledrops after coming in."
"She wasn't this bad. It took Xena at least half a candlemark, but I also learned a lot from her. Go, the weapon will be ready before sundown."
"Thank you, Lattenis. It was a pleasure working with you."
The raven headed warrior took her big leather apron off, revealing a short skirt and a sweat soaked linen top that was clinging to her curves. They left the smithy, and after a few steps the dark haired Amazon burst out. "You're disgustingly sexy in this outfit, Xena, if you weren't taken, I'd …"
"Yeah, as if," Xena retorted with a smirk, "I wouldn't throw you out of my bedroom either, well I wouldn't have. And we won't mention the fact that Queen Melosa and Gabrielle would have both our hides if we even thought of trying something like this. -- What about this bath?"
"You're sooo right. Let's go."
On the way to the river, Xena every now and then cast quick glances all around her, as if searching for someone.
"Don't worry, your mother is in the kitchen. On the way here, I had the chance to taste her cooking. She took objection to the seasoning of the venison stew. The head cook probably will recruit her on the spot."
"Yeah, and in a couple of days, he will gladly follow her orders."
"Might be. Cyrene can be a force to reckon with, and she certainly is the most stubborn woman I ever met, present company included." Xena didn't take the bait, so the weapons' master changed topic. "Palemon can't wait to speak with you. He's still worried about you. Talk to him, it will ease his mind. You'll also have to decide how to use your other soldiers."
"My soldiers? Ep, what are you talking about?"
"Two scores of your men, all seasoned warriors. They volunteered to fight at our side. One of them said, and I quote: If this stubborn mule head of a General thinks it's worth fighting for, so do we! End quote -- though I doubt he would ever have said so in your face."
"You're talking about Meleager, right?" The Amazon nodded. "He would, and he has. He never minced his words or was afraid to speak his mind -- and surprisingly it never made me angry. He's a damned good soldier, saved my hide more than once. -- Forty men, you said? Tyldus and Queen Melosa will certainly make good use of them."
Meanwhile, they had reached the river, and Xena jumped in without bothering to take off her clothes. The cool water was like a balm to her overheated body and aching muscles, while her mind was busy adapting the plans including her men and thinking of arguments to convince the Centaur leaders. She made quick work of washing her clothes and herself, hanging them up to dry, and then stretched out at the sunny shore.
"Xena, it's you who'll have to decide how to use your men and the rest of the army." Eponin sat down next to her, and continued their conversation as if there never had been a break. "You were named commander of the allied forces, unanimously."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, Xena, it's true."
"But how? Did they bar Tyldus from the council?" Xena asked.
"It was Queen Melosa's idea but she also told me that he was the one who convinced the rest of the council. He supposedly said that he still didn't trust the Conqueror but that he also wasn't stupid enough to discard the fighting skills and the strategic mind of an ally of the Amazons. He said that by rescuing the children you have proven your loyalty. -- Believe it or not, you're the new leader of the combined army of the Amazon and Centaur nation. So, what are your orders, General?"
"You're really not kidding, Ep?" Xena asked with a touch of wonder in her voice.
"No, I'm not, General."
"Stop calling me general, Ep. That was in another life. Use my name, else I have no choice than calling you 'weapons' master' from now on."
"Point taken, Xena. So, what are you going to do now, apart from letting your clothes dry?"
"Wow, I never would have thought this possible. Do we have any new intelligence about our enemies?" Xena asked, still lying naked on the ground but her grey matter visibly working overtime.
"Not that I know of. We have scouts out; the perimeter watch has been extended. It now includes the battlefield you have chosen. There's nothing we can do but wait, and organise our forces." The weapons' master answered.
"Do they really want to risk trusting me with an army? I might not be ready to give it up afterwards."
"Trust in yourself, Xena." A voice sounded from a few paces to the left. "You're no longer out to conquer the world, and Amazons and Centaurs are certainly not an ordinary army."
Xena looked up. Theano was casually leaning against one of the few trees dotting the river line. "I'm sorry to cut your free time short, little one, but I saw Gabrielle heading towards the kitchen. After what I did to you during the trial I better keep my distance from your mother -- but I don't think you can draw it out much longer."
Xena shot up. "Gabrielle and my mother, together. This only spells trouble. My mother doesn't hold back her opinion, and Gabrielle tends to get a bit overprotective. I better go and talk to them."
"That's the understatement of the year. Gabrielle has a protective streak a league wide when it comes to you. I should know." Theano quipped. "Now, get going."
When Xena a few candledrops later entered the communal dining hut she found it mostly empty. There was no sign of her mother, but Toris, Palemon, Gabrielle, and Ephiny were sitting at a table talking with a familiar blonde warrior. She soundlessly sneaked closer. Before she could reach her prey, the tall woman jumped to her feet and swirled around, a dagger at the ready.
"Did I pass the test, General?"
"As always, Cassy. It's been almost two summers since I last was able to sneak up on you. What clued you in? I know I didn't make any noise."
"This time it really was easy. It was Gabrielle's face. It literally lit up when you appeared in the doorway." The young woman said teasingly.
"Your lips are smiling but your eyes are not. Let's have a walk. Tell me what happened. -- Gabrielle, could you help the others to get settled in. I want to do some drills later in the afternoon. Amazons and Centaurs have to learn to work together."
"Xena, you have a war to prepare for. There's no need to talk about what cannot be changed. But you were right, it changed everything."
"Yes, there is." With her hand at the younger woman's elbow she guided her out of the room. "Talk to me, Cassy. Trust me."
"I failed you, Xena. I couldn't protect them, I saw them dying. They were innocents and I failed them all." She answered, pausing almost between every word.
"It's all right, Cassy. We're alone now." The taller woman said after leading her charge to a narrow alley next to the dining hall.
The younger woman dissolved into tears and clung to Xena's chest as if her life depended upon it, as if -- since the attack on the orphanage -- she had saved up all her tears for this very moment which in a way she had. They both sank to the ground and the warrior woman held her as if cradling a child. They stayed like this until there were no more tears left to cry and Cassandra had most of her composure back.
"Now, tell me what happened. What brings you here?"
"When one of your soldiers brought the message that you had resigned from ruling Greece I was happy for you. I knew that you didn't like it, not the life at court nor the council sessions or judgement days. Since you are with Gabrielle it's more visible but you were bored with these things after coming back from defeating the Romans.
"A few days later, maybe four or five, I don't know for sure, the children from the orphanage in Corinth arrived. They all were hungry, some of them were injured. They had been forced to leave the city the day after your resignation. They said you were dead but we knew better."
"The council closed the orphanage?"
"Closed? They had the building destroyed, together with most of the schools, and the kitchens for the poor and homeless. They weren't even allowed to take anything with them. We suddenly had another eighty children to care for and had converted the stables to house them. We were already planning to build a few more houses." Her voice tapered off and the blonde once again fought against her tears.
"It's all right, Cassy. It takes strength to show weakness. With me you can be weak."
After another crying spell Cassandra continued, her words interspersed with more tears. "We, some of the caretakers and most of the adolescents, were getting ready to go and cut down some trees to build a few more huts. Being already armed with an axe might really have saved some lives. -- They came upon us. Out of nowhere. Surrounding us. They didn't ask any questions, didn't have any demands. They just attacked. I don't…
"They were upon us like a swarm of angry hornets. Coming from all sides. We tried to defend ourselves, using every weapon possible. We defeated them and they told us they would be back with reinforcements. -- They ran away, but it wasn't enough. All I saw were my friends dying, a child bleeding to death from a sword piercing its chest. That's when I stopped thinking."
"You just followed your instincts."
"I followed my instincts, yes, and they told me to kill. I didn't simply defend myself or my friends. I just inflicted the most damage I possibly could. I didn't think of who I was killing." Her voice now held a slight dose of self-disgust. "There were more than forty men. I was told I killed at least half, alone -- but still more than half of the children were killed. The others told me that they all would be dead without me defending them. I didn't defend them, I didn't even avenge my friends, I just killed. That's all I thought about. And I loved the sound of my sword slicing through their flesh. I laughed. I totally lost control. I'm so afraid that it will happen again."
"I know, Cassandra. Tell me, what did you do after the fight?"
"I helped with the injured."
"No, immediately after they began to retreat. Did you follow them?"
"I wanted to. I wanted to see them all dead. I took a few steps. I looked around me. All I saw was death and destruction. I dropped my sword. I fell to my knees. I was covered in blood." She spoke in short breathless sentences.
"If I close my eyes I can still see my hands, dripping with blood. I see this soldier directly in front of me with his head half cut off. His mouth still open in a silent shout and surprise in his eyes. He was young, so very young, too young to be a soldier.
"I knew I had killed him. I knew I had become a monster. I threw up, lost consciousness.
"When I came to I was in my room, wearing a clean shift. We decided not to wait for them to come back. So we, mother and the other three caretakers left, took the surviving seventy two children and came here. We didn't know where else to go. Four of them died on the way from their injuries. I failed them."
"Cassandra, look at me. You didn't fail them. You did what you had to do and you paid a high prize for saving their lives, but you're not a monster and you never will be. A monster wouldn't have stopped until they all were dead. A monster wouldn't mourn the dead of an enemy. A monster wouldn't feel guilty. I know -- I was a monster once."
"Then why did I laugh, Xena? My sword ended lives and I loved the fear in my opponent's eyes. I shouldn't feel good about killing. I remember the feeling, and I don't like it."
"But you don't, Cassy. Can't you see it? What you felt while fighting and what you feel now, one has nothing to do with the other. You lost your blood innocence to protect the people you love. You didn't feel good during the fight because you wanted to see your enemies dead, you felt good simply because you were fighting. For the first time you had to use everything you learned. The sword was a part of your arm; your body became a weapon. It was a feeling as if the whole world was at your command."
"Is this what you feel when you fight?"
"Yes, Cassandra, it's what I feel. It's what every good fighter, every good soldier feels. It's called battle fever, some call it blood lust. It's a natural reaction and there's no shame in it. The energy set free by the feeling of power -- it takes very different forms but most of the time it's needed to fight and win even against the odds. What counts is what you do after the fight.
"I've known fighters to become depended of the feeling of power; they then do everything to feel it all the time and senselessly risked their lives. For some warriors it's the only thing they are capable of feeling. Others go and have sex to get rid of the energy coursing through their veins. Others only want to be left alone because they know that they can be a danger to their peers. Others tend to get violent. It helps us to do what we have to do. It's useful but you can learn to control it."
"How? Can you control it?"
"No, not really. I learned to put it aside, to concentrate on other things but it doesn't work all the time. If it doesn't work I need to feel in control, absolute control over another human being. But, Cassandra, that's not how it will be with you. For a long time, only the pain I inflicted on others let me feel alive. I love to fight but if I'm outnumbered fighting for me is plunging in a sea of dark energy, very familiar dark energy and then it's hard to find my way back to the light. Your soul isn't tainted by darkness, Cassy, that's why it will be different. Don't be afraid of the feeling, it can be a friend, and if you don't fear it, it can't control you."
"Are you sure? I'd rather give up fighting."
"If you really want to give up your sword do it. There are a lot of other things you can do but don't act out of fear, Cassandra. If you give in to fear you will lose an important part of your soul. Do what your heart tells you. I wish there were more I could do or say but there isn't. Come to me if you need to talk. You don't have to fight this battle alone; I'll be at your side."
"You already helped, thank you, Xena. I'm feeling better now." The blonde woman for the first time looked at the entrance of the alley. "Palemon wants to talk to you. He's still worried about this whole slave and punishment thing."
"I know. He guarded our privacy."
"Go and talk to him. I have a lot to think about, I'll be all right."
They both stood and Cassandra left Xena with the tall commander. She patiently answered his questions. His reactions told her that he still had a hard time to understand why she was so willingly going through with this whole thing. But she also knew that he understood enough to respect her decision and support her.
Then he told her about their journey back to Amazon territory, about the number of refugees who by now must have reached the fortified island Xena several summers ago had had prepared for an eventuality like this. Marcus, the dark skinned soldier who had proven his loyalty to Xena during Darphus' treason on the way back from Persia, commanded the six scores of First Order soldiers keeping them safe. He told her about her mother's decision to come and talk to her, about their detour to Amphipolis and how their number had steadily increased from only a handful of soldiers to two scores and a half as well as a rather big wagon trek full of non-combatants and children, totalling slightly more than one hundred and fifty people.
"That's a lot of mouths to feed for the Amazons left at the village." Xena said pensively.
"Yeah, it is. That's why I left our best hunters with the Amazons, despite their protests. The non-combatants also are ready and eager to pitch in. Arleia and the silver haired Amazon now in charge at the village hit it off at the first moment. The children are staying there and will probably have a lot of fun with their Amazon peers. I don't think that there will be any problems."
"We only can hope. I'm glad you and the others are here. We'll need your help. I want to run some drills. Get the men ready while I grab my weapons and armour and have a talk with Queen Melosa and Tyldus. We'll meet at the training grounds in one and a half candlemark."
After almost five candlemarks of putting Amazons, Centaurs and her own soldiers through their paces, Xena was confident that they would be able to work together. Given some more time to train they could be made into a virtually unstoppable force. She couldn't help but speculate about what she would have been able to achieve with an army like this all these years ago. Part of her revelled at the possibilities, she could be empress of the whole world by now. Part of her was relieved that it didn't come to this.
Halfway through the drills, one of the scouts reported that Dagnine's army had broken camp in the morning and was now on the move towards the village. They would reach the chosen battle field at about noon the next day. At the end of the extended training session, she once again met with Queen Melosa, the Centaur council, and the commanders of the different divisions.
There were Palemon and Meleager for the soldiers of the First Order, Philiades for the Human fighters from the Centaur village, Terreis for the scouts, Eponin and Solari for the Amazon warriors, Tyldus for the Centaur fighters, Kaleipus for the Centaur archers who also would be responsible for the firing of the giant crossbow, Duinos, the leader of the group she had had a fight with only a few days ago, the one with the staff, for the Centaur runners, and Etare for the Amazon archers. She had about 320 fighters to count on, most of them seasoned warriors and all of them highly motivated. That didn't even the odds but their chances were rather good -- or they would have been, without the second army waiting at the other side of Dragon Head's Pass. She had scouts out monitoring them but still felt uneasy about their presence.
During the second part of the drills, her mind was busy playing with different scenarios. Should the plan to kill the Great Centaur not work out she would send a group of forty Amazons, half of her men, and about a dozen Centaurs to destroy the pass best as she could and thus hold up the other army. The rest of them would retreat to the village, and hope to turn the tables during a siege. That was the worst thing that could happen. It all boiled down on her adequate assessment of the situation.
Xena finally decided to take only about half of the army with her, leaving the rest behind to defend the village should Dagnine or more probable, his second in command try to get to the non-combatants while the army was otherwise occupied. She hoped to goad her former lieutenant into a fight before he sent his forces against them and kill him with the crossbow thus demoralising his men. That's where his second in command came into the equation. She only had his actions or lack of them during the rescue of the children to go with and the similarities between the other army's camp and a part of Dagnine's encampment. Not much really, but there also was this gut feeling over the years she had learned not to deny. He could send the army against them but she was sure that he was reluctant to risk his own men, hoping for an easier victory with the help of the siege engines but not above taking the opportunity to let others do the dirty work of decimating his opponents.
They would leave right after sunrise; the different divisions already knew where to take a stand, and so all that was left to do was have a good night's sleep and wait for the enemy to make the first step.
Not eager to go to the crowded bathing area she once again washed up in the river. When she returned to shore after a short swim to loosen her muscles, Gabrielle waited with a clean set of clothes. Walking hand in hand towards the dining hall, Xena's younger companion was exceptionally quiet. So, instead of entering the hut the tall warrior led her to the western side of the stables and they sat down on a big hay bale, silently watching the setting sun.
"Everything will work out, Gabrielle. Try not to worry too much."
"I'm not worried about tomorrow. I know I should be, you and a lot of my friends could die or be seriously injured. I read enough about your battles and campaigns to know that war is not only a game of skill but also of chance. I know you'll do everything you can to come back to me, though I still don't like being left behind. -- Please don't, I understand your reasoning and I'll keep my word. I just have this feeling that everything will be all right."
"What else is bothering you, my love?" She searched the younger woman's eyes. "What has you upset?"
"It's nothing, Xena, nothing important, anyway."
"Please tell me, Gabrielle. I hate to worry about you."
The younger woman nestled deeper in Xena's arms, took a deep breath and answered. "I met your mother." She fell silent and Xena silently lifted her on her lap. "I knew who she was and I wanted to make a good impression. I blew it. I gave her a piece of my mind when she said that you are a coward and that you don't stand up to your responsibilities. I'm sorry, Xe."
"Don't be, my love. I'm glad there's someone defending me." She kissed Gabrielle tenderly on the mouth and forehead. "I know it's a lot to ask for but please don't be angry with my mother. She has every reason to be suspicious of everything I do, every reason to hate me. Her youngest son was killed because of me, friends and relatives died because of me; some of her friends were executed at my command. I took her away from her home and forced her to live in a city she hated. I failed her, more times than I can count. Try to understand her, please."
"She should be proud of you, Xena. You made Greece a safer place to live. She judges you but she doesn't know you."
"Even if I did, Gabrielle, she still paid a high prize for my ambition. Amphipolis was all but destroyed, Lyceus died to fulfil my dreams. It's hard for a mother to loose a son and see her only daughter become a murderer all in one day." Xena answered, closing her eyes at the unexpected pain.
"Your brother chose his own path. I never faulted you for his death. He died doing what he thought was right." A voice coming from the left side said. "I fault you for betraying your own dreams, and his. I fault you for becoming what in the beginning you were fighting. You may have brought peace to Greece but you did it at the prize of our freedom. We traded one or the other warlord every once in a while against one warlord dominating our lives all the time. We are, we were no more than slaves to you."
"Slaves, what do you know of slaves?" Gabrielle angrily retorted, jumping from Xena's lap and placing herself between the tall woman and her mother. "Were you ever beaten just for…"
Xena suddenly had her arms around the smaller woman's shoulders, circled her and silenced her with a kiss. She found her still angry eyes and let all the love she had for the blonde filter through her own while effectively shielding her from Cyrene's view. "It's all right, Gabrielle. She's hurt and doesn't know what she's talking about. Don't let her bother you, my heart. What'd you say, we grab something to eat from the kitchen and then retire to our hut?"
The younger woman only nodded. Xena then turned around and found her mother's eyes. The worried lover was gone, giving way to the hardened warrior. "Mother, I didn't ask you to come here. And I really don't care what you think or say about me. You made it abundantly clear, years ago, that you have no daughter. I learned to live with having no mother; I learned not to care. But I care about Gabrielle. And if I ever hear that you hurt her or upset her again, I'll make sure that you won't be around to do it a third time. Did I make myself clear, Cyrene of Amphipolis?"
She didn't wait for an answer but tenderly guided the younger woman back to the dining hut.
After having spent the better part of the night beating herself up over what happened to the orphanage at Cirra, Xena knew that she had to do something. The death of these children was weighing heavily on her shoulders. It was her responsibility. With her still in charge at the capital it never would have happened. Her mother was right, she ran away from the responsibility of leading Greece but despite what had happened she didn't find it in her heart to regret her decision.
Shortly before sunrise, Xena sat down and wrote several messages she asked two of her men to deliver to Corinth. She chose them for their knowledge of the palace and its hidden passages and corridors. They were to put the scrolls in the bedchambers of the council members.
The messages contained threats to make sure that they stopped destroying everything she had accomplished during her reign, especially concerning the orphans, the old, and the poor. She knew they had the kitchens and the schools destroyed to make sure that nothing reminded of her, of the Conqueror -- and she really didn't mind who would take the credit for her charity work but she also wasn't ready to totally give up on them. It was far too important.
The scrolls were intended to scare the men now ruling Greece into good sense by giving them the impression that at any moment she could pay them a visit and personally change their minds about things. They included the promise that she would come back to make them see the light if the ruling council, her former council members, didn't mind their ways. She wasn't really sure if the messages would do the trick but they all knew that she always kept her promises, and at the moment, it was the only option she had.
At sunrise she kissed Gabrielle good-bye and rode at the head of the army towards their chosen battlefield. According to the scouts, Dagnine's army would arrive shortly before noon, having marched well into the night and only made a cold camp without fire and something warm to eat. Another point in her favour, Xena thought: cold rations tended to make for grumpy soldiers, and grumpy soldiers tended to become sloppy.
Continued in part III
Author's comment to chapter six:
First of all: We all know the lullaby I let Xena sing wasn't born out of my imagination though I changed some of the verses -- largely due to the fact that I really don't like the original German text. (Honestly, who wants to be poked by nails when snuggling under one's duvet?!) My version is based on the verses presented in Céline Dion's CD "These are special times".
Solan's birth and the events leading to Borias' death are depicted very differently to the way the show presents them. Though in this story I generally tried to stay as close as my story line allowed to the relevant episodes, especially "Orphan of War", I still couldn't get over my dislike of Satrina ("Past Imperfect" -- if I remember right). So I decided to simply not include her in my Xenaverse. I hope no one is deadly offended.
First of all: We all know the lullaby I let Xena sing wasn't born out of my imagination though I changed some of the verses -- largely due to the fact that I really don't like the original German text. (Honestly, who wants to be poked by nails when snuggling under one's duvet?!) My version is based on the verses presented in Céline Dion's CD "These are special times".
Solan's birth and the events leading to Borias' death are depicted very differently to the way the show presents them. Though in this story I generally tried to stay as close as my story line allowed to the relevant episodes, especially "Orphan of War", I still couldn't get over my dislike of Satrina ("Past Imperfect" -- if I remember right). So I decided to simply not include her in my Xenaverse. I hope no one is deadly offended.
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