Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons do not belong to me. They belong to MCA/Universal/Renaissance.
Part 16 of The Guardian Series
T he last few days had been full of excitement in the Amazon village. The Queen, her Champion and their Guardian had arrived to celebrate the Royal Couple's first anniversary and the traditional Amazon way to celebrate important events like this, was to have a great feast.
And of course everyone celebrated late into the night and the next morning.
It was nearly noon when Exl was walking to the dining hut for something to eat when she saw Eponin and Solari enter the hut. She went to sit with them and she could see how Eponin was holding her head.
“Morning Solari, morning Pony”, she wished the Amazons with a smile. Solari greeted her with a smile of her own, but Eponin only gave small wave and took a big swig of fruit juice. Exl laughed and noted:
“That was some party last night; I guess you had a great time.” Solari glanced at Eponin and said:
“Yes and a little bit too much to drink. I tried to tell Pony that she can't handle all that wine, but you know her, she just won't listen when she's in the party mood.” Exl shook her head and ate some of the delicious breakfast the tribe's cooks had made. She looked at Eponin who still looked slightly pale and said:
“Pony, I would have thought that you would know your limits.” Eponin grunted at her and said rather quietly:
“Easy for you to say Exl, you're always feeling good in the morning after the festivities because you never drink the wine or the mead.” Exl smiled widely, she knew that the wine and the mead were the things most Amazons enjoyed most of all in their festivities. That's why the next day was usually very quiet; most were suffering from quite a hangover. But not this young warrior, she never drank anything stronger than water or fruit juice, she wanted to keep her head clear at all times.
One of the tribe's messengers walked into the hut and when she saw Exl, she walked right up to her.
“Exl, do you know where Queen Gabrielle is?” Exl replied nearly instantly:
“Still sleeping, I presume. Is something wrong?” The young messenger shook her head:
“No, nothing's wrong. Two letters just arrived for her from our sister tribes. They're waiting for her in the common hut.”
“Thank you, I'll make sure Gabrielle hears about the letters”, Exl said and the messenger left.
Solari and Eponin left the dining hut with Exl and Eponin asked her:
“Exl, do you think you and Xena could come round later today and give the young warriors-to-be a few lessons? They've been asking me to ask you for ages now.”
“I think that could be arranged, I have to ask Xena but I'm sure she'll say yes”, Exl answered.
Eponin smiled and she and Solari turned towards the guard hut when Exl headed for the Queen's hut to wake her Couple.
E verything was peaceful and quiet in the Queen's hut as well, both Gabrielle and Xena were still fast asleep even though it was already early afternoon. Gabrielle was snuggled very close to her dark warrior with her head over Xena's heart and Xena had wrapped her arms around the bard.
When someone knocked on the hut's door, Xena was woken up by it. She opened her eyes and the first thing she saw and realized was that she was half covered by the beautiful Queen. When a second knock was heard, Xena shook Gabrielle carefully to wake her. Gabrielle heard someone quietly calling her name and it was a heart warming thing to hear. She lifted her head and was met by two eyes gleaming right in front of her.
“Good morning”, Gabrielle wished to the women underneath her. As a response she got a wide smile and the words:
“Good morning love. I didn't want to wake you but someone's at the door.” Gabrielle was very comfortable were she was, she didn't want to move or have anyone disturb them.
“Let's pretend we're sound asleep and we didn't hear them knocking. I don't care for any interruptions right now”, Gabrielle whispered to Xena. Before Xena could comment, a familiar voice was heard behind the door:
“Gabrielle, Xena, are you awake? It's Exl, may I come in?” Xena turned her eyes from the door back to Gabrielle and said:
“It's Exl, she wouldn't disturb if it wasn't something important.” Gabrielle agreed, at most times Exl seemed to be the only one who really respected the Queen's and her Consort's privacy. After a while the guards and messengers had learned to ask Exl if she knew where the Queen was or if she was busy with something else, because it was Exl's duty to know these kind of things. Gabrielle rolled off her dark warrior and grabbed her robe from the floor while Xena was putting on hers. Being suitably dressed, Gabrielle said:
“Yes Exl, come in.” Exl opened the door, entered and closed the door behind her.
She smiled and gave her Couple her salute and greeted them:
“My honorable Queen, great Warrior Princess, your Guardian and humble servant wants to wish you a very good morning and inform that I have a message for you.” Xena and Gabrielle both laughed at Exl's performance, she was amusing when she tried to act serious. Gabrielle said to her:
“Good morning Exl. If I were your Queen, I'd tell you to stop calling me that. What kind of a message?” Exl replied:
“At breakfast one of the messengers informed me that two letters have arrived for you and that they're waiting in the common hut.”
“Do you know who the letters are from?”, Gabrielle asked.
“From your sister tribes if I remember correctly”, Exl answered. Gabrielle smiled widely and said:
“They finally answered, I hoped they would.” Xena and Exl looked at each other with no idea what Gabrielle was talking about.
“I'll explain everything after I see those letters. Exl, why don't you go ahead and wait for us in the common hut. We'll just get dressed and will be right there”, Gabrielle said to the warrior.
Exl nodded and before she left she said to Xena:
“Oh, by the way Xena, Pony asked me if you and I could go and give her young trainees a few lessons later today. The youngsters have been asking Pony to ask us for a long time.”
Xena smiled and said:
“I think that would be fun. See you in a moment.” Exl left the hut and headed towards the other side of the village and the common hut.
In a few moments, Gabrielle and Xena entered the common hut and saw Ephiny and Exl waiting for them there. Gabrielle walked over to Ephiny, who wished her a good morning and gave her the letters. Xena and Exl were standing a few feet away waiting for Gabrielle to say something about the letters. After reading the first one, Gabrielle smiled and then began reading the other one.
Finally, having read both letters she said:
“They said yes, both of them.” Xena looked at Exl, who shrugged her shoulders with no idea what Gabrielle meant by all this. Ephiny seemed happy to hear the news and saw that the Queen's warriors were very baffled. Gabrielle also saw the expressions on the faces of her warriors.
“A while back I sent letters to our sister tribes in Mesopotamia and Scythia about organizing the traditional Race of Warriors here and the Queens of both tribes agreed to participate. This will strengthen the relations between our tribes”, Gabrielle explained.
Now part of the bard's enthusiasm was understood, but Exl still had something to ask.
“What exactly is this Race of Warriors? “ Gabrielle smiled and to Xena and Exl this meant that they would hear a long story about this event in question.
“The Race of Warriors is a competition held between the Amazon tribes. It was hosted by a different tribe every year, but because the tribes are slowly dying out, the Race was last held over ten years ago. In the Race itself, a team from every participating tribe, except two from the hosting tribe, competes against each other by roaming around and completing tasks which differ in every single Race. The tasks test everything the participants have learned in their training. Each team has three members, who are still in training to become warriors and each team has a team leader, an older Amazon who is already a warrior of the tribe.
I want to hold the Race here this year and hopefully this will be the beginning of rise of the Amazon nation. And now that our sister tribes have agreed to participate, we have to start making preparations for the Race. The other teams will arrive in just about a week or so, we have to have everything ready by the time they get here”, Gabrielle explained. Ephiny who was standing right next to Gabrielle, said to her:
“I'll call for the tribe meeting, I'm sure everyone will be excited and ready to do their part.”
Xena and Exl stood back while Gabrielle and Ephiny started discussing about all the things that had to be done. Xena walked up to her spouse and said:
“Gabrielle, if you don't mind, Exl and I will go the practice field and help Eponin with her young trainees.” Gabrielle had nearly forgotten that Xena and Exl not being Amazons, weren't very excited about planning big events such as this and would rather be training or hunting just to keep out of the way.
“Only if you'll be back in time to have dinner with me”, she replied with that big smile of hers.
Xena smiled and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the cheek before she and Exl left the hut and headed for the practice field.
T hey were nearly there when they saw Eponin, who was still looking a bit pale.
“Hey Pony, you look like you had a rough night. I guess all that partying is wearing you out more than training or teaching the youngsters”, Xena said with a mischievous smile.
“Oh, be quiet Xena. I'm glad to see that you got my message. I was hoping that you and Exl could teach these kids a thing or two, they have been bugging me about it for ages. I have to go to the tribe meeting, something about a competition or something like that”, Eponin said and guided the warriors to the field where a group of young warriors-to-be were loudly chatting while waiting.
Eponin walked to the youngsters and said:
“Okay, listen up. I have to go to an important meeting and while I'm gone you'll have your hands full with work. I have two guest teachers for you today, they're both familiar faces to you. You'd best behave and do as you're told, I'll hear if you do the opposite. Here they are, Xena, the mighty Warrior Princess and Exl, the Queen's Loyal.” Exl and Xena walked next to Eponin and they saw how the young ones were very excited and thrilled to see them. Eponin wished her friends good luck and disappeared out of sight.
Xena calmed down the very enthusiastic young students and said:
“Okay then. I've seen your training a few times and I know that you all work very hard to become warriors. Let's start with something simple, gather round and Exl and I will show you a little something.”
There was no need to tell the young Amazons twice, they had formed a circle around Xena and Exl quicker than they had thought. Xena was happy the young trainees were so eager to learn what she had in mind.
“When in battle, it's very important to know how to fight in offense and defense. Sometimes you have to make the first move, but sometimes you have to wait for your opponent's move”, Xena said as she looked around at the youngsters.
“Predicting and knowing the opponent's next move is critical. If you read your opponent correctly, you will know exactly what they will do next and thus stay one step ahead. We'll show you”, Xena continued and she walked from the middle of the circle so that she and Exl were now facing each other several feet apart. Xena drew her sword and Exl both her axes waiting for Xena's command.
“Exl, basic offense and defense practice 3”, Xena said looking at her young friend who nodded with a smile. The code was something none of the young viewers understood, but what most of them did understand was that the two warriors had to spar and practice quite a bit if they had number codes for their series of moves. Exl and Xena approached each other and before anyone really even noticed, Exl swung her right axe high and Xena blocked it with ease. Then Exl swung her left axe from below trying to hit Xena's leg but again Xena had her sword in between. Xena looked at the trainees and commented:
“If your opponent has two separate weapons, like Exl does right now, you can be sure that when they make their move, they will first strike with one weapon and then with the other trying to surprise you. In my experience, they rarely strike with both at the same time. You must always keep aware of both weapons and try to disarm them of one of them, this will make things easier for you.” Xena did a spin kick to get some distance between her and Exl, then she swung her sword from the side to hit Exl in the stomach and wasn't surprised when Exl blocked the strike with her axe. Because this is the way they had practiced the moves time and time again, Exl held her other axe at her side and didn't strike with it. That gave Xena the chance to show how to disarm one of her two weapons. Xena kicked Exl's wrist and her axe was thrown on the ground behind her.
“Now with both of you having one weapon, things are a bit more even, depending on your skills and your opponent's skills. Usually it's best to take your time and try to read your opponent but sometimes it's just more fun to let ‘er rip and have fun. Exl, surprise me”, Xena said pointing out what they had just shown and the last comment was to tell Exl that now was the time to improvise and show the youngsters what their sparring was really about.
Exl smiled and did a few back flips and when she landed she was crouching down, waiting for Xena's attack. Xena did a couple of flips herself to reach Exl and as she landed she struck with her sword but it missed as Exl rolled out of the way. Xena was however waiting for a move like that, so she struck again to where Exl had now stopped, but her sword hit the blade of the Loyal's axe. As Exl tried to keep the sharp blades from reaching her, she did a backwards somersault and kicked the weapons high in the air. She was able to get up and when the two weapons fell down, both fighters caught their own and when everything had stopped, Xena was holding her sword near Exl's neck and Exl's axe was just as close to Xena's neck. After a few short moments, both warriors smiled and put down their weapons. Xena turned around and announced:
“And that, is sparring with a warrior I would trust my life with. As you could see, even though we were practicing, we used all our skills and the fight was intense. Things could have gotten out of hand, but because we trust each other, we know neither of us would ever really hurt the other.” Exl walked to stand by Xena's side and they bowed when the Amazons began to applaud to them. When they finally calmed down, Xena asked Exl:
“You okay? I didn't mean to kick your wrist so hard.” Exl winked and said:
“I'm fine, I barely even felt it.”
“ O kay, now that you've seen us in action, it's your turn to practice. Take a partner and spread out, first we'll practice some techniques with the sword”, Xena said to the trainees. They were all very obedient and in just a few moments they had spread out to cover the entire practice field.
Exl knew she could sit this one out, she didn't know that much about sword fighting since her main weapons were the axes. When she was walking to drinking well that was right at the end of the practice field, she saw three characters sitting quietly and watching the others practice. She walked up to the characters and recognized them as soon as she reached them.
They were Fenci, Myas and Tiuwi, three young warriors-to-be. They were about 14 years old, so Exl was several years older than they were. Exl had talked to them many times before and had gotten to know some things about them.
Fenci was a bit taller than the other two, and she was the strongest of them. She was also the quietest one, her actions spoke louder than her words. She had green eyes and medium length light brown hair. Her weapon was the staff.
Myas was always smiling, she was rarely ever in a bad mood. She was the wisest and the calmest, she always had to calm down her two very overactive friends. Her eyes were brown and her hair long and dark brown. Her weapon was the bow and arrows.
Tiuwi was the one who was always doing some sort of mischief. She was a daredevil and she always had crazy ideas. But when needed, she could take things seriously. Tiuwi's eyes were grey with a hint of blue and her hair was blond and about the same length as Fenci's. Her weapons were the chobos.
They were inseparable, the best of friends. They never left each others' side, they stood up for each other no matter what. When Exl saw them in the village, they could usually be found having fun in some way, climbing in trees, playing Amazon ball games or even practicing wrestling. But when they were training at the practice field, all their enthusiasm suddenly disappeared and they were very quiet. Just like they were now.
“Hi you three”, Exl said and sat down on the ground next to the youngsters. They hadn't noticed Exl before she sat down and when they did, they greeted her in unison:
“Hello Exl.” Exl turned to look at the other Amazons and the tall dark warrior walking amongst them. Then she turned back to look at the three friends who seemed unhappy and asked:
“Why the long faces? Why aren't you practicing with the others?” Myas turned to Exl and said:
“Because none of us are wanted there with the others and none of us has a sword as a weapon.”
“What do you mean no-one wants you there practicing with them? You're warriors-to-be just as much the rest of them, your place is with them”, Exl asked in amazement. Tiuwi took a small stone from the ground and started rolling it in her hands and said to Exl:
“Can you see those tall girls in the middle, the ones fighting rather seriously?” Exl took a quick look at all the trainees, then found the ones she was looking for. A group of three Amazons, who were taller and bigger than Exl and who seemed to take their training very seriously. Exl remembered seeing them in village always training and practicing. They wanted to be the best.
“Those are the best trainees in the entire tribe, that's what everyone says. But we know they're just big bullies trying to show off. Because we do other things in our spare time, like have fun instead of constantly training, they think we're not worthy to become warriors. And because we're not as good fighters as they are, they consider us as being complete losers”, Tiuwi said and threw the stone as far as she could.
“They've almost managed to turn everyone in the training group against us. We don't want any trouble, so now every time we have fighting lessons, we stay out of everyone's way and just wait for the practice to end”, Fenci said with a sigh.
“Have you told Eponin about this? If you haven't, you should. You can't be treated like this”, Exl asked.
“We did try to mention it to Master Eponin once, but she just said we have to keep practicing harder and not to care what the others say”, Myas replied. Exl didn't want the young trainees to be put down by something other young and inexperienced warriors-to-be had said. She stood up and looked at the three friends who were wondering what was on Exl's mind. Exl told them to follow her and she lead them a bit farther from the practice field.
“Now I want you to listen to me very carefully. Forget that everyone who is now on that practice field exists. The only people who exist right here and now, are the four of us. No-one else can see you practice, so you can just be yourselves. You all have your own special weapons which have their own advantages and disadvantages. But they're the weapons you'll use for the rest of your lives.
To me, one of the most important things a warrior must learn, is to know your weapon. Let's get to work”, Exl said to the youngsters smiling.
Tiuwi, Myas and Fenci were soon practicing like they had never been practicing before. Exl taught all of them things concerning their own weapons.
Myas told Exl she was sometimes very accurate when she practiced archery. But sometimes her arrows would end up in all the wrong places. Exl gave her a few tips and soon Myas learned to control her breathing and aim more accurately. Exl asked her to shoot an arrow through a small hoop that was several dozen feet from where they were standing. After concentrating for a while, Myas fired the arrow and was amazed when it went straight trough the hoop.
Tiuwi's weapons, the chobos were very similar to Exl's own weapons, except they didn't have blades like the axes did, but it didn't matter. With Exl's pointers, Tiuwi was twirling her chobos and striking with them like she as if she had had years of practice instead of a couple of hours.
When Exl was giving Fenci some tips on how to fight with the staff, Exl just had to think of the things Gabrielle did when she was fighting or training. Fenci was a very fast learner, before Exl knew it, Fenci was discovering more and more battle moves all by herself.
Exl was astonished by the real skills of the youngsters. They really were very talented, but no-one had seen what they really were capable of.
Several hours had passed since Xena and Exl had first arrived at the practice field and Exl had been practicing with the three friends for nearly the entire time. She hadn't noticed how fast the time had passed, it was nearly dinner time. All four of them were starting to get exhausted and very hungry, they sat down and Myas said:
“I never imagined I could learn so much in one day. It's like we learned more things now than what we have learned in all the lessons with Master Eponin.” Fenci and Tiuwi agreed with her but Exl said with a hint of doubt:
“You're exaggerating, Eponin is a much better teacher than I am, she is very experienced. She has trained many fine warriors, I know nothing about teaching others.”
“But you are a great teacher, all those things you taught us today, we never would have learned them from Master Eponin”, Tiuwi said twirling one of her chobos to prove her point.
“With you, practicing was much easier because we didn't have to worry about anyone making fun of us and you helped us all individually, that's something we really needed”, Fenci said patting the warrior on the shoulder. Before Exl could comment on the feedback she was given, Xena walked to their direction from the drinking well.
“There you are Exl, I wondered where you disappeared to. I finished practice a while ago and just then realized you were gone. I thought you sneaked off to avoid practicing with me and the trainees, but I see you've been giving some private lessons and your day has been as rough as mine”, Xena said with a smile.
Exl stood up and so did the three trainees, then Exl said to her tall friend:
“I'm sorry that I disappeared like that, but the reason why I did is that…”
Lucky for Exl, she didn't have a chance to explain because Fenci interrupted her:
“Exl was helping us the entire afternoon, she was giving us very useful pointers which would help us in our training.” Xena turned to look at the other two young ones, then at Exl.
“Is that so? I hope you really learned something from Exl, she has learned things from her mentor I wish I had learned when I was her age”, Xena replied and all three warriors-to-be nodded with wide smiles.
“I don't want to rush you but dinner time is very soon and we were supposed to meet Gabrielle in time for dinner”, Xena said and looked towards the sky. Exl turned her gaze to the sky and only then she realized for how long they had really been training.
“You're right Xena. We really must go or your Queen will have our hides”, Exl said to her young friends. They agreed and didn't want the warriors getting into trouble with the Queen.
All together they left the practice field and walked back to the village. Xena and Exl arrived at the dinner hut just in time for Gabrielle to arrive with Ephiny and Eponin. The tribe meeting had kept everyone busy for hours and the preparations for the Race of Warriors would start early on the following morning. The tribe only had a week's time to get the village ready for their visitors and most importantly, to prepare the tasks and route for the Race itself.
D uring the next week, the entire village looked like a busy anthill, with everyone going back and forth with several things to do at the same time in addition to their everyday tasks and everything had to be done with the utmost precision. Solari and her guards were in charge of constructing everything related to the tasks the competitors had to complete in the Race, everything they did was done pretty much entirely in secret. With no-one knowing anything about the route, none of the competing teams could have any kind of advantage over any other team.
The greatest pressure of all was on the tribe's young trainees, amongst them, two teams would be selected to represent the tribe. All of the trainees wanted to show their real abilities, they wanted to be part of either team. Winning would bring them and the tribe much honor and glory. Eponin would make the choice for the members of the other team, since she was chosen to be the other team leader. She kept a close eye on all the warriors-to-be, she knew choosing the most suitable ones to represent the tribe wouldn't be easy.
Everyone and everything was ready for the arrival of the visiting Amazons. Gabrielle wanted everything to be in tiptop shape, she even had Xena and Exl dress in their best because she wanted them to be by her side when she would receive their guests. After some persuading, both warriors were wearing their finest as they stood with Gabrielle in the village center ready to meet the visiting Queens and their teams.
First to arrive was the cheerful young Queen of the Mesopotamian Amazons, with a group of enthusiastic young trainees and a warrior who seemed to be almost as excited as the younger ones. Gabrielle bowed her head for the Queen, so did Xena next to her while Exl saluted the Queen in her own way. Gabrielle said to the smiling Queen:
“Queen Philota, it's my pleasure to welcome you and your troupe to our village. I hope you will enjoy your stay here.” Queen Philota of the Mesopotamian Amazons was a woman who was known for her smile, she had always been a positive person who saw light even in the darkest of situations. She had raised her tribe from the near brink of extinction and now the tribe was full of more life than nearly anyone could remember.
“Thank you Queen Gabrielle for inviting us here and thank you for reviving this old tradition, we were very happy to receive your letter where you told about wanting to reinforce the alliances between our tribes”, Queen Philota answered with a great big smile. Gabrielle looked to her sides and introduced her kin to the Queen.
“This is my Consort, Xena and my Loyal, Exl”, she said as she took turns to look at her warriors then back at Philota. Philota was pleased to meet both of them, she had heard of the change in the Destroyer of Nations and how she and Gabrielle had travelled together and finally found love in each other. She had also heard stories about a brave and true warrior of the North who had joined the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard and was now their loyal friend. Ephiny had some of her warriors show Philota and her team to the huts where they could rest.
Shortly after the arrival of the Mesopotamians, another troupe was in sight. The arrivals were taller and sturdier than the others, which wasn't unusual for the Scythian Amazons. Their Queen, Queen Dionis was known as a strong and fearless leader, some even feared her. Her team seemed menacing with their tall appearances and numerous weapons. Dionis approached Gabrielle and Gabrielle bowed to her with words of welcome:
“Queen Dionis, thank you for answering my letter and thank you for being here today. We are honored to have you and your troupe as our guests.” Dionis bowed her head for Gabrielle and replied:
“Thank you Queen Gabrielle for the invitation. For long I have wished that someone would call together our tribes for the Race of Warriors, I'm glad you did it.” Gabrielle introduced Xena and Exl to Dionis just as she had to Philota, but this time the Queen didn't seem pleased to meet the warriors. She just gave them a despising look and said:
“So all the rumors I have heard are true. The mighty Destroyer of Nations has been tamed and she has become a warrior for good AND she is now the Consort of the Queen of the Telaquire Amazons.
And that watching over them is a small Northerner, a “great warrior” I have been told.”
Before anyone could say anything, Queen Dionis and her troupe had walked away. Exl, Xena and Gabrielle had no idea why Dionis had behaved in such a manner. Ephiny walked to the women and explained:
“The Scythians are very proud and consider themselves to be the toughest and bravest. They know about Xena's dark past and haven't completely accepted the fact that Xena has really changed. And the reason why she called Exl a Northerner with a bad tone is because they believe that all people of the North are somehow barbaric. That's just because they've probably never even met anyone from the great North.” For a slight moment, the whole idea about the Race didn't seem like a very good idea. Gabrielle gave Ephiny some last minute instructions about the feast which would be served that night and Ephiny reassured Gabrielle that everything would go smoothly.
A few candlemarks later, the feast was prepared and the guests joined the Royal Couple and their Guardian at the Queen's table. The tribe's cooks had made their best courses and everyone ate until they couldn't eat anymore. Gabrielle discussed matters concerning the Race with Queen Philota and Dionis, Xena and Exl mostly sat quietly and listened to the conversation. The tribe's musicians and dancers had arranged a special performance for the guests. Feeling exhausted after their long journeys, both the Mesopotamians and the Scythians informed they would turn in for the night, since the Race would begin on the following afternoon.
Gabrielle advised that everyone should get a good night's rest, the next few days would be full of excitement.
I t was early on the following morning when the entire village woke and was making the very final preparations for the beginning of the Race. Xena was on her way to Exl's hut to see if the young Loyal was up yet, when Exl nearly bumped into her at the door of her hut.
“Good morning Xena, where are you headed?”, Exl asked the tall warrior.
“Well I WAS on my way to see if you were still snoozing and to ask you if you'd want to come with me to see Pony. She is getting ready for the Race and I think she could use some words of encouragement”, Xena replied as she gave a small nod to the direction of the Weapons Master's hut. Exl nodded and said as they were slowly walking across the village:
“Everyone knows that Eponin is the leader of the other team representing the tribe, who's the other? And who have they chosen as their teams? I completely forgot to ask Gabrielle about it last night.”
The warriors had to take a step aside as they were nearly bumped into by a few Amazons who were in great haste. Xena answered:
“Chelani is the other team leader and her team consists of the tribe's best trainees.” Exl knew exactly who they were, “the big bullies” as she would have called them. Xena continued:
“And Pony's team was a bit of a surprise. But Pony assured that they would do fine after she has seen how much they have improved after those lessons we gave last week. According to Pony, she has seen a remarkable change in Fenci, Myas and Tiuwi and is convinced that they'll do well.”
Exl couldn't believe her ears, were Fenci, Myas and Tiuwi really going to compete in the Race of Warriors? She couldn't help but feel very happy for them, remembering how unsure they were about themselves when she had talked to them last and given them some private training.
The warriors arrived at Eponin's hut and knocked on the door. They heard Eponin shout:
“Come in!” and they opened the door. The whole hut was a real mess which they assumed was the result of some intense packing. Eponin was almost running around in the small hut trying to pack and dress at the same time.
“Morning you two, sorry about the mess”, Pony said as she ran by her friends. A few moments later she seemed to have found everything she needed and started packing them in her bag.
“Pony, you look like you'd be going on a week long journey somewhere, do you really need all that stuff?”, Exl asked the Weapons Master. Eponin stopped to think for a moment and threw half of the things she had just packed out of the bag.
“There, much better”, Eponin said closed her bag.
“Ready for the big Race?”, Xena asked with a mischievous smile. Pony knew that look and smiled back saying:
“Sure I am, just a bit nervous about how everything will go. We are representing the whole tribe, I don't want to let the others down.” Someone knocked on the door and Pony said:
“That must be my team, I told them to meet me here before the Race. Come in.” The door was opened and three young Amazons entered the hut. They each bowed their heads and Myas said:
“Good morning master Eponin, good morning Xena and Exl.” Exl walked to the young ones and said:
“I just heard this morning that you're the other team competing in the Race, congratulations, it's a real honor to represent the tribe. Your hard work has paid off, I knew it would.” All three smiled and Fenci said:
“Well we have you to thank for it. Without the lessons and advice you gave us, we wouldn't have practiced as hard as we did, and master Eponin wouldn't have seen our progress and made a team of us for the Race.” Xena and Eponin glanced at each other and smiled. Eponin grabbed her bag and sheathed her sword and said:
“I think we'd better get to the common hut, the Race will start soon and we have to be there on time.” They left the hut and were nearly at the common hut when someone called for Eponin. She got distracted and wasn't looking where she was going. A rock was straight in her path and she didn't notice it before it was too late. She tripped and fell and when she hit the ground she felt a sharp pain in her ankle. The others noticed her fall and Xena, who ran to her side asked:
“Can you get up? Can you walk?” Being a gutsy and stubborn woman , Eponin said of course she could. But when she got up and tried to take a step, she had to admit she was in a lot of pain.
“You three, go to Nalasha and tell her what happened. Tell her we'll bring Eponin to her as soon as we can, then go tell Gabrielle and Ephiny about what has happened”, Xena ordered to the youngsters. They ran to the healer's hut as fast as they could.
Only minutes later, Gabrielle and Ephiny ran into Nalasha's hut and saw Eponin lying on the bed and Nalasha was examining her ankle.
“What happened?”, Gabrielle asked and Xena answered:
“We were on our way to the common hut when Pony tripped over a rock and fell. She couldn't walk so we brought her here immediately.” Ephiny walked to Eponin, patted her shoulder and said:
“Pony, sometimes you sure can be very clumsy.” Nalasha finished examining Eponin and said:
“I'm afraid your ankle is very badly sprained, you're lucky you didn't brake it.” Everyone looked at each other and Ephiny asked:
“So that means Pony can't enter the race?” Nalasha gave her a look meaning that the situation should be clear and there wouldn't be a need to ask something like that. Eponin was sad:
“I'm sorry, I should've been more aware of what I was doing. I ruined the Race for my team, I should be the one to break the bad news to them.” Exl was also upset and said:
“No, those three have been working very hard, they have improved and this is their chance to show everyone that they have what it takes. There has to be a way for them to compete, they deserve this chance.” Ephiny, Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other trying to think of something and finally Gabrielle said with a smile:
“I have an idea.”
I t was noon and the tribe was waiting for the Race to begin, everyone had gathered in the village center to watch. Gabrielle was standing on the platform with Ephiny, Queen Philota and Queen Dionis and she announced:
“My sisters, the Race of Warriors is about to begin shortly. It is my pleasure and honor to introduce the competing teams. First, representing the Mesopotamian Amazons, the Yellow team!” The team walked in front of the platform smiling and they heard cheering from the crowd. The team turned to face the Queens and they bowed for them. They walked a few feet aside and Gabrielle continued:
“Next, representing the Scythian Amazons, the Black team!” When the team walked in front of the crowd, there was nearly no cheering heard, but they didn't seem to care. The team bowed to Queens as well and stood next to the other team looking at them with contempt.
“Next we have a team from our own tribe, the Red team lead by Chelani!”, Gabrielle said with a smile and loud cheers were heard when the team walked in front of their sisters. Nearly everyone in the tribe was sure that the Red team would win the Race, no doubt about it. Gabrielle silenced the cheering and said:
“Last, but not least we have another team representing our tribe. But unfortunately, Eponin, our Weapons Master and the team's leader has been injured only moments ago and can not participate.” Xena was supporting Eponin as she carefully limped up to the platform and the tribe could see her injured ankle. Tiuwi, Myas and Fenci were sad to hear the news, they knew Eponin had been injured by her fall, but they didn't know how badly until now. Sounds of disappointment were heard amongst the tribe, but Gabrielle continued:
“But I'm very happy to announce that we have found a most suitable replacement. I give you the Blue team lead by the Loyal herself, Exl!” Everyone was very surprised to see Exl appear with her gear and walk to her team, the most surprised was her team itself. When Exl and her team had saluted the Queens , Dionis wasn't satisfied with what was going on.
“Queen Gabrielle, I object. This young warrior cannot enter the Race, she isn't an Amazon.” Ephiny and Gabrielle looked at Queen Dionis knowing she would react like this and Ephiny replied:
“Your Honor, Exl has saved the life of our Queen, thus proving to be our friend and ally. She is part of the Queen's family and the tribe recognizes her as the Queen's Loyal and the Guardian of our Royal Couple, which makes her a part of our tribe.” Gabrielle continued:
“The original team leader, Eponin herself asked Exl to take her place as leader of the team, and she accepted. The rules say the team must be lead by a fully trained warrior, who is a part of the tribe. Exl is a warrior and she belongs to our tribe. Can you deny that she doesn't fill the requirements to participate in the Race?” Dionis looked at Gabrielle and Ephiny with an unsatisfied expression but didn't say anything. When all the teams had been introduced, they stood in front of the platforms and their queens. Ephiny took a step forward and said:
“Please give the teams their team bands.” Four Telaquire Amazons walked to the teams and tied a colorful band around their upper arms. After everyone had a band around their arm, Ephiny began to explain the rules of the Race.
“You all have bands representing the color of your team. In the Race, your task is to find 4 amulets of the same color as your bands. You will be given a map where you can see where the amulets are located. They won't be easy to find and retrieve, you will have to use the skills you have learned in your training to retrieve them. You have 3 days to find all 4 amulets, you must return before the night of the 3 rd day and light a bonfire as a signal of your return.
If you don't return on time, you will be disqualified. If you return on time, but without all 4 amulets, disqualification is just as certain. Your team must stay together throughout the entire Race, you can't split up to find the amulets. If something dramatic should happen, for example someone in your team would be critically injured, the team must seek help. The Race can not be more important than anyone's life. The team leaders are responsible that all team members obey the rules at all times. Has everyone understood the rules?” All the competitors nodded silently and Ephiny continued:
“Team leaders, you may now retrieve your maps and you may ask some last advice from your Queens . After getting their map, Exl walked to Gabrielle who was wishing Chelani good luck for the Race. When Chelani turned to walk away, she looked down at Exl and the look on her face wasn't friendly at all. Exl walked in front of the platform where Gabrielle, Xena, Ephiny and Eponin were standing.
“Good luck Exl and be careful”, Gabrielle said reaching out her hand to Exl.
Exl grasped it and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
“I promise I'll be and don't worry, I'll take care of the youngsters”, Exl replied. Xena gave Exl a playful punch on her shoulder and said:
“You'd better come back in one piece or else…” Exl gave Xena a mischievous smile to which Xena replied:
“I'm just kidding, I know you'll do your best.” Eponin took a careful step closer to Exl and lowered her voice to say:
“Exl, watch out for Chelani's team. They're the best “warriors” in the tribe, they could be hard to beat.” Exl understood Eponin's concern, her team wasn't as strong and tough as Chelani's, but it didn't mean that they wouldn't have a chance against them.
Queen Dionis was giving her team leader some last orders before the Race would begin. She glanced at Exl and her team and whispered:
“Make sure that the Northerner and her team don't make it back on time.” The tall team leader asked with a slight bit of doubt in her voice:
“What if they'll make it anyway?” A gleam of anger was visible in the Queen's eyes when she said:
“They won't, do whatever it takes.”
The teams lined up to the starting line, ready to make the first sprint out of the village.
Gabrielle walked near a large bonfire with a torch in her hand, all the competitors turned to look at her.
“This bonfire will burn until the end of the Race, it will be a signal for you to find your way back. When it is lit, the Race will begin. Good luck to all of you”, she said and when she said the last few words, she was looking straight at Exl. She lowered the torch to light the bonfire and when it was in a full blaze, the teams ran out of the village and into the woods. The Race of Warriors had begun.
End of part 1
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