At a Distance - Part 3
For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.
Amazon Village - Council Chamber
Ephiny kept a close eye on Gabrielles face as the scout made her report. The queens pale green eyes didnt disclose her reaction to the news, neither did the set of her body, which already held lines of tenseness as she sat behind the council table.
"So, in sum, the border posts report that the rumors appear to be accurate." The scout finished, glancing at Ephiny. "There is some kind of army being built at or around Amphipolis, and there have already been skirmishes with two of the local warlords."
"Who won?" Gabrielle asked, in a quiet voice.
"Not the warlords." The scout answered, with a grim smile.
"No question of whos responsible, then, I guess." Ephiny gave a forced laugh. Giving the queen an uneasy look. I dont like that look. But then, I havent liked that look for a few days now. Somethings up with her.
Gabrielle nodded, and looked down at her hands. The weight of responsibility settled heavier on her shoulders, and she grimaced to herself. What on earth was Xena up to? "I find it really hard to believe Xena is building an army. More likely, shes just giving them a few pointers on self defense." She said, leaning back with a smile. "She did mutter something about getting bored out there."
Arella narrowed her eyes, and stood up. "Thats not a risk we can take, Gabrielle, and you know it. Despite whatever shes done in our behalf, a major army that close to us is dangerous." She looked around, sensing support for her views. Xena was an uneasily trusted ally at the best of times, and there was more than one Amazon who was spooked by the whole coming back from death thing. Not to mention her well known connection with Ares. "You cant guarantee that shes not just going back to old ways."
Cant I? The bard mused. "Oh, I think I can guarantee it." she chuckled lightly. "I know her better than you do."
"Are you willing to risk your life on that?" Arella countered, feeling a sense of excitement building. At last, an issue she could override their surprisingly tough queen on. It had been a long four weeks, and she had lost every encounter so far - personal as well as leadership. And when she tried to hate Gabrielle for it, she found, frustratingly, that she couldnt.
Gabrielle smiled, a real smile this time. "Arella, I have. More times that I can count." She hesitated. "But, I can see you have a concern." She looked up. "Ephiny?" The Amazon leaned forward. "Im sending you as an..." her mouth quirked. "envoy to this new army. I want you to conclude a treaty with them, to provide a mutual defense of territory." She tried really hard, and managed to keep a grin off her face.
Ephiny nodded. "All right." She said, slowly, dragging the words out. "If thats what you want." A deep breath. Wants me to check things out, I guess. She seems pretty sure, though...
Arella cleared her throat. Not this time, green eyes. "Excellent idea, but I think, for Ephinys protection, we need to send along someone to escort her. " Behind her, she felt Erika stir, and she grinned to herself. "My best crossbow, Erika, will make a good escort."
Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged glances. No way to gracefully refuse that offer, the bard thought. And I suppose it wont hurt for the opposition to get a chance to see the truth for themselves. "OK." she nodded. "Dawn, then." She pulled over a sheet of parchment and picked up a quill. "Ill write out a treaty." And a note, for private delivery. For me to get some of this stuff I have bottled up off my chest, for someone to read who I know I can trust. Who trusts me.
Her usual after dinner walk to the lake left her sitting on a stony projection, staring out over the running water with unseeing eyes, and letting her head rest back against the cool stone. It had been a productive four weeks, she mused, a treaty concluded with the centaurs, a trading agreement with three villages to the south, and a cooperative defense plan with the two farming centers to the east. The villages were willing to trade supplies and foodstuffs for crafts and the Amazons protective services. Not bad, actually. She had every right to be very pleased, and somewhat proud of herself.
But the constant pressure was getting to her. She sighed. She could feel it, in her lack of patience, in the strain that left her back and neck aching at night so badly she could hardly lie down. In the constant questioning of everyones motives. And the persistent need to be on her guard against the words and physical touches of Arella. And its not like Im not a touchy kind of person. she scowled to herself. After all, I can hardly keep my hands off.... A pause, then a helplessly silly grin. Well, that was different. But Arella just made her feel... ugh. Creepy.
Ephiny knew there was something wrong. Had gently tried to question her on it, but Gabrielle had resisted confiding in her, knowing Ephiny felt guilty enough about calling her here. Knowing if Ephiny knew how bad she felt, the Amazon would feel it her duty to do something. And there was only one something that would help. One someone, and that would ruin a lot of what she was trying to do. She groaned, and let her head slip forward, trying to release some of the tension in her neck. Having the sudden desperate craving to feel a familiar pair of strong hands clasp her there, and with a few knowledgeable kneads, bring relief. After a moment of indulgence in misery, she took a deep breath, and leaned back, squaring her shoulders. I can do this. I may not like it, but I can do it.
I wonder if any of them know just how much I would pay to be the one going to check out the new Amphipolis army? She laughed helplessly. Except, I think... if I did... Id never come back. I think? NO...I know. Thats really why I havent sent word to her...why I wont admit to Ephiny why I cant sleep at night...because if she rode into this village, shed take one look at my face, and just lift me up onto Argo, and ride out. And Id go...and I wouldnt look back. And.. she sighed. That wouldnt be the right thing to do. Right now. But I cant do this forever. Its killing me.
A sound at her back raised the hair on her neck, as she recognized the footsteps. Oh great. "Hello, Arella." she said, not turning around. Another reason I cant send for Xena. Drawing and quartering a fellow Amazon at sunrise in the middle square of the village will really upset some of the negotiations. She turned to see the tall redhead sauntering down the riverbank, stopping when she reached Gabrielles rock, and leaning on it with an air of complacent familiarity.
"Ah, my queen." she said, in a bantering tone. "Im glad you accepted my offer to send Erika along to Amphipolis. I do hope there wont be any trouble needing her services." She smiled at the bard, who wrapped one arm around her knee and remained silently listening. "Look, I know you think you know best about this, but Ive asked around...and you know it wouldnt be out of the question for your friend to be building up another army. Shes done it before."
Gabrielle sighed in annoyance. "Arella, the subject is not up for debate." She let some of her anger show in her glance. "Im not going to justify, either to you or anyone else my faith in my best friend. Youll just have to see for yourself."
"What if youre wrong?" Arella countered softly, laying a hand on the smaller womans shoulder, and capturing her eyes with her own. "What then? Do we sit here and wait for an attack, based on your...faith?" Her voice left little doubt of what she thought that faith was based on.
Gabrielle went very still, and felt a seldom indulged deep anger trying to work its way to her calm surface. She bit her lip until the urge to lash out at the tall Amazon subsided, then drew in a breath. "Well, then... you wont have anything to worry about." she was amazed at how calm she sounded. "Because Ill no longer be the queen of the Amazons."
Arella started, and jerked back, not expecting that response. "Youd step down?" she asked, incredulously.
The bard smoothly stood, and stepped up to her. "Yes." She enjoyed the look of confusion on Arellas handsome face. Because if that happened, I would no longer trust my own judgment. And they couldnt either. "But I know Im right."
"I think youre judgment is a little...clouded." Arella responded, but she sounded unsure. "But I guess well see." She removed her hand from the bards shoulder, and backed off, giving her a little smile, then turning her back and walking up the path to the village.
Gods. Gabrielle groaned to herself. I cant take much more of this. One of these times, Im going to lose it, and do something I know Im going to regret, because she can definitely beat the tar out of me. And Im supposed to be the non violent one. Well, Xena...I just got an up close and personal understanding of that little look you get, you know, that narrowed eye, lip twitching one, when you really want to just bap someone, and you cant. A whole new perspective, yes maam. And I am totally ashamed of myself for desperately wishing I could see you just lay her out with one of those right from the shoulder power hits youre so very good at. Ashamed. Yep. Bad bard. Bad bard. Suddenly she giggled at the thought, bringing a little relief. And turned as she heard yet another person approaching. Ah. Ephiny. Of course.
The Amazon approached cautiously, with a raised eyebrow. "Youre standing in the middle of the riverbank... giggling. Should I be concerned?" she queried, with a hesitant grin.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No...just doing some therapeutic visualization."
"Huh?" Ephiny blurted.
"Picturing Xena dumping Arella into a pile of centaur droppings." the bard rephrased.
"Ah!" Ephiny exclaimed, then chuckled. "Thats not very queenly of you."
"No." The bard answered. "But Im enjoying it." She turned to walk back to the village, waiting for Ephiny to fall into step next to her. "You just missed her."
Ephiny turned and put a hand out to stop Gabrielle from continuing to walk. "Hey... is she getting too much for you? Because if she is.."
"Youll do... what?" the bard countered, serious now. "What, Ephiny? Hit her? She can take you, or almost anyone else. Here, anyway" She wouldnt release the Amazons gaze until Ephiny sighed. "You dont think Ive thought of that? Do you know how hard it is to just put up with it when I know with one..." She stopped. "Anyway. I can cope with her. Just go find out whats going on over in Amphipolis" Turning, she started walking up the path again.
Ephiny squared her shoulders, and caught up. "OK..OK...but its damn hard to watch. I gotta tell you that, my friend." Upset made her voice wobble. "I dont like feeling helpless, Gabrielle, I just dont. And...I do care, you know."
Gabrielle glanced at her sidelong. "I know. And I appreciate that, Ephiny. Its all right - Ive dealt with worse than her. She really hasnt done anything, its just that....ugh..."
"Attitude?" Ephiny provided, knowingly. "Yeah."
"Yeah." Gabrielle agreed. "The Im too sexy for my skirt attitude."
Ephiny lost it, doubling over in laughter. After a minute, the bard joined her. "Oh.. Im sorry.." the Amazon gasped, leaning on a tree. "that just struck me so funny..." She took a breath, still chuckling. "Im glad youre immune to it. I was.." An embarrassed shrug. "kind of concerned about that. I know youve not had a lot of...er...experience."
Gabrielle blushed. "Ephiny" she muttered. "I hadnt realized just how naive you thought I was until right now." she glanced around. "What am I supposed to tell her, that her appeal pales in comparison to what Im used to?"
Now it was Ephinys turn to blush. "You keep surprising me." she admitted, "and you know I dont really like to pry into your personal business."
"Mmm." the bard agreed. "Well, I need to go write that treaty. Pick it up in a few hours, will you?"
And just what will I write? Gabrielle thought to herself as she settled at the desk, quill in hand. She thought for a long time, then nodded a little to herself, and started writing. For a very long time the only sound in the hut was the sound of her quill scratching against the parchment. First, the treaty. Then, a longer missive, with pauses for thought between the words. At last, she settled back, and reviewed her work. Satisfied, she sanded the ink, blew the parchment dry, and folded it carefully, adding a wax seal.
Dear Xena, (it said)
Sorry about sending Ephiny with this dumb treaty, but your reputation is getting out of hand, and there are rumors that you are taking over the world. Again. Please treat her gently, and try not to beat up the person traveling with her, who is one of Arellas stooges, and is there to make sure Ephiny tells the truth about whats going on.
I hope youre OK, and not busy building blackberry fortifications. I told the Amazons you were probably teaching your people there how to defend themselves, as Ive seen you teach others. As youve taught me. But theyre hard to convince. I guess they dont know you as I do. I feel sorry for them.
I promised myself I wasnt going to put anything sappy in this note, as I know you hate that sort of thing, but the temptation to just say I miss you more than anything is just too great. The Amazons are treating me OK, and we are making progress, but there isnt a day that goes by that I dont wish you were here. Sometimes I just want to hear your voice, or have you raise your eyebrow at me. Thats pretty sappy, isnt it? Sorry about that.
Anyway, assuming youve finished conquering the world by then, theres a festival coming up here during the next full moon, and I thought if you werent doing anything else, maybe you could drop by. Its the fall harvest celebration of Dionysus, and I have a funny feeling that Im going to be in need of championing.
There... that was a nice polite way of saying I need you, wasnt it? Because I do.
The bard sighed, and leaned back in her chair, feeling a sense of weight being lifted off her shoulders. By the festival, she should have just about everything sorted out, and if not.. well, it didnt matter. Idly, she realized that she never even questioned herself as to what the response was going to be to this note. When did I become so sure? Her brows creased. I mean, its possible that shes happy where she is now, and wont show. But her heart laughed at her, and try as she would to feel apprehension, the only thing she came up with was a bubbling surge of happy expectation.
Ephiny found her half asleep over the table when she stopped by an hour later, to pick up her charges. "Hey." She said softly, so as not to startle her.
"Oh." Gabrielle responded, a little foggily, rubbing her eyes and blinking at the Amazon. "Sorry." She grinned sheepishly. "I was sort of out of it there for a minute." She held up the sealed packet. "Here, I finished the treaty. Its a little on the short side, but I dont think youll need more."
Ephiny came forward and grasped the packet, tucking it away in her belt pouch. "Why dont you get some sleep? You look wiped." she pronounced, with a sympathetic look at the bard. But more relaxed than Ive seen her in two fortnights. I wonder whats in this packet?
"Yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle answered, muffling a yawn. "Have a good trip. Try not to kill Erika, and..." her face creased into a grin. "Give my regards to the conqueror of the world, will you?"
Ephiny chuckled. "All right, I will. Any messages?"
"Theres one in there." Gabrielle nodded at her pouch. "But thanks for asking."
Ephiny grunted. "Very well. Good night, and see you in a week or so." So... thats what Im carrying, is it? She laughed to herself, as she walked out into the night Gwan, Ephiny... you are a romantic thing, arent you? She spotted Erika, who changed direction to move towards her, and wiped the grin off her face.
"Erika." she greeted the woman. "We leave at dawn."
"I know." the dark haired Amazon answered coolly. "And I hate being late. Dont worry, Ill be there, with bells on." She gave Ephiny an amused look. "Wont this be fun? At least you wont have to worry about eating on the way there." She plucked her bowstring in emphasis, then sauntered off.
"Aurgh." Ephiny growled, low in her throat. "Just what did I ever do to anyone to deserve this??"
"I dunno." Granella chuckled, slipping an arm around her. "Maybe if youre lucky, Erika will annoy Xena when you get to Amphipolis, and your trip back will be more pleasant." They walked along for a few minutes, then Ephiny laughed. "Thats a nice thought." She wrapped an arm around Granellas shoulders, and pulled her close. "Thanks...Ill keep that thought in my mind when I have to spend three days on the road with her."
"You dont really think theres an army brewing there, do you?" Granella asked, curiously.
"Nah." Ephiny shrugged. "I think
Gabrielle is right on there. Ill be glad to see the old war
horse, though...maybe I can get a handle
on whats been bugging our queen. "
Granella snorted. "If you call her an old war horse to her face, shell get a handle on you, Ephiny... and toss you into the manure pit, more than likely."
They both laughed, and walked towards the scouts campfire.
Amphipolis, three days later.
"Heres the crossroads." Ephiny said, gesturing ahead. "Its not far up the road from here." She moved forward, not waiting for a response. It had been a long three days.
Erika strode easily next to her, in silence. She glanced ahead, seeing the first edge of fields that meant an upcoming village, and sighed to herself in relief. Traveling with Ephiny had been nerve-wracking, since neither of them trusted the other, and she hadnt had a decent nights sleep in three days. Nor had her traveling companion. Conversation had been limited to discussion of the path, the weather, the general condition of the lands around them, and that was about it. Erika was looking forward to getting to Amphipolis, army or no army just to have someone else to talk to. And she was pretty sure Ephiny felt the same way.
The fields they passed were well tended, and they began to spot villagers working out in them. Occasionally, one of them would raise a head, and observe them as they passed, but there was no overt hostility there, just mild curiosity. "Looks pretty peaceful." Erika admitted.
"Hmm." Ephiny murmured, then jerked her head towards the fields again. "Maybe, but look again. Words being passed on us." Then she noticed the casual scattering of staves around the workers, and spotted a half asleep boy on the wall facing the road, whose lidded eyes followed them. Her spine began to prickle.
Erika moved closer to her in pure reflex. Now that Ephiny had pointed it out, she could see small subtle signs of an uncommon awareness around the hard working field hands and trudging villagers. Still, she saw no armor, no slyly hidden weapons. No fortifications. Puzzled, she glanced at Ephiny, whose face reflected a similar confusion. "Well, that makes me feel better." She commented wryly. "You dont know whats going on here either."
They walked on, approaching the village proper, where they got polite nods from the passers by, and a cheerful hello from a few who apparently recognized what they were. "Well, they dont hate Amazons, anyway." Ephiny muttered. "Theres an inn. Lets go find out where we can find Xena." She directed her steps to the door, and pushed it open, peering inside.
"Hello." Came a voice from within, drawing their attention. Ephiny moved inside, and blinked a little in the gloom coming from the sunny courtyard. It was a nicely appointed inn, with good solid tables, and an appearance of doing well. She turned her attention to the man standing behind the service bar, and jerked a little at the unreal sense of familiarity he stirred in her. Who? What...??? Then she realized it was the eyes. Fiery electric blue, like only one other person she had ever known.
"Hello." He said again, coming out from behind the service bar and moving towards them. "Youre Amazons." Stating the obvious. "Are you looking for Xena?"
Ephiny and Erika looked at each other. "Yes." Ephiny said, tilting her curly head at him. "And you are...?"
"Toris." He extended a forearm. "Her brother."
"Ah." Ephiny breathed. "That explains why you look so familiar." She chuckled. "She never mentioned.."
"She never does." Toris answered, cheerfully. "But here we are. And shes out in the practice yard running some drills - you can go through the back door there if you like."
"Thanks." Ephiny said warmly, and motioned Erika to go before her towards the door. "Nice meeting you."
"Im sure well be speaking again." Toris answered, with an amused look on his face. "Watch yourself when you go out there, sometimes those staffs get swung a little wildly."
Ephiny nodded, and moved on. "Wow.." she said in an undertone to Erika, ignoring her dislike for the woman for a moment.
"Yeah.." Erika answered, with a sly grin. "I guess the looks run in the family."
For a moment, an understanding of a sort existed between them. Then they were at the door, and Ephiny was pushing it open cautiously. The sound of wood smacking against wood could now be clearly heard. They peered around the doorjamb, and froze in place, just watching.
The practice yard was a cleared area in back of the inn, with a packed earth floor, and strategically placed haybales. Xena was in the center of it, armed with a long quarterstaff, and facing 10 villagers, mixed men and women, who were taking turns coming at her, and trading blows. The tall warrior was in a sleeveless white belted tunic, and boots, and was patiently explaining to each villager what they were doing wrong, or right, whichever it happened to be, as they came towards her and practiced smooth swings and parries.
Erika and Ephiny traded glances again. "Guess Gabrielle was right." Ephiny smirked. "Sure looks like a defense class to me."
Erika snorted. "Maybe." she grudgingly admitted, though she was privately convinced the queen had been right all along. That wasnt the reason she was along, and what Xena was, or was not doing wasnt really relevant. Of course, Ephiny didnt know that. But she would find out. A smile curled Erikas lips. She turned to watch the class, as Xena, stepping back, now motioned for all of the villagers to come at her at once. Raising an eyebrow at what she saw.
"Shes pretty damn good." The dark haired Amazon muttered.
Ephiny snorted and rolled her eyes. "Pretty good. Yeah, right. " She watched as Xena, moving with a powerful grace managed to disarm most of the villagers in one dazzling series of movements, then just jumped over the other three, and took their legs out from under them with a backhanded sweep. "Oh ho! I just saw where our queen got one of her moves from."
"That reverse sweep, yeah." Erika admitted. "not bad."
Ephiny rolled her eyes, and looked back at the practice ground, finding her eyes held by a pair of burning blue ones. Xena immediately stopped what she was doing, and loped in their direction, tossing an instruction over her shoulder at the villagers. Ephiny realized the sudden alarm she was causing, and made a quick hand signal to the fast approaching warrior, seeing relief flood Xenas eyes, and her tense shoulders relax.
In a brief moment, she was slowing to a halt opposite them, extending an arm to Ephiny, who grasped it warmly. "Hello, Ephiny." She shot a glance at Erika, then looked inquiringly at the blond Amazon.
"Hello, Xena. This is Erika." Her grasp tightened on Xenas muscular forearm for a second, and she saw an answering quirk of the warriors eyebrows.
"Erika." Xena drawled. "What brings you two here?" She released Ephinys arm, and nodded for them to go back inside the inn. "Go on in." She held the heavy door for them, and followed them inside, grabbing a pitcher and a few glasses on the way to an empty table, and setting them down before pulling a chair up and seating herself. "Help yourself. The ales cold, but I warn you, its potent."
They poured themselves glasses, and sipped tentatively, then more enthusiastically. "Nice." Erika purred, glancing at the dark haired woman over the top of her glass. Ephiny nodded agreement.
"Tell it to my mother." Xena commented, settling back in the chair with her own glass. "Now, what brings a pair of Amazons to Amphipolis?"
"Your mother?" Ephiny asked, distracted.
"Yeah, Gabrielle hasnt been telling that story where they found me under a rock again, has she?" Xenas voice was amused. "This is my mothers inn." She glanced around. "Youve already met Toris, I take it."
Ephiny just shrugged. "Honestly, Xena, nobody knows much about you, so I guess it never occurred to us that you had a family somewhere. Youve kept pretty quiet about it."
The warrior shrugged. "Safer for them that way." She leaned forward. "You still havent told me what brings you here." Pinning them both with a baleful blue glare.
"Ah.. yes." Ephiny started. "Sorry. Here." She untied her pouch, and handed Xena the packet Gabrielle had given her. Watching the warrior take it gingerly, and glance at the wax seal, then let a brief grin quirk her lips. "Well, there are these rumors.."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Rumors?" Then she laughed. "Oh... let me guess. Im out to conquer half of Greece again." She sighed, and took a long sip of ale. "Id figured that would start. Didnt think it would start so fast, or go so far." She shook her head. "And... the Amazons were concerned?" Her voice held equal parts annoyance and chagrin.
"Well.." Ephiny glanced at the floor. "Some of them were. Gabrielle, on the other hand, had this pegged exactly for what it was." She glanced up at Xena. "She does know you pretty well." Saw the momentary answering gleam in those ice blue eyes.
"Yeah, she does." Xena answered, quietly. "So.. whats this?" She indicated the packet.
"Oh. Ephiny grinned. "Its a mutual defense treaty."
Xena burst out laughing. "Youre kidding." Ephiny shook her head, smiling. "Oh this is just like Gabrielle." She broke the seal on the packet and pulled out the contents, putting the treaty to one side, and glancing at the second, sealed piece of parchment. Her eyebrows quirked, and she put it down quietly on the table, then picked up the treaty and read it. "Oh.." a laugh. "Wait a minute." And she got up and reached behind the service bar for a quill and ink, bringing it back, and dipping the point in. She grinned, and made a few notes in the margin of the treaty, then a few more. Finally, she signed the bottom with a flourish, and pushed it back towards Ephiny. "Here. Take it back. Youre protected."
Ephiny scanned the document, and chuckled herself. "Very funny. But whats this bit here? I cant read it... what dialect is that?"
Xena grinned. "Dont worry about it. The Queen can read it. " She took a breath, and her eyes dropped to the table, where the second parchment waited. Casually, she picked it up and broke the seal, unfolding the sheet and scanning it.
The first two paragraphs made her smile and roll her eyes. Then she got to the third, and the smile turned from amusement to something else. She reread it twice, trying to ignore the chills chasing up and down her spine. Then realized the two Amazons were watching her with interest. "Well," she said, folding the parchment up. "Gabrielle says things are going fairly well." She glanced at them. "And that I should treat you two to a night in a real bed and some decent food."
"Thanks." Ephiny nodded, letting the warrior off the hook, having watched her usually inexpressive face react to the note she was reading. Had seen that fondly amused look change, the eyes widen, and that smile...Ephiny would have paid dearly to know just what it was Gabrielle had written to have gotten that response...then she mentally smacked herself. Cut that out, Ephiny. Its not your business. "Wed appreciate that. Its been a tough march out here. The weathers been really unpredictable."
Xena nodded, and stood up, draining her cup and putting it behind the service counter. "Let me tell Johan youre here. Be right back." She padded through the door in the rear, heading further into the inn. And as soon as the door closed behind her, she slumped against the wall, suddenly weak in the knees, and leaned her head against the crosspost letting a totally unexpected avalanche of emotion just take her.
Was it just that easy? She unfolded the parchment again, and reread it. In a single, simple paragraph, the bard had laid her heart out open, and, honestly, as she did everything else, reaffirmed their bond. And that last line...Xena realized she must have a very silly grin on her face, and shook herself, pushing off from the wall, and glancing around. Cmon, Xena, youre way too old to act like this. Get a grip on yourself. Cmon, cmon... tough warlord act. You know that one. Lets go... lets go.. you can melt into a puddle later. Much later. With a deep breath, she settled her shoulders, and went in search of Johan, who was glad to set aside two rooms for the Amazons.
"Are you sure... two?" Johan asked, giving her a sly look.
Xena raised both eyebrows at him. "Johan...whatever could you mean?" She grinned. "But in this case, yes, Im sure. These two have no love lost between them." She chuckled, and cuffed his arm. "Troublemaker."
"Not at all." Johan protested, but smiled at her.
"OK, all set." The warrior said, as she swung back through the doorway, seating herself again. "rooms and dinner, as requested by your queen." She propped one booted foot against the table support and leaned back. "Mother has a bathing room upstairs also, if youre interested." She saw the appreciative gleams in two pairs of eyes. "Go on and enjoy yourselves. I have some drill to finish, then Ill join you for dinner. It can get a little...crowded in here, but folks are polite, and theyll know who you are."
Ephiny raised her eyebrow at that. "Is that good or bad?" she asked, only half joking.
Xena gave her a tolerant look. "Its good. Mother and Toris and most of the folks here know Gabrielle, and theyre familiar with the Amazons, with you lot being so close."
"Fine." Ephiny said, then jerked her head at Erika. "Im going upstairs. You?"
Erika put her cup on the table, and nodded, then gave Xena a tolerably respectful nod, and followed Ephiny towards the stairs.
Xena watched them go, then snorted and shook her dark head. "Amazons." She sighed, glancing at the ceiling. "It never ends."
"What doesnt, dear?" Cyrene asked, walking over to her, and peering up the stairs. "Were those the Amazons I heard were here?"
Xena glanced at her. "Yeah."
Cyrene nodded. "Hmm. And how is Gabrielle?" She asked, watching her daughters face with a small smile. Seeing the gentle sparkle appear in her eyes at the mention of that name.
"Fine." Xena answered, quietly. And managed, somehow, to not break into that stupid grin again. "Well, I have things to do." she said, and hoisted herself out of the chair. "Theyll be staying the night." she added, as she stood up and moved around her mother towards the door. Aware of the fond smile following her out. Damn.. am I that transparent?
Dinner, as she suspected, was crowded, but the two Amazons seemed to enjoy it anyway, watching the villagers with amused interest, and being watched in return. They asked, and she related the truth behind the rumors of her army building.
"It was not a big thing." the warrior sighed. "Look, a bunch of the younger guys came to me, and asked me to just provide them with some basic defense skills. You know, some staff, some hand to hand...so, I did." She shrugged. "They took to it... better than I thought they were going to, in fact. So then, one of the local warlords decided to run a raid on the village." She stopped and took a sip of ale. "And we stopped them."
"Just like that." Ephiny grinned. "with a little help from you, personally, I would guess."
"No." Came the very surprising answer. "That wasnt the point. We all know I can fight." She grinned in self deprecation. "They did it themselves." She glanced around. "And then they did it again. So... thats how the rumor started." Another sip. And then she sat back and regarded the crowd. "Theyre not bad people." A quirk of a grin. "Most of them even talk to me now."
"I noticed you arent in armor." Ephiny commented, leaning back in her chair with a sigh. "Whoa... that was good. Compliments to your mother."
Xena quirked a grin. "Yeah, I leave the armor off because it makes people a little nervous." She glanced at Ephiny. "Ill pass along the compliments, by the way. She enjoys stuffing people." she snorted. "Id be in real trouble if I didnt spend half my day sparring and the other half hunting for the table." And half the night doing drills. I like her cooking way too much.
Ephiny smiled. "Worse things could happen to you. " She yawned, and noticed Erika was nodding a little sleepily as well. "I think weve about had enough for today, though." She stood, and Erika did the same, having said very little during the meal. "Thanks again, Xena. I needed this." She gave the warrior a quiet smile.
"Anytime." Xena nodded at them, and stood as well. "See you in the morning." She added, as she stepped around the back of the table, and left them to go upstairs.
The barn was cool and quiet, and Xena spent a moment just breathing in the familiar scents of hay and horse and dust before she stepped in and shut the door behind her. Argo whinnied at her, and she crossed to the mare, glancing around before pulling out the parchment and letting the horse sniff it curiously. "Recognize that, Argo?" The mare whickered. "Thought you might." She went towards the loft, almost bowling over Ares as he catapulted out from under the tack table and attacked her boot. "Hey, watch it." she muttered, lifting the puppy up and tucking him under her arm, then hoisting herself up one armed into the loft, and laying back on her bedroll.
"Roo." Ares protested, wriggling out of her grasp, and climbing up her arm onto her chest, sniffing at the parchment which she held in front of her. She lifted it out of his range, and just read it again, this time just letting the wash of giddy emotion happen, and quietly closed her eyes, basking in it. I dont deserve it. I really dont. But if its happening, well...Im going to let it. Im tired of fighting this. She rolled her head one side, and regarded the puppy. "I bet youll like her, too." she murmured to the animal, who cocked his head at her. "Well, I have to get up and do some sword work, Ares. So be a good boy, and go to sleep, OK?"
She rolled out of the loft, and stripped out of her tunic, putting on the quilted gambeson she used to practice sword work in. It had padding in the shoulders and arms, where she tended to smack herself when in the middle of working out flips and turns in mid air, and saved her from some annoying bruises. It also had clips and buckles to hold her sheath on, and was cut high on the sides to allow for some of her more complicated kicks. She adjusted the straps, and clipped the sword on, then ducked out the door and headed down the path towards the treeline, sucking the cool air down into her lungs and breaking into a run just because it felt good. She threw a few running flips in just for fun, and arrived at the clearing in record time, bouncing a few times on the balls of her feet to get the sword and gambeson settled into the right places.
Damn, I feel good. A long rolling wave
of happiness cascaded over her. She drew the sword, and hurled
herself into a wild series of
mid air passes, letting the emotion work itself out slowly as she settled down to some complicated and frankly, overly fancy sword
attacks, which featured twirling and releasing the blade while in the middle of doing reverse moves. It was really hard. And she loved
every minute of it, feeling the moves slip into a familiar, comfortable groove. Gods, thats sweet.
She grinned to herself, then switched gears, and started a more normal set of standard passes, which got faster and faster until the blade itself blurred. Then, then she added the aerial maneuvers, starting with easy forward flips, and progressing to the more complicated ones, which involved twisting in mid air, and the to the really hard ones, the backflips, which she had to do mostly blind, trusting her instincts to place blade, and body, and feet on landing. Shed been having some trouble with those, but tonight.. tonight it all flowed so easy...like everything just slid into place without effort. She laughed out loud, doing a wild backward toss, then bouncing forward into a forward tumble, then up and around into a mid air extended leap that was almost, almost like flying. At last, she relaxed on her back in the grass, arms extended fully, just looking up at the stars. Feeling the dew soak into the gambeson, cooling her off. Just breathing in the scent of the pine forest, the water soaked grass, and the damp earth.
A faint sound came to her, and her defenses came back full force. She bounced to her feet, and slid the sword into its sheath, moving into the trees and out of the moonlight. Her senses found a moving body - and she stepped towards it, stopping in the shadow of a large tree to concentrate on the forest in front of her. Her nostrils flared and caught the fitful wind, bringing a faint scent to her, along with the barest hint of a crackle of floor debris underfoot. She stayed where she was, until the intruder passed her still, silent gaze, then rolled her eyes. Ephiny. Would the woman never learn? Sighing, she slid out from behind her tree, and moved into position behind the Amazon, who was clearly following some trail. Hers, she realized, which she had taken absolutely no pains to conceal. Amused, she followed Ephiny until the woman came to the edge of the clearing and looked out, laying one hand on the rough bark of the last tree before the open space. Finally, Xena just cleared her throat, and crossed her arms as the startled Ephiny whirled.
"What is it with you?" The warrior exclaimed, leaning against a nearby tree. "Cant you just say, "Hey, Xena... can we talk?" Do you have to go sneaking up on people..?" She straightened up, and walked over to where the Amazon was standing, hands on hips.
"Like you never do that either." Ephiny retorted, laughing a little. "Sorry." she said, sheepishly. "Its a habit. You know us. Never walk when you can sneak." She gazed at Xena. "What are you doing out here, anyway?"
The warrior blew out a breath, and flexed her shoulders. "Sword practice." She nodded at the clearing. "Plenty of space, no villagers to scare."
"Practice?" Ephiny asked, quizzically. "I didnt know you had to."
Xena scowled at her. "You know, that always amazes me." She said, with a touch of annoyance her voice.
"What does?" Ephiny asked, moving closer and cocking her head, regarding the taller woman in some confusion.
"Why does everybody just assume I just wake up in the morning being able to do things like jump over my own height and catch arrows?" Plaintively, she looked at Ephiny. "Do you really think Ares just steps out from behind a tree, sprinkles me with dust, and there I go?"
Ephiny stood, shocked, and tried to think of something to answer that with. "Uh...Well...Hmm. Its your own fault." she replied, crossing her arms. "You make it all look so easy... I guess everyone just assumes...I mean... I dont know what they assume. I guess I always...oh, Hades, Xena. I have no idea what I thought. You just do things." she finished, giving the warrior a little shrug with both hands. "You do things Ive never seen anyone else do."
Xena sighed, and rubbed her upper arms, "Do you have any idea how long it took me to build up my body to the point where I can do those things?" She gave Ephiny a little grin. "And it takes constant working at it to keep it that way." She chuckled. "So, yeah, Ephiny. I practice. I even hit myself in the head sometimes. Just ask Gabrielle."
She looked at the Amazon, letting serious look take over her face. "Whats on you mind, Eph? I doubt you came out here to watch me do backflips."
Ephiny crossed her arms and leaned back against the tree. "Its Gabrielle." She said, finally, glancing up and into Xenas now guarded eyes. "Im worried about her." She pursed her lips. " Somethings really bothering her, and she wont talk to me. Or anyone for that matter. "
Xenas brow creased in some consternation, caught between worry and the realization that she probably knew perfectly well what the bards problem was.
"Its...shes not sleeping. And she thinks I dont know it. I think the tension of this whole thing is getting to her. And Arella isnt helping." She didnt meet Xenas eyes. "Shes... putting a lot of pressure on Gabrielle. And shes not being very subtle about it. " Now she finally looked up. "Dont get me wrong, shes handling it just fine. Frustrating the heck out of Arella. " A faint grin from Xena. "But... its wearing her out, Xena. And it hurts me to see it. " She paused. "She needs a friend."
"Arent you that, Ephiny?" Xena asked gently, her pale eyes searching the Amazons face intently.
"Im one of the people looking to her for solutions." Ephiny sighed. Then bit the arrowhead, and continued. "I really think the friend she needs is standing here in front of me." She took a breath, and glanced at the ground. "Look.. its not my business, I know that. But... I like Gabrielle. And I dont like seeing her the way she is now. Shes in need of something...something we cant give to her." The Amazon looked up into a pair of still, quiet blue eyes. "But I think you can."
Xena let out a breath, regarding her with a thoughtful expression. About to speak, she suddenly stiffened, and held up a hand, cocking her dark head to listen.
"Crossbow." she mouthed at Ephiny, whose eyes widened. "Pointed at my back." she barely breathed, every sense tuned and alert.
"Who?" Ephiny breathed back, shivering. There was no panic in the eyes facing her, but she could see the sudden sharp edge of readiness tense Xenas muscles, and her nape hair lifted.
"Question is, which one of us is the target?" The warrior responded softly, then looked intently at the Amazon. "Ephiny, do you trust me?"
Ephiny stared into those compelling eyes for a long moment. Then took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, I do."
"Then dont move." Xena warned softly. "Not one inch, not one bit." She closed her eyes, and focused every fiber of her being behind her, feeling the tremor as the crossbow was released, sensing the movement of the air as the quarrel headed towards her. Time compressed, as she let trained instinct take over, and dropped to one knee, and whirled, and caught the quarrel as it blazed past her left shoulder then the second as it passed her head. Freezing her muscles into place, turning her head and checking the flight of the arrows, at the target several inches to her rear. At Ephinys heart.
For a heartbeat, she held Ephinys gaze, then she dropped the quarrels, and stood up, putting her body between the trees and the Amazon. "Theyre gone." she said, turning to look at the blond woman. "Whats going on here, Ephiny? Those were aimed at you...aimed by someone who knew Id not only hear them, but be able to get out of the way."
Ephiny sank down the tree trunk until she was seated on the forest floor, and rested her head in her hands. Xena crouched down next to her, concerned. "Sometimes, you know, Xena.." she finally muttered. "Its just not worth the trouble." She let her arms rest on her knees, and leaned her head back against the tree. "It had to be Erika. Crossbow is her specialty, and shes the only one in the area who I can even remotely think has a motive."
Xenas dark brow creased. "Erika? Why kill you? If theyre out after the queens mask, it makes more sense to kill me." She seemed unemotional about this. "After all, if they want to take that away from Gabrielle, they have to go through me to do it."
"True." Ephiny gave her a wan smile. "But what if they can make it look like I went here for a parley, and you killed me?" She almost laughed at the dumbfounded look on Xenas face. "Bam. We have a situation where Arella can push through almost anything in the way of a challenge, and you wouldnt be acceptable as a champion, because...well, youd have killed me. "
Xena let a slow, feral, lazy smile cross her face, sending a chill down Ephinys spine. "Ephiny. If anyone threatened her, do you think Id let Amazon law stand between me and them?" Her eyes bored into the Amazons. "Besides, crossbow isnt my style. I wouldnt have killed you that way."
Ephiny took a deep breath, and tried humor. "Well, if Gabrielle was here, shed have said you wouldnt have killed me. In any way." She swallowed. "By the way, thank you."
Xena rose smoothly to her feet, and reached a hand down to help up the shaken Ephiny. "Anytime." she said, then added. "And.. Gabrielle would have been right. As usual." She grinned at Ephiny. "Thank you. For being concerned about her."
Ephiny glanced down at the ground, then peered off into the forest. "We have a festival coming up, Xena.."
"I know." the warrior chuckled lightly. "I got a written invitation."
"Oh." Ephiny blushed. Then laughed. "I should have known. Will you be there?"
"Ill be there." Xena replied, giving her a push back towards the village. "Its Dionysuss festival. Someone has to protect her innocence from you Amazons."
Ephiny started, and glanced back at Xena in surprise, then snorted in laughter, shaking her head as they made their way back to the inn. Instead of heading for the tavern, though, Xena steered her towards the barn. "Safer, I think, though not nearly so comfortable." she muttered, sliding into the doorway with Ephiny right behind her. Who stopped short at the sight of a boisterous wolf puppy who stumbled furiously across the floor and flung itself on Xenas booted foot. "Oh, hi Ares." Xena said, absently, moving the animal aside gently and crossing over to the tack table.
Ares?" Ephiny said, her voice rising in astonished question. "You must be kidding." She peered at the wolf. "Where in the world..."
"Long story." Xena said, pulling a piece of parchment to her, and sitting down with a quill and an absorbed expression. "If Erika was the person behind that crossbow, just how safe are you going to be on the way home?"
Ephiny seated herself on a convenient lump of hay, and considered. "Im not sure."
Xena studied her hands. "Well, I may have a solution. A...witness, more or less, for you." She paused thoughtfully. "We have an orphan here...named Cait. Her parents were killed by a roving warlord band." She sat back and regarded Ephiny. "She makes her living hunting small game, and selling it to the locals. Shes good - and shes only 12 years old."
"Thats young to be alone." Ephiny mused.
"Very." Xena agreed. "She begged me to teach her sword when I got here. I convinced her it probably wasnt a good idea. But.." She nodded at Ephiny. "shed make a good Amazon."
"Does she want that?" Ephiny asked, considering. "You know we dont just adopt people just because theyre orphans, or whatever."
"She wants it." Xena stated, flatly. "She asked me to take her to your village, in fact. I told her Id think about it... when I went." She leaned forward. "Its a risk, I know...but shes tough, and shes not a complete innocent."
Ephiny nodded. "All right. Ill take her."
"Good." Xena sighed. "Now, roll up in the hay and get some sleep. I need to write a note."
Ephiny smiled. "Sounds like a good idea. To both." she said, getting a startled response from Xena, and grinning. Then she grabbed a spare horse blanket, and curled up in the soft fodder, asleep in minutes.
Xena watched her a minute, then laughed gently herself. Then concentrated on the parchment in front of her. Oh... this wasnt going to be easy. Words arent my thing. But....lets see...
Dear Gabrielle (it said)
Well, yes, Im out to conquer the world. Again. And I started here in Amphipolis. On to Potadeia next. Ill give your regards to your family, since Im sure they remember me fondly. It was nice to have Ephiny visit, and get word on what was going on there. I did keep from beating up Erika, but you might want to when they get back, because we think she tried to introduce Ephiny to a pair of crossbow quarrels.
Never a dull moment when youre involved, huh? Mother and Toris send their regards, and Ephiny will be carrying something from mother to you that I think youll like very much. I do. The place has been OK with me so far - besides the world domination plan, that is.
Yeah, as a rule I dont like sappy stuff. But didnt I once tell you youre the exception to the rule? I think I remember doing that...besides, I miss you too. I wouldnt miss your festival for anything - count on me being there.
Hang in there, my bard - keep your head down, and be careful. And you can tell your friend Arella if she lays one finger on you, Ill scatter parts of her up and down the road to Athens so small theyll have to use tweezers to pick them up.
I mean it.
Well, she thought, artistic it isnt. But I think it gets the point across. She folded the parchment, dripped wax on it, then paused a moment, thinking. Gabrielle had sealed hers with an Amazon seal, naturally...so I guess Ill have to drag this thing out. She walked over to Argos saddlebags, and dug around, until she came up with a small pouch, from which she extracted a signet ring. Hers. From the bad old days, when sigils marked with this insignia struck terror across the countryside. She looked at it thoughtfully, then crossed back over to the table, and pressed the signet into the warm wax. About time that sealed something that...she left the thought unfinished, and blew out the candle, grabbing Ares, and climbing to the loft.
She stretched out, floating in a pleasant tiredness that made the loft seem like a feather stuffed mattress. Thinking. This time not wanting or needing sleep to take that away.
Erika was sullen the next morning, Ephiny noted with a grim smile. The dark haired Amazon ate in silence the excellent and large breakfast provided them by Toris and avoided meeting Ephinys eyes. Ah... shes very young. Ephiny considered, though not by any means ready to use that as an excuse for murder. Sos Arella. Maybe thats part of the problem...She darted a glance across the room to where Xena was seated, forearms braced on booted knees, talking softly to a very young girl seated across from her. Taller than average, pale, pale blond and very slim - the girl had a short bow slung over her shoulder, and a quiver depended from her wide belt. A traveling pack slumped bonelessly at her feet as she listened intently to the warrior.
"Cait, you know you dont have to go if you dont want to." Xena said, quietly. "You can stay here, mother said there would be a place for you in our.." here she smiled a little. "home, if you want that."
Cait regarded her solemnly with her almost colorless gray eyes. "I want to go. I...theres things I want, that I cant find here." She let a half grin cross her face. "I think you understand."
Xena nodded. She did. And what she hadnt told Ephiny was that after her parents were killed in the raid, this little girl slipped into the enemy camp, and slit the throat of the raid leader. A dangerous girl, was Cait. One whom she had a rather unique understanding of.
"All right. Ephiny will take you to Amazon country, and get you fostered. Shes OK, you can trust her. " She lowered her voice. "But the other one isnt. We think she tried to shoot Ephiny last night."
"She did." Cait answered carefully. "I saw her, and followed her out when it looked like she was headed to your usual spot."
Xena gave her a grin, knowing for a while that she had a silent watcher. "And have you been enjoying the show?" she asked, a wry note in her voice.
Cait grinned, unashamed. Shed been very annoyed with Xena when the warrior had refused to teach her sword work, but over the weeks, shed developed at first a liking, then a true and enthusiastic appreciation for her. For the one person she felt she could talk openly to. The one person she had met in all her short life who understood exactly where she was coming from. "Last nights was the best ever." she breathed, eyes lighting. "It was like...magic."
Xena looked at her, bemused. "Yeah, it was a pretty nice workout." she drawled. "I was in a really good mood."
"I could tell." Cait answered softly.
"You could, huh?" Xena replied, grinning. She straightened up. "Theres something Id like you to do for me."
Cait nodded. "Ill try."
Xena picked up two items and slid them across the table. The first, a sealed parchment packet, she handed to Cait. "This, I want you to give to the Amazon Queen. Thats Gabrielle. Do you remember her?"
Cait nodded vigorously. "Oh yes. Your friend, with the red gold hair. The storyteller."
"Yeah, thats her." Xena let a grin flit across her otherwise serious face. "Just hand it to her - shell recognize the seal. " she held the other item, turning it over in her hands. "This, I need you to carry, and give to her also. Can you do that?" She handed over the item to Cait, who took it cautiously, and examined it. A cunningly wrought knife, cast in the same mold as her long sword, with a seal embedded in the hilt. A seal that matched the parchment wax. Cait drew it gently from the leather sheath, and examined the razor blade, and the twin engraved channels down either side. She looked up at Xena, with a knowledge past her 12 years, then looked back at the blade and slid it back home.
"I can do that." the girl said, with quiet finality.
Xena nodded, and touched her hand, lowering her voice. "I want you to keep an eye on Ephiny, Cait. Its important that she gets home." her blue eyes bored into the gray ones.
Cait kept her gaze, but brought the blade up to her lips, and pressed it there. "I will." she breathed, as two feral souls exchanged an understanding. "I promise."
"OK, so when you see her," Xena
added, sparing a glance to the waiting Amazons. "Give that
knife to Gabrielle.
Tell her its from me. For...emergencies. And give her one more thing for me."
Cait stood, knowing it was time to leave. "Whats that?"
"Come here." Xena said, and as the girl moved closer, she reached out and pulled her into a hug, which, after a stunned moment, Cait returned with vigor. "Just like that." Xena said, releasing her. "OK?"
Cait grinned. "I think shes going to like that better than the knife." She said, wisely.
Xena chuckled. "Oh, I think youre right. But give it to her anyway." The knife.. that was still revolving in her mind as to whether or not it was a good idea. Not that she expected Gabrielle to use it, no... how the bard felt about drawing blood was something Xena was passionately aware of. No.. but the arrow incident had left her anxious about her safety, and had almost driven her to throw caution and everything else to the winds and just.. go.. herself to the Amazon Village. In fact, standing in the wind in front of the barn at dawn, she had felt a sudden urgent pull in that direction and had actually taken several steps before she caught herself, and stopped. No, Gabrielle wouldnt use the dagger.
But she was wise enough to know that wearing it on her belt just might, might give a potential threat pause. And...the seal made sure everyone who saw it knew exactly who stood behind the beleaguered Amazon Queen. I could just go...but she said she needed a little more time...and by Ephinys analysis, any challenge is still in the planning stages. I dont want to mess things up for her, but I sure dont want her getting hurt, either. Or worse. A little more time, my bard? All right, but not much more. I dont think Im going to wait until that festival to pay you a little visit. she grimly decided. Not... mind mocked her gently. like you need an excuse, right?
"Oh wait... almost forgot." Xena muttered, with a quickly suppressed grin. "Ill be right back." She disappeared into the kitchen, and quickly found Cyrene, who was standing over a mildly bubbling pot. She looked up when she heard her daughters distinctive footsteps.
"Good morning, dear." she smiled up at her.
"Hi." Xena replied, leaning against a wooden support. "I dont suppose you have any of those cakes around, do you?"
Cyrene laughed. "I think I have an new addict." she teased, "all part of my plan to keep you here."
Xena smiled fondly at her. "Not for me. For a friend."
"Oh, sure." Cyrene snorted, then paused and looked up. "Ah... wait!. For Gabrielle?" She watched her daughters face with a twinkle in her eyes. The grin on Xenas face answered her. "Well, in that case, Ill pack some up for you."
"In that case?" Xena queried, raising an eyebrow.
Cyrene reached up and caught her chin, and chuckled. "Well, shes part of the family, now, isnt she?"
Oh. Xena felt the blush creep all the way up her neck to her cheeks. No point in lying. Not to her, anyway. "Yeah, I guess she is." Came the quiet answer, with a light chuckle following.
Her mother smiled, and patted her on the belly. "Love becomes you, my dear. " She went behind a storage case, and pulled out some wrapping, giving Xena time to compose herself, then reemerged with a neatly wrapped bundle. "Here you go."
"Thanks" the warrior replied, with a little grin. "I know theyll be appreciated."
Cyrene waved her off. "Away with you. I have stew to attend to." She waited until she heard the door close, then chuckled to herself. If someone had told me this was going to happen a month ago, I would have chased them out the front door with a broom. Now look - business is stronger than its ever been, and the village is...renewed, with a self confidence that came straight from her. I think shes finally paid off that debt. At least to me she has. I think I love her, again. No, I know I do.
"All right." Xena said, walking back to the table and guiding Cait over to the Amazons. "Everyone ready?" Cait smiled shyly at the two women, having already tucked the blade away and out of sight. "This is Cait, and she wants to go with you. Cait, this is Ephiny and Erika, and theyre Amazons." She handed Ephiny a packet, with a grin. "Give that to her majesty, please. With my mothers compliments."
"Hello, Cait." Ephiny smiled warmly. "You all packed?" Erika just nodded at the girl.
"All ready." Cait said, hefting her pack.
Ephiny patted the girl on the shoulder, and guided her towards the door. She turned as she opened it, and glanced back towards Xena, who was standing, arms crossed, watching. "Take care." She called, with a nod.
"Be seeing you." Xena replied, raising an eyebrow, and giving her a ghost of a wink. Seeing relief follow comprehension across the blond Amazons face.
Amazon Village - Evening, two days after.
Gabrielle put her head in her hands, taking deep breaths to try and calm herself. The scene in the council chamber today had scared her more than she was willing to admit, though she had held her ground, and won the point. Again. But how much longer could she keep on doing this? First, the rumors of centaur invasion in their territory. Proved wrong. Then word came that there were brigands from the neighboring village raiding the fields. Again, proved wrong. Each time, peace prevailed. Calm prevailed. The other morning, she thought sure Arella was going to call challenge on her, right there at the breakfast hall. The pang of pure unreasoning fear had been difficult to deal with. But she had. Now, word came that Ephiny was inbound, with Erika in tow, and an unknown young girl.
"Gabrielle?" Came Granellas soft voice at the door. She looked up, to see the slim Amazon looking at her in some concern. "Ephinys at the gate. Thought youd want to know."
"Thanks." the bard said, taking a deep breath, and pushing herself up from the desk. Crossing the room, she paused in the doorway, spotting the blond immediately, and watching as Erika stalked off towards Arellas encampment with a very dour look. She cheered up, realizing that meant only one thing, not that shed had any doubt. Ephiny caught her gaze, and moved in her direction, motioning for the third member of their party to join her. Who on earth...the bard mused. She seemed vaguely familiar, but Gabrielle couldnt remember from where for a minute.. though her memory cleared as they drew close and she did recall. Huh
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny called out, looking tired, but relieved. "You were right on." Her lips curved in a smile, matched by the one on the queens face. "and I have a signed treaty for you from the conqueror of the world."
Gabrielle moved towards them, feeling some of the tension drain out of her. "I bet she rolled her eyes when she saw it." the bard laughed, then gazed at the young girl. "Hello, Cait.. long time no see."
The girls eyes lit at being remembered, and she gave Gabrielle a shy grin. Gabrielle grinned back, and ushered both of them inside her quarters. Shes gotten taller, but still looks like a ghost.
"It seems Cait here wants to be a part of our extended family, Gabrielle." Ephiny drawled. "Xena recommended her."
"Well, that recommendations good enough for me." The queen replied, winking at Cait.
"I have some things for you." Cait replied, moving forward a little.
"Do you?" Gabrielle asked, a bit puzzled. "Like what?"
She held out the parchment first. "This."
Gabrielle took it, glancing at the seal, then smiled easily. "I can see who this came from." she laughed. A warm glow started in the pit of her stomach.
Cait smiled too. "Yeah, And this...she said to say it was in case of emergencies." the girl tugged a long item out of her pack, and handed it over solemnly.
The bard slowly reached out and took it, running her eyes over it, and gently touching the seal in the hilts. Her eyes darted to Ephiny, taking in the exhausted rings under the blond Amazons eyes, and the troubled gaze. "Thank you." For emergencies...what could have happened that had gotten Xena shook up enough to send this?
Cait waited. "One more thing." She intoned, softly.
Gabrielle dragged her attention back to the girl. "OK, what is it?" she asked, forcing a patient, cheerful note into her voice.
"This." And the girl stepped forward, and hugged the startled bard, trying to squeeze as hard as she could. As hard as she knew that warrior back there wanted to. Because this friend of hers really seemed to need it.
Gabrielle took a long shuddering breath, and hugged the girl back. "Thank you, Cait." she said, as she released the girl, ruffling her hair. "That was the best thing."
Cait let a half grin onto her face. "I told her youd think so." she said.
"All right, Cait, lets get you settled." Ephiny sighed, glancing back at the doorway, relieved to see Granella waiting there. "Gran, can you..."
"Sure." The scout laid a gentle hand on Caits shoulder. "Come on, Cait...I bet youre hungry." She exchanged nods with Ephiny, and led the girl out.
Gabrielle watched them leave, then turned to Ephiny and pulled her arm. "Sit down before you fall down. Whats going on?" she asked, crisply, perching on the edge of the desk. "What happened that caused me to get this.." She lifted the knife. "From my generally level headed, though overprotective best friend?"
Ephiny told her. "So, we think, and now Cait confirms, that Erika was trying to set it up so that Xena couldnt champion you. I was just a convenient...excuse." She gave the queen a sardonic look. "However, your champion was quick to point out to me that Amazon law wasnt going to apply to her if anyone messed with her Gabrielle." The Amazon grinned privately at the quick blush that passed over Gabrielles fair features. "And, by the way, she sends this." She handed Gabrielle the wrapped package. "Said it was with her mothers compliments."
Gabrielle took the bundle curiously, and unwrapped it, an unexpected grin appearing on her face. "She does know me." she said, laughing softly, as she exposed the pastry. The smell was wonderful, and she immediately taste tested, eyebrows rising in appreciation. "Oh wow.. these are great!" She offered one to Ephiny, who suppressed a smile and accepted, munching thoughtfully. "So.. how are things there?" the bard asked, casually.
Ephiny gave her a knowing grin. "Fine, I think - shes won over Amphipolis, by the way. And... oh yeah, shes somehow found this wolf puppy that follows her around all over the place."
Gabrielle giggled. "A puppy??? What I wouldnt give to see that." Oh.. how true that is. Like right now.
"Yeah, she wouldnt tell me the story behind it, but hes a cute little thing. She calls him Ares." The Amazon drawled, watching the queens attitude lighten considerably. "And I got up during the night last night to rearrange my straw mattress, and caught her sleeping with him tucked into the crook of her arm, all snuggled up. It was unbelievably precious. If you tell her I saw it, though, shell probably kill us both." The delighted grin on Gabrielles face was worth the danger.
"Not a word, I promise." the queen giggled. "She hates it when people get under that coldhearted warrior act of hers."
"Except for you." The words were out before Ephiny could stop them, and she held her breath, waiting to be told off.
Gabrielle looked at her for a minute, then grinned, and shrugged a bit. "Except for me." She agreed cheerfully. "But that took a lot of time and effort." she paused. "Not that I minded."
Ephiny chuckled. "I bet." she continued with her report. "And although shes got a couple of brand new scars on her arms that look a lot like panther marks which she also wouldnt explain, otherwise she looks really good. I think this little time with her family has been a good thing for her." She watched the queen absorb this like a sponge.
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks.. its good to hear that. Not that I was worried...you know Xena. Shell find a way out of almost any situation."
Ephiny grinned agreement. "Thats true. Shes pretty unique."
The bard grinned in agreement. "Among other things." She picked up the parchment packet and broke the seal, scanning the contents curiously. Then she read it again, and this time a slow smile crossed her face. The treaty had been amended in a few pretty funny places, and added an addendum about protecting Potadeia for an extra few dinars. And the sign off... written in a dialect the warrior knew darn well only shed be able to read. And she said she didnt like sappy stuff. She traced the words with a fingertip. A giggle, inappropriate to the seriousness of the situation, forced itself to the surface. "Sorry. Shes pretty funny here." She glanced up at Ephiny, who was watching her face with an air of weary amusement. Then on to the second parchment, which made her burst out laughing. "Oh.. thats good." She read the last paragraph to Ephiny, who found the strength to chuckle as well. "I wish.."
Ephiny looked up when the bards voice fell silent. The queen was turning the parchment over in her hands. "Gabrielle.." she said, hesitantly.
"Yeah." The green eyes looked up and blinked. "Anyway, Im glad you made it back safely." She managed a reassuring smile. "Why dont you go get some sleep - you look pretty wiped out."
The Amazon heaved herself to her feet. "I am." She sighed, "Hard sleeping with one eye open, although.." she mused "I noticed little Cait keeping a pretty tight eye on me. " She gave the bard a sly grin. "I think a certain overprotective friend of yours might have given her some private instructions."
Gabrielle considered this a moment, then laughed softly. "Xena doesnt like leaving things to chance." And I wish I had her overprotective arms around me right now. "So I wouldnt be surprised."
"Gnight Ephiny sighed, and gave her a little wave. "And try to get some sleep yourself, OK?" She gave her a mock glare, and left, shaking her head.
"Yeah, sure." The bard muttered, sitting down on the bed and looking down at the parchment still clutched in one hand. She read it through a few times, lips twitching as she imagined the words, complete with intonation, coming from Xena. Especially that last bit, because she could hear in her mind the deliberate drop in pitch, and the faint growling tone that would go with it. Two weeks until the full moon. I dont think Im going to make it.
She lay down flat on the bed, and stared moodily at the ceiling. Im tired. Im really tired, and really exasperated, and I just want to...gods. She closed her eyes, and focused every bit of that wanting on its subject, putting all her energy into the sending. Xena... I know you cant hear me. I know only the dead can hear our thoughts. But I dont know what else to do, so Im going to pretend that you can. Please. I need you.
Then fitfully, she dropped into sleep, waking only when the worst of her dreams, the old familiar nightmare of Xena dying, taking half her soul with her and leaving emptiness behind grabbed her, and tossed her up into a waking world, where the past and the present melded and left her not knowing if it was a dream. She sat bolt upright, heart pounding, taking in her surroundings with a sinking heart. Until a rustle of parchment made her look down at the sheet clenched in her fist. Until her eyes took in the words and made her remember that this was now, and Xena was very much alive, and she was here to help straighten out the Amazons, not because she had no better option.
"Oh gods." She said aloud, waiting for her heartbeat to settle down. OK.. OK.. deep breaths Cmon, Gabrielle, it was just a dream, youre not a kid anymore. Shuddering, she got up, and walked over to the pitcher on her desk, pouring a glassful of water and drinking it in long gulps. Then carefully, precisely, she set the glass down, sank into the chair, and put her head in her hands. Oh well.. almost dawn anyway. Her brain mused foggily. Guess a cold dunk in the water couldnt do any harm.
Amphipolis - Same evening.
"Xena." Cyrene called, softly, then reached out and touched her daughters hand. The warrior had stopped in the middle of chewing, and was sitting silent, with an absorbed expression on her face.
"Hmm?" Xena started, shaking her head a little to clear it. "Uhm. Sorry." She put down her fork and sat back a minute, taking a deep breath. What was that??? Gods... I think theres something really wrong with me. Ive been doing this all night.
Cyrene leaned closer to her. "Whats up with you?" she whispered, concern now audible in her voice. "thats the second time tonight youve just gone out on me."
"I...dont know." Xena admitted, shaking her head slowly. "I just keep getting the feeling that somethings wrong somewhere."
"Is it Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked, rubbing her thumb against the back of Xenas hand.
The warrior didnt even bother to try and dissemble. "I dont know." she answered, staring ahead, to where Toris was moving back towards the table with another glass of ale.
Toris saw the look on her face when he approached, and quickly settled back at her side. "What is it?" He flicked a quick glance at Cyrene, who gave him a little shrug. "Whats wrong?"
"Listen, I think Im just tired." The warrior said, pushing back from the table, and standing. "Im going to go relax for a while." She gripped her mothers shoulder, and gave Toris head a pat. "Have fun." She left the tavern, and walked out into the cool night air, which was heavy with the thick smell of rain. Far off, she heard the rumble of thunder, the quick flash of lightning on the horizon.
A deep breath did nothing to dispel the sense of panic shed been feeling for the last few hours, a feeling without obvious cause, but which was as real as any shed ever felt. Was it Gabrielle? Admitting that meant admitting that Jessan was, in all probability, right, and they shared a connection that she wasnt sure she understood. Or was this just her own imagination, working over the incident with Erika and Ephinys unease?
Funny... Ive always trusted my instincts before. She mused silently, leaning on the hitch rail in front of the tavern. She heard the door open behind her, and turned as Cyrene came up beside her, and also leaned against the rail.
"Still worried?" Cyrene asked, glancing up at her. Not really needing to ask. Feeling the tension almost radiating from the tall form next to her.
"I cant shake this." The warrior answered, staring pensively into the darkness. "Its twisting my gut up into knots." She shook her head as if to clear it. "Its nothing solid, just...this sinking feeling. "
Cyrene bit her lip a minute, then put a hand on
the arm next to hers. "Xena... sometimes our minds, and our
hearts try to tell us
things that were not really ready to listen to. " She met the startled gaze evenly. "And I think you should listen."
Xena turned her gaze back out into the night. "I know that." She finally answered, in a low voice. "Im just not sure if its telling me something I need to know, or something I just want to hear." She shook her head, and stood up. "But I dont think I can risk not finding out."
Cyrene smiled. "Youre going."
"Yeah." Came the answer, as the warrior stood and turned towards the dimly seen barn.
"Be careful." Her mother warned, reaching out and giving her a quick hug.
Xena nodded. "I will." And moved purposefully down the path, and through the door, shutting it behind her. Now that the decision was made, her movements turned deliberate and decisive. Shucking her tunic, she traded linen for leather, and buckled the shoulder straps with smooth precision. Lifting her shoulder armor, she ducked her head into it, settling the plates with a soft chime of metal on metal, clipping the retaining buckles into place with a satisfying snick.
She walked over to Argo, flipping a saddle blanket over her shoulders as she raised her head, already restive, knowing that arming for what it was. Cinching the blanket, then lifting her saddle off the stall divider, and settling on the horses back, tightening the girth with one smooth practiced tug. Sliding the bridle over her head, tucking her ears under the headstall and pushing her forelock through the strapping. Buckling the chin strap and easing the bit into her mouth. "Easy girl" She murmured. "Come on." Kicking the door open. "Back, now." Moving out of the way as Argo obediently backed out of the stall, and followed her towards the door.
Xena grabbed her bracers, and sat down briefly to buckle on her leg armor, stamping both booted feet to settle the protective grieves. She looked up as the door opened, and her mother poked her head in. "Just about ready." she said, standing up and reaching behind her to clip her sword sheath into its buckles, and settling the chakram at her waist.
"So I see." Cyrene breathed. "You look a lot...bigger... when you wear all that." She said, moving inside the barn, and reaching out one hand to touch the gleaming armor plates.
Xena looked down at her, with an affectionately amused grin. "Like Im not big enough already." she remarked. "Looks like Im going to get wet tonight, on top of everything else." A supply bag went across the mares withers, buckled to one of the extra saddle rings.
"Here." Cyrene said, handing her a packet. "I doubt youll have a chance to stop and eat."
Xena laughed. "Mother." she said, but took the packet, and gave her a quick hug. "Thanks. Wish me luck."
"Good luck." Cyrene said, obediently. "And do me a favor?"
Xena glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. "If I can, sure."
"Bring Gabrielle back here with you." Cyrene said, laying a hand on her arm. "I want to get to know her."
The warrior took a deep breath, then released it. "All right." Smart, Xena -you get the two of them together, and youre dead. Oh well. "I will." she promised, and lead Argo out the door, mounting in one smooth movement, and turning her head to the road.
Amazon village, that same night
Erika strode impatiently into Arellas quarters, startling the tall redhead. "No go." the dark haired woman spat. "And let me tell you something, youd better think twice about that challenge."
Arella, looked up from the map she was studying, and cocked her head. "First off, welcome home." She said, walking over and giving the smaller woman a hug. "Second, it was worth a try, dont feel bad." She smiled. "I made some progress here, though damn, that woman is tough." Her brow creased. "Now, whats this about the challenge?"
Erika sat down with a thump, resting her forearms on her knees. "What a week in Hades. The way out there was nerve-wracking. That Ephiny and her damned eyes. Then we get there, and sure enough, our little queen is right. As you suspected." she sighed wearily. Arella walked over to her small table, and poured a tall glass of crimson liquid into a glass, and handed it to Erika, crouching down next to her, and patting her knee.
"Thanks." she accepted the glass, and took a sip. "OH.. thats good." She rested her head on the glass for a moment. "So, anyway - I spotted Xena taking off into the forest late that night. I followed...wanted to know what she was up to. And my gods...Arella, what I saw wasnt human. She shouldnt have been able to do the things I saw her do."
Arella tired of crouching, and sat down in front of Erika cross legged. "What do you mean?" She propped her chin on her hand. "I dont understand."
Erika shook her dark head. "She did... I dont know, sword drills, I guess. But she did them so fast I couldnt make out the blade, Ari. And then she started doing them while doing flips, and in the air maneuvers...she would just...Look, just dont, OK? I know youre really good, Ari, really good - but this wasnt just good. It was something beyond."
Arella chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "I could challenge now...she wont be able to get here in time."
"Wont work, you know that. Shes a named champion. Theyll make you wait." Erika replied, flicking a lock of hair out of Arellas eyes.
Arella sighed. "Well, then we have to prevent her from getting here at all." She glanced up at Erikas startled face. "Listen, I tried and tried to get through to our so called queen. Shes absolutely determined to follow her course of running us into the ground. Every turn I make she counters. Every rumor I stew up she squashes. I swear, the woman is..." She shook her head. "Anyway, she concluded a treaty with both of the northern villages, and that tears it. Theyve started putting homesteads in the northern woods." She gripped her temples. "I dont understand why I cant make her see what shes doing to us. She doesnt understand what we are, Rika. She thinks were farmers, or something . After her living with Xena for two years, youd think shed get a clue as to what makes a warrior. I guess not. Maybe she thinks she can change Xena like that too."
Erika gently massaged the burly shoulder next to her. "I know. But let me tell you, that fire runs very deep - she doesnt know what shes playing with there. " She grinned wryly. "Anyway, so I wait until Xenas finished with this impossible display of technical talent, and then I realize Ephinys followed her out there too. A perfect opportunity I think...so I get behind them. Theyre talking, see.." she wove the tale, aware of Arellas appreciative eyes. "Because Xena heard her too, though gods know Ephinys not a bad tracker, and got behind her. Startled her, too, it was kind of funny to watch. So theyre talking, and I get my crossbow cocked, and then I realize Xena heard that. I swear, that woman has the ears of a wolf, Ari, my crossbow mech is quieter than two blades of grass rubbing, you know that. So I see her go real still... and I figure, well, you were right - if the stories are true, she can dodge my quarrels. So I shoot. And, damned if she doesnt move out of the way."
Arella leaned forward. "You missed???? I dont believe it.!"
"No!" Erika threw up her hands in disgust. "the damned woman catches the damned crossbow quarrels! Out of mid air! And believe me, I had to take a minute to drag my jaw back into place before I took off out of there." She took a long sip of the wine. "Ari, she scares me." She looked into Arellas eyes. "She really does. I got to have dinner with her, and I couldnt look her in the eyes for more than a second. Shes so intense."
Arella looked thoughtful. "As long as shes alive, were trapped, Rika. She looked grim. "As long as shes Gabrielles champion, then its Gabrielles rules we live by. I cant live with that. Im no farmer, and as a people, well die without the need for fighting. You know that. Well become just another group of villagers. Do you want that? I dont. I cant live with it. I have the taste of battle on my tongue... and I cant give that up. So I guess I have to put my body where my beliefs are. She glanced at the floor. "Is she coming here?"
"I think so." Erika said. "I think Gabrielle asked her to, in that note Ephiny was carrying." She grimaced. "And, Ari...whatever else...theres something between them. Xenas a hard read at the best of times, but even she couldnt keep from reacting to whatever was in that note."
Arella nodded. "Then we have to stop her. At the mountain pass. If we put enough of us there, we can catch her offguard, and I dont care if shes Ares himself, she wont be able to fight off all of us." She looked up, and into Erikas eyes. "This is my own destiny, Rika. And if I have to take on Xena, then thats what I have to do. Our heritage is too important to lose."
Slowly, Erika nodded. "All right. Im with you. We all are - none of us wants to be dirt grubbers for the rest of our lives. And I dont want any daughters I have growing up like that either."
"Ill gather us up." Arella said, stroking her cheek. "You get some sleep. You look like Hades." She walked to the door, thinking An ambush...that would work. And shed stir up some trouble with the damned centaurs to keep everyones attention of what was going on in the pass. If she knew Gabrielle, and she was beginning to think she did, the woman would jump to the centaurs defense. And maybe, just maybe, she could use that betrayal of Amazon interests to drive a final wedge between the stubborn queen and her people. I feel...sorry for her. she mused, staring off into the darkness of the forest. Because she doesnt understand just how strong this need of ours is...she has no experience with it. How does Xena put up with that, I wonder? Its kind of sad...little Gabrielle with her morals - determined to reform the old warlord. Silly...doesnt she see she has no chance? I guess not... because shes sure trying it with us. Well, little Gabrielle, Im afraid youre not going to have your chance at reforming your friend, because I cant let her live. Shes too dangerous to us. Pity... because shed make one damned fine ally. Better than you, at any rate.
Somewhere between Amphipolis and Amazon country, later that night.
The only sound in the air was Argos steady hoofbeats, at a ground eating canter that almost lulled her rider into a half sleep. Xenas mind was racing, though, and the steady sense of unease in her gut kept her triggered. Jessans words kept echoing in her head, keeping her company the weary miles before the mountains. Gods... what if hes right...the thought gnawed at her. Admit it. He is. He can see whats going on, but you can feel it, you know you can. You have for a long, long time now. You always know when shes in trouble. She reached down and took a long pull from the waterbag, then set it back into place. What if Im too late? The thought struck terror in her gut. Damn... its too far. I should have gone that night. I knew I should have. I waited because she said she needed more time...but my gut was telling me to go. I should have listened. Now...she closed her eyes and gripped Argos mane for support, hearing a snort from the running mare. if... something happens to her because I was stupid and didnt listen to my own long, long tested instincts...I wont survive it. I can feel that, lurking in my gut, too. I had one taste of it, back in that healing temple. Shes stronger than I am, that way. I wonder if she realizes that? She would have recovered after I died, would have gone on, continued her life. I wont.
The miles slipped by, until she came to the road turning that curved around the mountains, and pulled Argo up, resting the sweating mare, and thinking hard. The road lead around the long way, but to go over the mountains was lunacy. She thought about the crags above her, and then about the price. "Come on, Argo. Youll go with me as long as you can." she whispered to the mare, and turned her off the road.
They moved through the shadows of the trees, following her sense of direction, passing silent cots deep in the forest, past sleeping beasts startled by Argos hooves, and sensing the quiet hunters which, perhaps deferring to their scent, slunk out of their path.
Two streams, forded with ease, and a river, which Argo swam in snorting protest, and Xena waded, and then they were in scrublands, where she had to watch Argos footfalls. Dawn caught them as they crossed another river, and Xena paused to rest the lathered mare. "I know, girl. I know. This is rough." she murmured into a flicking ear. She rinsed off a square of linen, and wiped the lather off Argos flanks, letting her graze for a short while, and breaking into her mothers packet.
Off again, this time trotting across rising grasslands, as the mountains which separated Amazon country came into view. The weather was worsening, dark clouds piling across the peaks of the mountains, and the wind, which had been blowing steadily since the dawn changing fitfully every short while, and causing the mare to fidget. "Easy, Argo. I see em" She kneed the mare forward, wanting to get to a place of safety, since Argo, at least, would not travel in the kind of storm that was fast developing. But I will. The anxious feeling in her gut had gotten worse, building with every mile she moved towards the mountains. That, more than anything else, sparked her to keep traveling with an urgency that would not be denied.
At last, she crossed the last of the grass, and the long rolling foothills, and the mountain loomed over her. The thunder was getting louder and closer, and Argo was getting nervous, her ears plastered back on her head, and her nostrils flared. "Come on, just a little further." Xena coaxed her, feeling the first drops of rain touching her back. They rode around a tall crag, and Xena pulled the mare up short, her heart sinking. So. Here was why everyone used the road. Ahead of her was a sheer escarpment, running off into the distance, as far as her eyes could follow it. No path up, no path around. "Damn." That single word echoed off the rocks, mocking her.
She rode Argo to the foot of the escarpment, and glared at it. To double back now meant a days lost traveling time. At the top of the escarpment, she remembered, the road itself looped lazily, bringing itself through the high pass, and down into Amazon territory.
Xena swung down off the mare, and walked to the edge of the cliff, staring up. Most of the surface was sheer and unbroken, without hand or footholds. I cant climb this. Her eyes studied it, and balanced it against the aching pull in her guts. Or am I stubborn and stupid enough to try? In the rain? In the coming dark? She closed her eyes, and tentatively explored the nerve wracked fear assaulting her...fear, she realized, with a sudden startling clarity, that truly wasnt her own. That had a familiar flavor, that woke images in her mind of the short time she had spent in control of Gabrielles body. When she fought Velasca. Oh gods... she glanced up. "Yeah, I am that stupid."
She looked around, spotting a protected rock outcropping, and led the mare over to it. "Sorry to do this to you, Argo... but I have no choice." She stripped the mare of her tack, and tucked it neatly away under the outcropping. Then she took what essentials she needed from the saddlebags, and using one as a backpack, settled them on her own shoulders. Lastly, she grasped the mares face in her hands, and looked her in the eye, letting her lips brush the downy soft skin of her nose. "Be good, Argo. And if I do something really dumb up there, and dont come back, well... take care of yourself, all right?." The mare whickered, nuzzling her. "Yeah, I love you too." she said softly, hugging her neck.
She walked to the wall, took several deep breaths, rubbed her hands on her leathers, and started looking for a place to climb.
Amazon village, next morning.
Ephiny rolled over, blinking blearily into the sunlight pouring into her quarters. Cursing, she sat bolt upright, and started scrambling out of her bed, rattled at having slept so late.
"Ah..ah..ah.." Solari said, wagging a finger at her. "Queens orders. You sleep." She pushed Ephiny back into her bed with one strong hand. "And Im not going to argue with her. Shes in some kind of mood this morning."
Ephiny sighed and let her head drop, stifling a yawn. "OK... OK...." She smiled. "Is everything all right??"
Solari waggled her hand. "Alls quiet so far today. Arellas sent a big bunch of her lot out on an extended hunting expedition, so thats a good thing. At least we wont have them underfoot." She gave Ephiny a sly grin. "And it looks like rain, so I wish the best to them."
Ephiny grunted in amusement, letting her body relax back onto the bed. "Thats good." she said idly. "Maybe well have a quiet day for a change. A rumble of distant thunder vibrated in her ears. "On second thought, maybe not."
"Thats coming in over the mountain." Solari commented, I feel sorry for anyone caught out in it. The winds picking up something fierce." She watched as Ephiny let her eyes close again. "Thats better." she chuckled, as she left the hut, and walked towards the dining hall, feeling the wind whip her hair in what seemed like two directions at once. "Oh yeah.." she muttered to no one in particular. "this is going to be evil."
"What is??" Granella asked, falling into step next to her. "Oh, the weather?" she shrugged. "Good day for sleeping in." With a sly poke at Solari. "Which is where Eph is, I assume?"
"At my orders." Came Gabrielles voice behind them. They turned to see the queen moving up the path, a somewhat grim look on her face. "Good morning, by the way." she added, with a friendlier look. They continued on to the dining hall, where most of the village was already seated. Gabrielle went up to take her usual place at the head table.
"Gods, she looks twitchy today." Solari muttered in an undertone to Granella. "I wonder whats up?"
The bard sat down, surveying the room. Noticing the missing Amazons, and mentally counting. Twenty people for a hunting party? Her brow creased. If they were successful, theyd have enough game to last weeks. Maybe that was Arellas idea...or maybe she thought her bunch were getting a little slap happy, and she though this was a good way to diffuse tension. Gabrielle liked that idea, and it even made her feel a little better about her chief nemesis. A little. But not much, because sure enough, here she came for her usual morning debate.
"Good morning, my queen." Arella greeted her, raising an eyebrow at the chair next to the bard, and receiving a little wave of her hand towards it. "Thanks." She seated herself, and murmured to the Amazon who came over with a pitcher of herbal tea. "Winds rising" She commented to Gabrielle.
"Thats true." The bard answered, trying to concentrate on her porridge. She had a sudden overwhelming wave of nostalgia for one of Xenas odds and ends breakfasts, which, though unpredictable, were always tastier than this. "Is the hunting party going to be all right out in this weather?" More for something to say than because she was really curious.
"Sure" Arella reassured her. "There are boltholes throughout the hunting territory where they can take shelter." She took a bowl of the porridge from a server, and liberally poured honey into it. "Have you tried this in your breakfast?" she inquired, holding out the jar with a friendly grin. She knew by now that Gabrielle was not a morning person, and it was the best time to annoy her. In a nice sort of way.
The bard looked up, and grimaced. "Arella,
Ive tried every possible thing in this stuff, and it still
tastes like ground up leather bits."
She gave her a glance. "But thanks for asking." She took a long sip of tea to wash down the stuff, and gazed across the room. "Did we really need 20 people for a hunting party though?" She flashed a quick glance at Arellas face, seeing the eyes go wary.
Well, well...so green eyes is more observant than I thought. "Well, were going after big game this time " And isnt that the truth? Im going to enjoy presenting the fruit of our hunt to you, my queen. "And the more people you send out when you do that, the safer they are." There, argue with that, storyteller.
Gabrielle cocked her head, and regarded her, those damnable eyes picking up her slightest reactions. "OK, if you say so." she answered, mildly. What is she up to now? A growing sense of unease made the thought of any more porridge unfeasible. "Well, thats enough for me." she said in a normal voice, and pushed back her chair to stand up.
Arella stood up with her, and gave a nod of her head. "Careful of the weather, my queen - theres a bad storm brewing... you dont want to get caught out in it." Now, what made me say that? Do I still have a sneaking liking for this woman? I think I might. Pity.
Gabrielle leaned forward, and caught her gaze, surprising the redhead. The green eyes seemed especially intense, as she leaned even closer, and refused to release her for a very long moment. Then.. "Thanks for your concern, Arella. But storms and I are old acquaintances. It takes more than that to scare me off." And then she did a scary thing. For no reason that Arella could see, the queen smiled right into her eyes. Then she backed off, and left the table, and only then did Arella notice the new addition to the queens garb. A leather sheath, well worn, holding a finely crafted dagger, whose hilts were knicked by a dozen deflected sword strokes, and marked by a round distinctive seal
So. Arella thought, watching the queen stride out of the dining hall. So...she dons steel at last. And just where did she get that lovely, lovely piece of work? Thats no showpiece. Thats a killing blade, if Ive ever seen one. Huh. Only one place that could have come from...I wonder... I better send word out to the Pass for them to be on their toes. And Id better get my diversion started. She got out of her chair again and walked quickly to the door, almost colliding with Erika who was just coming in. "Watch it." she said, sliding past her.
"Hold on." Erika said, pulling her aside. "Did you see what shes wearing?" She kept her voice low.
"Yeah, nice piece of work. Why?" Arella answered, keeping her voice down as well.
"You know whose that is?" the dark haired amazon hissed.
"Relax." the redhead soothed. "Yeah, I figured that out. I was about to send someone to the Pass. You up for it?"
"Im gone." Erika said, ducking out of the door.
So. The tall Amazon mused. You like storms, do you, Gabrielle? All right. Ill give you a storm. She strode across the middle ground, collecting a few of her favorites with a glance. They casually crossed over to meet her as she arrived in front of her quarters.
On the escarpment, in the rain.
At least twice an hour, Xena was convinced she had gone totally out of her mind. Just dont look down. she kept reminding herself. Cautiously, she freed one hand grip, and reached above her for a new one, finding a bare crack to curl her fingertips into. Gaining a secure hold, she shifted her weight, and reached up with her other hand. For aching hours, one hold after another, shed made her way up the sheer wall, mostly without incident, but there were several close calls, and one slip, which was very painful until she reached out and grabbed for a hold. And got lucky.
Two places where she could brace her back against the wall, and take a breather, for water, and to rest her arms and hands. Stubborn, huh? Oh yeah, am I ever. I gotta be nuts. She reminded herself once again, as she found her other hand hold, and lifted herself up, catching a foothold on a lower rock and moving further up the wall. If she had looked down, she would have seen that she was halfway, an unbelievable climb in wind and weather, and lack of sleep. But she didnt look down. Down wasnt important. Up was important. And up right now was an overhang, which was looking impossible to get over. But at the worst of times, it only took a moment of letting that cold nervous feeling that wasnt hers surface, and somehow, she found a way.
I am going to do this. Her mind said, fiercely. I said if all the legions of Hades were between us, that wouldnt stop me. Whats a little mountain? Move, Xena, before you get hit by one of those lightning bolts. She spotted a gnarled root extending from above the overhang, and stared at it. Lets just see how stubborn I really am. She gathered herself, and sprang forward, releasing all her holds at once, and relying on just momentum, and her hand strength to save her.
It did, to her mild surprise, as she grabbed the root, and hung on, waiting for her body to stop swinging so she could pull herself up. And over, onto a tiny ledge, which gave her a moments respite. The wind cascaded around her, lashing her with rain from the lowering clouds. She sat quietly, letting the stinging water revive her. OK, lets go.
The Amazon Village - midmorning
"So, youre up." Gabrielle said, as Ephiny walked into her quarters, looking rested, if still a bit sleepy.
"Mmm." Ephiny responded, then glanced at her. "So, I see you have a new adornment." She jerked her chin at the knife hanging from the queens belt.
"Yeah." the bard answered, absorbed in a treaty scroll. "Ive been telling everyone that Xena found out I didnt have a parchment opener, and this was her way of taking care of that little problem."
Ephiny snorted in laughter. "Really?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, letting a weary grin cross her face. "It makes a good story."
She finished scribbling some notes on the treaty, and sat back, wincing at the stiffness in her back. Too much sitting around does that to you. Isnt that what Xena always says? Gods, I hate when shes always right. And how would she know? When does she ever sit still for more than an hour or so? She laughed to herself. Wonder what shes up to right now? Probably whacking poor defenseless villagers with a staff, I bet.
They both looked up at a sudden commotion outside.
Xena was in real trouble, this time. She had two decent handholds, but the rock she had been using as a foothold had cracked out from under her, and left her hanging, with no possibility of getting another grip. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore her strained breathing, the stinging rain, and the fiery ache in her shoulders. Well...now what? Her mind panted. She looked up, Nothing. A sheer wall, with no breaks in it. To her left, was a cleft, but there were no sure holds there, either. And above this section...she gritted her teeth. One last ledge, and she was at the top. So. Does it stop here? She took the chance and glanced down, barely able to make out the general shape of the forest below, let alone individual trees. Oh.. thatll be deadly. Yep. Ive come this far, and Ill be damned if Im going to just let go and die here. She looked up again, giving her head a quick shake to get the wet hair out of her eyes, and concentrating on the cleft.
One chance. One reliance on her ability to move her body through the air with precision. After a day and a half of non stop traveling. And in the rain. And...damn. I can do this. She closed her eyes, and centered herself, reaching down deep, and calling up reserves of strength. And of confidence. And, it was simple, really, just a winding up of the body, and a release, and...
And she was there, and had both feet in a secure hold, and could rest her screaming arms. Oh boy. Im going to pay big time for this. But she didnt care, because right above her was that last ledge, and before she had time to think about what she was doing, she leaped for it, and twisted in mid air, and there she was. Just like that. Like Ares had stepped out from behind a tree, and sprinkled her with dust. Whoa. She rested there for a few minutes, breathing hard, and pressing her body against the cold stone, to leach some of the trembling heat from her.
Then she stood, and hopped over the last rock, and there, before her, was the road. Gently winding up to the pass, which she could just make out through the trees. Sighing, she just stood on the side of the path, and let the now pouring rain run over her, rinsing off the rock dust, and rinsing away her fatigue. Then a wave of sudden fear almost took her knees out from under her, and when she could stand without shaking, she broke into a steady run, and headed for the pass.
The Amazon Village.
"Centaurs!" Came the yell from the middleground, and both Ephiny and Gabrielle jumped to their feet, and headed for the door. Arella was striding across to meet them, holding a crossbow. "Its happened." She spat, throwing the crossbow down at their feet. "Tell me thats a mistake, then. Three arrows in one of our scouts, and from that bow."
Ephiny glanced at it. Centaur, no doubt there. "Maybe there was a mistake." she said quietly, tensely.
Arella laughed. "Yeah, our mistake, in trusting them. Look, if you want to have a chit chat with them, go ahead. Im taking a force in. "
And she was gone, and they were looking at each other, as Arellas forces moved out at a trot, leaving behind a bewildered group of Amazons.
"They cant do that." Gabrielle fumed. "We have to stop them." She ducked back into her quarters for her staff, and took off after them, but Ephiny grabbed her.
"Just where do you think youre going?" She yelled, pulling the bard to a halt. Not as easy as she had expected, though, and she found herself being dragged a few steps. "Gabrielle!"
The bard whirled on her. "Im going to stop Arella. What does it look like? Does anyone else here want to go?" Her green eyes flashed, and there was a fire about her that Ephiny had never seen before. "Let me go." she growled at Ephiny.
"All right.. all right.." Ephiny yelled. "Let me get my weapons, for the sake of the gods, Gabrielle, you cant do down there alone. Dont be crazy!" She pelted for her quarters, being joined in a run by Granella and Solari, and a few others who now started moving.
Gabrielle didnt wait. She had marked the direction Arellas group was moving in, and took off after them, running lightly, and keeping her staff out in front of her. After a moment, she realized someone was shadowing her, and turned her head. "Cait! Go back!" she said, startled.
The blond girl kept pace, and shook her head. "Its all right."
"NO.." the bard snapped, stopping, and grabbing her shoulders. "Youre just a girl, Cait - you dont belong in this."
Cait reached out and touched her, meeting her eyes. "Youre wrong... its you who doesnt belong." She drew her own knife, and met Gabrielles eyes, letting through in her gaze what she thought of as her true self. And saw, not a cringe, but a recognition dawn in the bards eyes. Who had seen that look before. And knew its source.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, then sighed. "Come on." she said, quietly, and started running again, Cait at her shoulder.
Xena loped up the path, keeping a steady fast pace up the trail. Before her was the pass, and after that, it was downhill to the village, and she knew she could make some real time there. She was just inside the inner pass wall when her senses came full alert, and before she had time to think, long honed reactions had her sword out in her hand.
Because a net dropped over her head, and only the slimmest chance kept the sword upmost, and it sliced through the hemp like butter as she whirled, and the netting settled around her broad shoulders.
A quick bouncing jump, and it cleared her legs, and then she was under a dozen bodies, and being borne down to the ground. But as her hand hit the earth, she coiled under the weight, and pushed back up, tossing bodies off. A sharp pain in her back was a knife, she knew, and she reached around with her left hand and got a grip on fabric, and pulled with all the power she had in that arm. The pain stopped, and a body hurtled over her head and thudded onto the ground.
Now she could see her assailants. Amazons. A burning fire woke inside her, and the next move was a sword slash, which caught one of them in the belly and nearly cut her in half. A quick elbow took out a second, and she heard bone crunch as she kicked at third into a tree. Another sword slash, and blood was flying, and she had an arm in her grasp, which she wrenched and heard a popping sound as the shoulder it was attached to dislocated.
A jump, and kick, and now there were only 10 facing her, and she whirled her sword, and laughed, and dared them to come at her. And the rain exploded in a deluge, as she bolted towards them, and they ran, and she caught two of them, and knocked their heads together with a sickening crack. And then she was alone on the path, chest heaving, blood now coloring the rain running off her back. And the fear rising in her made her heart pound even faster, and she took off running again.
The Centaur Village.
"This is chaos!" Gabrielle yelled, as she and Cait rounded the corner into the village, and found it a nightmare of blowing rain, and fighting centaurs and Amazons. She saw an Amazon about to fire a crossbow at a Centaur, and bolted forward, slamming her staff across the Amazons back and sending her to the ground. The Centaur looked at her, then nodded in recognition, and dashed off.
Oh gods... what am I doing here? She stopped thinking, and started reacting, as another Amazon came at her with blood in their eyes, and then she had dropped the staff, and was grappling with the woman, thanking the gods for every single second that Xena had patiently spent teaching her how to wrestle. She grabbed her opponents arm, and twisted it over her head, throwing the Amazon to the ground with a heavy thud. One down. She grabbed her staff and ran on, targeting another archer.
The Amazon Village
"Oh, I dont think so, Ephiny." Erika sneered, as she cocked her crossbow, and pinned Ephiny and her group to the wall with a line of crossbows. "Not this time. Now is our time. Just stay still... you wont have to do a thing." She jerked her head at two of her subordinates. "Tie them up."
"Erika.." Ephiny started, but Erika turned suddenly, and cracked her across the jaw with the butt of her crossbow, tossing the woman back into the wall.
"Shut up." She grinned. "Ive been wanting to say that to you for a long time." She watched as they were tied, hanging from a pole outside the dining hall. "And, when our hunting party gets back, we can have them tell you all about the hunt..." she smiled. "Youll love it. Do you know what the quarry was this time, Ephiny? Do you?"
Solari grimaced. "Youre itching to tell us, so why dont you?" She spat. "Youll never get away with this."
Erika chuckled. "Oh yeah, we will...because our hunting party was out for ex warlord...and you know what that means...our little queen has no champion. " She walked over, and poked Ephiny. "And so... well have a new queen."
A high pitched whistling sound interrupted her. Ephiny heard it, and felt a wild hope jump in her chest. I know that sound....an impact thudded above her head, and then she felt her ropes give way, and she dropped to her knees in reaction, along with the rest of her group, but looked up and over their shoulders, to see, through the curtain of rain, and briefly highlighted by a nightmarish lightning bolt a fast moving, dark clad form bounding towards them.
Erika whirled, and her group brought up their weapons, but her eyes widened in recognition when another lightning bolt lit up the sky, and reflected off an upraised sword, and glinted out of a pair of ice blue eyes.
"Come on." Ephiny growled, and jumped forward. "She doesnt have time to play with these idiots. Get them." And herself took out Erika, with a kick that lifted the dark haired Amazon up and tossed her into the growing mud lake. Her group fell to with a vengeance, and she headed for Xena, and grabbed hold of her armor, pulling the warrior to a stop.
"Centaur Village." She yelled, seeing comprehension dawn in those wild eyes. "Ive got this here... for the love of the gods, GO!" She shoved Xena in the right direction, and picked up a staff, wading into the fight with a will.
Gabrielle ducked under a wildly thrown punch, and countered with a quick staff blow, then a second, and went on to the next fighter. Suddenly she saw her nightmare - a group of centaur children, backed against a tree, frightened. Her heart stopped, when she saw what was facing them.
Arella, face red with bloodlust, holding a sword already dripping with Centaur blood. She laughed, and advanced towards them, enjoying the fear in their eyes.
"No." Gabrielle breathed, and started running. She caught up to Arella as the woman was about to take a first swing at the eldest, who crouched in front of his charges, pale eyes wide and unbelieving. The bard braced herself, and swung, a short, powerful stroke that took Arellas legs out at the knees, and dumped her on the ground.
She howled in rage, and bounced back up, this time facing her attacker. And laughed. "Ah...so you do have guts, after all. I wondered about that." She picked up a staff and sheathed her sword for the moment. "First, let me get that thing away from you. I have no desire to be dumped on my ass again." She swung forward, slamming her staff against Gabrielles expecting it to fly out of the bards hands.
"Sorry, Arella." the smaller woman breathed. "My usual sparring partner can do better than that."
Arella grunted, but then smiled. "Sorry, little bard, your usual sparring partner will be dead by now... because thats what my hunting party was after." She smiled, seeing the change in Gabrielles face. "Yeah, thats right... youre all alone now...so drop the staff, before I mount you on it."
Was it possible? Gabrielle felt a sick feeling in her gut. Anything was. But..."What with.. .twenty Amazons?" She peeled her lips back in a grin. "You think that could stop her?" she laughed softly. "You have no idea." And she parried forward, knocking Arellas staff out of position, and getting in a hit on her shoulder.
"Oh, I have a good idea." Arella growled, and came back, slamming her staff into the bard, and driving her back a step.
"No.. you dont." Gabrielle panted, knocking that blow aside, and thrusting forward to catch the redhead in the knee. "Youre a coward. You didnt dare challenge her, so you found another way to get what you so desperately want." And I so desperately dont want. It would be funny if it wasnt so dire.
A low growl was her only answer, and then the redhead moved forward with a fast series of attacks, driving Gabrielle back towards the Centaur children. But the bard was stubborn, and kept turning her blows aside, and countering with ones of her own. I cant keep this up forever, though. Her mind whirled. Im getting really tired. Then what? Hades.
Arella sensed her tiring, and bounded forward,
at last getting the staff out of her hands. She whipped her
weapon around, catching
the bard across the head, and taking her down. She stepped over her, and raised her staff for a savage stab. And a small flying form
drove against her, knocking her back, and making her stumble. She roared, and slammed a fist against a small blond head, smashing her against the nearby tree.
Gabrielle felt a red wash come over her vision, as she struggled to get up, and felt Caits form slide down the tree next to her. She shook her head to clear her vision, and then wished she didnt. Because Arella was bracing herself, and cocking a Centaur crossbow. Oh...her mind went into shock. Shes going to kill me.
"Thats right, green eyes. " Arella said, getting the quarrel cocked. properly. "I am, and with a Centaur weapon, so we wont have any more of these treaties, and peace, and good will. Well have war, and thats what we want, Gabrielle... why cant you understand that?"
"Because violence isnt the way." She answered, rising up on her knees, and motioning the centaur children to keep down. They cowered around her, gazing up at her with frightened eyes. "Because theres a better way to live."
"No." Arella answered, raising the bow. "Youre wrong. There is no better way, no better feeling than this." She aimed, expecting the queen to beg. Expecting her to flinch, or duck, or turn her head from the cruel arrowhead. But the eyes never turned from hers, never blinked, and she held that gaze as Arellas finger tightened on the release, and squeezed.
Continued - Part 4
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