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by Quest

The sweat slicked hilt slid in her grasp as she blocked a vicious sweep intended to cut her off at the knees. The torquing impact tore the sword from her grasp, and it whistled clear of the battle, landing out of reach in the dirt.

In that split second, while the enemy's attention followed her arcing blade, Xena reached out with both hands. Lacing her fingers in the leather straps of the light armor, she twisted around, flinging her opponent over her head, to land flat in the dust.

"Oooooof !" The armored figure on the ground swept helm from head, and then attempted to sit up. A long blonde braid uncoiled into the dust as the warrior fell back, gasping for breath. "Did you have to be so rough? I get the point, already!" She sucked air between her teeth, grimacing at the bruises.

Xena, swept her hair back from her face while sheathing her blade, and smiled an enigmatic little smile. Reaching out her hand, she helped the woman to her feet. "You didn't believe me before. Now you do."

"OK, so losing your sword isn't always the end of a battle. But what about when it isn't just one on one? What then? When you're on a battle field, if you lose your sword, you can't just grab the nearest armored horseman and hope for the best...."

"That's where you're wrong Clea. This works just the same on the field. Your problem is that you're focusing on the sword AS your weapon, instead of BECOMING a weapon yourself."

The two continued to talk as they walked from the dusty practice field towards the inn's well.

"Look here." Xena grasped the wooden dipper hanging by the well. "What is this?"

Clea raised her eyebrows quizzically. "A dipper?"

Xena shook her head and pointed to the bench occupied by fighters in various states of dis-armoring. "And that?"

"It's just a bench, Xena. What are you trying to say?"

"This is no dipper. It's a club. Good for at least one solid shot before it breaks. And that's not a bench full of lazy men." Xena hopped over the end of the bench, bracing her foot against it

"Imagine what would happen if I knocked the bench in your direction in a fight. Not only would you have to step over the bench to come after me, throwing yourself off balance, but you'd have five moving obstacles to contend with. At the very least, they'd get in your way. Best possible scenario, though, they'd actively fight you, because you're coming towards them with sword drawn." Xena leaned forward, elbow resting on her knee.

"Look, I know you learned to fight in a standing army, Clea. And you are an excellent swordswoman. Maybe even better than I am. But I'll always win, because you're thinking like a front line soldier. Someone who's only concern is to follow orders."

"The problem is you're not a follower anymore. You're in charge. And that means people are going to be seeking you out. Looking to challenge you, and make a name for themselves. Trying to hunt you down when you're not prepared. . ."

"You have to know, the moment you look at anything, how it can be used as a weapon. You have to learn to be creative, because you can't wear your armor twenty four hours a day. Someone will eventually come at you when you don't have a sword. And if you aren't prepared for that, you'll lose."

Clea looked down, thoughtful.

Xena reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Now let's go inside and get cleaned up. Then I'll buy you a drink."

"... and so Athena grieved for Pallas, and knew her grief would be eternal, for the gods never forget. In remorse, she took Pallas' name as part of her own, the highest honor to be bestowed upon any mortal by one of the gods."

Gabrielle bowed deeply as applause briefly filled the crowded inn. Then she stepped down from the impromptu stage to make way for the lyre player who'd been waiting patiently to the side.

Beaming, she made her way over to the table where Xena had settled in. "Look!" she enthused, hefting a small pouch that jingled musically. "We've got Dinars enough to last us for a month!"

Xena frowned. "We won't have them for long if you keep flashing the bag that way. Even I'm not much protection against pickpockets, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle looked crestfallen, and tucked the pouch away inside her larger bag. Xena's eyes softened, and she opened her mouth to congratulate Gabrielle on her earnings. But before she could, Clea came tromping through the crowd, and thumped her mug and plate down on the table with enough force to rattle the other settings.

"So, who's your friend Xena? I don't recall her from your troop during the Centaur wars....."

Xena's mouth twitched in annoyance at the interruption, but she gestured towards Gabrielle. "Clea, this is Gabrielle. She's not a warrior. She's a bard, and my friend. We've been traveling together for some time now."

Gabrielle stuck her hand out, smiling disarmingly. "It's always nice to meet another old friend of Xena's." A look of doubt flashed across her face. "Well, usually. You aren't one of the ones that's into being an evil, manipulative warlord, are you?"

Clea choked on the ale she'd been swigging. After coughing for a moment, she got her breath back and laughed heartily. Glancing at Xena, "Well, she certainly has a way with words!" Xena smirked ironically, and nodded.

Clea turned back to Gabrielle. "And to answer your question, no, I'm not. I do lead a mercenary troop, and we fight for hire. But I'm always very careful about what kind of contract I take on. I don't like to fight for the evil warlords. They tend to pay you with a dagger in the back, or poison in the victory wine.....

"No, they don't make 'em like Xena any more. Even when she was pillaging the countryside, she always paid her debts." Clea grinned teasingly, obviously enjoying Xena's scowl at the mention of her past.

"So, you're a bard are you? Never knew Xena to take to that type before . . . Either she's changed more than I thought, or you're really something special."

Gabrielle blushed crimson, and looked intently into the bottom of her wine cup. Clea laughed even harder, and aimed a comradely punch at Gabrielle's arm that nearly knocked her off the bench. With a gleam in her eye, Clea took another deep swallow of ale.

"You know, I could use my very own bard. Especially one who tells such good stories about Athena. You should give up this old grump and travel with my company instead! At the very least I can assure you we pay better. . ." Clea tilted her head back, draining the last drops of her drink.

Xena reached over and, lightning fast, snagged Clea's mug out of her hands. She set it down with an attention grabbing crack. Smiling a wicked little smile at Clea's startled double take, Xena spoke in a mock growl, "Gabrielle travels with me, loudmouth. Get your own bard. . . As if you needed one, considering the tall tales I've heard YOU tell.

"Besides, she doesn't tell that many complimentary stories about the gods. She knows they're whimsical and cruel. And I'm sure Athena is no better than the rest of them."

Clea's face clouded over, and in a voice gone suddenly serious she contradicted Xena. "No, now that's where YOU'RE wrong, Warrior Princess. I know the gods can be fickle. That's one reason I don't serve Ares. But Athena is different. She's my patron goddess, and you of all people should know that I will serve no one who is without honor. Say what you like about the others, but Athena is different."

Xena frowned, and looked as though she intended to say more on the subject. But she didn't get the chance. The inn door slammed open, and a battered, wild eyed young boy scanned the crowd, obviously looking for someone. After resting against the door frame for a moment, he started towards their table.

Xena sighed, put down her mug, and loosened her sword in it's scabbard. Gabrielle's eyes glittered with amusement as she heard Xena mutter under her breath, "Here we go again..."

The boy staggered up to them, but to Xena's surprise he grabbed Clea's arm instead of her own, and fell to his knees. Clea stared at him open mouthed for a moment before regaining her voice.

"Tellus! What are you doing here? The unit wasn't supposed to meet me for another two days! Where are the others?" She grabbed his arms and hoisted him up onto the bench. He was trying to talk over his sobs, and was only managing to get out nonsense syllables. Calculatingly, she drew back and slapped him lightly across the face. Then, in the utter silence that followed, she handed him her mug.

"Whatever it is, it can wait for a few more seconds. I trained you better than this boy. Drink, take a deep breath. Then report."

The lad shook his head, and drank deeply from the mug of ale. Then, as instructed, he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry Captain. It's just, it's just that. . . Oh Captain, they're dead! I was in town, taking a message to the smithy, and when I got back to camp there were bodies everywhere. I don't even know how it happened. I tried to go into camp to identify the bodies, but three men on horseback came thundering up and tried to take me with a net. I struggled, and got away into the trees. I lost them there, but . . . I couldn't even find out who died." He stopped to choke back a sob. "I'm sorry, Captain. I should have been there. . . ."

Clea, reached out and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him into a hug. "Nonsense boy. Then you'd be dead too, and who'd have told me? You did the right thing, to come straight here. Let's get you cleaned up, and pack my bags. We'll ride back to camp and see what we can find out. For all we know, those bodies were the attackers, and our people had pulled out and retreated into the woods. That happens sometimes. So let's not jump to conclusions before we get there..."

She got up from the bench, moving in a brisk and efficient military style totally at odds with her earlier relaxed pose. She looked every inch the Captain.

As she stood, so did Xena, looking concerned. "Clea, shall I ride with you? If there's trouble, you might need another sword arm."

Clea shook her head. "No, Xena. These are my people. If anything has happened to them, I'll settle the score. I will be careful, but this is a matter of honor." With that, she hustled Tellus up the stairs towards her room.

Xena shook her head. "Stubborn. Damn. Fool." She bit off the end of each word as if it left a bad taste in her mouth. " Always was the most pig headed . . ."

Gabrielle looked questioningly at Xena. "Don't you think she can handle it by herself? I mean, she looked pretty competent to me . . ."

"It's not that, Gabrielle. Don't you see? Three men on horseback would have had no trouble catching that boy, no matter how fast he is. They LET him go." She scowled darkly. 'Either that, or he's betrayed her. But whichever it turns out to be, one thing is certain. This is a setup."

Xena flipped a Dinar to the barkeep, and started off towards their room. "He pushed all the right buttons to make her jump in without thinking. Clea's an excellent soldier, but she's too straightforward. She never could spot an ambush. You stay here, and keep an eye on that smith for me. I don't want him fudging on fixing the weak spots in my armor just because I'm not here. I'll use my spare set, it's functional, even if it is a little battered. Clea is going to need my help, whether she knows it or not."

The silence of the woods breathed, flowing over Xena like a mist. She stalked along, following Clea and Tellus as they rode towards the decimated camp. She'd left Argo tied in a clearing a ways back, after coming upon the fresh tracks.

Suddenly, Clea and Tellus broke into a clearing, squinting in the bright light. Xena crouched in the bushes, watching intently for signs of danger.

The two made their way into the camp, dismounting to examine dead bodies along the way. The smell of dead bodies made their horses skittish, whinnying and starting at every noise, so they left them tied to the picket line.

Even across the field she could hear Tellus when he stopped to throw up behind a tent. And as the wind wafted in her direction, snatches of conversation floated back along with the scent of carrion.

"Tellus, there's something wrong here. These ARE our people, but not ALL of them. Almost half of them are missing. Even if the battle carried on into the woods, there should be more people here. And there are hardly any that I don't recognize. As though the enemy had time to carry away all their wounded. . ."

As Clea stooped to turn over another body, a bright arrow whistled out of the trees to stick in the ground hear her feet. Before she could sprint back to her horse, a troop of armored men thundered over a rise. They had been hiding in a ravine just out of sight from the battlefield.

Xena swore under her breath as she counted, getting ready to charge into the fray. ". . .ten, fifteen, damn, at least twenty with bows . . . and fifty more on horse... that's no ragtag bandit troop, that's a whole ARMY."

But the armed men merely surrounded Clea and Tellus, forcing them to throw down their weapons. They were bound, and put back on their horses in less time than it would have taken Xena to cross the field.

In the face of such efficiency, Xena changed her mind about charging in. This would call for more subtlety than that. Instead she turned and jogged lightly away, back towards Argo. With that many men, their trail wouldn't be that hard to follow.

"Well, his camp is disciplined, who ever he is. I'll give him that much, damn him." Xena muttered to herself as she tried to slip by the sentries unnoticed. They were spaced out, each within shouting distance of two others, all the way around the camp. In most places, they could easily see one another, as well. And not one of them was even LOOKING like he might fall asleep. No wine, either. Just a bunch of alert, well trained sentries hoping for something to liven up their evening.

She pondered for a moment, and then took to the air. Quietly she moved through the treetops, using the night noises and moaning wind to cover the occasional creaking branches and rustling leaves.

Eventually she was though the first ring of sentries, and had a little breathing space before she tackled the actual perimeter of the camp. Coming down from the trees, she stalked closer to inspect the layout.

Intent on the task at hand, she did not notice the strange quiet immediately. But it wasn't long before she realized that the natural night noises had ceased, and even the usual tumult from the camp seemed muted. Then, a twig snapped behind her, and she spun around sword in hand. Standing in the center of the small clearing, a cloaked figure stood silent. A snowy white owl winged noiselessly in from the black sky to land on the figure's shoulder, and slender hands pushed back the blue gray cowl to reveal a serene and noble face.

"So quick to cross blades with me, O' Mighty Warrior?" The woman wore a faintly amused look on her face as she raised empty hands to show she bore no weapon. "Well, my brother tells me that if anyone could, it would be you. But as you can see, I do not come armed for battle. Indeed, I come only to offer a word of warning, and perhaps some small aid. Yon warlord Orphenan is more than he seems. Ruthless in battle, strong of spirit, broad in ambition, and conscienceless, he is one of Ares' new Chosen. He means to force Clea to join him, for he is gathering an army of heroes. Failing that, he feels that she will make a glorious sacrifice to his bloody god.

This must not be allowed to happen. Clea is sworn elsewhere, and I will brook no interference in this. But the moment is not right for me to confront him directly. Craft and wisdom must sometimes take the place of a frontal assault, as you well know. So instead, I will leave you with this. . ."

A strange light seemed to coalesce around her hand as she reached under her cloak. Pulling out a small silver amulet engraved with an incredibly detailed owl, she reached out her hand to give it to Xena.

Xena stepped back, shaking her head. Defiant, she snarled, "I know who you are, and I want nothing to do with your scheming. The gods may have nothing better to do than interfere in the lives of mortals, but I'll be damned if I intend to help you along. I turned your counterpart, the OTHER god of war, down, and I want no gifts from you either, Athena."

Athena raised her eyebrow quizzically, continuing to hold out the amulet. "I have never met a mortal who would dare to defy one of us to our face. I wonder whether you are extraordinarily brave, or merely mad. Still, it matters little, this time. You are wrong about me, Xena. I am not scheming merely for my own pleasure, there is a greater struggle here than you know. And besides, this is not a gift for you. The gifts you have from me, I gave you at your birth.

This is for Clea. Remember, I am the keeper of wisdom, as well as bloodshed. And this is a gift you do not need. But she does. Will you deny her the strength and knowledge she needs to survive? For I tell you that without it, she will be dead before morning . . ."

Setting the amulet on a smooth stump, she stepped back, seeming to blend with the shadows themselves. Without ever seeming to leave, she was gone. But the silver owl medallion remained, gleaming in the pale, clear light.

Xena crouched down, staring at the owl as though it were a poisonous snake that might strike at any moment. Time slipped by unnoticed, as she contemplated it, an inscrutable statue of pale marble staring into in infinite abyss.

Eventually she reached out her sword, sliding the tip of the blade through the chain. Lifting the sword, she flipped the medallion in the air, catching it and quickly tucking it into her belt. For the brief moment that it touched her hand, she felt a disorienting rush of sensation. The night seemed to glow brighter, and she could pick out the small warmth of animals scurrying. The sounds of the wood painted a map in her mind, and she knew, without a doubt, where the sentries were stationed. She could hear them breathing, and feel their heartbeats.

Then the moment passed, the leather of belt and armor safely between her and the silver. Shuddering with a sudden chill, she moved stealthily towards the camp. Without a sound, she slid between the sentries, taking advantage of a small gap left by two large trees that blocked their line of sight.

Before she began to look for Clea, she cut the horses free from their picket line, hoping to avoid pursuit. Slapping a few on their rumps, she set them ambling off into the wood. She'd have to rely on the commotion to drive the rest away, once things got started.

Hiding in the shadow of a tent, she knelt, listening for some clue to Clea's whereabouts. Soon enough, she was able to make out a man's harsh voice raised in anger. As she stalked closer, the words began to take shape.

"Do you REALLY believe you can stop this, one way or the other? FOOL ! You know as well as I what is coming. And if you will not join us, then you will fuel the fires of His wrath. Not you alone, however. We have over fifty of your fighters here. They will follow where ever you lead.

If you join us, they will share in the glory and riches, and the power. Ares will reward his servants beyond their wildest imaginings.

If you continue to defy me, I will personally consign them to the flames. One at a time, so you can hear each individual scream, and remember each and every face. Of course, the first to go will be your son. Tellus would be honored to give his life to the service of the god of war, wouldn't you boy?" The sound of muffled screaming floated across the camp, coming from a tent not far away.

Xena started, a look of surprise etched briefly across her face. "She never told me she had a son . . ." She worked her way quickly towards the tent, arriving in time to watch a man's shadow against the back wall. He brought a glowing spot . . .perhaps a candle, or a small torch . . . down towards a shadow figure on the ground, and the tortured screams rang out again.

The glow flared brighter in her eyes, and covered her vision with red. Heedless of the army that surrounded her, Xena brought her sword slashing down, parting the fabric of the tent with a hiss like the sound of a hot knife though butter. Trilling her war cry, she leapt into the tent.

She took in the layout of the tent in a glance. Clea was bound, kneeling, to the tent post. Directly across from her, Tellus was tied on the ground. Burn marks marred his arms, and legs, swelling and blistered. Clea had been forced to watch every moment of torture, and her eyes were burnt cinders, red and throbbing with hate. And now, perhaps with hope as well.

As she landed in a crouch, she slashed out at the armored man standing over Tellus, hoping to keep him off balance and surprised. He jumped back, parrying with the torch he held. The burning end splintered into tiny fragments, strewing sparks and embers over the plush carpeting.

He dropped the now useless torch, ducking under Xena's next slash and grabbing for something to throw. A heavy pewter goblet, and then a plate flew across the room, clanging off her sword as she blocked them easily. As they maneuvered around, tiny flames began to lick at the carpet, spreading towards the walls of the tent.

After swinging a chair at her head, Orphenan kicked the plate of food under Xena's feet, causing her to stumble. Before she could recover, he turned and dashed out the door, yelling for his guards.

Xena cursed in three languages, thinking on her feet. One slash of her sword parted the ropes that held Clea to the tent pole. Then, as the flames spread ever more quickly, she knelt to cut Tellus' bonds as well. He was too weak to stand, and quickly slipped into unconsciousness.

Meanwhile Clea had scrambled to her feet, and was searching frantically for some kind of weapon. Xena turned, hefting Tellus over her shoulder.

"Clea! We don't have time for that. Here, take this... " The silver medallion arced through the air, and Clea caught it, gasping in surprise as the flood of sensations overwhelmed her. An unearthly glow surrounded her, and her eyes flashed silver. "Get down!" she screamed, dropping to the floor.

Xena dropped Tellus onto a mound of pillows, rolling underneath a table just as a flight of arrows ripped through the tent at waist height.

Scrambling to her feet, Clea moved towards the side wall of the tent. "This way, cut us an exit!" Clea picked up Tellus, waiting for Xena to cut open the wall of the tent. Just as they stepped through the burning fabric, another flight of arrows slashed into the tent, this time much lower, aiming for the floor. Though most fell harmlessly in the center of the tent, where they had been a moment before, one took Clea through the back of the thigh. The shock almost caused her to drop Tellus, and she stared blankly at the arrow head projecting from her leg.

Xena grabbed her and pulled her through. "Come on! We have to get out of here.

The archers were ranged around the front, and the other side of the tent. They had not completed the circle yet, and so there was a clear swath to the trees. As they sprinted for the trees, Clea fell behind. Xena stopped and took Tellus from her, throwing him over her shoulder, and then pushed Clea on ahead.

Arrows began flying again, as the archers realized that they were no longer in the tent.

As they entered the verge of the trees, a sentry leapt from concealment. He raised his sword for an overhand chop, hoping to quickly dispatch the unarmed Clea. But she ducked in close, tackling him low. They both rolled to the ground.

He punched her, and tried to bring his sword up, but it tangled in the underbrush. As they struggled, he ended up on top, pinning her underneath him. She arched up, and he arched as well, holding his body away from the arrow still embedded in her thigh. Then, with a look of determination, she gave way, falling back to the ground. Her leg slammed into the hard earth, driving the arrow all the way through. And, thrown off balance by the suddenness of her collapse, the sentry fell forward, impaling himself on the projecting point. He stiffened, his eyes wide and disbelieving, and a trickle of blood escaped from his mouth.

After a moment, Clea rolled him off of her, gasping in pain. All of this had taken only seconds, though time seemed to move in slow motion while it was happening.

Xena held out her hand and helped Clea up. "Good job. Can you walk?"

Unable to speak, Clea nodded her head, and limped towards the thicker underbrush. The noise of pursuit was growing close, and Xena set Tellus down. He'd regain consciousness, and was looking around blankly. Xena held his chin in her hand, forcing him to focus on her, "Can you walk?"

"I think so..."

"Good. Clea, take him that way." Xena pointed deeper into the woods. "I left Argo tied about half a mile from here. Take her and ride back into town. I'll lead them away, and then loose them in the woods."

Clea started to protest, but Xena cut her off. "I can't protect us all, if we stay here. And you can't run fast enough to loose them. Now MOVE!"

Xena sprinted back to the edge of the wood, ducking arrows and yelling at the top of her lungs. Clea turned, with an anguished look back, and limped deeper into the wood.

The two of them moved slowly, hiding often as search parties swept through. Clea could hear them moving, sense them coming. She would hide Tellus in the underbrush, hand over his mouth to block the feverish moans, as they moved past.

Luckily they found Argo before the patrols did. Clea threw Tellus over the saddle in front of her, hanging on to him to keep him from sliding off. She set the horse into a gallop, and hoped she could make it back into town before she passed out from loss of blood.

Xena slipped another body off her blade, quietly lowering it to the ground. Then she slid quickly down the bank of the stream, immersing herself and crouching under an overhang as three more men ran by.

Shivering in the chill of the water, she waited. After about five minutes, she moved again, fairly certain that was the last of the bunch that had been following her.

She made her way back towards the place where she'd left Argo. Cautious, she hid behind a tree, watching the clearing. Argo was gone, and that was a good sign. If they were lying in wait, they'd have left Argo as bait.

Moving into the open, she bent to look at the ground. Dried blood on the leaves, and signs of two people next to horse tracks that lead back towards town.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she set out at a steady, ground eating lope, hoping to make it back before morning.

Sitting in front of the fire at the inn, Clea hissed as Xena poured warm spirits over the wound in her leg.

"I can't stay here! I have to go back, Xena. Orphenan has the rest of my people hostage, and I will NOT leave them in his tender care."

Xena tied off the bandage she'd been wrapping, and stepped back. Her face contorted in a look of sorrow, and pity.

"I don't think so."

"What do you mean? You can't stop me . . ." Clea's words trailed off in confusion. "Surely you don't think I should leave them. . ."

Xena shook her head, "No, I mean I don't think he has them." She turned away, busying herself with packing her medicinal gear away.

"I hadn't told you yet, but I found two mass graves in the woods, after you were captured. One had Orphenan's standard over it. The other was bare. No marker.

So I dug in a ways. The rest of your men are there, Clea. None of them allowed themselves to be captured. They fought to the end."

Clea shook her head, not wanting to believe. "But he showed me the pens, with my people in chains. . ."

"Did you recognize any of them?"

"No, he. . . he didn't let me get that close . . ." Horrible recognition dawned in her eyes, and she buried her face in her hands.

Xena walked over and placed a hand lightly on Clea's shoulder. "I've lost people under my command, too. I know how this tears your soul. But remember them bravely, Captain. They loved you, and they fought to the death rather then surrender and be used against you as hostages. You taught them about honor, and led them well. Take pride in their lives, they would want that."

"Oh Xena," Clea said, in a small, broken voice. "How do you live, knowing... ?"

"Knowing that it was my responsibility?"

Clea nodded wordlessly.

Xena crouched in front of the fireplace, staring, haunted, into the flames. "I've done worse than fail my soldiers. I've been in Orphenan's shoes." A long pause stretched out across the room, and Clea wondered if she would continue.

"How do I live? Most of the time, I don't know. But I do know that I have to do everything I can to make it right. You haven't done half the evil I have. Your only fault this time was making the wrong enemy. Ares is not someone to be trifled with, and he doesn't like to be turned down." She chuckled grimly. "I should know. But now that you've started, you can't turn back. The gods know who you are. And they'll be watching. For the moment, though, perhaps what we need to do is plan out how we're going to deal with Orphenan. He isn't going to just disappear . . ."

They were interrupted by a soft knock on the door, and Gabrielle nudged it open, carrying a tray. "The village doctor says Tellus will be fine." She stepped in, setting the tray in front of Clea. "He's gong to need a lot of rest, but the burns aren't as serious as we thought. The scars will be bad, but with food, rest, and plenty of water, he should recover just fine."

She put one hand on her hip, and shook her finger at the two of them, for all the world reminding them of a scolding mother hen . . . "And both of you ALSO need to eat, and then go to bed. It's late, and tomorrow will be soon enough to conquer the world . . . "

Letting the branch fall to conceal the small opening, Xena made her way back down the branching tunnel.

"Well, they're gone. These ones didn't even make it as close as the pair two days ago. I'd say they're shifting their search pattern away from us entirely."

She crouched down to poke at the small fire.

"Frankly I'm amazed they stayed in this area as long as they did. They are being VERY thorough."

Clea got up from her bed roll and moved closer to the fire as well. "Yeah, the want me pretty badly, I guess. It's funny," She shook her head, smiling: an odd, self depreciating gesture.

"I thought you were out of your mind when you had us all mount up the day after we raided the camp. None of us was fit to ride. But if we hadn't left when we did, Orphenan's men would have caught us there. As it is we barely escaped."

Tellus moaned and stirred, tossing back and forth in his bed roll. "He's almost completely healed, but he's having worse nightmares than ever." Clea smoothed his hair back from his forehead, crooning a lullaby softly to try to ease him back into deeper sleep.

"Being tortured isn't something you get over easily. Or soon." Something in Xena's voice made Clea look at her sharply. After a moment, she continued. "He'll likely have nightmares for quite some time. Maybe always. No way to tell. The only thing you can do is just let him deal with it as best he can. I can help heal the body well enough, but the spirit is beyond me . . ."

Clea stood up, pacing around on the sand floor of the cave. "It's almost dark. Gabrielle should be back from town by now."

"If she isn't back in an hour, I'll go look for her. But I wouldn't worry. She's probably just being cautious on the return trip. If she meets any of Orphenan's men, it'll be hard to explain why she's going into the deep woods with a sack full of supplies. At the very least they'd follow her. So it pays to be cautious."

"You should have let me go instead. My leg is fully healed, and I could use the exercise."

Xena shook her head, "So you say. We'll se how fully healed it is tomorrow. I intend to run you through a workout you won't soon forget. And you know full well why Gabrielle is the one making the trips into town. I certainly didn't want to send her alone. But she's the only one of us that Orphenan's men haven't seen. They may have a description of her from the inn keeper, but they won't KNOW her on sight. And that advantage should keep us alive. They MUST think that we've left the area entirely, or we'll never be rid of their patrols . . ."

Before the argument could go any further down it's well worn path, they heard a scuffing noise from outside the cave. Drawing her sword, Xena flowed silently to the wall, ready to strike. Then, a small bird whistle echoed in twice. "Whoo hoo HOO. Whoo hoo HOO. . ."

Xena sheathed her sword as Gabrielle entered the cave. Unslinging the heavy sack from her shoulder, Gabrielle set it down with a "whuuff".

I brought everything you asked for, AND some extra Nutbread. There's enough food in there to feed an army . . ."

At the mention of nutbread Tellus sat up quickly. Making his way around the stalagmites by the fire, he rubbed his hands together eagerly. "Well what are we waiting for, it's diner time!"

Xena smiled tolerantly, and cocked an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Maybe you'd better let me check that nutbread first, eh Gabrielle? We wouldn't want a repeat performance from your invisible choir . . ."

Clea looked inquiringly at Gabrielle, who blushed and mumbled something. Grinning, Xena settled in by the fire. "Here, hand me some of that nutbread, and maybe **I'll** tell everyone a story for a change . . ."

Breathing hard and fast, Clea brought her sword around in a complicated arc. Slashing and blocking against an invisible opponent, she transcribed a wide circle in the sand, then cut down the middle towards her starting point. A leap, roll, spring, and flip brought her to rest precisely in her starting place, with her sword driven a foot into the ground. No doubt, if there had been an opponent there, the sword would have pierced heart and severed spine. The performance was nearly flawless.

Gabrielle applauded, and Tellus just grinned with pride. Xena however, was unimpressed.

"You're still favoring the leg. Only slightly, but I could definitely see it. It still hurts you, doesn't it?"

Clea looked as though she were about to deny it, and then thought better. "Well, maybe a little. But I'll probably always have an ache there. It won't impede my performance. I swear it."

"Actually, it will probably get a little better with use. But you're right. You'll have a weather wise ache for sure. . . Still, I think it'll have to be good enough. We have an appointment waiting for us down in the valley."

Clea cleaned her sword carefully before sheathing it. "Orphenan has not even slackened his searches. Just moved them. He isn't going to give up, is he?"

Xena shook her head grimly. "No, he isn't."

"Well that's fine." Clea's face twisted bitterly. "Because even if he gave up on me, I wouldn't rest until he was dead. His kind don't deserve to walk the earth. He should be burning his own hand off again and again down in Tartarus."

Xena looked concerned at her friend's bitterness, but didn't say anything. She knew that look of rage, and she knew there was no point in arguing about it. Not at the moment, any way.

"All right Gabrielle. This is the last of the meat." Xena dropped a tarp full of bloody scraps on the sand.

"I showed you how to smoke it. Just hang it over the green wood fire in the back of the cave. It'll end up being kind of tough, but two small deer and the supplies you brought from town should keep you and Tellus for well over a month. And I'm leaving you with half of the Dinars we have left. Just in case. Don't go back into THAT town for ANY reason, it's still crawling with Orphenan's men. And don't stir out of the cave unless you MUST. I know you have your staff, and Tellus is pretty good with that sling of his . . . but a couple of well armed men would still be more than you could handle. Your best defense is secrecy. I know it'll be hard, but please promise me you'll do as I say."

Gabrielle's eyes glittered with unshed tears. "I promise. We'll stay here. You can count on me, I'll keep Tellus safe. I won't let you down." Her voice caught, and she looked down at the ground.

"Oh Xena, do you HAVE to go?" Suddenly Gab flung her arms around Xena, holding her tight.

Xena stroked her hair, murmuring comforting words. "You know I have to, Gabrielle. Orphenan won't rest until we're dead. We have to get to him first."

A rare tenderness flooded her eyes, and she hugged Gabrielle close. "I'll be careful. I promise. We'll be back before you know it. We'll have to come back soon, to rescue Tellus from your unending stories."

As the setting sun set the treetops aflame, Gabrielle stood at the cave entrance with her arms around a softly sobbing Tellus, watching Xena and Clea make their way down the steep path. Tears trickled down her face unnoticed, as she tried to imprint their pictures firmly in her mind. Zeus knew how long it would be before she saw them again. Or if she ever would.

Xena pushed the hood back from her face slightly as Clea came through the stable door, but not far enough that her face would be visible to anyone else who came in. "Well, I've got the horses re-shod and ready to go. Did you get all the supplies I sent you for?"

Clea set down several packages, and a huge sack. "All here. But you still haven't told me what you intend to do with some of this stuff. Oh, most of it I recognize. But you had some weird things on that list. Four inch-wide strips of soft fur, a bag full of owl feathers, strange powders from the apothecary. What IS this stuff?"

Xena shook her head. "I'll explain it to you later. We need to put some distance between us and this place as soon as we can. The longer we stay, the greater the chance that someone will get curious about the two strange hooded women. . ."

Quietly they mounted up, slipping out of the city gates just before they locked for the night. The deep maw of the woods swallowed them entire, and the city never noticed.

Two days later they lay on a slight ridge, invisible to prying eyes because of the concealing rocks and the fact that they knew better than to stand up and show a silhouette against the bright morning sky. Looking down at Orphenan's camp, Clea left out a soft whistle of consternation.

Xena furrowed her brow, looking at the incredible camp below. "Somebody's been giving him lessons. His last camp was NOTHING compared to this."

Clea nodded, despair creeping into her voice, "He's dug in for the long haul, all right. Look at that :

A trench, it looks at least six feet deep, and twelve wide. A wooden palisade, with anti cavalry spikes pointing out in every direction. Four gates, one facing each compass direction, and they are strongly gated. A small stream flowing directly through the middle of camp.

A spring would be better, since a spring can't be damned by your enemy. But you make do with what you have. And I'll wager that he's got guards on both sides of that stream."

Xena shook her head. "Not only that, I'll wager he's got a grille that rung to the bottom of the stream. Nothing in, nothing out. Nothing any bigger than a mid-sized fish, anyway.

Look at the organization of the tents. Two main through ways running North gate to South gate, and East gate to West. The bigger, command tents are in the center. Supply tents in the middle ring. Barrack tents on the outside. Latrines at the wall, far away from the stream where they can't pollute the water."

She sighed. "Thats' one hell of camp. Almost a citadel, except for the tents. He's seen to everything. And it's big enough, to. I'd swear he's got room for a thousand men down there. I hope he's just planning for the future . . . If not, then his army has nearly doubled in size since our last encounter."

Clea slithered down the hill until she was far enough down past the crest that she wouldn't be seen standing up. Then she slumped on a boulder. Xena followed her down. Clea shook her head, and rubbed a dirty hand across her tired face, as though hoping to wipe away the strain.

"It can't be done, Xena. It would be suicide. I might be able to scrape together 50 men. Soldiers who owe me favors, people who've retired from my company. We'd need twice what he's got to pry him out of that fortress." She put her head in her hands. "That's two THOUSAND men. There's just no way."

Xena put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Very true Clea. It would be suicide. That's why I never intended to get any help at all. It's just going to be the two of us."

Clea stared at Xena in disbelieving shock. "I know we wanted to stop him, but . . . is suicide really the only way?"

Xena chuckled, and nodded back down towards the horses. "I have no intention of dying today. Or tomorrow, for that matter. Come on, and I'll show you how one woman . . . or two . . . can stop an army."


"Well, she must have many skills. . . ."

"All right, it's almost time. They drew the water for the evening mess at precisely the same time as they did last night, and the night before. The means that what I put in the water upstream from them would have just filtered down to where they were, and would be at full strength.

Those who are going on duty ate, and are relieving the current sentries right on time. Just like clock work. What I gave them should be taking effect any moment now.

Here, let's put the finishing touches on your costume." Xena gave the contents of her bowl another stir, after adding a bit of water from her flask. The contents began to glow a pale silver, and she took up some on her fingers to smear across Clea's brow.

Clea fidgeted. "It itches!" she complained, reaching up to scratch her face. Xena slapped her hand away. "That's only because you're not used to wearing face paint. Trust me, there's nothing in this that will hurt you."

Clea made a face. "I still don't understand why, if you could put a hallucinogen in their water, you couldn't just poison them. Then we'd be rid of them all!"

Xena stopped painting, and began ticking off points on her (still glowing) fingers.

" Not everyone in the camp eats at the same time. If I'd given them something quick acting, they would have caught on, and it wouldn't have been effective. Couldn't have gotten everyone. If I gave them something slow, same thing, we still couldn't be sure we'd caught them all. Plus, they'd know that there was someone out to get them. We're trying for a different effect entirely. We want them to think the GODS are against them. Also, I am reluctant to kill so indiscriminately. We don't know how many of these people may have been pressed into service against their will . . . "

Clea looked abashed. "I'm sorry. You're right. I hadn't thought of that at all."

Xena patted her shoulder.

"Don't feel bad. You aren't used to working by guile. It takes some getting used to. Now," she gave Clea's face another swipe with the glowing fingers... " go down to the stream. There are only two guards there, and if they decide to attack you'll have an escape route. Into the water, and swept away from the camp. And remember, keep it simple. Tell them Athena doesn't approve of Orphenan, and she will punish them if they continue to follow him. Let them make their own guesses about your identity. They should be suggestible enough to believe just about anything you say . . . and hopefully anything they see."

Clea walked down to the water's edge, ghostly in a gray cloak, and Xena watched with sword drawn. In the dark night, even SHE could almost believe the apparition.

The guards listened to Clea talk for several minutes before their drugged brains retrieved that fact that they should sound the alarm. Clea was back to their hiding spot, and they were galloping away, before the pursuit could even get started.

They sat by a fire, bags of supplies near at hand, as they discussed the next step. Clea was stringing strange flute like items together, and Xena had two bows. One sat on the ground next to her, unstrung. The other was in her lap. Both had been painted black.

"We'll give them all day today to spread the story. No one will believe them, of course. Not at first. But when other things start happening . . . it's one of those stories that will grow in the telling." Xena chuckled, a deep throaty chuckle. "And I intend to help it along as much as I possibly can."

Clea grinned. Then looked down at her strange contraption. "OK, so now I know what the apothecary jars were for. But what about these? And the un-fletched arrows? And what, precisely, are you doing to the bows?"

Xena took one of the flutes that had not yet been strung, and blew across the end of it very gently. She was rewarded with a long, mournful wail that raised the hairs along the back of Clea's neck.

"What do you think will happen when we hang these in the trees near Orphenan's encampment?"

Clea looked confused for a moment, and then her face lit with glee. "His camp is in a deep valley. That means, that every morning near dawn, and every evening around dusk, the wind will pick up and blow through there. That's something I learned when setting fires. You have to be careful of the direction, but it will spread the fires much faster than at mid-day."

Xena smiled, "Very good."

Clea went on, "Which means that at dawn and dusk, the wind will sound over these blow holes, and make that eerie noise. Oh gods, it will drive them absolutely NUTS!"

"Especially if people start to DISAPPEAR whenever that noise comes around. Don't you think?"

"Well yes, but how do we manage that? With those?" she gestured towards the bow Xena was holding.

"Exactly." Xena wrapped a strip of the soft fur around the very tip of the bow, and then bound it in place. "The fur on the end of the bows prevents the string from slapping back against the hard surface. It muffles the sound. And the un-fletched arrows, I intend to use the owl feathers to fletch them.

Owl's are VERY quite in flight, and it has to do with the way their feathers are made. Now, that means softer fletching, so we'll have to be careful about the accuracy . . . But these arrows will be completely and utterly silent.

Every time somebody pokes their little head outside of that wall alone, they don't come back. Period. No body, no evidence. Nothing.

You better believe that will make the troops nervous. Nothing like an enemy you can't fight to make you jumpy. And that, hopefully, eventually means deserters. But whether or not they start to desert, making the enemy nervous is ALWAYS a good thing. . .

Over the next few days, they carried out Xena's plan, killing sentries, messengers, people who went out for a walk. . . Soon camp security was doubled. There was never a sentry alone, no one moved out of camp unless they had to.

"But, I'm not sure what good this does us. Now it's even harder to get into camp." Clea wondered aloud, as they dragged another body to the stream. "We aren't whittling them down in sufficient numbers to really make an impact . . ."

"Give it a while longer. You'll see the difference." Xena knocked another arrow, watching as a two messengers galloped down the road, wearing heavy armor and already working their horses into a lather. She waited until he was out of sight of the camp, then calmly let fly, taking the first through an eye slot. As the second panicked and wheeled his horse, she drew and fired again, hitting the chink between shoulder and upper arm plates, and pinning his arm to his body and knocking him from the saddle.

Jumping down from their concealment, they dispatched the struggling warrior, and sent the horses back down the road towards camp.

"We have changed the way they do things. We've had an effect. They are sending two messengers instead of one. Working longer shifts as sentries because they're doubling up. It means effectively twice the work, because every job takes two men. If you work that kind of schedule for long, you'll get tired. And when you get tired, you get sloppy. . . "

Clea's medallion came in handy as well. She wore it all the time now, and it warned them more than once when parties had been sent out to ambush them. It also kept her aware of any people sneaking out of camp.

They decided to let anyone sneaking out alone go, on the hopes that this would encourage desertion. And it did. Rumors began to fly that the ones who disappeared were not killed, but had just run away. Dissension grew in the camp, and the two often crept close enough to listen to the sentries talking among themselves.

After almost another week of whittling away at their forces, and dodging the large patrols, they decided it was time to take the final step. Late that afternoon, Xena had pointed to a pair of guards, leaning groggily against each other. "Look, that's the third pair I've seen today that are almost falling asleep. I think they're about as unprepared as they're ever going to be. Tonight, we move."

At sunset the tree flutes began their eerie song yet again, and as Clea stalked towards the North end of camp she heard the guards cursing the horrible noise. She smiled to herself, and readied a special arrow. The tip was wrapped in wet rags that smelled of tar. She pooped open a metal box, and touched her arrow to the glowing coal inside. As soon as the arrow was well lit, she knocked and let fly, aiming for the supply tents in the middle ring.

Three more there, and then four for the command tents. Five randomly across the barracks areas, and she was out of arrows. Dropping the bow, she broke into a dead run for the South end of the camp.

Meanwhile, Xena waited, concealed in the nearest cover to the South gate. She watched as confusion ensued, and the groggy and confused troops tried to organize a bucket brigade.

Breathing hard, Clea appeared at her side. Xena drew and knocked an arrow of her own, and then let fly at the guards in front of the gate. There was too much confusion in the camp to hear the brief screams of the other guard, before he also died with an arrow in his throat.

They ran together, easily entering a camp in total confusion. Though the occasional person tried to stop them, it was evident that those who weren't intent on putting out the fire, were intent on getting out of this gods forsaken camp as quickly as they could. Xena grinned like a madwoman. "And THAT'S the benefit of a terror campaign. Look at them go . . . "

They worked their way through the burning and smoldering tents, looking for Orphenan. Eventually they found him directing a bucket brigade, trying to save his command tent. Clea drew her sword, but Xena put a hand up, blocking her. Instead, she knocked an arrow and sighted on his heart. Taking a deep breath, she drew back.

But just at the moment of release, a burning form stumbled over a guy wire, crashing into Xena and sending the arrow careening wildly off target. Clea ran him through, mercifully. But the bow was broken, and the arrows trapped under a burning corpse . . .

"All right, then we do this the hard way . . ." Xena drew her own sword, leaping from cover and sprinting towards Orphenan. Clea caught up with her, and then passed her by.

Screaming she charged Orphenan, He swung around, and his eyes went wide. "YOU!" At the same time, he grabbed one of the bucket wielders, throwing him directly into Clea's path, and onto her sword. By the time she disentangled herself and dumped the body, he was armed and screaming for backup.

Xena fell back, knowing that Clea needed to deal with this on her own. Instead, she concentrated on keeping the rest of the army (all that were left, that is . . .) off Clea's back.

Clea stalked around Orphenan, growling deep in her throat. "You VISCOUS. CONNIVING. COWARDLY. **BASTARD** !!!", she rasped, punctuating each epithet with an attempt to relieve him of a major body part.

He blocked each blow, and quickly regained his composure. Soon the fight was moving in a blur of blades and fists, screams and the ring of steel. While Xena kept the other soldiers at bay, Clea and Orphenan did their utmost to kill each other.

Clea flipped backwards, catching him under the jaw with a viscous kick. As he spit teeth, he swept her feet from under her, hammering her in the stomach with his free hand.

And then, suddenly, time stopped. A twisting blow caught on the hilt of Clea's sword, and sent it arcing over Xena's head to land quivering in the bank of the stream.

Both Clea and Orphenan watched it go, with disbelief etched on their features. But Clea recovered her poise an instant sooner, and lashed out to grab Orphenan's wrist. Dropping to the ground, she caught him in the stomach with her feet, and sent him vaulting over her head towards his burning tent.

He flailed in midair, seeming to hang suspended, and then crashed into the raging inferno.

Clea sprung up, waiting for him to charge back out, but he did not appear. After a moment, she stepped closer, trying to see into the interior of the tent. She singed the eyebrows right off her face before Xena grabbed her and pulled her away. "Clea, let it go. He's DEAD. And we will be, too, if we don't get out of here soon." She tugged her towards the stream.

Clea struggled against Xena's grip for a moment, but in the end, she slumped and came along quietly. Xena threw them both into the stream, and they floated down past the burning tents and chaos. Before they reached the wall, they scrambled out and headed for the gate. No one stood in their way.

Gabrielle started up out of her reverie when she heard crunching noises from the front of the cave. Eyes wide, she grabbed her staff and ran to the entrance.

"Whoo hoo HOO, whoo hoo HOO" A bird cry echoed in. As Xena stepped through the cave mouth, Gabrielle dropped the staff and tackled her friend. "You're BACK!!" Xena laughed and ruffled her hair, then Gabrielle stepped back and turned to Tellus.

"You see, I told you they'd be back soon. Safe and sound, just as I said they would be. Xena ALWAYS ends up on top." She grabbed Xena's hand, and dragged her over to the bed rolls. "Now, sit down and tell us EVERYTHING."

The next morning after breakfast, they all packed up what little belongings they had and loaded the horses. Clea was very subdued, working in silence.

Xena was double checking all Argo's tack when she asked Clea, "So, what will you two do now?"

Clea shook her head. "I haven't decided. I don't think I'm ready to try for another command yet. I'm not sure I want to be quite that . . ." she paused, as if looking for a word, ". . .responsible. Maybe I'll look up the Sunwolves again. Indra runs a tight unit, and she's a fine commander. Best skirmishers this side of Thrace, and the pay is good.

I hear they have a permanent winter quarters where some of the soldier's families stay. Even a school . . ." She trailed off, casting a significant look towards Tellus. He was looking at a scroll that Gabrielle had pulled out of her bag, and shaking his head.

"I've heard of Indra. She's got a good reputation, and they win more often than they lose. You could certainly do worse. " Xena tugged at one last strap, then swung up into the saddle.

She cast a long look at the silver medallion around her friend's neck. "And don't get too involved in the god's scheming. It's trouble, more trouble than it's worth.

"Take care of yourself, Clea. We'll look you up. Maybe this winter. I've heard good things about Indra's taverns, as well as her army . . ." Looking back of her shoulder, she called out, "Come on Gabrielle. We need to get moving. We've got a lot of ground to cover if we want to get to Carthentia before dark."

Later, as they walked, Gabrielle put away her pan flute and jogged till she was next to Xena.

"You know, there's one thing I still don't understand. You guys won. You beat a whole ARMY. But Clea didn't seem satisfied. It was like, she still needed something more, and she couldn't get it."

"Bitterness is hard to explain, Gabrielle. And even harder to live with.She killed Orphenan, but that didn't erase what he'd done. And it didn't bring her men back, or make it any less her responsibility that they died. Even though he's dead, she still resents him. Still hates him. And she doesn't know how to let go of that. Until she learns to let it go, it will keep eating at her. It will affect how she deals with others, and it will drive her.I don't think she'll ever go back to commanding, unless she deals with this. Because she's afraid that the same thing will happen all over again. And that she'll be powerless to prevent it."

Gabrielle stopped and leaned on her staff, looking thoughtful. "But how do you get over something like that?"

Xena shook her head, speaking so softly that Gabrielle had to strain to hear . . ."I wish I knew, Gabrielle. I wish I knew."


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