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"Hera's tits! He must be huge," Eponin exclaimed, dropping the leather gauntlet she was about to slide onto Gabrielle's arm.
"Did you get a good look at him, Amaran?" Gabrielle asked nervously. Really massive men always made the bard a little nervous simply because she found them difficult to knock down with her staff. Any situation where she couldn't defend herself properly made her a little edgy but she had learned that from Xena. She tried to relax again. Aside from the guards around Ephiny and Jadax, nearly every other Royal guard in the village would be in the meeting hall watching after her safety. She still wished Xena could be there though.
"No. I just caught a glimpse of the party as they were escorted in. They are being billeted over in the guest huts for the duration of the negotiations," the guard answered.
"See if you can organised, um, guides for all the members of the delegation, and two for the big man. Biggest we've got, they'll probably end up looking like children standing next to him though," Eponin ordered.
The Royal guard gave Eponin a shy smile before nodding. She quickly left the room to set up a roster of guards for the villagers.
"I wonder if he is related to her in any way," the warrior thought aloud as she picked up the gauntlet to continue helping Gabrielle prepare for the meeting ahead.
Gabrielle stood on the low platform at one end of the meeting hall, trying to relax and pay attention to the welcoming ceremony. Eponin was right on her left shoulder, close enough that the bard could hear every squeak of her leather armour. Behind her slightly, and to the right was Amaran. The woman had volunteered as Gabrielle's personal bodyguard for the duration of the meetings, even though the blonde-haired storyteller knew she had already been on duty since before dawn that morning. The guard would be with her every minute of every day until the villagers left, including sleeping in her quarters at night, at least until Xena returned from wherever she had gone. Gabrielle wasn't sure she liked that idea very much but could see the sense in it, especially after getting her first good look at the big man she had been told about.
He was every bit as massive as Amaran had told them. With shoulders as wide as he had, he'd been forced to turn sideways and bend his knees to even move through the doorway of the meeting hall. Gabrielle felt sure, if he had raised his arm, Xena could have comfortably walked under it without touching him in any way. The bard found herself smiling under her mask at the idea of asking directions from him. He would probably just pick up the plough, horse and all to point the way, she thought. Looking him over carefully, the resemblance between the man and Kaliope was striking. They have to be related, perhaps brother and sister, she mused.
Glancing over the other members of the delegation, she saw almost half were women but every one of them had such a sadness in their eyes that Gabrielle was left wondering what had happened to them. Each village had sent several representatives to the meeting. The two villages closest to the Amazons southern border had sent only women for some reason, though the big man was the leader of the entire group. He finally stepped forward and Gabrielle learned his name, Drayton. The bard wished Xena was with her because there was something about this group of people she was having trouble picking up on. She expected a little nervousness from them but every face she looked at was closed, as though there was something to hide. If the warrior woman was there, she would have been able to read the group a lot more successfully than the bard was doing.
Eventually, the welcoming ceremony drew to a close. A break had been scheduled so the Queen's platform could be removed and tables and chairs set up for the meetings ahead. Gabrielle stepped from the platform and quietly left by one of the side entrances, Amaran a bare pace and a half behind her every step of the way.
"I think I'd like to go back to my room, Amaran, until the preliminary meeting starts. If that is okay?" Gabrielle said.
The Royal guard simply nodded, her eyes never stopping their movement around the compound for a moment.
Sitting on the side of the bed, Gabrielle gently rubbed the middle of her chest, over her heart. The feeling she'd had in her stomach earlier in the day had moved up to her chest, leaving it tight and aching. Must be nerves, she told herself several times, but somehow it felt like more than just a little fear constricting her ribcage.
"Are you all right, Princess?" Amaran asked quietly, after watching Gabrielle massaging her chest for some time.
Gabrielle looked up, surprised. She had forgotten about the guard being with her simply because Amaran had been sitting so silently by the window. "I'm fine, I think. Just a few butterflies moving around," she replied. Trying to find something to take her mind off the upcoming meeting, Gabrielle decided to chat with the guard. She didn't know a great deal about Amaran beyond the fact she was a Royal guard and she had suddenly appeared in the tight inner circle of people in the palace. "Do you have a partner, Amaran?" she asked, hesitating briefly in case she was being a little too nosy.
"No, not at the moment," the guard replied, but from the way she dropped her head and blushed, Gabrielle was sure she had her eye on someone.
"Anyone you're interested in, perhaps?" the bard inquired, a small smile on her face.
"Yes," Amaran replied softly, the blush deepening even further.
I wonder if I was this bad before Xena and I became lovers, she thought. "Tell me to go away if I am sticking my nose into your business but would you like to tell me who?" Gabrielle asked. She was genuinely curious and this communicated itself to the Royal guard sitting at the window.
"It's Eponin," the guard said, dropping her head again to hide the smile just saying the woman's name had made appear on her face like magic.
Jumping from the bed, crossing the room quickly and wrapping her arms around the surprised woman, Gabrielle said excitedly, "Oh, Amaran. She's been alone for so long. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure about how I feel but she was so hurt before that I want to take things slow and easy. I think she is interested back but..." the woman said.
Gabrielle laughed as she stood up again. "I'm sure there is some rule in the warrior's scrolls that says you're not supposed to show emotion unless it has been dragged out of you first. Then again," the bard smiled and a warm glowing look lit up her face, "I fell in love with the absolute queen of the understated comment. It might be easier with Eponin, though in some ways she was cut from the same tree as Xena." The bard paused for a moment before asking the next question. The storyteller in her was dying to have all the details but she didn't want to pry into someone else's life too much. "Can you tell me how it all started for you?"
"Well, it all started...."
"I don't think I can do this, Eponin," Gabrielle said, as they waited in a small alcove beside the meeting hall. Amaran was standing just outside the alcove watching for any trouble that might head their way. "What if I make the wrong decisions?"
"Want to hear a little advice a very wise warrior once gave me?" Eponin replied.
"If it would help, I would dance naked on the temple altar," the bard said, trying to quell the nerves that were making her chest feel tighter by the moment.
"She said, if you don't feel it, fake it. Works for just about everything but love, I've found."
"How can I fake making a good decision?" Gabrielle asked, her voice catching in her throat.
"Relax, Gabrielle. This is just the preliminary meeting to set the agenda for the next few days. You probably won't even have to open your mouth. Once you get through this one, you'll be fine. Take my word for it," Eponin said, trying to encourage the obviously nervous woman by her side.
One of the other guards came to the front of the alcove and nodded to let the three women standing there know the delegation was ready and everything was set to go.
"Courage, Gabrielle. You're an Amazon Queen, after all," Eponin said as they walked out, heading into the meeting hall.
"Then why don't I feel like one," the bard muttered under her breath.
Xena sat resting by the side of the river for a moment, letting her breathing settle again. The map had been right about the valley walls coming right down to the water's edge in places. She had gotten passed several of these by scrambling carefully along the steeply inclined cliff wall like a rock spider but a few had necessitated her entering the river and swimming around. Thankfully the river was still fairly broad and the current had not been too strong, though the last swim had been more difficult as the walls had narrowed somewhat and the speed of the water had picked up as a result. Slinging her sword across her back again; she had swum with it held over her head with one hand, she started back along the bank.
The warrior knew she was well inside Amazon territory, yet she was still finding the sluice boxes in the river wherever there was a shallow, rocky ford to place them and the occasional area of digging, though none were quite as extensive as the mining she had seen before. The border patrols probably never come down here, she thought as she looked at the valley walls climbing up to the forest above. Here and there the banks spread out the reveal a clearing but the cliffs surrounding them made them all but useless as camping sites. Xena had noticed the cliffs were getting lower as she moved up the river though. For another candlemark, she swam, jumped and walked her way up the river until the cliffs had finally dropped down, eventually meeting with the plains of the Amazon hunting grounds.
Rounding a bend in the river, jumping from boulder to boulder, the next section of bank seemed very familiar but she couldn't recall ever being here before. She could see where the trees opened up, most likely onto another clearing. Xena decided it would probably be the perfect place to rest for a while, as her muscles were aching and sore after first working out with Amaran, running through most of the night and then tracing the river back to this point. "I'm getting a little too old for this," Xena muttered to herself as she climbed up from the boulders at the side of the river, digging her booted toes into the bank above to get to the clearing ahead.
Just before she entered the clearing, she crossed over a narrow path running from the south to the north. "Must be the river path Gabrielle mentioned to me," she mumbled. Less than a candlemark further to the north, the path would come to a dead end but knowing it was there and where it led, Xena was happy to find a quicker way back to the Amazon village, instead of the overland route she was originally planning to take.
Striding into the clearing, Xena was shocked at the scene of devastation in front of her. The rotted remains of an unknown number of men lay scattered about as though some elemental force had simply sucked the life strength from them where they stood. As she walked through the bodies, or what was left of them, she tried to make sense of what had taken place there. The men had not simply been killed in some battle, they had been mutilated, dismembered, many having been sliced limb from limb. Xena wondered what evil could have possibly committed such inhuman acts and was that evil still wandering the Amazon hunting grounds.
Crouching down beside one torso; its limbs and head lying elsewhere in the clearing, she examined the open hole in its chest. The breastbone had been split cleanly, laying open the heart beneath. There was something about this wound which bothered Xena. It was too long for a sword thrust and too narrow for an axe. She had never seen a spear or pike make a wound like that either. Then it struck her exactly what kind of a weapon could leave an opening such as this on a human body. A chakram.
The sight of the body in front her wavered, her eyes filling with tears as the images of what had happen that afternoon rose from some forgotten place in her mind. The almost lazy left handed throw of her chakram when she had killed this man. Chasing down others who ran from her fury, killing them from behind, a sword in their backs. Slashing her way so easily through the few who had stood to fight. Their weapons had been little more than long skinning knives or cheap potmetal swords. When all were dead, going from body to body, savaging each corpse, throwing their limbs around the clearing like so much unwanted kindling, brutalising some until they were passed the point of even being recognisable as human. The tidal wave of guilt and unbelieving horror at what she had done screamed up in front of Xena, thundering down on her and crushing her under its smothering weight.
The warrior slowly sank to her knees in the middle of the clearing, her eyes unseeing, her mind blank. All she felt was the unending spiral of guilt that she could have taken the lives of men who had committed no crime other than to be greedy enough to look for gold on the Amazon hunting grounds. She could have easily subdued them without even drawing a weapon as there hadn't been a true fighter among them. They had been no threat to her, they had barely fought back when she had shot from the trees like an arrow. Yet, she had killed every single one of them, without honour or good cause.
Xena saw only what she had done, not wanting to see the reasons it had happened. Cycles of anger, pain and self-hatred had been locked behind a wall of iron self-control, festering away like an infected abscess. Never permitting it any access to escape, never allowing another close enough that they might see it and help her heal, she pushed it deeper and deeper into herself until it finally pushed back, the pressure building until it burst forth in one unthinking explosion of raw, powerful and uncontrolled emotion, darker than anything she had ever felt during those long cycles as a warlord. A blackness so vast and overwhelming, it had carried her away. And she had gone with it, willingly.
Washing helplessly back and forth in an unreasoning ocean of her own guilt, Xena knew the time had finally come to lay down her sword, forever.
Gabrielle sat fidgeting with the quill and parchment in front of her. She was trying to listen to Drayton as he demanded the villages have right of passage across Amazon lands. The way he had jumped straight into the issue had made it clear he was going to tie the passage rights to every other aspect of the trade agreement. He had no intention of simply using the first meeting to set the agenda, as had been the practise in the past. He was bringing this to the table now and demanding Gabrielle make a decision immediately before he would permit any further discussions about anything else. No one else in the delegation had spoken yet but most looked uncomfortable with the way Drayton was handling the situation. Several times, one of the other delegates had started to say something and Drayton had bellowed back at them to sit down and shut up.
The bard knew she should have spoken up by now, letting the big man know passage rights were out of the question but she wasn't sure of her ground. Drayton had leaned as far over the table as he could and was thumping it frequently to emphasise his points. It all served to unnerve the blonde even further, uncertain as she was about her ability to make the correct decisions to guide the Amazon Nation. Drayton's sheer size, not to mention volume, had intimidated the usually courageous bard into silence. The only way across that section of the border was the river and Jadax had made it clear there was no way to get sheep along the banks because the walls of the valley met the river at several points. But how to get this across to the big man without jeopardising the rest of the agreement.
The longer Drayton stood there yelling, the tighter the feeling in Gabrielle's chest grew, until she felt she was going to have a real problem breathing soon. She could feel Eponin sitting tensely next to her, holding her own tongue still by an effort of will alone. The eyes of every Amazon in the room were on the bard, as well as those watching from outside the windows. Yet she remained sitting quietly as the big man thundered home another of his points with several more thumps on the table with his massive fist. If only Xena was here, she thought.
At the very moment the image of the warrior woman crossed her mind, the tightness in her chest became a fully fledged pain, catching the breath in her throat for a moment. Xena? Is there something wrong with Xena, the questioned screamed at her. The thought of tall warrior being in some kind of danger was so strong, Gabrielle found herself on her feet before she had even made a conscious decision to move. Snatching up the carved wooden block she used as a gavel, she loudly pounded the table several times and declared the meeting closed, much to the surprise of everyone in the room, especially Drayton.
Leaving the meeting hall as quickly as her position and dignity allowed, she left behind a room in complete uproar as Drayton started bellowing accusations at her retreating back, Eponin trying to calm the rest of the Amazons before one of them decided an arrow might the answer to the big man and his demands. Once passed the last of the women, she took off in a dead run for the stables. She wasn't sure why she was headed there but something inside told her she needed to get to Xena as rapidly as possible and Argo was the fastest way to get anywhere on the hunting grounds she could think of at that moment.
Skidding to a halt, she grabbed Argo's bridle and reins from its peg on the wall where Xena kept it. She didn't bother with the saddle, she could barely lift it and didn't want to take the time to properly saddle the mare. Gabrielle was just going to take her chances at riding bare back. Behind her, she heard the sound of another pair of feet running into the stables. Turning, she spotted a surprised, and interestingly enough, angry looking Amaran. Gabrielle's sudden departure from the meeting hall had caught the guard a little flat-footed as she had been concentrating on Drayton, expecting him to make some kind of physical attack on the princess at any moment.
"Mother of Zeus! What do you think you're doing?" the guard snapped, not caring who she was talking to. "The negotiations have just been turned into a complete shambles."
"Xena's in trouble," Gabrielle stated simply, heading towards Argo's stall.
"How in Tartarus do you know that?" Amaran demanded loudly, following the other woman. Maybe the Princess really isn't experienced enough to negotiate the agreement, she thought for a moment. All that yelling must have made her lose her nerve or something.
"I don't know, not for sure but I can feel it, here," she replied, briefly touching the place on her chest she had been massaging earlier in the afternoon. Entering the mare's stall, she tossed the bridle over her amazingly, for once, co-operative head and started to do up the buckles. "Look, I know you don't understand, Amaran but I have been around the woman for over two summers. I love her more than life itself and I feel," emphasising the word, "she is in some kind of danger. Haven't you ever felt someone you're close to is in trouble without you knowing for sure at the time?"
The guard nodded her head. She did know the feeling and most times it had turned out to be true. "Here, if you're going to be galloping off into the hunting grounds somewhere without me, you'll need this," the woman replied, as she removed her own belt and the long knife she had strapped to it. Reaching round, she buckled it to Gabrielle's thinner waist, settling the sheath at her side.
Gabrielle looked down at the belt she now wore. The blade was almost as long as her forearm and she hoped she would not find a reason for ever having to take it from its sheath. "Thanks, Amaran. I don't know what to say," the bard said as she turned back towards the other woman.
"You don't have to say a thing. Just let me give you a leg up and then I can go help Eponin calm down the mess we have in the meeting hall," Amaran answered, holding out her hands to lift Gabrielle onto Argo's bare back.
"I'll be back to sort that out as soon as I can," the bard called over her shoulder as she dug her heels into the mare's ribs and started out the stable doors.
The Royal guard watched the princess as she quickly crossed the compound and disappeared into the trees. Spotting a group of people pouring from the doors of the meeting hall like enraged ants, she ran back to stand by Eponin's side once more.
"Okay, Argo. I don't know where we are going but I'm sure we can find Xena together," Gabrielle said to the mare's head.
Gabrielle used to think riding with a saddle was bad but found bare back was far worse. Two summers of riding behind the warrior had improved her seat a great deal but by no stretch of the imagination would she have called herself a rider. With nothing else to grip, other than the reins in one hand, the bard tightly curled her fingers through the horse's mane and clenched her knees as firmly as she could around Argo's ribs. Praying briefly to whoever might be listening, she hoped to stay atop the mare until she got where she was going, wherever that may have been. From the discussions that morning with everyone in the Queen's chambers, the bard knew Xena had gone somewhere just over the western border, so headed in that direction, hoping she would figure out how to find the warrior in the mean time.
She had a brief glimpse of the steep path down from the mountain lookout post as they galloped passed, her mind working frantically trying to think where Xena might be. No matter how she tried, she couldn't come up with an answer to the problem. Xena could have been anywhere between the village and the western border or even on the other side. Slowing Argo, she tried to think sensibly without having to worry about being thrown at the same time.
Speaking out loud to the mare, Gabrielle said, "She was going to check something on the other side of the border. Something to do with the river." The bard could see in her mind's eye, Eponin's finger tracing over the path of the river, time after time, as she tried to explain everything to the blonde. "From the village, to the western border. From the border passed that miserable clearing to the ravine," she mumbled, seeing the map in front of her. Then, like someone had lit a torch inside her mind, Gabrielle knew exactly where the warrior was. "That Hades cursed clearing!" she almost shouted. "Come on, Argo. Weve got a ways to go yet," she called to the mare as she dug her heels into Argo's ribs again.
The bard knew there would be no way to get Argo through the brambles on the route she had taken the first time she had been to the clearing, they had missed the turn-off for that anyway. Thinking, she remembered the river path. She had walked out of the clearing along that path. It was narrow but Argo should be able to move along it, if she could stay on her back, that is. Gabrielle was not absolutely certain Xena was there but somehow if felt right.
Gabrielle ducked yet another low branch, straightening on the other side of it. She had no idea how much further down the river path she had to go before reaching the clearing but she was hoping to get there soon. She had missed the turn for the path initially simply because she hadn't seen it in through the thick green cover of branches and bushes surrounding it. She was also hoping to get there quickly because the inside of her knees and thighs were starting to chafe rather badly from the rubbing of Argo's coat against her bare skin. The mare was moving at a swift walk, the path being too narrow for anything faster, not if she wanted to keep her head attached to her shoulders. Another low branch hung over the path and Gabrielle ducked once again to avoid it.
The closer she came to the clearing, the more the tightness in her chest eased, finally allowing her to breathe freely again. Gabrielle hoped she was going the right way because the last time she had been along this path she was in a state of extreme shock and not paying a great deal of attention to her surroundings. But so far the feeling of heading in the right direction had not left her, so she stayed with the path, moving towards the clearing where she prayed Xena would be. The bard tried not to think about what had reached her back in the village to let her know Xena was in some kind of danger and she forced her mind away from the images of destruction she had seen there on her last visit. Hopefully by now, the scavengers of the forest would have cleaned up the very worst of it.
Up ahead, she could see the trees beginning to thin and the flat space of the clearing showing through the gaps in their trunks. A faint reddish glow was lighting some of the darker corners of the surrounding forest. Dismounting gratefully from Argo, Gabrielle loosely tied the reins to a branch and walked, a little unsteadily after so long on horseback, the last few paces into the clearing.
Stepping into the clearing, the sight before her both horrified and fascinated her. Xena had collected every single part of the men's dismembered and mutilated bodies and piled them together. Taking the wood from the small lean-tos and other shelters they had built, she had constructed a funeral pyre around them. Gabrielle could see her kneeling beside the burning pyre, greasy smoke starting to fill the sky overhead. Looking more closely, the bard saw Xena had tucked the hilt of her sword between her knees and the point was even now pressing against her heart.
"NO!! Xena, don't," Gabrielle screamed across the clearing. She began to run towards the kneeling warrior to try to stop her from falling on her own blade, barely getting more than a handful of paces before Xena leapt to her feet and turned towards the other woman.
"Stay away from me, Gabrielle. Can't you see I'm nothing more than a mindless killer," she said, her voice flat and emotionless. "I should have died long ago."
The bard stopped moving, wondering if Xena had lost her senses again and tipped over the edge of her own sanity.
Almost reading her mind, Xena said, "I'm quite sane, Gabrielle. Saner than I have ever been, in fact. Just go back to the village. You're safer there."
The blonde woman looked Xena over carefully. She was willing to accept the warrior's statement of sanity but there was something very wrong going on. Xena's face was completely expressionless, her eyes shadowed by some hurt or pain from within. Her shoulders were slumped forward as though she was carrying a great weight on her back, a weight Gabrielle couldn't see but one that was there nonetheless. "Xena," she said gently. "I've always known you were a killer but it was the reasons you killed that were important to me."
"The reasons have no meaning now," Xena replied dully, looking at the flames beside her.
Getting a feel for what was happening to the woman she loved, Gabrielle began to do the one thing she was best at, she talked, fast. "The reasons will always have meaning. You, alone, can't make them go away. You told me you picked up the sword to protect your village. That's a good reason. But you got lost after your brother died. For a long time you killed people simply to see them die, yet, you still tried not to harm women and children. So some of that killing was for the wrong reasons. Then you decided to fight for good, to help protect the people who couldn't look after themselves. All the killing you have done in the past two summers has been for the right reasons. To protect or defend."
"And you call this," Xena snarled, pointing at the burning pyre, "killing for the right reasons?"
Continued - Part 5 (Conclusion)