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This story contains scenes of graphic violence
and combat. Viewer discretion is advised.
The Legal Stuff : If you have EVER seen ANY of these characters in ANY episode of Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, then that character DOESN'T belong to me. They belong to the shows' creators, writers, producers and to MCA/Universal in whatever order their lawyers prefer. All other characters are my own invention or adaptations from mythology. Anyone wishing to borrow THESE characters for their own fiction may E-mail
Xena's words were too simple for what Gabrielle was feeling. Only a few days ago the colony of Istros had been a thriving market town, home to hundreds of adventurous men and women making a new life on the edge of the known world. Now bodies were scattered for miles and hanged from every tree. Nothing had been spared, not even the livestock.
Gabrielle shook her head in disgust. "What kind of monster would do something like this?"
"I don't know, but there are survivors of any massacre. Let's see if we can find any."
Xena helped her friend onto Argo's back and the pair rode down into the valley. The man in Calchedon who had sent them on this trip had few details, just a story of death and devastation. He fled into the land of the Amazons and centaurs, preferring to take his chances with them. That had made them take notice. In two weeks they had reached the great river known as the Ister and the town that shared its name. If not for the rubble, there would be no sign that a city had ever stood here.
* * * *
"Here's one, Xena. She's still alive!" Xena hurried to her friend's side and found her supporting a blond girl about her own age. She was moaning weakly but looked like she would recover from her wound. Sprawled in a pool of someone else's blood the attackers had probably thought her dead. As Xena washed away the blood with a wet cloth the girl's eyes flickered open. They focused on Gabrielle's face and her eyes widened, she let out a piercing shriek and passed out again. The bard almost dropped her in shock. Xena snapped her head around, saw nothing.
"What was that about?" Xena asked.
"I don't know. I didn't do anything. She just looked at me like I was some kind of demon." Gabrielle glanced at her companion. "She must be scared out of her mind."
Xena shrugged. "Not surprising, given what she lived through. She'll come to in a few minutes."
They waited as the injured girl slowly struggled back to consciousness and Xena was quick to calm her. "We're here to help." she said.
The survivor tried to move, wincing at the pain of bruised bones. "My family..."
"Anyone who survived the attack has scattered. They may come back later. What happened here?"
The girl coughed. Xena gave her some water and she began again. "Last night. There was a festival thanking the gods for our harvest this year. Our men were all drunk. No one was expecting anything. I don't know who it was, it was so fast...they just stormed in on us like wolves. Big men, huge men, with axes and bows. They tore the place apart. We never had a chance." She was starting to cry now.
"Can you tell me anything more about these invaders? What they looked like, or their language, or who was leading them?" Xena asked.
The girl shook her head. "I've never seen them before. They were all tall and their hair was pale red, like your friend's. They spoke a strange language."
"Was it the Gauls? Or maybe the Thracians?" Gabrielle asked, guessing.
"No. I've heard Gallic. There was a tribe across the river called the Getae we used to trade with who used the same words." She closed her eyes for a moment to think. "And when I was a child I remember strangers who sailed down the coast from Scythia to trade with us. They all spoke Greek when they were in the town but when they were alone they used the language of the invaders. We haven't heard from them since the siege of Troy began."
Xena frowned, an unpleasant thought beginning to form. "The Scyths don't go near the water, but there was another tribe in the north that did. The Vanas."
"The tribe that traded with us called themselves Vanar, but these were just people with the same language. The Vanar wore fine clothing, not furs and leather. And the Vanar always held their women back, but the murderers had women fighting with them. I first thought you and your friend were with them, you dress much the same. Like the Amazons in the old stories."
Xena's expression changed from suspicion to open fear. Gabrielle looked at her in confusion. "Amazons?" she said. "No, it couldn't be. Even Velasca wouldn't order a slaughter like this."
But I know someone who would, Xena thought. Someone who should have been buried long ago. She got to her feet and helped the girl into the shelter of a ragged tent, leaving her a bag of food and a terse warning to head southward as soon as she was able. Then she vaulted into Argo's saddle and all but lifted Gabrielle up by the neck.
Gabrielle looked at her friend closely. "I don't like this Xena. You know what's going on, don't you?"
"Have you ever heard of the northern Amazon nation?"
"I heard about them from Ephiny and Melosa. They said the northern tribes died out fifty years ago."
"They didn't die, they were conquered. Absorbed by the same people who wasted this town. I don't want them getting any closer to home than they are now."
Another week found them at Tyra, a small coastal village which had somehow escaped destruction. The villagers were tense and fearful, challenging anyone who approached. It took a lot of persuasion on Gabrielle's part to get them in. Xena brooded in silence.
She still drew mistrustful looks from the guards, who whispered that she looked like one of the raiders. She just clenched her jaw and ignored their comments while she and Gabrielle probed for information. Two days of investigation turned up nothing new, then they were introduced to an old fisherman who had been captured by strange bandits a few days earlier.
"How did they treat you there?" Xena asked him, expecting some story of torture or abuse.
"The barbarians who caught me spoke no Greek but they took me to one of their elders who did. The old man told me not to be afraid, that I was his guest and that no one would hurt me if I did as he asked."
Xena frowned. "He asked about your defenses I assume?"
"He asked about the other band of strangers who passed through. They never came into the village, and when I told him that, he let me go. They took some livestock and fish, but that was all."
"That doesn't make much sense," Gabrielle said. "What kind of army goes around razing fortified towns and killing everyone, but then spares a tiny village with no real defense?"
"This elder of theirs is looking for something," Xena said. There was a strange expression on her face, as if she were expecting terrible news. Gabrielle watched her suspiciously. Xena seemed to know more than she was telling, and there were few things that annoyed the curious bard more than that. "Tell me about the old man. Did he carry himself like a warrior?"
"Aye. As I said, he's old. His hair was frost gray, but he didn't show the years on his face though. He's taller than you, moves smoothly and talks even more so, but his accent is a bit rough. Long hair and beard, both braided. He always carried a spear with him, so I guess he must have been a warrior once. The others always deferred to him. He had one eye, blue."
"The left?" Xena snapped. Her intensity frightened the fisherman, who tried to back away. She caught him with that famous glare that stopped him in his tracks.
"Yes, the right was covered with a patch. Had a nasty scar across his cheek too. Someone must have laid his face open with a blade."
The warrior princess dropped him and began to pace the room, cursing the names of every god she could think of. Her young companion stared at her in shock. "Xena? What's wrong? Is this someone you fought before?"
Xena ignored her audience. She just laughed grimly and shook her head, still cursing under her breath.
"His name's Woden, and no, I never faced him in battle. I tried to kill him, and he put a spear through me for my trouble. The Vanar brought him down as he was about to finish me off, drove a spear through him and hanged him from a tree as a sacrifice. The old devil's just too stubborn to die." The warrior leaned into a corner and lowered her head tiredly onto her arms. "I betrayed him to his enemies because he killed my friend. I couldn't let him get away with that."
Gabrielle shook her head, still confused. She crossed over to her friend and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Was he one of the men who raided your home town?" the bard asked.
"No, I met him years later, after my first army was destroyed. I spent a year with the Amazons, learning their ways, but they always fight in the forests using cover and in small groups. I wanted to learn how to fight real battles with real armies." She looked up and met her friend's gaze.
"Queen Hippolyta warned me never to travel to the north, or I'd meet a warlord who could never be beaten. Being young and stupid at the time, I naturally chose to go look for him. Came close to getting killed, had to be rescued by some kind strangers, wasted another few months looking for him and then he came to the village I was living in. It was almost a year before I proved my worth to him and he started to teach me. Then he murdered one of my best friends while I watched. All I wanted after that was to see him dead."
The fisherman had been watching the exchange silently. He coughed nervously for attention. "Would you kill him if you had the chance now?" he asked.
Xena looked from the old man to her friend. "I'm trying to cut down, but in his case I'd make an exception. And I don't want to hear one word about it, Gabrielle."
"You may yet get that chance. Some of his troops have come to this town before to gather supplies. The last time they stopped I heard them mention that name many times. I think he's coming here."
Xena stared at him, then closed her eyes. "I don't imagine this town has an army?"
"No. We've always had peace with our neighbors."
"Woden doesn't believe in peace. Tell your magistrate to get everyone he can into the fishing boats and either anchor off the coast out of bowshot or sail down the coast toward Troy. Better to take your chances there. I'll stay behind and wait for him."
"I'll get our things," Gabrielle said.
"No," Xena told her. "I'm staying here alone." She silenced the bard's angry protest with a stare. "Woden doesn't have any mercy for women or children. If he sees us together he may kill you just for a chance to hurt me. So go. For my sake."
"And what if you need me?"
"I don't intend to fight him here. Once I have his attention I'll run, and he'll follow. I can lead him into a trap in the west. As much as I hate him, there are people out there who hate him even more."
Xena spent most of that night thrashing and moaning, returning to nightmares she had escaped years ago. In her mind she marched again at the heels of her gray-haired master and teacher. She remembered lessons he had drilled into her on countless battlefields, harsh commands roared over the clash of steel and the screams of the dying. The memory of the bloodlust and rage he had fed and trained, that she had fought against now for two painful years.
Golowig Niordsdottar. The young girl who had saved her from a lonely death in the wilderness, and had been like a sister to her for months. Her father was the king of the Vanar and a bitter enemy of Woden. Golowig had never forgiven Xena for joining him though she tried for weeks to explain. She was sent to confer with the great warlord on behalf of her people. This time she seemed more upset, even angry, but there was no way Xena could get the girl to talk. She brooded outside with the other guard while her friend and her master talked. When they were finished, she decided, she and Golowig were going to have a long talk themselves.
The chance to talk never came. Less than ten minutes had passed before Golowig tore open the doors and fled. Woden appeared behind her, trembling with rage and sputtering incoherently. Xena looked from one to the other for one endless moment, unsure of what to do. In that moment of hesitation Woden raised his spear and threw it with his usual deadly aim. The crunch of steel on bone echoed in the air. Xena remembered the look of shock on her friend's face, and their eyes met for a moment. Then the light went out of Golowig's eyes and she sprawled bonelessly on the ground.
"I made your grandfather a king with that spear," Woden spat at his victim. "And with my sword I kept the crown on your father's undeserving head. Poor thanks it is to call me a stealer of women and demand a tribute." The warlord turned to his assembled warriors. "The daughter of Hod, my promised bride Freya, is gone. No doubt to take her pleasures with some shepherd boy before she's bound to marriage. Their filth-eating king dares to accuse me of kidnapping my own betrothed."
Woden sneered viciously. "He probably has her locked away in his own prison. After all, a degenerate who married his own sister wouldn't cringe from a mere abduction. They disgrace me with their insults and her with their mistreatment. We will march against Vanahome in the morning and drink to victory in Niord's own hall! And I'll make him return my wife to me." The Ansas raised a howl of approval, rattling their spears.
Xena looked up from her friend's body with tears in her eyes, her hand reaching instinctively for her sword, but she stopped herself. Woden's guards would kill her before she reached him, and vengeance demanded that he die. She would have to think like he did to kill him. And wasn't Woden called the betrayer of warriors?
* * * *
Gabrielle stirred in her hiding place, disturbed by the warrior's moans. Her own dreams had been troubled, but she was shocked when she pulled her covering aside to see tears and sweat pouring down the warrior's face.
"Xena? Xena! By the gods, what's wrong?" She tried to rouse her friend, but Xena fought her. Gabrielle cradled her dark hair in her lap and kept chanting her name.
* * * *
She marched along patiently at the heels of her victim. The old fool would never know what had hit him. One simple act of revenge and Golowig's spirit would be free. A smile came over her face as she imagined Woden's last thoughts, dying on her blade. The same smile came over her face as she dreamed, and Gabrielle couldn't bear to look at it.
"This is the place," Woden had announced. Xena hid the smile as he looked at her. He still didn't suspect treachery. Why should he? She had always been his most loyal soldier.
"That it is," she had replied, looking up at the ancient trees. "The old sacrificial grove. Perfect place for a man to die."
Woden grunted. "Calling Niord a man is giving him credit he doesn't deserve. I have to admit, though, I never dreamed that boneless bastard would have the guts to challenge me." He laughed evilly. "After I'm done we'll see just what kind of guts he has, eh? I might even get a decent drinking cup out of that thick skull of his."
Xena did not reply. She could hear the Vanas surrounding them. Woden showed no surprise when four pair of men emerged from the brush. The old man even smiled.
"As I always said, that man never had the guts to be a king. And he sends eight of you against me? After I've killed you I'll have to remind him not to underestimate me again."
The leader of the assassins returned the smile. So did Xena, unseen, as she silently drew her sword behind her teacher's back. "We aren't here to kill you, just to witness the job being done. You brought your own executioner."
Woden's eyes narrowed and he flashed a quick look at Xena, just in time to see the blow she aimed at his neck. He stumbled and ducked away from the strike but not fast enough, and the blade sliced open his cheek and left eye. The old man screamed once, from the pain and shock. His next scream was one of pure primal rage. Fifty years of constant battle had accustomed him to injury and he recovered fast, whirling instantly on the woman he had thought of as his daughter. Xena prepared to catch him with a backslash but she caught his gaze. One eye dripping blood, the other blazing with hate. Snakelike, they trapped her for one fatal second.
"You are no warrior," he snarled. She panicked and took a step back. He raised his spear and lunged forward. She cried out in her sleep, remembering the explosion of agony as he drove the razorlike steel spearhead into her chest. She lay writhing in the dirt, choking on her own blood as he twisted the weapon around in the wound, probing for her heart. The world began to fade into a black fog, with only that murderous face left behind.
* * * *
She awoke with a muffled scream, felt hands on her and struck reflexively. When she heard Gabrielle cry out she realized who she had and released her grip.
"Gabrielle? What in Hades are you doing here? I told you I didn't want you involved." She hurried to inspect the damage. The bard was massaging her temples but otherwise seemed fine, except for the fear in her eyes. Xena realized that the fear was for her, not of her, and her anger faded away. Gabrielle cocked her head, waiting for an answer.
"It was nothing," she lied. It was obvious that the thought of confronting Woden and his army had Gabrielle terrified. Letting her know that she was even more afraid was the last thing she needed to do. "Just another nightmare. You know I have them sometimes. This was just a bit worse than usual." Her smile was not at all convincing.
"Don't lie to me, Xena," Gabrielle snapped. That nerve pinch had burned like fire and the headache that followed wasn't improving her mood. "You dreamed about Woden, didn't you?" When Xena remained silent she threw up her hands in exasperation. "All right, fine, if it makes you feel better then don't talk to me. All I want to do is help you, but I can't do anything if you won't share with me."
"This is nothing you can help. There's no room for both Woden and me in the same world. I thought he was dead, but I was wrong. He isn't a man, he's a wild animal. The only thing he respects is power and death. The only way to stop him is to kill him."
"They used to say the same about you."Gabrielle whispered softly. She was starting to understand. "But you changed. Maybe he can as well."
Xena shook her head. They were too much alike, Woden and her old self. Everything people hated and feared about her in the old days she had learned at his side. The only thing that separated Xena the warlord from him was about fifty years of practice.
"I wanted to change. He doesn't. As far as he is concerned, he's the savior of his people." Xena smiled faintly at her friend. "And he doesn't have you to warn him when he's gone too far." Gabrielle blinked and tried to reply, but the warrior pressed a finger to her lips. "I've learned more from you and Hercules than I ever did from Woden. Maybe that's what makes us different."
Gabrielle got her first look at Woden and his army the next morning. It was an impressive sight. The warlord rode at the head of several hundred soldiers, each one marching in perfect cadence. Most of the soldiers were brawny axemen or spearmen clad in bearskins. Some carried bows. All of the mounted troops were women wearing traditional Amazon armor. She glanced at her friend for explanation.
"When Woden fought the Amazons he didn't kill them all," Xena told her. "They impressed him, so he took prisoners and united them with his army. These warrior women are the Valkyries, the grand-daughters of those Amazons. They're his best fighters, and they're ready to die for him." Xena leaned against the wall, staring intently at the approaching army. Once again she wished she had more time to plan.
"Stay here." she ordered Gabrielle.
"Not a chance," the bard snapped angrily. "I've told you before, I'm not being left behind!"
"Don't argue with me on this, Gabrielle. If he sees you with me and decides that you're a friend he'll kill you on the spot. I can't protect you and myself at the same time in a situation like this. I won't take the chance."
"But if he kills you it doesn't matter, is that it?" Gabrielle growled. "I don't want to lose you again either, but it never stopped you from taking chances." Xena flinched. Then she narrowed her eyes and stared her friend down.
"I don't have time to argue." She stepped back and slammed the heavy door shut, then wedged a chair under the latch, leaving her friend pounding on the wall and shouting at her.
* * * *
"Hold!" Woden shouted. The army halted instantly, only a few boots hitting the ground out of time. The old warlord stared at the woman in the road. He saw the chakram at her hip and stroked his scarred cheek, remembering her betrayal.
"Xena." The name left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Nice to see you remember me," she replied, her tone just as harsh.
"I never forget an enemy. Especially the ones who still live. I don't believe in leaving anyone 'almost' dead." He began to smile. "How's that lung? Healed well I trust?"
"I healed fine," she replied. "How's your eye?" Woden's friendly smile twisted. "What are you doing here, Woden?"
He shrugged. "Hunting. I was hoping to collect a few heads and skins for my hall."
"A true warrior doesn't need trophies to prove himself." She shook her head in disgust. "You always told me to never destroy a town if it offered to surrender. Dead farmers pay no tribute, remember? Or do you just kill for the pleasure now?"
He laughed cruelly. "A true warrior kills for revenge, either for wounds or words. You don't seem to realize what you started when you betrayed me to the Vanas. Ansagard is gone. Our town has been razed, our fields burned and our herds slaughtered. No one was spared. They never could have done this without your help. Niord would have asked for peace before he could lose a second battle, and I would have let him buy his way out. Too many have died on both sides since then. This is a war to the death of one race or the other."
"The people you want were never here, Woden. I won't let you burn this town for nothing."
"If you want to stop me you're welcome to try." The warlord paused for a moment, looking past her. "They seem to be sending a messenger. If she gives me what I want I may spare them anyway."
Xena sensed footsteps behind her and risked a look. She closed her eyes and cursed softly. "Gabrielle..."
"I'm not staying behind again," the girl told her. She looked up at the warlord as casually as she could. He stared at her curiously. There was something about his one eye that burned into her, until she was finally forced to look away. Now she knew where Xena had mastered the Look.
"We'll talk about this later," Xena hissed. If we both live. "Right now, just shut up and go along with me. Follow my lead no matter what he says. It's important."
Woden glared suspiciously at the girl. She was obviously no messenger. Another of Xena's numerous 'friends," he decided, and any friend of hers was likely to mean trouble for him. Xena was trying to keep herself between the girl and his spear without being noticed. He smiled broadly. "Your pet seems like a friendly sort," he said. Gabrielle started to respond to the pet remark but remembered Xena's instructions. The warlord widened his smile. "And you've even trained her not to bark at strangers! How thoughtful."
Xena gave Gabrielle her best glare out of the corner of her eye. Turning back to Woden, she returned his smile. "All of my pets have been well-trained. In your camp it kept them alive a bit longer."
"True," he mused. "Of course, most of them were needed on the battlefield. It isn't my fault they didn't last long. Perhaps you were teaching them the wrong skills?" The warrior roamed his one good eye over Gabrielle's body. "Young and fit, like all the others. Nice to know your tastes haven't changed."
Xena chuckled derisively. "She's nothing special. Just a wandering bard I picked up in Greece. A bard who never knows when to stay behind." She raised her voice slightly, letting Gabrielle know that her last comment was not part of the act. "It gets lonely on the road, and I get tired of talking to my horse."
Woden examined Gabrielle again. "Ah, yes. Company is man's comfort, so the gods say. Strange though that your bard doesn't talk. Most chatter like caged birds."
Gabrielle had turned an impressive shade of red by this time. Xena, Woden and the entire army were staring at her now. She still glared at her friend, silently promising revenge. Woden looked at the girl for a few seconds more, studying Xena's reaction. She was clearly worried about the younger woman. He wondered how far she would go to protect her. If the warrior really cared for this girl she could be a useful hostage. He decided to test it.
The warlord smiled at Gabrielle in an almost fatherly way. She returned his smile carefully. He glanced at his archers, never changing his smile.
"Min baugamen, thi mahdkin ir skeut." Fifty nocked arrows were levelled at Gabrielle. Xena screamed, practically throwing herself over her bard. "Hald! Niht skeutan!" Woden barked. He smiled again, this time coldly, as Xena still braced for the arrows.
"The lives of your pets never mattered much to you before. I find it most interesting that you would die for this one." He snapped another order to his men. "Tha friowan thaim bindan." One of the foot soldiers came forward with several lengths of rope. "You and the bard will be guests of my camp. Give me even a hint of trouble and your little friend pays the price." His fatherly smile returned. "If you promise to behave I may even let her live."
Xena was bristling with rage as they were led away. "What in the name of Hades were you thinking?" she snarled. "You could have gotten us both killed!"
"It looked calm enough when I came out. I thought maybe he was willing to talk." Gabrielle looked down at the dirt, kicking dust as she walked. "Besides, if something did happen I wanted to be there to help."
The warrior growled in her throat. "Some days I don't know whether to hug you or strangle you. The way our luck is going maybe I won't have to decide." One of the warriors marching beside them prodded her with his spear and barked a command in his own language. Xena gritted her teeth and fought the urge to take his spear away and feed it to him. That wouldn't help Gabrielle.
Woden said something to the spearman, who grunted and slunk away. "Go ahead and chat," he told them, "but mention escape even once and you'll be eating the girl's liver for your evening meal." He smiled at them again in that maddening way and rode on ahead.
"I didn't mean to get you caught," Gabrielle said when they were left alone.
"You never do," Xena snapped at her. Her voice softened as the bard began staring at her feet again. "Look, I'm sorry. Part of this is my fault and I should have known you'd come with me, but my whole plan rested on NOT getting captured. Alone I might have had a chance, but I couldn't leave you to be killed by Woden. I've seen him do things..." She stopped and shook her head. Those images had taken too long to get out of her mind the last time.
"Do you have another plan?" Gabrielle whispered softly, still looking down. Xena glanced around carefully. Her sharp eyes noticed a few soldiers paying close attention to their words.
"It's best not to talk now. When we get to their camp we might have time to think. If he was serious about treating us as guests they'll give us a bit of freedom there. It would be rude to keep a guest tied to the wall." Her tone was mocking. "Even if your guest is lower than dirt."
"What do you mean?"
"In their own language the Ansas call themselves Thiod, which just means 'people'. Anyone who isn't part of their race is Althiod, which means 'not people'. Foreigners rate barely above animals. That's why they think nothing of wiping out whole villages. But when someone is considered a guest they are treated very well. Hospitality is traditional. Woden makes the rules. As outsiders we have no rights, and no family to avenge us."
Gabrielle left Xena with her own thoughts. Silently, she berated herself for getting them into trouble again. Her friend was right, there would be no negotiation with Woden. The endless killing must have driven him mad, just as it had done to Xena. But still, there had to be a way to beat him besides another battle. She wished she had Xena's knack for planning.
* * * *
Woden's camp was a small village two days march to the north. It had originally belonged to the Thracians. Gabrielle was still optimistic enough to look for the villagers until Xena grimly pointed out the bones scattered beneath the trees. Woden had left his victims hanging there until they rotted away, as a sacrifice to one of his gods. Gabrielle turned pale and retched into the ditch. They were led into the building that had once been a town hall, now empty except for the invaders. The tapestries had been cut down and replaced with painted shields and weapons. There was a rack of human skulls along the back wall, some fitted with bowls so they could be used as drinking cups. Gabrielle saw them and almost vomited again. Woden watched her with amusement.
"It is a sign of respect, child. A corpse is good for nothing, but some of the parts are worth keeping."
"It's disgusting!" she told him when she could finally control herself again.
Woden's expression softened. "It's better to be remembered as a table setting than not at all." His twisted smile returned as he pointed at the four cups. "That first one was Poladora, the queen of the Amazons. Her army was the first I defeated in battle." He patted the yellow bone with affection. "She really knew how to use her troops. It's sad that she wouldn't join me. The second was Kurman, the ruler of the Cimmerians. I use him to drink in honor of the Ansas he murdered. The third was my dear old uncle Mimir, a very wise and kind old man. I took him back from the Cimmerians."
"Who was the fourth?"
Contempt lit the warlord's face. "My idiot son Bragi. The peacemaker." He spat the last word as an insult. "He left us to live in peace among the Thracians. He was killed twenty winters ago defending his woman from some bandits. I never heard of her after that."
Gabrielle bit her tongue. That had obviously been a bad question to ask.
Still scowling, the warlord climbed onto his seat. It was an Amazon throne, another reminder of the queen who fought him. He rested his elbow on the arm of the chair, propped his chin on his hand and stared at them. "Xena. Eight long years I've prayed that we'd meet again. Now how shall I begin?"
"You mentioned treating us as guests," Xena replied dryly. "Boil a lamb and pour some mead and we can swap war stories all night."
"It sounds tempting, but I'd rather just chop off your arms and legs. That was always our punishment for traitors. Make them a living corpse, no use to themselves or anyone else. No worse fate for a true warrior." His scowl was gone now. He looked almost cheerful.
Xena shrugged. "What about your reputation as a host? You used to be proud that even your enemies felt safe coming to your hall. Think what the bards will say if the great Woden suddenly starts murdering people at his table."
His eye narrowed for a moment, then his cheerful grin returned. "That would be a scandal, wouldn't it? Bards roaming far and wide, telling the world what kind of a monster I am." The idea seemed to amuse him. He closed his eye in thought. The warriors gathered around him carressed their weapons expectantly. Gabrielle squeezed in a little closer to Xena. They held hands, scarcely realizing that they had done so.
His eye opened after a few minutes. "At my age you stop worrying so much about your good name. Still, I have one desire in this world greater than my wish to boil you in your own blood." At that moment a pretty young girl passed them and his attention wandered. "Two desires, actually, but the other can wait. The important one is Niord's head on a spike. The coward is hiding out in an old fort to the south and west of here with his people. It would take a siege to dig him out and I don't want to bother. Fetch him for me and I will forget about our... past dealings."
"What about Gabrielle?"
"I'm old, not stupid. Betray me and she'll pay out of her own skin, which I'll cheerfully peel from her flesh." His voice dropped to a low growl. "I give you two weeks. Return by then with Niord and I'll spare you both. Delay and you'll hear her screams no matter how far you run."
Xena stared at him coldly. Her eyes promised revenge. His own gaze never flickered. "If you or any of your men hurt her I'll spend the rest of my life hunting you down. You know that."
His eye remained flat as a shark's. "I've been cast on the shores of the dead before and come back. Your bard will be well cared for and my men will mind their manners around her. You can leave whenever you're ready. It's her time you waste threatening me."
Xena rode within the hour. She had no intention of doing as he commanded, but she needed the time to plan. When she came for Gabrielle she was going to be prepared. Meanwhile, Gabrielle had been entrusted to an aging soldier named Hermod and was roaming the village under his watchful eyes. He knew the punishment Woden would inflict if she escaped him.
The girl studied the village in detail. The walls were low enough to climb, but also low enough to shoot over. After seeing one of the Valkyries shoot down a circling hawk to the cheers of her companions Gabrielle gave up any thought of simply running. Escape would be difficult if not impossible. She was going to have to think her way out, and to do that she needed to know her enemies. The Valkyries fascinated her. Like the Amazons she knew in the south, they kept to themselves. The rest of the Ansas avoided their camp. Intruders were unwelcome in their territory.
At the same time, these Amazon descendants showed none of the peaceful behavior the other tribes had. Even while they prepared to fight the centaurs there had always been people cooking, weaving, mending clothes or doing other ordinary things. The Valkyries just trained, all day, every day. She was reminded of Xena's deadly efficiency as she watched them weave and strike. There was no cheerful singing or storytelling around their fire at night, they bedded down and went silently to sleep.
Gabrielle was finally overcome by her curiosity and started questioning her warden, who spoke Greek fairly well. He told her that the Valkyries were Woden's personal guard, always facing the toughest resistance. They trained harder than any other army because they were the first to fight when war was declared and the last to leave the field. They did nothing whatsoever without orders from him. They were also Woden's slaves, like many who fought for him. Before the conquests began all the Ansas had been slaves of the Cimmerians. After destroyed their masters he took over personally, abandoning the old customs of rule by council and making himself king. No one challenged his authority and lived.
"Is everyone afraid of him?" Gabrielle finally asked.
Hermod looked at her and almost smiled. "No. The Valkyries serve him out of respect, not fear. Neither did your friend, or his children." The warrior sighed. "Woden doesn't really want us to fear him, but he demands complete and instant obedience. We don't dare to defy him."
Over the next few days Gabrielle learned more about the Ansas and their culture. At the top were the warriors, or gerramen. Those who belonged to Woden's personal guard were called carls and those who served as his officers were called jarls. They did nothing but prepare for battle. All of the real work was done by a class of slaves called thralls. That, she realized, was their greatest weakness. If the slaves rebelled the warrior class would collapse within weeks, unable to make their own equipment. She also discovered that not all warriors agreed with Woden, and the Valkyries had questioned him openly. She slowly began to form a plan.
It took Xena three days to reach the fort Woden had told her about. It looked like one of the old earthworks the Gauls had dotted the landscape with, but it was badly decayed and had probably been abandoned long before the Vanas moved in. Still, a determined force could hold out against Woden and his army for months. The problem was, it was not guarded by a determined force. Their lone sentry was an old man asleep in a tree. Up close she remembered him from her own time among the Vanas. Xena smiled.
The old man woke with a jerk, nearly falling out of the tree. Xena had to grab his arm to stop him. He saw her through wild eyes and reached for his spear.
"It's me, Xena from Amphipolis. Do you remember me?"
He looked at her closely, trying to place her face with the name. She sympathized with him. They had only met a few times and she wasn't nineteen anymore, but it would save her from having to fight her way into Niord's camp.
"If you're Xena then show me that throwing-disk she always carried." She pointed out the chakram slung at her hip. Sometimes she was glad to have such a unique weapon. Uller smiled and lowered his spear. "Then it is you. I never expected to see you again after all these years."
"I never expected to return," she told him. "I need to talk to Niord if I can."
The old man nodded. "I'll take you to him. He'll be glad of your visit. There isn't much good news since the war began."
Xena nodded. The entire war had been a waste, fought over a kidnapping that Woden had had nothing to do with. Princess Freya had been promised to him as a bride when she was a baby. They hadn't even met until her seventeenth birthday, and she vanished the day Woden left. The Vanas assumed that the old warlord had taken the girl with him. Xena knew they were wrong, but no one had wanted to listen at the time.
"I take it no one has found the princess yet."
"No." His voice chilled. "But we know who has her now. The Jotuns, the giants of the north. And it was their chief who suggested killing Woden's wives and children to avenge the murder of Golowig. It was our worst mistake, but the king was still blinded by his daughter's death." He glanced up. "As were you."
"She meant a lot to me." Xena replied. "More than anyone else did, until now. While I was here she was like family to me." Xena had wandered into the north with a vague idea of finding the famous warlord. She found the Horde instead. The only survivor of their attack and nearly dead, she was found and rescued by the daughter of king Niord. Princess Golowig had brought her back from the edge of death largely with her own hands.
He shook his head. "There were legends of Woden's cruelty even then, but he had always treated Niord's daughters as his own. What could have made him change? Has the endless killing driven him mad?"
Xena sighed. "I don't know. The Ansas have suffered almost as much in this war. They've got to be tired of fighting you by now. Has Niord tried asking for peace?"
"We can't find any more volunteers to go and talk to Woden. The last messenger we sent came back with the reply branded onto his skin. He died a few days later."
* * * *
King Niord was a wreck, Xena thought to herself. She hardly recognized the fatherly man she had left behind in the shell that now huddled on the throne. And he was too busy contemplating his own doom to be of much use. "Things can always get worse," Xena told him. "We need to look for ways to make things better."
"If you can get us out of this mess I'll give you the crown," he replied with a bitter laugh. "I'm sorry about your friend, but there really is nothing I can do about it. I don't have enough soldiers left to even bother Woden. My entire race has been cut down in battle, and I'm certainly not going to turn myself over to him. I know what he has planned." Niord shivered.
"Most of that's just bluster. You can't do all of that to someone and still keep them alive."
"We put a spear through his heart and hung him from the sacrifice tree for nine days. He kept himself alive through all of that. I fear he might really be the god of victory as his followers say."
Xena sighed. "He's no god. Woden is just a man. He bleeds as red as you. You'd know if you had been there when I wounded him."
Niord glared at her. "It was YOU who offered to murder him for me, so don't try to blame me for not getting the job done."
"At least I realize it was a mistake. I should have challenged him on the spot and gotten it out of the way. Plotting was never my strong suit."
"Well he thrives on it." Niord hurled his cup angrily into the fire. "Everything he does is a plan within a plan." He looked at her accusingly. "You served under him for almost a year. Didn't you learn anything?"
Xena glared back at him. "I'm not going to fight your war for you."
His face twisted. "Why not? You owe me, Xena. Before my daughter and I took you in you had nothing. You were dying all alone and we gave you back your life." The king turned on her angrily. "And you owe her, princess. You once told me you loved her as much as I. Why didn't you protect her?"
Xena screamed at him in a rage. Her sword left its sheath and his guards stepped in instantly. Xena waded into them with an expression of savage joy that would have been at home on Woden's face. Her fist and blade left ten men crumpled in the floor in seconds, but she hadn't killed even one. The king recoiled as she faced him again. Then he felt a surge of his own anger and loss returning.
"It's your fault, warrior. You swore to defend her life with your own, and then you let her die."
"You ordered her to go," Xena snarled. "She was never afraid of danger. Maybe Woden really WAS her father. She wanted to be near me. And I swore on her ashes that no one I care for would walk into a deathtrap again." The warrior princess bored into Niord with her eyes. "Now you listen to me, and listen well. Woden has another girl in his power now. Someone just as gentle and innocent as your daughter, and someone I care for just as much. You're going to help me get her back. And if she dies you'll wish that Woden had found you instead of me."
Xena spent the rest of the evening talking over her plans with the king and his remaining soldiers. At dawn the entire Vana nation left the safety of the fortress. Xena and some of their best soldiers went northeast toward Woden's lair. Niord and the rest of his army marched north. A handful of men on their fastest horses rode westward, continuing Xena's original plan.
Gabrielle was met at the edge of the Valkyries camp by a blond woman with a sharp spear. The warrior could have been a double for Xena, but looked about twenty years older. Hopefully old enough to remember the years before the Amazon surrender. Gabrielle looked nervously at the spearpoint hovering a fingers width from her heart. Perhaps this wasn't one of her best ideas.
The woman snapped at her in the harsh language of the Ansas. Gabrielle shook her head, unable to understand the words. The Valkyrie sneered at her and switched to broken Thracian. "No one needs you here, slave. Go."
Gabrielle took a deep breath to steady herself and made the one sign she hoped would get her into their camp: the traditional Amazon greeting gesture. The old warrior almost dropped her weapon.
"How did you know that sign, child?"
"I learned it from the other Amazons. They taught me years ago."
The blond glared at her, suspicious. "There are no other Amazons," she declared. "Only we remain. All who did not join Woden were killed long before your birth."
"There are still free tribes to the south," Gabrielle countered. "I tried to save the life of an Amazon princess from one of those tribes, and when she died they gave me her Right of Caste. Later I became their queen." The bard paused. "Even though I don't look one."
"That is rare, but I had heard of outsiders being adopted before." The warrior looked uncertain. A few other warriors wandered over to investigate and they talked it over. Finally, she made a decision. "I am Sangrida, commander of the Valkyries. You are welcome here, queen..."
"Gabriula." Sangrida stumbled slightly on the name and smiled. "The little singer. Strange name for an Amazon queen. Were you raised by a storyteller?"
Gabrielle grinned back, surprised that her name actually meant something to these people. Especially since it was so appropriate for a bard. "No. My father never had much time for songs and poems. But I always wanted to be a bard."
Sangrida nodded and waved her into the camp. "Will you share your stories? We remember almost nothing of the Amazons, but we've always wanted to learn."
Gabrielle frowned. "But you are Amazons. Or at least you were. Don't you have stories of your own?"
"Our stories are the sagas of Woden's people, Gabriula. It takes much time and practice to become a bard, and Woden wants all of our energy in battle. We have no time to repeat our own tales."
Gabrielle nodded sympatheticly. "He must be a hard man to serve. I know a lot of the other soldiers complain about all this fighting."
The warrior looked at her with surprise. "Woden does not mistreat us. He has everything provided for us. We never need to work or worry, and in return all he asks is that we fight for him." She smiled proudly. "We are his chosen ones. All the other soldiers must follow his decisions on the battlefield or die. Only we are permitted to choose our own kills. That's what our name means."
"You don't have as much freedom as you think," Gabrielle said. "You never work, and you don't know how. Everything is done for you by the thralls. All he teaches you to do is kill. What will you do if something happens to the thralls?"
Sangrida stared at her. "A perfect warrior must be a pure warrior. Woden has proven this. If they die out we will take more."
"Then why did he bring someone from the outside to help train you?" she asked, thinking of her talk with Xena. "Do you remember my friend Xena? She's a great warrior but that's not all she is."
Some of the Valkyries frowned. "Yes. Woden often said that Xena has many skills."
Gabrielle went on. "I've seen a lot of those skills. She heals wounded men, she sails ships, she sings, she dances. And what about Woden himself? He's obviously a great warrior, but Hermod told me that he's also a poet, a scribe, and a healer. If he and Xena can do all these things and still be perfect warriors then why doesn't he allow anyone else to do them?"
Some of the women had begun to talk among themselves. This was a subject that had obviously come up before, so she continued. "He took Amazons and made you into living weapons. As long as you don't know how to stand on your own you have to do what he wants, just like the thralls. Xena doesn't live like that. I don't live like that. And no real Amazons ever lived like that."
Sangrida's eyes narrowed dangerously. "It is unwise to speak against a warlord to one of his personal guards. You may come to our camp, Amazon, and tell your stories, but do not try to start a rebellion here." Still, her tone was more uncertain than angry.
Gabrielle gave them her most ingratiating smile. "Don't worry. Telling stories is all I want to do."
* * * *
Gabrielle's stories were a popular addition to camp routine for several days. She told them everything they wanted to hear about the Greeks and the Amazons, and she spread the stories to everyone. Within a week they were being repeated by warriors and thralls alike. Woden's harsh discipline had pushed his people to the edge of revolt, and she fanned the flames with a style that would make any rabble-rouser proud.
Naturally her stories reached the old warlord. Woden was clearly less than entertained. Gabrielle still didn't understand his language but the look in his eye easily crossed that barrier. On the fifth morning after her visit with the Valkyries she awoke to find her door barred securely and Woden talking to the guards outside. "Kill" was the only word she recognized.
Xena and her borrowed army reached the edge of Woden's town two nights later. She didn't like what she saw. For the first time she could ever remember there were no guards around the perimeter of the camp. The entire village seemed deserted and the air reeked of charred wood. Even more ominous was the sight of a funeral pyre in the center of the camp, still glowing.
Xena signalled the troops to stay behind and walked down alone, alert for danger. Something had happened here, she knew. Something serious. There were signs of a battle and blood still stained the grass. The warrior's heart began to pound. Woden had picked up a lot of enemies in fifty years, and if they knew he was weakened by a long war they could never have found a better time to strike.
There were still a few of his warriors roaming the streets. Mostly Valkyries. Xena stalked one, silent as a panther, into one of the abandoned houses. There were two others inside, both near death. Xena pounced on the unsuspecting nurse and immobilized her with a nerve strike.
"Where's the girl?" she hissed. "Where have you taken Gabrielle? You have thirty seconds to tell me or they'll find three dead bodies here in the morning."
Her victim snarled and writhed while Xena's fury grew. She was about to leave her and start on another when the Valkyrie finally gave in. "She's hurt... giants...attack" She broke off in a groan and collapsed. Xena cursed out loud and released her.
"Next time you want to know something... ask."
The warrior whirled, not realizing that someone was behind her. Sangrida kicked the sword from her hand but raised her own hands in a gesture of peace. "Your friend is alive, but she too was hurt in the fighting. She is resting in Woden's hall."
* * * *
The bard opened her eyes weakly, saw three blurry faces rotating around the room and clamped them shut again. "Is one of you Xena?"
A strong hand caressed her face. "It's me. I'm here for you."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and opened her eyes again. Better. There were only two faces this time. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Xena laughed in sheer relief. "You're lying here covered with bandages and you're wondering how I am?" She started to give her young friend a hug, which brought a groan of pain.
"We'll have time for that later." Gabrielle said. "It's been a rough day."
"It isn't over yet," Xena replied. "There are two armies on their way here and both of them are looking for a fight. We have to get out of here, now."
A grim voice rose from the shadows. "If one of them was the army of Jotuns from the north, you can scratch them out." She turned and saw Woden standing alone at the end of the hall. His throne and skull collection were conspicuously absent. Xena reached for her sword. "Don't start," he warned her. "I'm in a bad mood and if you try to kill me again it'll make me mad."
Gabrielle shook her head wearily. "He saved my life, Xena. Please."
Xena continued to glare at him. Despite what the bard had said, part of her still wanted to avenge ten years of bloodshed and misery. And her own lost soul.
He laughed, but there was no humor in it this time. "You should be proud of her. I spend generations making the Ansas the strongest nation in the world, and she incites a rebellion in less than a week. What a queen she would have made!"
Xena wondered for a moment if he had a head injury. "What are you talking about?"
Sangrida spoke. "While you were away, queen Gabriula helped us decide that fifty years of war was enough. We want peace for a change, and we can't have that while he leads us." She looked at her old lord. He turned from her with a snarl.
Gabrielle and the others quickly filled her in on what had happened. The Ansas had a strange form of government in which the king was technically no better than any other soldier, ruling only through persuasion and example. Woden had ruled for fifty years simply because no one ever thought of challenging him. When the Valkyries heard that Gabrielle had been imprisoned Sangrida had finally spoken up and the entire army had taken her side. Woden had been ordered to step down and the troops had declared that Gabrielle would replace him. With so many against him Woden could do nothing but obey.
He had spent the next few days under guard while Gabrielle tried to talk him over to her side. Until the giants attacked he had no interest in helping her with anything. When the new queen was knocked out in the first wave and the Ansas began to fold, he stepped in to lead the defense in her name. Xena had originally planned to arrive a few hours ahead of the giants and use the confusion of the attack to rescue her friend. The king of the Vanas had delivered his message a day early and the treacherous giants had arrived first.
"When I get my hands on him..." she growled.
Woden chuckled in the background. "If you want a war to go right you've got to start it yourself I always say. As for Niord, I've already had a little talk with him about calling in the giants. If you want to kill him be my guest. Our little queen forbids ME to kill him."
"Yes." Sangrida said. "He and all of his surviving men. They helped us fight the giants when they saw that Woden no longer leads us." The warlord spat at her. "Together we rescued his sister Freya. Queen Gabriula has invited them here to discuss a truce."
Xena cursed. "That idiot!" Gabrielle started to protest angrily. "Not you!" Xena told her hastily. "Niord. This is no time to be talking, there's another army on the way. I sent some of his men to bring in reinforcements in case the giants couldn't finish the job."
Gabrielle stared at her friend through bleary eyes. "Xena... we REALLY need to work on our communication."
Her reply was interrupted by a clatter of hooves outside. Niord, wide-eyed and sweating, poked his head into the room. "Xena. Remember those barbarians you sent for? They have us surrounded!" Gabrielle looked at Xena with a question in her eyes.
Woden laughed out loud. "Three different people following three different plans and no one knows what's going on." He shook his head. "When you're ready for me to take charge again, let me know."
With death literally just beyond the trees, the Ansas and Vanas put their differences aside in record time. Neither stood a chance alone, and allied, the odds were a little better. Together the two tribes had less than one thousand people in fighting condition. Niord's scouts-- at least those who returned-- estimated the Horde to be nearly five thousand strong. Xena watched them approach and seethed with fury. As she expected, there were more than enough of them to do the job. She just hadn't intended for Gabrielle and herself to be there when the savages arrived.
King Niord accepted the blame with resignation. His men had failed to follow his orders, and now his people were going to be destroyed along with their former enemies. The worn old man listened to Xena's tirade with head bowed and then left without saying a word. The Vanas turned to his sister Freya for leadership, but even Gabrielle could see that the girl was no help.
Freya was a bit older than Gabrielle and had the same reddish-gold hair. She was strikingly beautiful, but the long years of captivity among the brutal giants had taken their toll. She sat in the corner and barely moved, as though trying to hide. She never spoke unless spoken to, and when she was forced to reply she spent several anxious moments trying to find an answer that everyone would agree with. When Xena shouted at her father she had cried openly and trembled whenever voices were raised. Even Xena couldn't help but feel pity for her. But for the moment they had bigger problems.
Gundher, the Vana warlord, finally gave up on Freya. "All right men, the queen of the Ansas will command us." He pointed at Gabrielle.
"What? Me!" The bard shook her head madly. "I don't know anything about war! Follow her!" She pointed at Xena.
"Her plan has failed," he replied. "The gods do not smile on her. We need a leader with victory-luck if we're going to win. That leaves you or Woden." He spat. "I'd rather feed Hella's hound than serve him."
Gabrielle looked at her friend, eyes pleading. "Xena...?"
"Sorry, your highness, but you're the queen here," Xena replied. She thought for a moment. None of the Vanas understood Greek, so she felt safe enough. "Just tell him to mix his troops in with Hermod's infantry and to do what they do. He's a good fighter and knows how to lead. Put his archers in the second tier behind those spearmen and then have the Valkyries and Niord's cavalry form up on the flank and rear."
Gabrielle quickly relayed her commands. Gundher stared at Xena suspiciously but had no time to argue. The soldiers left to prepare for the coming battle. The bard watched them go.
"Why did it have to happen like this?" she asked. "I'm ordering people to die. I never wanted this."
"No commander ever should," Xena replied, sitting down on the cot beside her. "But there's no way out of it now. We can't run, so we have to fight; and you are the only person everyone is willing to follow." Xena carressed her friend's hair. "I hoped I'd never see you put in this position."
"I wish I wasn't."
Xena sighed. "You have to be strong, Gabrielle. Repeat what I tell you and try to sound confident. Some things will be difficult for you to say, but thousands of lives depend on you."
The girl closed her eyes. Right now she didn't know whether to pray, cry, or scream. "I'll have to be in the middle of it, won't I?"
"I'll be there to protect you. I swear I won't let anything happen to you."
Gabrielle nodded weakly. "What about Freya? We can't leave her here."
"I'll take care of her," Woden replied softly. The women jumped, having forgotten he was there. They both stared at him.
"We were supposed to be married, remember? Our wedding was delayed for eight years because the bride was missing. Do you think I'm going to let some hairy barbarian carry her off again?"
* * * *
The fighting began within two hours, and it was predictably bloody. Only the Ansas heavy armor and shields spared them from the barrage of axes and spears the Horde hurled at them, but with each defender fighting off five attackers the losses quickly mounted. The Valkyries, lightning fast, scored the heaviest damage with the fewest losses. Xena couldn't help but be proud, having trained many herself.
Despite their efforts, things got worse. The Horde had been tossing flaming blobs of pine tar into the village for hours and half the buildings were ablaze. The heat and smoke had forced them out of cover and they now formed an arc against the north wall, pressed by the Horde on three sides. The Valkyries and Vanar archers had to hold their fire to avoid hitting their own men, which left the defenders without their most effective weapons. Xena paced like a caged animal, desperately wanting to join the front line but knowing she couldn't leave Gabrielle's side. She barked orders furiously and Gabrielle struggled to keep up.
Through it all, Woden stayed at their side. He kept Freya protected with his own shield and more than once his spears helped Xena's chakram seal a break in their line. Xena often locked eyes with him. He looked at her almost sadly, silently nodding his agreement with her instructions or shaking his head when he thought she was wrong. He said nothing, but she could tell he was struggling. Whatever his feelings toward her and her friend, Woden suffered as his men died.
Xena knew that Gabrielle was suffering too. She hated to bring this on her friend, but the odds were not good enough, and she was running out of ideas. "All right, Woden. The army is yours. What do you want to do?"
"Now we do some REAL damage," His expression was one of fierce concentration. "Well, my queen, your friend wants me to advise you." She nodded. "Are you going to argue with me and get everyone here killed, or will you obey me at once? This is not a trick question," he added when she stopped to think.
"Yes," she told him.
"Good. I don't know when Xena got so sqeamish, but I don't have that problem." He took a moment to observe the fighting. "Have the archers open fire again. Aim just outside our shield wall."
"But we'll hit our own men!" she protested.
He grinned viciously. "I spent a lot of money on that armor, time to see if it was worth the price. Besides, we'll hit a lot more of the enemy. Risk a few or lose the lot, princess."
The Amazon princess glared back at him with real hate in her eyes. She looked at Xena, who nodded firmly. Feeling sick, Gabrielle gave the order. As they had been trained to do, the Valkyries pulled back from the close combat and began firing with lethal accuracy into the rear of the Horde. The troops at the edges began falling as if cut down with an invisible scythe, and many of the survivors began throwing their axes at the mounted archers. The Valkyries were too fast to hit and this eased the pressure on Gabrielle's footmen.
The warlord watched closely to judge the effect, and smiled with satisfaction. Then he glanced back at Xena. "Don't ask for my advise if she won't take it," he said.
"Just do as he says, Gabrielle," she told her friend grimly.
"Thanks for your support," he growled sarcasticly. A moment later he swung his shield to catch a blazing tar-ball that had been dropping toward the bard's cot. "That's enough of that. The third line isn't doing anything, so tell them to run back inside and get some oil or strong mead from the cookhouse. It burns. Let any bastard who likes playing with fireballs have a taste of that." Woden began to smile in sadistic joy as he thought up more mayhem. Gabrielle stared at him in disgust but gave the order anyway.
The fight continued. After long hours of combat everyone was tired. Now the grueling regimen of training Woden had followed began to pay off as the Ansas were holding their own. Unfortunately, they couldn't afford to trade casualties with an enemy who still outnumbered them three to one. The more desperate their situation became, the more savage Woden's tactics became, and the larger his smile grew. Gabrielle loathed him more than ever. They were now standing in pooled blood and the man looked as though he was enjoying a day at the beach.
Even Xena, hardened as she was, cringed at some of his ideas. Their unwilling leader could only spit out grim commands, fearing the consequences if she held anything back. The carnage was sickening, and what she hated the most was that she was becoming used to it. Days ago the thought of using poisoned arrows would have seemed barbaric. Today she ordered their use almost casually, and Woden looked at her with that maddening smile. The Horde wasn't running yet, but he still had more ways for them to suffer. His latest plan called for several buckets of caustic lye powder, which the village women had been using for soap. The bard watched him suspiciously. "What are those for?"
"Since the wind is blowing over them we'll just throw it into the air and let it drift. It will blind or poison hundreds of them." He smiled wickedly. "I knew all those sacrifices to Tiwas would pay off some day."
Gabrielle looked sick. "I can't do that, not even to them! I won't give the order."
"They deserve it if anyone does," Xena replied. "You remember that Athenian outpost."
She shivered at the thought of sightless men begging her for mercy. "I remember what you almost became at the outpost. I don't care to visit that part of myself."
Woden swore at her. "Piss on your 'humanity', princess! In case you haven't noticed, we're still losing this war. When you convinced my people to overthrow me you took responsibility for their survival. Are your principles worth sacrificing an entire race, all of whom depend on you?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and repeated the order, which her Valkyries were more than willing to carry out. At that moment she hated herself more than anyone except Woden. Tears wet her face as the image of screaming men clawing at their eyes flickered in front of her. Then the screaming began, and she saw the first victims of the dust. Queen Gabrielle of the Ansas covered her ears and wept.
* * * *
By the time night fell the battle was over. Not one member of the Horde remained to fight. Gabrielle's army was reduced to a few hundred. The weary survivors slept in the blood and mud, too tired to clear a place inside the walls. Xena and Woden carried Gabrielle back into the village. She wouldn't say a word on the way. When Xena tried to talk to her the bard screamed at her to leave. The warrior couldn't talk her friend through the pain, even though she knew exactly what the girl was feeling. That knowledge hurt her as deeply as the rejection.
Xena wandered outside alone, boiling with anger. Coming here had been a bad idea. She knew the way Woden had of drawing innocent people into his battles and bringing Gabrielle near him was a sure way to get her hurt, one way or another. She hadn't acted this way since Callisto's rampage. Xena hacked a small bush to pieces, which calmed her own feelings but obviously did nothing for Gabrielle. There was nothing else to do, so she tried what had worked before. She knelt on the blood-soaked ground and prayed.
"Artemis. Athena. I don't know if you can hear me or if you can do anything, but I'm begging you to help my friend. I can't give her back what she's lost. Maybe you can't either, but please do what you can. I can't bear to see her this way." She waited a moment in silence, but her gods were far away and the gods of the north gave her no answer.
Woden was not far away, listening unnoticed. His spear was poised above his shoulder, balanced for a throw, but he held back and waited. Finally he shook his head and stalked off.
Gabrielle curled up in her bed and sobbed like a lost child. The screams of the battlefield were still ringing in her ears and nothing could shut them out. They had passed dozens of horribly mangled bodies on the way in and the images still floated before her closed her eyes. She expected to see them there for a long time. As far as she was concerned, she deserved nothing better. Even though she had only been passing on orders from another it made her no less guilty in her own mind.
"I'm just as bad as him," she whispered.
Gabrielle felt a hand brush her shoulder lightly. "Leave me alone, Xena!" she snapped.
"She is, child," a harsh voice told her. "I won't."
Gabrielle looked up through eyes blurred with tears. Woden stood behind her, still dressed in his bloody armor. She shivered as if a corpse had risen from the field to torment her. He had an expression of open contempt on his face. She looked at him with the disgust she had been reserving for herself.
"Leave me alone. We have nothing to talk about."
"Yes we do, but I see you'd rather wallow in your own tears." His look was disapproving. "I had hoped you were above self-pity. Listening to Xena whine was bad enough."
"I'm not pitying myself!" she snapped. The girl turned away, determined to ignore him since she couldn't force him to leave. He stomped over and pulled her cot around to face him again. His strength was surprising for such an old man.
"Who are you crying for then? The dead?" He laughed coldly. "Xena's slaughtered far more than that in her time. Do you cry over her victims all night as well?"
"She's not like that any more. It's different now."
"I don't see the point. She murders thousands for glory, but you forgive her before she stops. You kill a few hundred, against your will and only to save more lives, and you become a monster for life. I thought my son was unreasonable." The mention of his dead child seemed to sadden the old man. The expression was completely out of place.
"Your friend may have tamed her bloodlust, but do you think her victims have forgiven her? Have mine forgiven me? Friends die, kin die, but a bad reputation lives forever. Especially in your own mind. That is all that troubles you."
Gabrielle shouted at him. "I've never killed anyone before! How can I face Xena with all this blood on my hands? I've told her for years that killing isn't the way, but I was afraid and I couldn't stop it." She glared at him and her eyes filled with hate again. "And it's your fault!"
The old man stared coldly at her. "We share the blame. I gave up my conscience long ago, and you are no longer as innocent as you were. This time you were more than just an observer at the killing. But you gave up your innocence to save my people, and that is a worthy sacrifice. You cry because you're ashamed, and because you are afraid of what Xena thinks of you now."
"You don't understand. I just need to be alone to work this out."
"What you need is to talk to your friend," he snarled. "Before she tears out her heart in frustration. Why she puts up with your foolishness I'll never understand. Do you know she's out there praying for you?" He laughed. "As if her gods care what happens to a mortal. Since she left me she's forgotten everything I taught her, and I see now that you are the cause."
The bard looked at him. "Xena's praying for me?"
"For all the good it's done her." He laughed again, bitterly. "Since I'm the closest thing to a god that's likely to listen, I guess I'll have to step in." He smoothed his face into a more regal and fatherly appearance and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle wondered suspiciously if Woden had ever been an actor, having heard the stories of his great days as a bard, long before he became a warlord.
"There is an old proverb among the people of the north. First, there is no one so evil that they are good for nothing. That is a lesson Xena is learning. Second, there is no one so pure that they have no faults. That is the lesson you learned today. Every soul has a dark half. Some embrace theirs, like Xena and I, and you hate us for it. Others run from theirs, like you and my son. Those who find the middle path lead the happiest lives."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. She had accepted that Xena could make up for her past with the good she did in the present. It was much harder for her to forgive herself. Perhaps it was, as the old man said, that she thought she was above killing. That was what made her better than warlords like Woden. In a small corner of her mind, it had always made her feel a bit superior to Xena. Now she knew just how small the difference between them was.
He continued as if reading her thoughts. "Our sagas tell us about the binding of the dragon-wolf, Fenri. Tiwaz befriended the wolf, but the gods learned his fate. That if he were allowed to run free he would devour the sun and the moon and drown the whole world in darkness. So the gods tricked Fenri into wearing a magic collar the dwarves made to bind him. Fenri knew that he couldn't trust the gods and refused to put on the band until someone would place their hand in his mouth as a sign of good faith. Only Tiwas was willing to suffer a loss to save the world. That is what separates the best of men and gods from the masses." He smiled wryly. "Understand?"
Gabrielle thought about it for a moment. "He didn't want to betray his friend, but he didn't want everyone else to suffer. And he didn't want to lose his hand, but it would be better for him to suffer than for everyone to be destroyed. That's the difference between good and evil."
"So they say. I'd have rather chopped Fenri to pieces, but I never pretended to be sentimental. I let my own sons die, why not my friends? But you, child, haven't crossed the line yet. Once you do it's very hard to come back."
"Xena tried to tell me the same thing before, when I wanted to kill Callisto." Gabrielle said. "I really couldn't understand her then. Maybe now that I've felt what she's gone through, I can help her." She smiled faintly. "I don't feel much better yet, but thank you."
He shrugged, going back to his old manner. "No need. If you want to repay me, make up with Xena and tell her I helped you. If someone doesn't calm her down she's going to hurt herself. Or try to kill me again." He snarled. "And this time I won't be surprised."
Xena returned to the tent in the morning, hoping to find Gabrielle in a better mood. When she opened the door the bard was waiting for her with open arms and an apology. Xena wasn't sure what was going on, but she accepted both without much hesitation.
"Does this mean you've forgiven yourself?" she asked.
"I will," Gabrielle replied. "At least now I understand things a bit more. I did it for your sake, not mine, and it doesn't make me a bad person."
Xena smiled. "I'm glad you worked it out. I was trying to tell you that yesterday but you weren't ready to listen."
Gabrielle smiled up at her friend and explained what Woden had told her last night. Xena was as surprised as she was at this new side of the old man. But she also knew part of the reason. The warlord felt something for the idealistic young bard, who so closely resembled his own child, Bragi. Xena knew part of the story told by the campfires about the constant fights between father and son over right and wrong and the merits of war and peace. The stories made her thankful for what she and Gabrielle had so carefully avoided arguing about.
Xena thought back on her own days as a conqueror. She had been just as ready as Woden to spend lives, but she never cared about the men who died. Until Gabrielle came into her life she had forgotten how to care for anyone. Comparing herself to her teacher, for a moment she wondered who was really the worst.
* * * *
Gabrielle and Xena remained in the camp for two weeks to recover. The bard turned over her role as queen of the two tribes to Freya and made Niord and Woden her advisors, one to deal with peaceful issues of trade and farming and the other to deal with issues of war. Woden had the easier job, since he had already defeated every enemy within several months travel. He spent most of his free time plotting and scheming. That, she felt, was the job for which nature had best suited him. Without an army to serve him, his plots from now on would serve to keep the Ansas out of wars.
When the time finally came for them to leave, Woden was there to see them go. The warlord bid Xena a wary farewell and then turned to Gabrielle. He smiled in his typical, mocking way.
"So," he said. "My queen. Never thought I'd serve anyone again, let alone another Althiod. I should probably feel happy to see you go." He shook his head. "But I'll welcome you back if you ever visit us again. If you meet any of the true people in your travels show them this." He gave her one of the worn silver bands from around his arm. "It was a gift from my son, long before you were born. It always brought me luck, perhaps it will do the same for you."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you. I'll spread the word about your generosity." The warlord muttered something under his breath. She looked at the band he had given her. It was covered with tiny letters. The language and writing were unknown to her. "I can't read this. What does this say?"
"You'll learn. It's a section from one of the sagas. Just a reminder from Tiwaz to his people about how to treat guests." He smiled rather nastily. "It also marks you as part of my family. Not everyone fears the gods, but everyone with sense fears me."
* * * *
They began their long trip to the south once again. Gabrielle frowned at the silver band, trying to decipher the writing. Xena traveled in silence, still thinking of Woden. She had gone north to kill him and ended up owing him Gabrielle's soul. Just a few weeks ago she wouldn't have thought that possible. Perhaps there was some hope for the old butcher after all, and that gave her more hope for herself. After a few days they reached the town of Tyra where their adventure had begun. The people had already heard of the great battle in the north and the two women were treated to a hero's welcome. Gabrielle got the chance to tell some of her new stories and left the town feeling more like her old self.
"We've been through a lot in the last few weeks," Gabrielle said. "Fighting the Horde, saving Greece, reforming an entire civilization...I think we deserve a break. How do you feel about a little vacation time?"
"That sounds like just what we need," her friend replied. Xena's eyes gleamed mischievously. "Since we won't be bothered by the Horde for a while... are you up for some fishing?"