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Copyright Trey 1998
See Part I for full disclaimers.
The wolf stalked proficiently through the undergrowth, keeping to the darkest shadows, moving with agile elegance through the foliage along a path untrodden by man. Dusk was falling rapidly now, and an air of desperation hastened his pace.
Ahead of him walked three figures, their soft murmurs of chatter tossed like ships by the gentle breeze, and two weary horses - one Argo and the other the black stallion named Seass.
'So how long have you been searching for us?' Xena asked, taking an unusual roll in the conversation.
'A couple of days I guess,' Rel replied, 'you guys sure move around a lot.'
The dark woman smiled at the thought of the younger warrior tracking their path through the dense forests. She was still curious as to exactly why Rel had been sent, and not one of the older Amazons like Ephiny. She voiced her question tactfully.
'Oh, the rest of the tribe is busy getting ready for the festival,' came the calm response, '...plus the fact that I volunteered.'
'You what?' Gabrielle asked.
It was Rel's turn to smile, 'I couldn't very well pass up the offer to meet the Amazon Princess now, could I?'
The discussion drifted on, and the wolf drew nearer.
Rel gradually became conscious of its presence trailing them - the efforts of her own vigilant senses combined with the tense movements of Seass.
'Uh, how about we set up camp somewhere round here?' she suggested, 'if we carry on at this pace tomorrow, we should make it to Amazon territory within a day.'
Xena noticed Gabrielle's pleading look as she rubbed her head for effect.
'Okay, if we.....uh, Rel?' the warrior cut off mid-sentence as she saw the girl turn and head back the way they'd come, 'wouldn't it be better to camp over there?' she pointed in the opposite direction.
'Well, sure,' Rel shrugged, 'I was just gonna...um...see if I could find us some dinner.'
'Weak excuse,' the Harlot scolded herself, 'she's suspicious...'
But Xena merely nodded and followed Gabrielle towards a stand of trees.
The Amazon breathed a sigh of relief and stealthily bounded into the forest.
She wasn't sure what she was expecting, why the wolf pursued them, but she felt it best to satisfy her curiosity. She slowed to a halt after a few minutes of hunting his being, and listened. She focused all concentration on her trademark skills, her heightened knowledge of nature, and remained motionless while waiting for him to appear.
Silence stretched itself across time. The canopy of wavering fingers left the forest dimmed in an amber haze, tattooing it with tiger-stripes, yet denying it the full glory of the beast.
Every Amazon is taught that a pack of wolves was one of the most organised units in the realm of animals, using teamwork and strategic plots to separate their prey from its kind while moving in for the kill, but they also learned of the wisdom of the wolf. It is, indeed, a creature of mystery and charm; awingly-feared by all who witness its magic.
And suddenly, she felt it.
There was no sound, no sight, it eluded every perception of awareness she was granted with, save her instinct. She rebelled against her nerves, for the wolf would certainly sense her emotion and see it as a warning.
'Just keep breathing evenly...' she ordered herself, and slowly turned round.
Two sets of green eyes locked.
For a moment Rel thought it would pounce, attack her in the way which drove man to dread their howl, but it made no attempt to move.
'As long as an animal has space, a route of escape, it will not harm you,' Rel recited what she had been taught, 'if you intrude on that space, or cut off its escape, it will see you as a threat.'
Both sides stood their ground.
'Artemis,' the Amazon prayed, 'you are wise in the ways of the forest, what warning does this creature bare? Why have you sent a guardian to us?'
When she opened her eyes, the wolf had gone. His absence was strangely disturbing, and Rel continued to stare at the dark cosmos he left behind. The shadows loomed, and she made her way dispiritedly back to camp.
In the Amazon tribe, all was an anarchy of commotion. Miaska, younger sister of Ephiny - though only by a year, dumped her basket of berries on one of the feast-tables and rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand.
'At this rate everyone's gonna be dead from exhaustion before the festival can start.' she wined, inspecting one of the red fruits thoroughly before allowing herself the pleasure of chewing it in contempt.
'I hope that's coming off your share of the feast.' remarked a teasing utterance from behind.
She whirled round, recognising her friend's voice, 'Rel! You're back!'
The older Amazon outstretched her arms and was about to hug the younger blonde, when she noticed her accompaniment.
Her actions were swiftly changed into a courteous bow, 'Princess, please excuse my conduct, I didn't see - '
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, there were three things which most annoyed her in life: hunger, Xena's persistent mothering, and this whole 'we worship you, Princess' deal.
She smiled, 'Oh, uh...you're forgiven,' she joked.
The Amazon bowed again in thanks.
'These people need a holiday,' the bard thought.
Miaska moved to hug her friend, 'I was getting worried...'
'Worried? About me?'
Miaska poked her friend in the ribs, 'Ha, don't flatter yourself. In case you've forgotten the Vindasha is in three days...and there was no way I wanted to be the one to tell Queen Melosa you'd failed. She'd probably kick you out of the tribe...'
'So you were worried!'
The Amazon found herself cornered, she shrugged with a grin, '...maybe just a little...'
The group turned to see Ephiny striding towards them.
Drum beats pounded in the background as a dozen warriors began the celebrations early, dancing simultaneously to the rhythm as a huge bonfire was lit.
'It's good to be back,' thought the bard and Rel coincidentally, 'it's definitely good to be back.'
Gabrielle stretched her arms to the high sun and yawned, she could certainly get used to this life...
She wandered through the village, watching scores of warriors practising various fighting techniques and smiling at those who turned to bow.
'If one more person does that...' she muttered through a false grin, 'I'll - '
'Gabrielle, you're up.'
The bard turned to see Miaska lowering her bow and letting her quiver drop to the ground.
'Hey, where is everyone?' the Princess asked, looking round.
'Rel's gone out into the forest, Xena and Ephiny are talking with Melosa - two more villages were attacked last night.'
'Not by the Raiders, not the same ones we fought...?'
The Amazon shook her head, 'I'm not sure. All I know is that both settlements were destroyed and that not a soul survived.'
The horror of the woman's words crushed Gabrielle's good temperament like a Titan stepping on an egg.
'Where - '
Miaska pointed towards Melosa's hut before the Princess could ask, and bent to retrieve her quiver - acknowledging the conversation was over.
Gabrielle walked through the hut door and found herself feeling uneasily embarrassed as she interrupted a heated argument between the women. All went silent and they held each other with cold stares as she entered.
'Uh...Miaska said there were more raids last night...' she mumbled, trying to swing a metaphoric sword at the sheet of ice between them.
Ephiny took the liberty of answering, 'Yeah, Dias and Valgarita were both looted and torched.'
'...by the Raiders,' Xena added apathetically.
Melosa stood up from her chair and sighed, 'By the Raiders.'
'They seem to be moving closer to Amazon territory, which makes them a threat.'
Xena was speaking to the Queen, and from her expression it was clear that their argument had revolved around whether the Harlots should get involved in the situation or not.
'We don't know that they have any intention of crossing our borders, there's a lot of difference between fighting peasants and fighting an Amazon army - '
Xena interrupted Melosa, a dangerous act in itself, 'And there's a lot of difference between defending yourself and defending others.'
The Queen let a long moment pass as Xena's words sank in.
Ephiny, like Gabrielle, seemed to be but an innocent fly caught in their web, but the Amazon now turned to them.
'What is your opinion on the subject?' she looked at Ephiny, 'Are we strong enough to fight them?'
Ephiny nodded without hesitation, 'There were about eighty of them, organised into two groups. Each attacked a different village last night...if we can keep them from merging their strength, we could easily defeat them.'
Melosa nodded slowly.
'Do we know where they'll strike next?' she asked.
'If they follow the pattern west as they have been, Orphido is the only definite target in their line of fire.'
Gabrielle grimaced at the Amazon's choice of words.
'Begin planning a defence,' the Queen ordered her comrade, 'and warn the villagers. We'll concentrate all our warriors on that one position, we'll crush their attack there - that should be enough to show we don't intend to sit around and wait until they try to cross Amazon land...'
Ephiny exited the tent hurriedly, and Xena passed a slight smile of thanks to the Queen.
'Let's just hope we have something to celebrate at the Vindasha.'
Rel tugged angrily at her cloak as it caught on the edge of one of the market stalls. Xena cast her a humoured glance from under her hood, and resumed watch.
Seven warriors, including herself and the Warrior Princess, were positioned at crucial points throughout the taut village. Their task was simply to aid the peasants when the Raiders came, while the majority of Amazons cut off their escape.
It had taken a lot of persuasive actions by Gabrielle to convince the villagers to stay within Orphido's walls. A few children had been evacuated, but it had taken all day - and a few stray threats by the Amazons - to finally get them to agree to their plan. Almost every villager had something to defend themselves with, most had to improvise or accept spare Harlot weapons (the chobos excluded, the peasants seemed to prefer sticks).
They had no idea of when the attack would come, and Rel was getting impatient. Her feelings were intensified by her natural dislike of the weak, her scorn of the defenceless. This village should have been grateful they lived so close to Amazon ground, for they would surely all perish from their meek existence had her kind not felt foreshadowed by the Raiders.
A flurry of doves, all with red-painted wings, abruptly darted across the sky: the sign. They had been released by the hidden Harlots which camouflaged themselves expertly around the perimeter of the village.
The Raiders were advancing.
The young warrior shook herself mentally and prepared for the impending taunt with Fate.
'You ready to prove who has valid claim to the Rights of this land?' Xena inquired lightly.
'Wars aren't fought to decide who's right,' Rel replied, twisting the warrior's words, 'only who's left.'
Xena raised an eyebrow, 'I'll have to remember that one.'
The rumble of horses grew louder in Rel's ears, and everything seemed to go into slow-motion as she watched Raiders pour through the village gates. The hooves began to beat like the Amazon drums, the yell of numerous battle cries reverberated like Amazon hoots, while torches burned like Amazon bonfires.
Rel let her cloak fall from her shoulders - setting her free to begin the dance. She went into automatic mode as the Harlots closed in behind the last of the Raiders, swarming over the terror-stricken men. She drew her sword and parried her partner.
They circled each other, stepping in time and performing mirrored movements of counter-attack. The tempo increased and their motions became detached, staccatos of music on a page of slurs. The dance grew more intricate, those who couldn't keep step were replaced, and each began to improvise more arduous manoeuvres into the production, forcing the other to rely on innovation and skill to preserve a balanced presentation while keeping it well co-ordinated.
The gods were the only spectators, yet the show was amusing for them to behold. Aries seemed possess a knack for supplying entertainment.
Rel's competitor suddenly lost his rhythm, losing pace with the tempo. Before he could recover, she span forwards - sword clasped as she detected victory. She twirled it professionally and thrust it deep into his abdomen, relishing the scream of pain as an applause.
She yelped with exultation while pirouetting, looking for an encore. To her disappointment all the men were spoken for, some with several eager partners.
And still the drums beat faster, louder - the dance quickening with every step.
She watched impertinently as Xena fairly flew across the stage, her mastery claiming her supreme victor. Suddenly, a flash of recognition, of déjà vu, flooded over her. It wasn't from their first meeting two days earlier, for that was, in fact, simply a re-encounter of souls.
The village around her faded and was replaced with a province she had long tried to forget.
'No...' she murmured, 'please, no...'
But the Memory wouldn't be re-chained. It refused to be locked up in the dungeons of her mind any longer, and had grown in strength since its last brief rendition of freedom.
Suddenly she was a child again, a child of seven years and two months. She clasped not a sword, but a small boy's hand, tightly in her own. His eyes sparkled like dew drops on grass-blades, with coiled curls of hair which lived him to his name as Jason's 'Golden Fleece.'
The temple they were cowering in erupted with death as the doors gave way to insistent ramming. The Argonauts were trapped between the Sympleglades, the "crashing rocks," as men from the most feared army ever to fight sucked them down into the swirling whirlpool of blood. People tried to flee, tried to escape the callous swords and beckon of Hades, but their pleas of mercy meant as much to the warriors as they would have done to a Hydra.
Rel and Jason showed no dire fright, the girl was, in all honesty, overwhelmed with wonder and veneration at one particular warrior. It was a woman. She fought with such immortal passion that Rel was hypnotised by the mesmerising gleam of her sword - being brought from her trance only by the boy's frantic shaking as two men menaced disdainfully over them.
'We'll be okay,' he whispered, 'as long as we stay together, we'll be okay...'
Rel clung to him and buried her face, repeating his words in the mantra they shared through life, but had never spoken with such desire.
The main battle had leaked outside as villagers were hounded in their desperate flight, the two men didn't follow. The sneered in their approach, nudging one another and ridiculing the pathetic children.
'Hey look Torse, rodents!'
'Ooh, vermin scum! Where's the cat?'
They looked at each other and laughed, '...why, that would be us now wouldn't it...?!'
Swords were raised.
'As long as we stay together...' came the murmurs.
'You take the girl, my treat.'
'Thanks, I owe ya.'
One tried to grab Jason, but Rel refused to be parted.
'We'll be okay...'
There was a sudden flash of silver, Jason screamed, Rel pulled back, the men were laughing, neither had swung, what was happening?
He dropped to the ground, still crying in agony, and the young girl gasped as the woman-warrior stood behind him, sword coated in blood.
Rel fell to her knees, too shocked to let tears flow and too scared to keep on her feet, as Jason was beclouded in silence.
The wound in his back revolted her, disgusted her with its malice and horror.
'Jason....no, Jason...' she sobbed.
The warrior stared unemotionally, and prepared to repeat her last action.
The girl tilted her head slowly, '...we must stay together...' she whimpered.
'And so you shall.' came the reply.
Rel understood, many children wouldn't have, but she did. She grasped Jason's limp hand once more, and turned to the warrior. Xena was taken aback - the girl wanted to die? She had fought both as the defender and attacker in her time, but never had she faced one who willed her to perform the deed of murder on themselves...
'THE EMPEROR'S SOLDIERS ARE COMING!!' a look-out bellowed.
'RETREAT!' the woman hollered, the girl forgotten. She ran to join her army, 'GRAB THE LOOT AND RETREAT!'
Rel watched through the distant open doors of the temple as horses raced by, the men calling cries of success to the all-but deserted town they left behind.
'No...' Rel called to them, running to the door, 'No! You can't leave! We have to stay together!'
But no one cared. Rel stood in their dust, the lone surviving Argonaut, yet ironically the only one who didn't want to survive.
Rel's eyes tore open. Amazons abandoned their friendly nods and words of victory, to stare at the young warrior. She glanced around, the battle had been won, and she was standing on earth soaked with spiteful blood.
The others went back to their celebrations as they called to their mounts, Rel felt a hand on her shoulder.
'Rel, what's the matter?'
She turned to stare into those eyes again, the same eyes which had guided the warrior behind them to her victims, the same eyes which had regarded the seven-year-old child with disdain all those years ago.
Rel backed away, 'Jason...you killed...' she whispered softly.
'Rel?' Xena was confused.
The young Amazon shook her head in answer to some unknown question, and fled.
'What do you mean, "they're dead?!" ' Rift bawled to the nervous Raider who bowed before him, 'There were forty attacking Orphido - forty armed men against a village of low-life peasants?!'
'The - the, uh Amazons...' the man stuttered.
'The Amazons WHAT??!'
'They...uh, joined the villagers, Sir, with the Warrior Princess. They were everywhere, out-numbered and out-skilled our men, I - I saw them on my way back from Dias.'
Rift noted his crutch, the man was obviously injured in the previous night's ambush and left behind.
'All of them?'
The man nodded without looking up.
A few days earlier, Rift would have slit the throat of the Raider who brought such news, but he couldn't afford any more loss of life amidst his army. In two days it had been more than halved, broken from a powerful force to no more than a group of worthless bandits.
'The other party went as planned though, sir, no deaths on our side and the loot - '
Rift lost patience to anger. He swung his fist expertly so that it caught the man squarely on the chin, splintering his jaw and knocking him cold.
'Get him out of my sight.' he ordered another gruffly, 'and leave us.'
He took a long gulp of port and hurled the mug in aggravation at the ground.
'That son of mine was so stupid,' he cursed angrily.
Knol watched the remainder of the fluid trickle from the cup to the ground, he knew Rift was grieving for the men as much as his son. The Second did not deny his hatred for Sallos, but this was not the way he wished him to die, they were - after all - on the same side. The defeat would bring shame to the man's memory as well as to the name of his father, Knol didn't aspire that. Once, a long time ago now, the two of them had been companions; practising their skills and competing as friendly rivals, promising each other that they would one day fight together for a common cause.
No, he hadn't wished for this to happen.
'We still have a challenge,' Knol reminded him, 'I still have to kill the Warrior Princess.'
Rift looked at him tiredly, 'Knol, what are you talking about? Sallos is dead, there is no challenge anymore, you have won - the title is yours, as it should be.'
The Lieutenant crouched down and let his fingers touch the spot where their blood had stained the ground, the spot the port now soaked.
'No,' he replied, 'now the challenge pulses stronger than ever.'
The leader looked to him questioningly.
'It was Xena's plot that killed your son,' he said calmly, 'he deserves vengeance and I will grant it him; as it should be.'
Rift smiled weakly, he was proud to have a Second who would do such a thing, '...as it should be.'
Seass' hooves spurned the ground, sending sparks of blue as they hit stones along the blurred path. He knew Rel wasn't running from danger, he had never seen her do that, he felt whatever chased her to be much worse, an enemy she couldn't - or wouldn't - defeat.
He instinctively headed back to the Amazon village, their home, where he believed she might be able to confront this fear. She didn't resist, didn't appear to notice, until they passed directly under one of the "no trespassing" signs hanging from a tall redwood. She abruptly jerked his reins, veering him to the east - away from the last shimmers of light and towards the star-less, black abyss. He knew where she now wanted to go; Artemis was the only one who could answer her questions, and the only one Rel trusted enough to ask.
They slowed to a trot while advancing on the stone statues of two frozen Pegasi - their wings outstretched and tails caught by an invisible wind. Seass hesitated as he approached, humbled by entering the shrine to the Goddess of wild animals. Rel saw his resistance, and dropped from his saddle-less back. She stroked his neck reassuringly and left his side to walk through the guarding statues.
She spent much of her time here - as most Amazons did - for it was a place of peace, of thought, of prayer; all of which she needed in the task of trying pull her spirit back together.
She knelt in front of the desolate idol, the magnificent statue of Artemis.
'Goddess,' she whispered, 'grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.'
Rel had never felt as alone as she did at that moment. All this time she had tried to avoid the pain which tormented her. She had attempted to deny its existence and continue with life, but things were never that easy. It had remained with her - entangled with the Memory - and only now was she beginning to see that it would never leave.
'I cannot change how Jason died,' she continued in prayer, 'but nor can I accept it. I do not possess the courage to do anything, nor do I know how I would, even if I did. I have not gained the wisdom to know which path to tread, and so I turn to you, Goddess, for guidance. Show me how I must defeat this hatred which burns within me, show me how to conquer it.'
She waited for something to happen, miracles of the gods were so often told, and now - more than ever - a miracle was what she needed.
She raised her head slowly, begging for a sign, but was faced with the cold stone of reality. Nothing more was seen. The Goddess continued to stare blankly ahead of her, unmoving and indifferent to the words.
The hours passed as she remained, simply watching and waiting at the shrine. Her belief in Artemis so strong, and the acknowledgement of it being the only hope she owned, making her cling to it as gravely as she had done to the boy in her past.
Dawn was beginning to break anxiously across the unattainable horizon, and still she sat. Through the long night she had watched as Amazon torches buzzed like fireflies down in the valley, and had even had to hide behind Artemis while a few of them searched the shrine for her. Their endeavours had been half-hearted, evidently angry that they were traipsing the forest instead of preparing for the festival. Rel had sunk down behind the statue and listened sadly to their complaints, wishing Xena had simply taken a moment of time to end her life while it still had meaning.
She stood up now, her body ached with discontentment, but she ignored it. Artemis obviously cared for her as much as the rest of the world did, as much as she cared for herself.
'I don't blame you,' she said, bowing her head one final time before heading towards the Pegasi gates, 'I really don't blame you.'
Her path was suddenly blocked. Her hand flew to her sword, drawing it as she assumed her fighting stance.
The wolf was not impressed.
An hour ago she would have dropped her blade and thought it sent by the Goddess, but that was then.
'Why do you insist on following me?' she questioned rhetorically, 'I know Artemis hasn't sent you, she doesn't care whether I live or die, forgive or murder...and neither do you.'
It backed away a pace and bared its teeth momentarily at her "threatening" posture.
'Yeah, not so angelic now are we? Not so divine...? Good. Well what say I did take my revenge on our dear Warrior Princess - she killed Jason, you know - I can't honestly see those teeth stopping me...'
A growl raptured from the creature's throat.
'Oh, a growl! How bone-trembling!' her sarcasm drooled, '...now get the Hades outta here before I skin you and present your hide as a doormat to Artemis.'
Her sword suddenly flashed red, not with blood - but heat. It burned her hand intensely, scalding the skin and causing her to drop it instantly. She cried out in pain and shock, the wolf vanished.
Rel blinked, squeezing her injured hand in an attempt to dull the pain, while also trying to come to terms with whatever had just happened.
'This isn't happening,' she announced, retrieving her chilled blade and flexing her burnt fingers, 'I can't explain it right now, but it isn't happening.'
'If you're referring to the fact that you just dropped your sword, then I'm afraid to say that it is.'
The voice from behind twisted her round, forcing her into the Amazon stance once more as she faced Knol.
'I know you!' she hissed, 'You were one who attacked the village two days ago - you're a Raider...'
He remained standing, arms folded across his chest, as she edged closer.
'And you were one of the ones who slew three quarters of my men in "that village" - a Harlot, but do you see me bear a grudge?'
He motioned for her to lower her sword, she lifted it higher.
'What do you want? You're trespassing on Amazon ground, the sacred shrine of Artemis, I should kill you right now.'
'Then by all means continue,' he replied, raising his hands in surrender, 'but I believe you would be making a mistake.'
Rel didn't like his impertinence, but her curiosity got the better of her; she trusted herself to be able to out-fight him should the need arise.
He grinned, seeing her interest, 'Well, the way I see it, we both have a common desire, a shared goal, if you will...and I think working together would make it a lot more attainable.'
Rel was doubtful, 'Ha, what could you and I possibly have in common?'
She felt uneasy as Artemis' eyes bore into her back accusingly.
He stepped nearer, 'Why - in your own words - our wish for "revenge on the dear Warrior Princess..."'
Continued Part III