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The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and the Amazons are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended. The story however is mine and there are scenes of violence, and though not graphic in nature may upset those with a sensitive nature.
all comments are welcome to SURTEES1@aol.com
THAT ROAD ONCE TRODDEN
by Karen Surtees
The crisp cool air settled over the athletic body of the raven haired warrior as she climbed from her sleeping fur in the predawn darkness. The dancing flames of the previous nights fire had been reduced to sunset glowing embers which gave off little heat into the neatly set-up camp. The warrior stretched chasing the sleep out of her aching body and, glanced at her companion still soundly asleep, snuggled beneath her furs. Smiling softly she grabbed her own roll from the ground and tucked it around the recumbent girl. Turning back to the fire she added some kindling and blew the embers back to life. Once it had caught she added wood until the flames were once again warming the camp. They had settled late last night just off of the Amphipolis road in a small glade that Xena had known of. The road boarded one side of the camp, whilst the dense forest and a stream boarded the others. Argo Xena's golden palomino was standing asleep her hind leg balanced on her hoof near to the stream. Satisfied that nothing was amiss Xena silently slipped into the trees. She took a deep breath of chilled dawn air as the atmosphere closed in around her. Her acute hearing picked up the rustling in the matted undergrowth as the night creatures returned to their lairs, the tunes of morningsong beginning in the distance, as the first rays of dawn broached the sky. Her eyes sought out the details of the dense forest, searching for the small almost undetectable game trails and pin-pointing the hazards and dangers that would prevent her swift return if she was needed. Confident that nothing nearby would present her with a problem she moved off hunting for breakfast.
The dawn chorus was in full song and, the sun had partially risen when Xena returned to the camp; pausing on the threshold of the forest to let her senses check that nothing untoward had happened in her absence. Reassured that all was well, she walked into the camp with two field dressed rabbits dangling from her hand. After quickly checking on the sleeping bard, she deposited the rabbits next to the fire and collected the water-skins for refilling at the stream. Argo was now awake and happily chomping at the grass. "Morning girl." Greeted Xena as she sauntered past giving the loyal horse a pat. Returning to the fire she added some more wood, filled a pot with water and set it to warming on a flat stone within the fire. Sitting back crossed legged she separated herbs for tea and watched the sleeping bard. She smiled at the peaceful form before her, the morning's hunt had gone well and, Xena felt more relaxed than she had in many a week. maybe it was because they were in familiar territory, or because they - she - had decided to take a break; whatever the reason, Xena decided a late start was in order and she would let Gabrielle wake when she was ready too.
It was the smell of food that eventually roused the young bard from her contented slumber. Cracking open her eye, she noticed that it was fully daylight and, bolted upright. Her heart rate climbing in panic, then settling down as she saw Xena grooming Argo. "'Bout time you were awake." drawled her friend without looking over her shoulder at the disheveled bard, who was wiping the sleep from her eyes.
"What time is it?" Gabrielle asked tentatively.
"Not long till midday." came the reply.
"Midday? You let me sleep in?"
"Yes, I let you sleep in, and, before you ask why and a million other questions. Because I thought we could both use a lazy day." Xena turned giving Argo one last stroke and, walked back over to the fire, "Tea?" she asked the stunned bard, reaching down to the steaming pot and then handing her a mug.
"Sorry..." stuttered Gabrielle, "..and forgive me if I've missed something important here, but is this the same Xena who was so eager to keep moving that we didn’t even stop yesterday after dispatching that band of thieves?"
"Changed my mind" she said absentmindedly, desperately trying to keep the amusement from her voice by concentrating on turning the cooking rabbits on the spit.
"Yep!" she smiled "I changed my mind." Gabrielle sat stunned staring at her friend who was obviously enjoying this conversation. She always does this to me. Just when I think I've figured her out, she does a complete about turn. After traveling with the Warrior Princess for so long, the bard knew her just about as well as anybody could claim too. They'd been through life and, death, together and yet her friend was still able to surprise her. Yesterday for instance, had been a gloriously sunny day, much like today, yet the dark haired warrior had been in a foul mood; barely saying a word allday. Even when they'd been attacked she'd only inquired into the bards well-being and, then said that they'd be traveling late. They'd not made camp until well after dark and Gabrielle had been sure she was in for an early start.
"Lunch will be ready soon" said the warrior, startling the bard from her thoughts, sprawling back against her pack with a grin on her face. "Lunch?. . . " she really is enjoying this isn't she? thought Gabrielle trying to catch up with the conversation. "Well it was supposed to be breakfast but since you didn't seem inclined to get up, it turned into lunch."
"Oh" replied Gabrielle looking across at her partner. Gods what a change in mood.
"There's a small pool a minute or so downstream, if you want to bathe." Xena smiled again. She liked this, after two years of constant travel together, she still managed to catch her out on occasion.
"Right, a bath,.....yeah, okay. Back in a minute then." the bard wandered off with a puzzled expression on her face.
It was early afternoon by the time they started out. The two friends walked side by side along the dappled shadowed road, the early afternoon sun pouring through the leaves. Xena lead Argo by the bridle, Gabrielle walked with her staff in hand having now recovered from the shock of being allowed to sleep late. "So" said the bard watching Xena's face "Care to tell me about this sudden 'everything's okay with the world attitude?"' Xena looked at Gabrielle and grinned, those clear blue eyes that could freeze an enemy to the spot flooded with warmth and humor as she shrugged. Gabrielle laughed. "Well it's nice to have you back." She raised her head looking along the road." When do you think we'll reach Amphipolis?"
"Well, if I can tempt you into riding, we might get in late tonight, just think, warm soft bed, mother's cooking. Otherwise lunch tomorrow." Gabrielle heard the wishful anticipation in Xena's voice. Zeus, she's actually looking forward to going home. Last time xena had seen her mother she hadn't exactly been in her right mind, in fact she had, had the dilemma over whether or not to revenge her fathers murder on her and kill her. In the end, as with most of their adventures Xena had come up with a solution to the problem, without resorting to murdering her mother. The experience had been difficult for them both but, Gabrielle had seen the bridges crossing the wide gulf between mother and daughter start to rebuild. Her friend needed her mother even if she was unwilling to admit it. Cyrene's reaction to her when she had first returned home had been devastating to the warrior, and even though they had parted on better terms, after Xena had defeated Draco, things hadn't been good. Gabrielle knew what it was like to come from a close family and, after seeing Cyrene and her daughter she realized how close they must have been. Xena loved her family very much, the death of her younger brother Lyceus whilst fighting the war-lord Cortese, had driven a wedge between them, that only grew as Xena’s lust for vengeance and violence escalated. Cyrene found it impossible to reconcile the young innocent girl she called daughter with the bloody souled war-lord known as the Destroyer of Nations. But, things were on the mend and at least Cyrene had now seen up close the battle her daughter was having with the darkness within. Maybe this visit was exactly what Xena needed. Gabrielle looked intently at her friend, reached out and touched her arm.
"For your mother's cooking I'd ride Argo by myself." Xena laughed and vaulted into the saddle, reaching down she hauled her partner up behind her.
" Hold on tight then." she urged the golden horse into a long ground eating canter.
Xena was right as usual and, they rode into Amphipolis after dark. The village was quiet, few lights could be seen, but, in the center the inn shone, a beacon in the night. Xena halted Argo just outside and they both slid off the horse.
"ouch, I hurt in places I didn't know I had" moaned Gabrielle as her feet touched the ground. Xena could see the exhaustion in her face.
"You go in and let mother know we're here and, I'll go get Argo bedded down for the night."
Gabrielle pushed open the inn's wooden door and walked in. Across the table cluttered room Gabrielle could see the plump middle aged woman whose raven hair was matched only by her daughters, clearing up behind the bar.
" I'm afraid we're close...." The woman turned to see Gabrielle standing by the door, "Gabrielle," she said moving from behind the bar, " is that you? Where's....?" Gabrielle heard the concern rising in Cyrene's voice and quickly waved towards the stables.
" Don't worry 'Miss I can't wait to get home so we'll ride allday', is in the stables putting Argo to bed." Cyrene's face lit up as she realized there was nothing wrong and, laughed at the expression on the bards face.
"Oh, love. You must be sore. Come on in and sit down. I'll get you some food and drink. Doubt she stopped for lunch." She turned and headed off to the bar, as Gabrielle hobbled to the table she had indicated.
"Well actually lunch wasn't the problem. It was the eight hours or so after that." ' "Eight hours?" Cyrene placed a trencher of bread and cheese, along with a draught of ale in front of the bard, who immediately tucked in. " Hades bells, that daughter of mine, sometimes she just doesn't think. I've a good mind...."
"No, Cyrene. Don't" Gabrielle grabbed the innkeepers arm "The last few weeks have been pretty rough on her. I was kinda getting worried. She doesn't seem to be shaking it off like she usually does." Gabrielle released her arm and carried on munching," Anyway, she decided she wanted to visit home, so off we go. Then today she woke up in such a good mood she let me sleep 'til late morning. So I'm sorry mum, but your going to have to let me suffer. I agreed to this one. Beside" she said around a mouthful of bread and cheese, " it was worth it just to see a smile on her face, and of course your cooking was a pretty big incentive." Cyrene let out a chuckle at the munching bard.
" I'll get you both some warm broth to go with that." and she disappeared into the kitchen. Gabrielle leaned back in the chair stretching her legs out and taking a long drink of the ale, remembering at the last minute to take it slowly. Cyrene's ale was potent, as far as she could remember from her last visit. Relaxing now that the ache was starting to ease off she studied the room, and marveled at the inn. Unlike other inn's that were frequented by the two travelers, this one was relatively unscathed, the tables and benches were in good repair, the windows didn't have holes. Then again Cyrene did have one small advantage over the rest of the world, whether she used it or whether the local population informed visitors of who her daughter was it seemed to work.
Cyrene was just bustling in from the kitchen when the outer door opened and Xena strode in laden down with all of their kit. Cyrene put a large pot of broth on the table and handed Gabrielle a bowl while she watched her daughter unload herself. She noticed again how much the warrior's armor and leathers accentuated her muscular form saw again the faint scars that marked the body. The long midnight hair had fallen over her shoulder and, as she stood it fell away revealing her piercing blue eyes.
"Mother." Xena said crossing to the table, Cyrene smiled a warm greeting and was enveloped as her daughter lifted her off the ground in a bearhug.
"Hello, my little one." She whispered gazing into her daughter's face. " Sit down and eat, I'll get you a drink." Having seen her daughter up close, she could tell that Gabrielle had been right. She could feel the tense knots in her stance, and exhaustion lurked within those crystal blue eyes. Her daughter needed a rest, so did Gabrielle. They both needed looking after for a while. Cyrene returned to the table and placed a mug full of warm milk in front of her daughter. Xena grinned wrapping her hands around the mug absorbing it's warmth and lifting it to her face so that she could inhale it's sweet aroma
"Hey." mumbled Gabrielle still eating, "That's not ale."
"Milk and honey," said Cyrene squeezing her daughters shoulder and gazing down, "an old favorite."
"Well I can certainly see how ordering that in any other inn would send that tough warrior Princess myth down the drain." Xena scowled at her friend but carried on drinking.
"I've pulled the covers down in the two rooms out back, finish off here and get yourself to bed. I'll interrogate you both tomorrow after you've slept." Cyrene leaned down to her daughter and kissed her forehead whispering "It's good to see you, get some rest."
"I will," promised Xena, holding her mothers hand as she turned to go, "and mother." Cyrene looked back." Thanks." Cyrene smiled again.
"Goodnight you two. Get some sleep, I'll see you in the morning." She left the inn knowing that Xena would lock up. Xena, turned back to the table and helped herself to bread, cheese and broth, until she saw Gabrielle watching her. "What?" She paused ladling broth into her bowl.
"Milk and honey?" laughed the bard," I'm sorry," she spluttered trying desperately to smother her giggles behind her hand, "but that really does put a dent in that tough exterior."
"Gabrielle," purred Xena leaning toward her in a menacing tone, the bard finally managed to get her giggles under control. " I like milk and honey." She sat back and winked at the bard, which only sent the girl into another giggling fit." Knew, I shouldn't have brought you." sniffed Xena seeing the tears running down the bards face. " Finish your food."
A short while later Xena locked the door and put out the last of the lamps, sending the bar into darkness, a warm glow from the back rooms guided her.
"Room, okay?" she asked as she pushed open Gabrielle's door.
"Perfect." replied her friend, slipping a night shift over her head.
"You all right?" seeing the slump to the warriors shoulders.
"Yeah, tired, is all. Looking forward to a comfortable nights sleep. see you in the morning."
Xena left pulling the door closed behind her. Her mother had lit the fire in the room next door, and a warmer had been put into the bed. no doubt Gabrielle had received the same treatment. Sighing she sat down and removed her armor laying it gently under the bed, her chakram and sword she placed on the bedside table. Standing she removed her leathers lying them next to the fire to keep warm for the morning, leaving her stood in her white cotton undergarment. Stretching the kinks out from the long ride, a soft smile grew on her face, it was good to be home.
Several minutes later Gabrielle peaked around the door. Seeing her friend sprawled across the bed sound asleep. Tiptoeing quietly in she gently pulled the covers up over the warrior. Marveling once again at how peaceful and untormented the warrior could look when the night terrors that frequently haunted her could be kept at bay. "Maybe I ought to try serving you milk and honey once and a while." softly she brushed Xena's dark hair from her face and kissed her cheek. "Sleep well." she whispered and left.
For the second morning in succession Gabrielle woke to the smell of cooking. She stretched and lay looking at the ceiling for several minutes, before deciding to get out of bed. Sitting up she noticed the fire was burning and a large bowl of water was warming nearby, with a note 'Breakfast is ready when you are.
Gabrielle walked into the bar awhile later seeing Cyrene busy behind it.
"Goodmorning, Gabrielle, did you sleep well?" the bard nodded as she sat on one of the bar stools. "Would you like some breakfast? I have some fresh bread and fruit in the kitchen?"
"Yes, please....Xena out?" she asked as Cyrene came back carrying bread, fruit and a mug of tea.
"You could say that," she replied handing Gabrielle the tea and putting the bread and fruit in front of her. " She's still asleep." Gabrielle choked on the tea and slammed the mug onto the bar coughing. Cyrene wiped up the spilt tea.
"Is she all right?" spluttered the bard between coughing fits.
"She's fine. I just thought the sleep would do her good."
"You put something in her drink last night." murmured Gabrielle in astonishment.
"Good idea. Unfortunately I don't think I'd get away with it."
"Probably not, but she did look exhausted." "She is, heck we both are. It will be good to stay put for a few days, without worrying about who's doing what to whom, or to us for that matter. But I don't think you'll get away with spiking her drink twice."
"No. She won't" growled Xena walking in.
"Well, it's nice to see you..." started Gabrielle and turning to smile at her friend, then wishing she hadn't the change in mood was immediately apparent.
"I'll be back later" came the warriors gruff voice and with that she left the inn. Gabrielle's sadden eye following her. Sighing the bard squeezed Cyrene's hand
"Don't worry. this is normal or at least it has been for the last few weeks. Something's bugging her." she looked at the innkeep. "It wasn't anything you did."
"Are you sure?" the worried look on Cyrene's face touched the bard's heart.
"Positive." Gabrielle pulled Cyrene onto the stool next to her and studied her face. "These mood swings.., well.. Look, some day's I'm lucky if she speaks to me. Then the next day she's the total opposite. Something's bugging her, she'll tell me what it is eventually."
"How do you put up with it?" Cyrene watched the bards emerald eyes until she hung her head and shrugged. Taking a deep breath she looked up into Cyrene's eyes. The innkeep almost rocked back from the torrent of love that poured from those green wells.
"People rarely see Xena as I do." came the quiet voice." They look and all they see is this tall, strong, beautiful woman, who can lead armies, solve impossible problems, overcome the invincible odds she pits herself against, with apparent ease. They believe the Legend, they don't see what it costs her to do it. I do. Even though she's on their side these days, most of them are absolutely terrified of her. That's one of the reasons we never stay in any one place for long, as she would say 'she makes people nervous: I've seen people run in terror from her and, it's not even that which gets to her.
it's the fact that she knows they've got good cause to run." Gabrielle stood and began pacing.
" I love her. She's my best friend and, I've had to learn the hard way sometimes, that having her as a friend I have to love the whole. I can’t choose to love the side of her that stands up to the tyrant that she once was, or the side that allows her to show such tenderness to the sick and injured. I have to love the side that can turn from laughing and playing with me, to brutally attacking or even killing those that she believes pose a danger to us even if I don't. I have to love the dark side as well because that's who she is, what she is." She pause staring at Cyrene, who could see the frustration in the bards face. " When she's like this I just have to accept she's not going to be laughing and joking, or that whatever she might say to me, most of the time it's not me she's mad at. She'll snap out of it in a few hours, maybe even days, she'll apologize. If I'm lucky she'll get around to telling me what the problem was or is, most times though she keeps it all locked up inside. "Gabrielle saw the concern on Cyrene's face, squeezing her hand she gave a small smile. "Your daughter is a wonderful woman, with a horrifying past that comes back to haunt her time and time again. Ares blessing lurks just beneath the surface, waiting for that one slip of control that lets it loose. Every now and then it happens, I've seen it and it pushes her like nothing else I've ever seen. It allows her to do so much, but it also frightens her, it can take control and she worries over what she might do if she can't keep that tight rein on it. No one can punish Xena for the things she's done, anymore than she punishes herself. You've only seen the smallest glimpse of what she's capable of. When these black moods take her it's best to let it run it's course. She'll most probably be out there practicing her drills until she's exhausted, or hunting, or something until she knows, she can control it and won't lash out at people." Gabrielle patted Cyrene's hand. " Don't worry she'll be all right."
"Oh, Gabrielle sometimes I get so frightened for her." tears fell from the innkeepers eyes, the bard wiped them gently away with her thumbs and drew the older woman into a hug.
"I know." she whispered, holding tight. "So do I."
Xena jogged up the hill to the south of Amphipolis and into the trees. She couldn't put her finger on what it was that was troubling her, but this morning she had woken with a quiet rage burning within the pit of her stomach, and knew that if she stayed in the village or in company, it would only get worse until she said or did something she'd regret. Better she thought not to be where she could hurt anybody but herself. Her feet took her of their own accord to the woodland clearing, that as children Lyceus and her would practice mock battles in. Stepping into the open space that looked so much smaller that she remembered, she drew her sword and began to loosen up. In a natural progression that was ingrained into her mind and body, the sword flashed through intricate patterns, her body moved in a murderous dance as she fought her invisible foe. Thrusting against this unseen defense, parrying his invisible attacks. An onlooker would have seen a blinding display of sword handling and acrobatic skills. As Xena's imaginary fighter increased his skill level, so would Xena increase here’s, the sword becoming a silvery blur. She began to introduce backflips and kicks into the display, exercising every skill her body knew. So deeply involved in her practice, she could almost hear and feel the clash of steel. It took her several seconds to realize that the clash of steel was not imaginary, she could hear it.
Gabrielle had stayed at the inn instead of going to look for her partner, because she could sense Cyrene's growing unease at her daughters sudden change in mood, which only grew when she didn't return for lunch. She had entertained the lunchtime customers with a few stories, then helped Cyrene clear up and prepare for the evening rush. At first Gabrielle thought it was thunder that she could hear, but then felt the tremble beneath her feet. "Horse's" she said aloud walking towards the door," coming fast as well. You expecting anybody?" she asked looking over her shoulder.
"No." came the reply.
Gabrielle opened the door and leaned out, and nearly had her head taken off as a soldier on horseback swung his sword at her. She rocked back and slammed the door shut. Seeing Cyrene's horrified face she locked the door and ran over to her grabbing her arm.
"We need a back way out!"
"Through the kitchen."
"Good, let me get my staff."
Gabrielle eased the kitchen door open just as another soldier galloped by, this time ignoring her. She could now see that the village was under attack from twenty-five or so mounted raiders, with maybe twenty or so foot troops. The Amphipolis population was running in terror and being hacked down in the process.
"This does not look good." muttered the bard to Cyrene," stay by me, we'll try to get to Argo, that will be our best chance for getting out of hear. " If Xena doesn't turn up first.
Xena reached the hill in time to see the mounted raiders enter her home village. That small spark of rage within her stomach ignited into a black battle fever unlike any she had felt since meeting Hercules.
Gabrielle had managed to get Cyrene and herself to the stable in one piece after dealing with a few of the ground raiders. Now however, they were stuck, the stable doors hung on their hinges and the horse’s had run from the fire that had been started within. She was now in a nearly indefensible position, with Cyrene and the now blazing stables behind her and four raiders armed with swords in front of her. What was it that Xena said about running ?
Xena entered the village at full speed. Two mounted raiders didn't even have time to register her appearance before she launched herself from the ground and took them out with a kick. Finishing both off with her sword, she vaulted into the saddle of the nearest horse. Quickly surveying the scene, she felt a smile on her face, and let fly
with her chakram taking several horsemen out before they knew what had hit them. A maniacal laugh rumbled from her throat as she caught the blood stained weapon. Standing tall in the stirrups she bellowed her blood curdling war-cry.
"YiYiYiYiYa!" Gabrielle almost fainted with relief as she heard the familiar war-cry echoing around the village. She actually managed a grin as she continued to block the sword being thrust at her. "cavalries arrived! "she shouted over her shoulder to Cyrene.
Xena rode through the village disposing of raiders with undisguised ease and pleasure, they were hardly a challenge. Standing again, she looked for Gabrielle knowing that the bard would have tried to get her mother to safety. She eventually spotted the bard, back towards the burning stables, with Cyrene behind her and four attackers in front. She laughed as Gabrielle's staff dispatched one of them with a solid whack to the head, teach them to underestimate her won't it. she thought as Gabrielle's staff whirled an intricate pattern mesmerizing the three left in front of her. Grinning she threw the chakram.
Gabrielle felt the rhythmic whirl of the staff as all that the Amazons and Xena taught her about the art of staff fighting flowed through her. She felt a smile cross her face as her staff connected with the head of one of the raiders. She pressed her attack as her confidence grew and her opponent fell to the ground. The weapon flowed in her hand deflecting the blows from the remaining three. Seeing an opening she reversed the staffs direction ramming the blunt end into a raiders midriff. She whipped the staff around to block the other two raiders, to find them dead at her feet with wounds she'd only ever seen inflicted by her friends chakram.
Xena turned her attention back to the fighting, now that the bard and her mother were out of immediate danger. The raiders had recognized her as a threat and were focusing their attention on her. Laughing Xena urged the horse into the middle of them, killing or maiming all that got in her way. Slowly she started to draw them out of the village. Most of the foot raiders were dead or dying by the time the fight had reached the edge of the village. Xena had taken several injuries, but she allowed nothing to slow her down. Now that the invaders were for the most part ignoring everyone but Xena, the villagers were emerging from their hiding places to watch the warrior against the decimated force.
Seeing the last horsemen and foot raiders standing against her, Xena laughed the incredible energy produced by the battle fever pushing her along.
"Still wanna play boys?" she laughed dismounting. "one at a time or all at once?" her blood covered sword at the ready she slowly advanced. "Come on! What are you waiting for?" she taunted "Scared of a woman?" The raiders eased backwards staying just out of reach, strangely unwilling to attack or retreat. A horn blew in the distance and as one the fighters turned and fled from the village and the demoness who protected it.
Xena watched the retreat for a few seconds, then turned and made her way back toward the village, stopping only to wipe her sword on the tunic of one of the dead.
Gabrielle and Cyrene stepped from behind the village hut they'd sheltered behind to watch the last minutes of the battle. Cyrene absorbed the scene before her in silent horror. Her daughter was covered in blood from top to toe, most of it from those she'd killed but a significant amount was her own from several wicked gashes that littered her body. The peculiar expression on her face was made all the more frightening by the smile that kept flitting across it, her eyes sparkled with a murderous terrifying intensity. It scared Cyrene, she now truly saw the darkness that had created the legendary Destroyer of nations and, yet it was still her daughter. Cyrene saw those chilling eyes ignite, and looked beyond Xena's shoulder to find out what had caused the battle fever to burn anew.
Gabrielle saw the horsemen reappear as she waited for Xena to approach. She saw the change in tactics, the leader of this band of raiders had obviously figured out that they were not going to be able to take Xena down at close quarters, and archers were now riding at the forefront of the returning band. A short distance behind the main group rode a lone horseman dressed in ornate black armor that absorbed the afternoon sunlight. Gabrielle felt Cyrene shudder, and looked again at the horseman. Not so scary, well not after seeing some of Xena’s friends.
The alteration in formation had registered in the warriors mind as soon as she turned. It was a good one, they had a better chance of getting past her with archers, but Xena was in no mood to play games. Several solutions to the new tactics were quickly considered and disregarded by her battle fevered mind. Finally she settled on one that seemed most likely to be effective. She pulled the chakram from her side and waited until the archers were in range, the chakram was tossed out at incredible speed, only three archers managed to fire their bolts before it was among them. Xena caught two of the bolts as they zeroed in on her, she barely tracked the third when she realized where it was heading.
Gabrielle watched in silent awe with the rest of the village, as her friends chakram cut through the ranks of archers. Xena's quick hands pulled the arrows that had been fired out of the air except one, which the warrior hadn't seemed to have noticed. Suddenly Xena launched herself from the ground into a backflip, landing directly between here mother and the deadly projectile.
Xena felt the thudding impact of the arrow in her left shoulder, an inferno of pain radiated out from the wound. She didn't have time to worry about the pain, so she just locked it away to deal with later. She chanced a quick look down at the injury, seeing that the arrowhead had gone straight through. Reaching up she snapped the feathered flight off of the quarrel and pulled the bolt out of her shoulder. Running forward, she bounced on the balls of her feet launching herself into the midst of the remaining attackers, her sword flashing in intricate dances as she disposed of all that opposed her, aware of nothing except the battle.
Gabrielle had her arm around the innkeeper supporting her, Cyrene's face was dripping with her daughters blood, the arrow had come that close to killing her. She was in shock, the bard could tell from the trembling that shook the woman's frame and deathly pale face, but, she didn't what to leave until she was sure it was safe, that meant waiting for Xena to clear up those raiders that were left. Looking around she saw a place to sit Cyrene, she lead the innkeeper over and gently pushed her down. Movement caught her eye. Several of the village men had taken up pitch forks and axes, and were heading towards the fight.
"Wait." yelled Gabrielle running over to them." Stop." The men looked at her in confusion. "Anybody gets passed her their yours, but you go charging in there with weapons, she's not gonna realize until to late that your the good guys, and you'll end up as dead as them." She looked over her shoulder. There were several horsemen left, Gabrielle could see the telltale signs of exhaustion creeping into the warriors frame. She turned back to the men. "Think you could take some of them out with bow's?" The men grinned, two running off and quickly returning with bows and fully stocked quivers.
Xena was tiring and she knew it. The wound in her shoulder was bleeding badly, she also had several other injuries that were causing her pain. Her mind just locked it all away, and automatically adjusted her techniques to take into account her new limitations. The raider she was fighting fell from the horse, a quarrel sticking out from his neck. She twisted avoiding a downswinging blade and threw a punch into the horseman’s stomach that lifted him from the saddle and sent him crashing to the ground. She deflected another attack and kicked back at the downed horseman snapping his neck.
Soon there were only two fighters left alive on the battlefield, Xena and the black armored raider. Xena's face broke into a feral smile as she saluted him her sword dripping the blood of his raiders. The dark swordsman dismounted, and drew his sword striding through the carnage towards the warrior princess, and raised his sword in reply to hers.
"So," came his smooth silky voice as their swords clashed in front of them for the first time, "tell me, who do I have the pleasure of killing today?" The two fighters broke apart, Xena could just make out the smoldering brown eyes beneath the black helm. She took a deep breath settling her labored breathing from the long battle and grinned.
"People, around these parts call me Xena." their blades clashing together overhead. She chuckled at him as shock flickered through his eyes.
"See you heard of me then." parting, the dark swordsman pressed his attack. Xena blocked the down swinging blade with her own, ducking behind him and sending him to his knees with a thump.
"Pity." he said blocking Xena's sword and kicking her right leg from beneath her, sending her crashing to the ground. "If I'd known you were here I may have left this village alone." His sword hit empty ground as Xena had already rolled away and was back on her feet. She jumped and hit his head with a fully weighted round-house kick that sent him sprawling again.
"Oh, you'd have seen me eventually whether I'd been here or not." she let the warrior get unsteadily to his feet, "See this is my home! Nobody and I mean nobody touches it." with that she launched a blinding attack of thrusts and slashes which ended up with what was left of his body impale up to the hilt on her sword.
Gabrielle stood with the villagers mainly to stop anybody getting in Xena's way. The men had done well with their bows and had dealt with three of the attackers for her partner. Cyrene had joined them, somewhat recovered from her close call with death. She had cleaned the worst of Xena's blood from her face, though a few smears still remained. They stood side by side watching in silence. Gabrielle gazed fascinated, wondering again where her partners strength came from as she fought the dark warrior. She felt Cyrene's hand clutch her arm as her daughter crashed to the ground, then relax as she bounded back to her feet. It would be over soon, Gabrielle knew as the black warriors sword thrust into nothing, even as tired as Xena obviously was, she was toying with him. The black warrior was already dead he just didn't know it yet.
Xena pushed the dead raider from her sword, before what was left of his body could fall to the ground she swung her sword decapitating him. The warrior dropped to her knees, sweat and blood dripping profusely from her body. Using the sword as a rest she leant her head against her hands and tried to steady her breathing which was now coming in great gulps as her oxygen starved system screamed for replenishment. Her mind was still crystal clear and senses hyper alert but she knew that wouldn't last more that a few minutes with the amount of damage her body had taken.
Cyrene was on the move before the black warriors head had hit he floor. She caught the bard totally off guard with sudden run towards her daughter. Gabrielle sprinted after her panic stricken knowing she should have kept a closer eye on Xena's mother. If Cyrene made the wrong move now she would end up dead before Xena had even realized who it was.
The trembling started in her legs, spreading quickly to the rest of her body. Having managed to get her breathing under control, Xena took one last deep breath and pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the tunneling of her vision. She stumbled forwards and rocked backward before finally balancing herself. A hand grabbed her arm, her body reacted to the threat, throwing the sword arm up and around she knocked her attacker away.
Gabrielle's worries exploded into terror as Cyrene grabbed Xena's arm, the warrior spun round throwing her mother to the floor, raising her sword.
"No! Xena!" cried the bard with a burst of speed she flung herself the small distance separating her from the felled innkeeper, putting herself between Xena's stricken mother and the striking warrior. She lifted her staff into the high guard and deflected the down crushing blow of Xena's blade.
"Xena!" she pleaded desperately seeing no trace of humanity in her friends piercing eyes. The warrior now stood poised to strike again at the two women sprawled at her feet. The bard saw the blood pouring from Xena’s wounds, bone showed through the gapping hole the arrow had left in her shoulder. She could see the muscles trembling with fatigue and exhaustion. "Xena!" she yelled in a stronger voice, trying to get through to her partner before she killed them. "Xena, put down the sword. Xena, come on you recognize my voice. Nobody here is trying to hurt you. So come on put down the sword." Gazing into the warriors blue eyes she could see reason slowly
returning too them. " that's right, nobody here's a threat. That's it put down the sword." Xena lowered the sword to her side taking a step backward. Gabrielle slowly got to her feet, keeping eye contact with the warrior, so the dawning horror at what she'd almost done to her best friend and mother was immediately apparent to her, as was the panic building within them as her sword dropped from nerveless fingers.
"Oh, no.." a look of anguish covered Xena's face as she began to backup quickly, scanning around seeing the villagers terrified faces, until she saw the golden palomino among the loosened horses. She whistled to the horse and returned her agonized look to her mother and best friend.
"Sorry" she whispered tears falling from her eyes to mingle with the blood splattered across her face. Argo arrived by her side, she grabbed her mane and pulled herself onto the saddless back.
"Xena, wait" Gabrielle moved forward reaching out to her friend. But Argo turned at a command from her mistress and galloped away, Xena's blood already staining her flanks.
A stunned silence enveloped the village, then slowly people started to clear up. Cyrene pushed herself to her feet and went to the bards side. " Gabrielle?" she asked softly, seeing the tears on the young girls face.
"Have to go after her, she won't get far in the condition she's in. Lost to much blood." The bard turned towards the innkeeper searching her face. " It wasn't you she was hitting out at, you know that don't you?"
"I honestly thought she was going to kill me, Gabrielle, I could see my death in those eye's."
"You startled her, she was still in a battle fever and hurt, her body just reacted as it's trained to do. You saw what happened when her mind caught up. It's gonna take me a long time to convince her that this wasn't her fault," Gabrielle saw the wince in Cyrene's eye. "It wasn't anyone's fault." She rested her hand on Cyrene's shoulder. "But she'll convince herself she could have prevented this somehow. I'm going to bring her home Cyrene, but you've got to know if you flinch or react in any way. She'll go, she'll loose her reason for fighting that darkness, if she already believes she’s lost you. Who knows where that road once trodden will take her."
"I want to come with you Gabrielle, " she replied clasping the bards hand, "No fear, I promise."
Argo galloped through the trees without command until she reached the small river that ran a few miles to the west of the village, there the horse paused waiting for instruction from her rider, when none was forthcoming, she turned and headed downstream at a slow walk.
Xena sat upon Argo letting the horse go where she willed. She had come so close to killing her mother and Gabrielle, that nothing else really mattered. The look of horror on her mothers face and desperation on Gabrielle’s face as she pleaded with her, were to much to bare. Today the darkest side of her had taken over and nearly killed, the only two people in this world she loved. She would not let it happen again, ever, and if the only way to ensure that they were safe was to leave, that was what she'd do one way or the other. She looked down at her blood soaked leathers and hands clasping Argo's golden mane. She was still bleeding, and exhaustion had hit her full on, she knew that she ought to stop and try to get the bleeding stopped. Then suddenly she knew she wasn't going to rest up and heal from this one. For so long she had been trying to make up for her past, today she proved that nothing had changed in her and never would. She had once asked Gabrielle to bring her home if anything ever happened to her, well she was already home and there was only one place she wanted to go.
It had taken surprisingly little time to get things together at the inn. Gabrielle had collected everything they needed from Xena's kit, Cyrene had seen to the provisions. It was only getting the horses that took time. The two women left the village just as the sun was setting.
"Do you know where she'll head to Gabrielle?"
"Yeah," replied the bard quietly. "I've a good idea where she'll head to."
"She's always told me that there has always been one person she could talk to, even during the worse times, she knew he would always listen, that’s where she’ll head to."
"You mean she’ll go to Lyceus?"
"Yeah, that's where I'd put bets on her going."
Dusk was deepening into night when they arrived at Lyceus resting place. Gabrielle and Cyrene both felt the release of tension neither had been aware of until they saw the blood stained Argo standing outside. The palomino wickerd gently as Gabrielle approached on foot.
"Hello girl," she let the horse nuzzle her outstretched hand, "Is mum inside?" Argo snorted hot air into her hand in reply. The bard spoke to Cyrene without taking her eyes off of the entrance to the tomb. "I'm pretty sure she's inside, do you....?"
"No I'll come with you." Cyrene slid from the back of the black war-horse, and the two companions entered the tomb together. It was obvious that Xena had been here, a trail of blood lead from the entrance, stopping where the now flickering torches lit the way, then moving on into the crypt. Gabrielle took a deep breath before turning the corner unsure as to what she would find. She quickly scanned the vault until she found the huddled form of her friend.
Cyrene stepped around the corner with Gabrielle, immediately seeing the blood splattered tomb of her youngest son, her daughters bloody handprints marred the otherwise pristine crypt. Across Lyceus' sword lay Xena's chakram, her armor lay at his feet. On the ground next to the tomb lay the curled form of her daughter. This time Cyrene didn't dash across the floor to her but waited for the bard to approach. "Xena?" came Gabrielle's sweet voice, as she neared the prone body. The young girl didn't even flinched as she knelt in the pool of blood that surrounded her friend. Gently shaking her friends shoulder she got no response.
"She's out cold, we'll need a fire and some hot water." rolling her slowly onto her back. "Zeus, what a mess, if you could get started.." Gabrielle looked around to see Cyrene had already started on getting a fire going," on the fire. I'll try and stop this bleeding." Taking the clean cloths from her pack, she packed the shoulder wound stanching the flow of blood and then attended to the various other wounds. Ten minutes later Cyrene had a good fire going and water on to warm, Gabrielle glanced at her as she wandered over.
"How is she?" Gabrielle sighed
"She's lost a lot of blood Cyrene. These wounds are deep, especially the shoulder, they've been left so infection might get a hold, though those that were still bleeding might not be so bad with that. But to be honest I don't know, she's the expert on these things. Give me a hand to get her nearer the fire, then I can clean and try to close those gashes." Together they gently pulled the unconscious warrior over onto the sleeping fur that Cyrene had laid out. Gabrielle got to work cleaning the wounds properly, the shoulder was the worst of many, but two other gashes gave the bard cause for concern, one large gash on her right thigh was almost to the bone and very dirty, and one below her ribs on the left waist.
It was several hours later when Gabrielle finished satisfied that no more could be done for her friend. Several times Cyrene had, had to hold the restless warrior down, whilst the bard had scrubbed and stitched the wounds, but now it was done the warrior rested somewhat fitfully.
Cyrene sat near Gabrielle and her sleeping daughter, marveling at the young bard. The girl showed no fear. When the raiders had attacked she kept her head about her, didn't panic and came up with a way out. She had stood unafraid of the madness within her daughter and defended her. Then she'd hunted that wounded animal down and tended to it's wounds.
"Tell me about her?" asked Cyrene leaning across to brush Xena's black hair from her damp face, sensing Gabrielle's questioning gazed. "I don't really know her except from the stories, I haven't known her since she was a young girl. What's she like?" The bards face lit with a smile as she spoke of her favorite subject.
" I remember when I first saw her. Draco’s men had rounded up the village and wanted to take us girls to sell to the slavers. I remember standing before my sister telling them to take me and leave the rest. Zeus, what a stupid idea that was, even when I was young I used to dream up stories to tell, where a hero would coming riding into save us at the last minute; and I honestly believed someone would come." Staring into the distance remembering the scene Gabrielle chuckled. "I was just about to get my hide whipped off, when there she was in her cotton undershift, minutes later the whole of Draco's raiding party was on the run. The elders of the village were quaking in their boots when they found out who'd saved them. All I could think of was how great she was, and what it would be like to travel with her. When I asked her to take me with her, she refused saying I was better off where I was, but the romantic dream of being an adventurer got the better of me and I followed her here." she sighed looking down at her friend. " Those first few months I was with her were really difficult. I must have driven her crazy with all my chatter, but it was so hard to get a conversation out of her. She never told where we were going, or what she was planning. I thought it was because I'd just sort of attached myself to her, and because I really didn't have a clue about life on the road. She had to do nearly everything for me at first. Then I realized it had nothing to do with any of that, it was just that she didn't know how to act around me. For so long she'd lived with the knowledge that one slip and any one of her soldiers or enemies would kill her, the knowledge that the mear mention of her name would send people running in fear. She didn't understand that I wouldn't. She didn’t' understand that a friend didn't expect anything from her."
Cyrene watched silently while the bard wrapped her arms around her knees and rested her head on them, never moving from her daughters side.
"She was lonely, scared-though she would never admit it. She was battling against every instinct to just beat the living daylights out of anybody that stood in her way. After awhile I think it finally got through to her that I knew her, I knew what she had been and done, but that I understood that she was trying to change, I desperately wanted to help her with that. When she realized that I wasn't running away every time we got into trouble and, that I really cared about what happened to her, those well constructed barriers slowly started to come down." she paused picking up a water-skin and drinking deeply. The emerald eyes sparkled with intensity when they looked back at Cyrene. "She's so loyal. Though that the wrong word to use, but I can't think of one that defines it better. The amount of times she's put herself at risk to get me out of trouble are to many to mention. Oh, but she's really frustrating aswell, her communication skills are virtually non-existent, she blames herself if anything goes wrong, or if anyone gets hurt. You know it was months before I realized anybody could actually hurt her, because she won't tell you she's hurt or in pain. I almost have to sit on her to get her to slow down. It's this legendary war-lord routine that does it. Oh, but that single-mindedness never lets her give up. There have been times when I just know that we're gonna get ourselves killed, times when I’ve been so sure that it's taken me days to realize I'm actually still alive. Like today she's always found a way through."
"Don't you ever just want to give up and go home?" Cyrene asked. Gabrielle giggled those green wells shimmering with mischief.
"Been there, done that, didn't work. My village was being terrorized by some raiders. I ended up using all my skills - learnt of course from your daughter,- to help save it. I understood then just how much I'd changed, grown up really. I didn't belong there anymore. So I went searching for Xena, got myself into troubles usual. This time though I managed to get myself out of it, only of course to find myself in deeper trouble. Guess who appeared." Her adoring gaze dropped to the sleeping warrior, worry flitted across her face, as her hand rested against her friends head. " She's taken a fever." fear colored her voice.
" I know." The innkeeper wrapped her arm around the bards shoulders. "You really do love her don’t you?" The bard raised her head and looked at Xena's mother giving a shy smile. Cyrene saw all she needed to know in that young beautiful face, those Forrest green eyes expressed more than the bard would ever know.
"Yeah, I do." The whispered voice caught, Cyrene hugged her harder.
"Does she know?" Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face and sniffed
"I guess so. I mean I've never come right out and said it, well not like that anyway. But yeah, I think she knows."
"You should tell her. It might make her.."
"No," interrupted Gabrielle, " I couldn't do that to her. She has enough worries on her plate, she doesn't need me adding to them."
"I think your wrong Gabrielle. I think it' would help her to know someone cared for her like that, rather than hinder her."
"Yeah, well, maybe one day." The bard sighed reaching out to her friend, as the warrior began to stir. "Xena? Xena?.. Come on. Wake up." She gently stroked the sweat soaked face as those piercing eyes fluttered open. Gabrielle could see confusion, fear and pain battle on her face, as a grip hardly weakened by fever or wounds took hold of her arm and pulled it away from her face. "What are you doing here?" croaked the warriors voice.
"Chasing after you as usual. Here, let me get you some water." Gabrielle tried to reach for the water-skin but Xena's grip tightened on her arm.
"Go away." The despair in that voice and in those eyes shook the bard to the core. "You shouldn't have followed. It could.." her voice trembled as fevered chills wracked her body, "..it could have been.."
"Look we'll discuss this later. Right now you've got a fever from your wounds. You need to drink." The warriors strength again prevented her from reaching the water-skin. Gabrielle's mouth opened but before she could say anything a hand gently squeezed her shoulder.
"Xena. Do as Gabrielle asks." Shock hit the warriors face, which became even paler than it was before, as Cyrene moved into the flickering firelight and, Xena realized that the bard had not come alone.
"Mother?" the whispered voice cracked with emotion. The grip loosened on Gabrielle's arm and the bard gently pried it away from the warrior. "What are?.. How could you?" Xena's eyes closed as tears fell down her face. Cyrene reached out and brushed them away withdrawing a little as Xena flinched away from her touch. "Don't, both of you. Go away, just leave me alone!"
"Sorry, I can't do that anymore." Cyrene's voice held a trace of anger. "I don't know you that well. I haven't had the chance to in a long time. I've not known how to be your mother, I do now and I won't let this chance go."
"Do you have any idea how close I came to killing you? Do you realize that if Gabrielle hadn't managed to block that sword you'd both be dead." Spat Xena her voice filled with self-hate and frustration as Cyrene sat calmly by her stroking her arm. "Yes, I do. I also know if you hadn't battled those raiders and stopped that arrow I'd also be dead, so let's call it quits." Xena sighed her eyes closed unwilling to make eye contact with her mother, "It's not the same."
" I saw a monster today Xena. For the first time, I actually saw the legendary 'Destroyer Of Nations'." She gripped her daughters shoulder hard until her eyes opened. "Yes, a monster, who took joy and pleasure in killing. I've always known who and what you are Xena, and today I saw it. But you know for the first time, I didn't care about any of that. Your my daughter, you were hurt and in pain, and I forgot. All I wanted to do was hold you and make it all go away. When you threw me off I knew the mistake I'd made." Cyrene took a breath and gazed deeply into those ice blue eyes, willing her daughter to listen. " It wasn't fear of you, that you saw in my eyes. It was fear for you. I knew what my mistake was going to do to you."
"I wish I could believe that." came the agonized reply.
Gabrielle sat back letting Cyrene get close to her daughter, as she tried to convince her that she had nothing to be ashamed of. But she saw the chills shuddering through her friends body, the exhaustion that even this small talk had caused. Time to quieten her down a bit.
"Xena, I want you to drink this now. No arguing." said the bard as the fevered warrior shook her head in protest. "We can sort this out later when you haven't got a fever." Gabrielle lifted the warriors head and shoulders onto her lap. "Now drink!" her voice brooked no argument. "Good, now I want you to get some rest." the bard held the warrior close until her eyes closed and her tense frame relaxed.
" Thank you, Cyrene." Gabrielle didn't look up from her friends face.
"For saying that. I think she needed to hear you say it."
"I know" Cyrene said quietly, closing her eyes, "more surprising to me is that after so long a time distrusting her, I meant every word of it. This afternoon made me think for the first time since she left, about her. You know, " she said now gazing at her daughter. "She was still a child when she left. In many ways she still is. She still needs her mothers love and approval. I guess you've made me see that everything isn't black and white; but shades of gray." Her eyes turned upwards to the bard. " This afternoon was my fault. I should have known better, especially after living with her father. I should have understood, that no matter how she changes, her essence is still that of a warrior. Capable of good and evil." She took a deep breath and searched Gabrielle's face seeing encouragement behind those eyes. "You know, I expected her to save the village. Me. Us. I didn't know how. After all she's only one woman, despite all the stories, but, I expected her to do it and she did. I should have known she would use everything in her power to save the village and us along with it, she did the same when she was just a child after all. I.., then, oh..I don't know Gabrielle. When I realized what she had to become to do it, I blamed her for what she was. But I expected her to become that monster to save us all. I think I was more horrified at myself, than I was at her. I don't have the right to judge her. I shouldn't try to change who or what she is. I should just accept her as my daughter." Gabrielle sat for a while saying nothing and then smiled.
"I'm glad you think that Cyrene. Because it's going to take us both to convince her of that. Look,.." she said glancing down at the restless warrior, "it's going to be along night, she normally gets worse before she gets better. Why don't you get some sleep?" "Thank you, but no." Cyrene had seen the tired slump of the bards shoulders. "You had a long day yesterday. A battle today, as well as looking after me and my daughter. It's time you rested. I can look after her, at least for awhile."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, now settle down and get some sleep." Gabrielle decided not to argue, she was tired and this afternoons fight had left her aching, never mind the horse ride. Gently moving Xena's head from her lap, she moved to the otherside of the fire and crawled into the well used sleeping roll that Cyrene had laid out earlier. "Wake me in a few hours and I'll take over."
"I will," Cyrene said watching the bards eyes close as she slipped into sleep, knowing that she had no intention of waking her.
Cyrene made good use of her time while the bard slept. She cleaned Lyceus's tomb, taking down her daughters weapon and armor, washing her blood from the stone. Occasionally Xena would become restless and Cyrene would stop to tend her. Now though she was stood next to her son wiping the dust from his face.
"Well, my son, she's home. Though Zeus knows for how long. You were right you know, when you said she didn't just fight, she danced with her blade. Oh, and did she dance today, never have I seen the like of such a warrior as she. And her friend, her friend has a devotion for her unlike any I've seen before. Today when she put herself between me and your sister, she had no fear, as though she knew your sister would never harm her. I do confess to doubting that with anyone else, but with Gabrielle I believe this is true. She reminds me a lot of you. Young, Idealistic, a bit of a dreamer, though she is a wonderful bard, and like you she show's absolutely no doubt in your sister, believes in her unequivocally. She's in love, her face lights with a glow whenever she looks or speaks of her. I'm unsure whether your sister returns it, though she has a great fondness for her and heeds her more than anyone else. Gabrielle was right she needed a friend, and I'm glad Xena found her." leaving her sons side, she sat down by her daughter and carefully brushed her damp hair from her face.
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