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General Disclaimer: All characters depicted belong to Renaissance Pictures/Universal, etc. This story is just for fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Violence: It’s Xena, what can I tell you? But I will say that this is not a war story, it is first and foremost a love story.

Subtext: The subtext is here and shall not be denied. No gratuitous sex, just a fair bit of innuendo and flirtations involving women in love.

Lucy Lawless Alter-Ego disclaimer: Just for the hell of it I thought I’d have Lucy Lawless’ Xena meet up with one of her alter egos from the past, Lysia from "Hercules and the Amazon Women", but there’s no corny "hey you look familiar" jokes I promise....ohh well maybe just a couple in the beginning:-)

Spoiler disclaimer: This story is set after "Bitter Suite" but before "One Against an Army". I refer to the Herc telemovie "Hercules and the Amazon Women" but have chosen to ignore the whole "Zeus sends Herc back in time to fix everything" thing. I loved the Lysia character and wanted to use her, so...As far as I’m concerned Herc did go to Hippolyte’s Amazon village and Lysia did kick the living daylights out of him and it was a satisfying, feminine-affirming experience all round. None of this going-back-in-time-and-having-it-never-happen stuff. Iolaus just stayed home and stopped himself from getting killed. Or maybe he hung around to gawk at the Amazons. But since this is my fantasy world I get to decide what happened and what didn’t, and I make no apologies:)

Dedicated to all the writers involved on Xena:Warrior Princess, whose work I admire enormously.


The Game
by Poto


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Part Four

Solari saw the glint of metal in the distance an instant before she saw the warning. The northern tower guard shot ten arrows into the air, in two groups of five. The signals were ominous. Ten arrows total to indicate the number of attackers, a hundred warriors, and in two groups of five, fifty on horseback, fifty on foot. Striking a flint to light the warning beacon, she stood and watched the black smoke billowing out from the top of a tall pipe above the main gate. If the guards in the other towers were still alive, at least they’d know the village was under attack. Racing down the stairwell, she sprinted across to where she knew Ephiny would be.

"Ephiny. We’ve got big trouble. One hundred warriors, fifty horse. They just passed the northern watchtower."

"A hundred?" Ephiny scowled in disbelief. "What could they possibly want here?"

"What else?" Gabrielle replied, eyes flashing anger. "Damn it, I knew this was going to happen. They want Xena."

Ephiny shook her head. "That’s impossible. No one left the village. The word couldn’t have gotten out..."

"And no one went into Anya’s tent to give her the nightsbane either. No one could have." Gabrielle interrupted impatiently, her mind whirling with little pieces crashing into place. "No one, except maybe a God."

"Would Ares go so far? And how does Anya fit into all this?"

"I don’t know about Anya, and I don’t think we’ll find out before Xena wakes up to tell us. But I think this has all the signs of being something Ares might do... Xena could be vulnerable to him right now."

"Well regardless of what it is, we still have an army marching our gates ready to knock down the walls. I guess they’ll tell us soon enough if Xena’s what they came for." Solari stated, logically. Moving to leave, she turned as she felt Gabrielle touch her arm.

"Solari, whatever happens, I won’t hand Xena over."

"The only way that’ll happen Gabrielle, is over our dead bodies. All of us." Solari saluted her Queen, cast a quick glance at Ephiny, and then left to organise the Amazon nation for war.

"There’s a messenger at the gates from the warlord." A sentry reported, breathless after her sprint from the guard tower.

Solari nodded. "Is he alone?"

"Yes, but he’s armed to the teeth."

"Well then, he can forget about coming inside. He can deliver his message in lovely, clear and hopefully loud dulcet tones to whoever is on the wall." Solari waved the sentry away, but the young woman twitched nervously. "Was there something else?"

"He wants to speak to Gabrielle."

"Then I bet I already know what his message is." Solari fumed, flinging away the maps she was poring over and stalking to the tower adjoining the main wall. Taking the stairs two by two she reached the top and stared scathingly down at the filthy soldier. His horse flittered nervously, as if the beast was instinctively aware of how many Amazonian archers they were perilously in range of.

"What could this filth possibly have to say to the Queen of the Amazons?" She cursed out over the wall.

The messenger tensed, but held his ground. "My commander has a personal message for the bard Gabrielle, the companion of Xena. Unless of course you can dig up the warrior princess herself and hoist her onto the walls." At the utterance of Xena’s name the soldier almost spat in disgust. Solari smiled. At least Xena was certainly still making the right enemies, even if she sometimes had trouble knowing how to treat her friends.

"In the Amazon nation you will address her as Queen Gabrielle, and she doesn’t speak to the likes of you. So the way I see it you have three choices - deliver your message, deliver the unconditional surrender of your entire army, or just keep standing there like a practice target while I order thirty archers to deliver you to Hades."

Of course, there were only fifteen archers on the wall, but it never hurt to exaggerate. The soldier looked dubiously at the arrow notches in the wood as if suddenly unsure of the estimate he’d made barely minutes before.

After a few seconds he called out again. "Deliver this then to your Queen. We know Xena is inside, and we know she’s...shall we say, not exactly in fighting condition. You give us her body and we won’t be forced to torch your village. Of course, we’d all be happy then to give all your women a lesson in what real women are supposed to be for. If you get my drift."

To Solari, the soldier's words stank of fake bravado. Miserable scum. She smiled, refusing to let herself be baited.

"I’m afraid your informant has misled you. Xena is here, and the last I saw of her she looked in perfect health. You’d be wise to tell your commander...What was your commander’s name again by the way?" Solari delivered her words with as much nonchalance as she could muster.

"My Commander is the great warlord, Patrakas."

"Great warlord Patrakas. Right." She drawled, sarcastically. "Well, tell Patrakas he’d be wise to turn around and go back to the same hole he crawled out of, you’ll find no easy sport here. Unless you’re all suddenly in the mood to take on the Destroyer of Nations?"

"Spare your lies for someone more gullible, Amazon. Our informant was the God of War himself. We know Xena’s flat on her back..." Solari grimaced at his choice of phrasing, "...and we’re coming in to get her."

"Be my guest." Solari snickered, letting out a shrill whistle as a signal to the archers on the wall. Within seconds the messenger's horse was ringed with brightly-feathered arrows, causing the beast to shy dangerously. The man managed somehow to keep his seat, glowering back at the Amazon leader and digging his heels into the poor animal's side. Swearing loudly, he spurred the animal roughly off into the tree cover beyond the village.

Solari raised her voice so her words could be heard all along the wall. "That’s enough, we’ve had our fun. From now on make every arrow count. Send someone out to collect the arrows in the ground. As of this moment, the Amazon nation is under siege." She turned to an Amazon warrior hovering by her elbow. "Have the guards from the three other watchtowers made it back yet?"

"We had three return from the south, but no word from the eastern or western outposts. And the north..."

"The message came from the north, we have to assume..." Bile rising in Solari’s throat prevented her from finished the sentence. She stared into the distance for a second, mourning silently.

"And the others?" The young Amazon prompted gently. Solari shook her head to shake off the ghosts.

"Keep watch until nightfall. If there’s no sign of any survivors by then, I want the defensive blocks in front of the entrances in the back grotto and on the south wall. Send a runner down to inform Ephiny and Gabrielle about everything that’s happened." The Amazon nodded and left, leaving Solari feeling restless, anxious and more than a little annoyed.

I never thought I’d see the day when Xena would be a liability in a battle not an asset.

She took one last ominous look at the ring of arrows her Amazons had shot into the ground. Several young warriors shuttled to and fro, collecting the arrows, checking them for damage, and piling them for return to the archer’s wall. Neat, crisp efficiency, exactly as she had taught them. She shivered. For a warrior, Solari knew she had an alarming distaste for battle.

She could almost hear what Xena’s response would be to such a statement. Probably the exact reason why I’m good at it.

*   *   *

"One thing you don’t seem to understand here, Xena, is that I am real, but there’s nothing you can do to hurt me. Nice irony, isn’t it? I’m an apparition, but I’m real enough to hurt you. You can’t wear me down with time, you can’t antagonise me with insults..." Anya taunted as she pranced around, waving Ares’ mammoth sword as if it were no more than a paperweight. "You don’t know how much I’m enjoying this. The best thing is, I didn’t even put you here. You did this all by yourself."

"I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. What do you want from me?" Xena growled.

"What do I want? It’s quite simple really. I want you to pay for your crimes! The one thing you have never had to do, Xena Warrior Princess!" The Amazon spat.

"What the hell do you know?" Xena snarled back. "I’ve paid a price for everything I’ve ever done." The powerful warrior began to pace warily, with slow, menacing steps. "You don’t know. You’ve never walked around with my guilt day after day, dreamed my nightmares night after night. You don’t know what it’s like to hear yourself ordering the deaths of hundreds of people, knowing that in your life you’ve killed hundreds, maybe thousands..."

"No more than you deserve."

"I’m making up for what I’ve done. I’ll spend my whole life doing it if I have to."

"Do you honestly think it’s that simple? Xena, the great warrior, running around rescuing peasants, while inside you’re a raging fire. You’re always just one step away from the edge Xena, just waiting to run wild whenever something gets to you enough to fuel your anger." Anya laughed mockingly, still pacing around, peering occasionally into the shining blade of the huge weapon.

"Simple...?" Xena replied, incredulously.

"Yes, simple! What do I care if you have bad dreams? The poor warrior princess has a bad conscience. Some people don’t get off quite so lucky. My sister is dead!"

"Sometimes I wish I was." Xena replied, honestly.

Anya slammed the sword point down in frustration into the void at her feet. Xena felt the blade as it sliced into her consciousness. The agony was more like a needle being slowly pushed into her eardrum than a sword blade through flesh - a constant piercing pain. The Amazon stalked over and grabbed Xena by the front of her neck, slowly lifting the warrior off her feet, stretching the muscles along her neck and spine with the pressure of her body weight.

"I want you to admit your guilt, in here and out there, and face the proper Amazon punishment for what you’ve done."

Xena heard the bones in her neck cracking, but strangely, unlike the sword Anya had driven into the ground, she didn’t feel any pain from the hold. She stopped struggling and stared the Amazon down. Anya finally dropped the warrior to the ground. She stood, hands on hips, watching Xena recover her feet and her composure.

"I want a trial, with witnesses and accusers. By Amazon law." She finished.

"What’s the point?" Xena answered, a mocking half-smile curling around her lips. "What if I demand trial by combat? There’s no warrior in the Amazon nation who can fight me and win." It wasn’t bragging, it was simply the truth, and they both knew it. "Even you couldn’t defeat me, even when the guilt for Solon crippled me." Xena threw back her shoulders and stood at her full menacing height, a full handspan higher than the itinerant Amazon. "And I won’t be dictated to by anyone, not you, not the Amazons, not Ares..."

"That’s right, the guilt over your son’s death...look at the sword Xena, look at the weapon you hold in your hand."

Xena stared back confused, and then glanced down. She saw the sword she carried glowing brightly, so brightly that staring into the steel sent piercing pain to the back of your eyeballs. Xena shrank from the sight. The sword felt familiar, yet so completely alien, and heavy.

"So much like your own weapon, back out there. Your sword is your guilt. You carry it wherever you go."

"Following the sword caused me all this pain. You’re not telling me anything new by telling me it’s a reminder."

"But instead of following what you believe in, you keep following your sword."

"I’m a warrior. What else is there?"

Xena knew the answer before the wall changed, almost even before she’d asked the question. A life built with Gabrielle had taught her the answer long ago. To her amazement, the Amazon village appeared around her like a reflection of her mind. The roughly packed courtyard was busy and full of life.

Frantic even.

Something was wrong, and Xena saw that Anya knew it. Whatever display she’d intended for Xena had obviously flown from the Amazon’s thoughts.

None of this is real. Gabrielle is in no danger, I would have felt it if she was.

She saw Solari on the wall, pounding back and forth as was her way when she was trying to solve a problem. Gabrielle and Ephiny were talking to a guard who stared at them; their features were animated, barely controlled anxiety written clearly across all of their faces.

Xena couldn’t hear the words, but she understood what she was looking at. The warrior allowed her eyes to focus on Gabrielle, and the picture of the bard grew larger and more defined.

Anya shuffled her feet nervously behind her. When she looked up, Xena was startled to see anguish in the face of the Amazon.

"They’re preparing for war." She whispered.

Xena shrugged her shoulders. "What are you worried about? We both know this is only an illusion..."

Suddenly the sword in the Amazon’s hand blazed hot, red fire. "Ares, you betrayed me, they’re preparing for war!" The Amazon screamed around the void, her voice reverberating in Xena’s mind as well as in her ears. Xena looked up, recognition of the situation dawning rapidly across her dark features.

"You mean... what we’re seeing... it’s real time? All this is actually happening?"

Anya nodded her head slowly.

"But everything else I’ve seen, it’s been imaginary. Nothing in here is real, you said so yourself!" Xena fumbled, confused.

"I said I could control things, Xena. I thought I’d show the village, I wanted to make you see what you were trying to destroy..." her voice cracked, and she paced slowly towards the images playing out around them. Her hand reached out to touch, but the contact was impossible. "When you succumbed to your will, became trapped in your mind, Ares came to me. He promised he’d spare the village, that he’d give your body to his army, that they’d know what to do with you. Real justice, Xena. No chance of you getting out of it easy with any trial by combat."

"Real justice? You mean real vengeance." Xena replied coolly.

"At this point it makes very little difference to me." Anya’s eyes became a window for the anger that shook her entire being. "I just thought I’d show you, make you see the people you betrayed. My people..."

Xena approached Anya, her words slow and deliberate. "And suddenly they’re more important than me, aren’t they? But I can do something to help them." Xena’s eyes reflected a mixture of reason and cool rage. "That’s more important than your revenge. Ares isn’t satisfied with just my body, he needs a battle, a big show. He needs to have my head dragged through the mud, in front of Gabrielle, in front of the Amazon nation! Don’t you see, he used you!"

"I already knew that." The Amazon hissed. "I was meant to keep you in here, alive in your mind but out there you’re useless, a shell." Anya twirled the blade around in her hands, fire twisting its tendrils up and down the steel. "He was supposed to wait until Gabrielle lost hope, until you were almost dead and there was no one to save you. She would have taken your body back to Amphipolis. His army would ambush you on the trail. They’d get your body. I’d get my revenge..."

"And I would get my death sentence?" Xena held the sword up for Anya to see. "Listen, it’s you who doesn’t understand. This is my death sentence. You’re right, this sword is my guilt. I’ll carry it everywhere, until the day I die." Xena sheathed the sword on her back, but even though she let go of the hilt, she still felt the roughness of the handle against her skin, as if the callused hand never left contact. She stared at the hand and flexed the fingers. The feeling remained.

Lifting her eyes Xena walked over to the wall. "And this is my will. I’ve been hiding behind it...with a little help from you to keep me distracted." She tried to put her hand on the shimmering image, but the wall backed away from her touch.

Xena took a few tentative steps toward the Amazon, who still stood holding the sword, engulfed in her own rage. "Out there I can save lives in your village. As soon as they see me alive, Ares’ army won’t have the gall to attack." She held out her hand to the Amazon. "Saving their lives is more important than taking mine. My life isn’t worth all of theirs. The worst thing is, if they fight, they’re dying to protect me!"

Xena reached out and made contact with the other woman. Her flesh felt real, but her eyes were glazed and corrupted with hate. "You’re here inside my mind now. You can see through my eyes. Help me to help them. You know you can’t go back." Anya’s face twisted again in rage, but this time Xena thought she could see something else in the young Amazon’s eyes. Regret? Sorrow? She wasn’t that good at reading emotions. Gabrielle was much better at that.

"What makes you think I can let you out?" Anya asked simply, her eyes staring off into nothingness. Xena reached over, and slowly, gently, uncurled Anya’s tensed fingers from the blade of Ares’ weapon. The blade was incredibly light, lighter even than her chakram.

"I don’t think you can do anything. But if I’m right, I think this sword can." Xena waved the weapon in the air a few times before stalking over to the nearest piece of wall.

"That is going to hurt like nothing you’ve ever felt before." Anya warned.

"I know." Xena raised the blade for the strike, but before she could land the blow Anya caught the warrior’s arm in a vice like grip.

"If I let you leave here so easily, I want something from you." The Amazon demanded.

"If it’s in my power." Xena replied, apprehensively.

"It’s one of the few things that is always in your power, warrior princess. I want your word."

"What am I promising? I don’t make promises I can’t keep."

"That when the Amazon village is cleared of Ares’ army, you’ll give yourself up to the Amazon nation and stand judgement."

"Gabrielle will never allow it. You said so yourself."

"I’m not asking this from the Amazon Queen. I’m asking this on the honour of Xena, Warrior Princess. That is, if she has any honour left."

Xena felt a stirring in her breast that she hadn’t felt for a long time. Being a warrior in the true sense of the word. The code that always made her draw the line at killing women and children in her days of fear and hatred. It was one of the few things this Amazon could understand about her that Gabrielle never could.

"Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Let at least one of us do this one right thing, the only right thing, out of all this anger and hatred."

Xena could think of nothing worse than bowing her knee in front of the Amazon nation. But in the end, in this case at least, the Amazon nation was Gabrielle.

Finally, after long moments, Xena nodded curtly.

The Amazon nodded in return and withdrew her arm, leaving nothing between Xena and the world outside, but the wall.

*   *   *

Xena’s scream split the air of the Amazon village, sending Gabrielle’s blood cold.

The warrior leaped up, drenched in sweat, as Gabrielle, Ephiny, Lysia and Eponin raced into the hut. On their faces was a mixture of horror and joy, as each dealt in their own way with the return of life to the shell that was Xena’s body.

Gabrielle threw herself on the warrior in stunned relief. "Oh thank the Gods Xena, you’re back!"

Xena returned the desperate hug with a hug of her own, squeezing the bard close to her breast, holding on as she’d never held anything or anyone in her life. While the bard and the warrior held each other, Ephiny allowed a small smile of relief to creep over her features. She turned to Eponin and put a hand on her weapon master’s shoulder. "Run and tell Solari that we might not be in as much trouble as we first thought."

Eponin’s face broke into a huge grin as she tugged on Lysia’s arm and dragged her from the hut.

Ephiny approached the lovers and smiled. "Xena, how are you feeling?" The warrior looked up with weary, pain filled eyes.

"Exhausted, Ephiny, totally exhausted. And my head feels like Mount Olympus just fell on me."

Gabrielle glanced up from her hug, her eyes showing deep concern. "I’ll fetch some herbs to make a broth for that headache." Emotion threatened to overcome the small woman, and she felt faint with the power of it. She suddenly felt the need to do something, anything.

Xena’s recognised the look on Gabrielle’s face, and the look she gave the bard in return showed that she understood completely.

Gabrielle, you can’t possibly imagine how much pain can be produced in your head by a flaming sword ripping through your subconscious. I hope you never ever feel anything like it.

The pain rang in her head as if her brain had been branded with hot iron. Xena fell back on the bed, the energy of her body spent after the ferocious hug.

"Solari is going to be very happy to see you." Ephiny gushed, earning her a scathing look from Gabrielle.

"Xena doesn’t need to hear that yet..." Gabrielle began but was cut off.

"Has the army made any moves to attack yet?" Xena asked, closing her eyes against the searing pain lancing at the back of her eyeballs. She knew instinctively that standing up was still completely out of the question.

"How did you know? You’ve been unconscious for days." Gabrielle’s eyes grew wide with surprise.

"Down, but not out. It’s a long, complicated story and I’m not sure I want to tell it right now. Let’s just say I know Ares has an army out there, and I know what they want. They’re going to be very disappointed to find me here awake and alive."

"Solari will probably start sending out patrols to get a feel for where their first attack might come from..." Ephiny began, and then stopped as Xena’s face creased into an angry scowl. Blue eyes turned to steel in moments, stopping even Gabrielle in her tracks as she rushed around preparing herbs for Xena’s headache medicine.

"Ephiny, listen to me. I don’t want a single Amazon to set foot outside those gates. Not a single one, do you hear me? I won’t have any more of your Amazons endangered because of me."

"You’re too late, Xena. We lost at least five warriors at the outposts when the army entered Amazon territory. The women are fired up for battle. I’m sorry, but it’s not just about you any more. These are our lands, our homes, our people. We need to fight." Ephiny shook her head sadly.

Xena closed her eyes against another wave of pain that surged through her, completely unrelated to her headache. Reaching beside her she felt around without success for her armour.

"Your armour is over here Xena, but you can’t possibly think about getting up now, you’re not well..." Gabrielle pressed down insistently on Xena’s shoulders. The warrior shrugged her off.

"I’m alive, which is more than I can say for those Amazons." Xena snapped.

"Yes, you’re alive. And a few minutes ago none of us had any idea just how close to death you might be. You’re crazy if you think I’m letting you go up on that wall endangering yourself and everyone else. Not in your condition, so don’t even think about it!" Gabrielle returned harshly, every bit as determined that Xena should stay in bed as Xena was about getting up.

The two women glared at each other, with Xena the one to finally relent as the pulsing waves of pain forced her eyes closed again. Gabrielle took the opportunity to push the warrior back gently against the pillows.

"Ephiny, will you go and fetch Solari please? I think Xena probably has a few words of advice about the defence of the village, and I’ll be damned if I’m letting her up on that wall to say them." Gabrielle ordered, not taking her eyes from Xena’s face as she watched the warrior accept defeat and settle back, obviously in agony.

Glad to be given an opportunity to escape Ephiny nodded and left quickly. There were many things the regent felt she didn’t understand about Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship, and how the bard managed to get her own way so much of the time was one of those things. But what occurred between Xena and Gabrielle mattered little. All that mattered was that Solari might not be forced to lead a battle to save the village, and that took her lover out of mortal danger, at least for now.

As Ephiny watched the second in command bobbing around on the wall near the main gate she thanked Artemis for the reprieve. Not at all afraid to die herself, Ephiny was still terrified. She dreaded the thought of having to live through losing the only thing besides her son that had really allowed her to feel since Phantes' death. Watching Xena and Gabrielle reminded her that she often neglected her own dark haired warrior whenever duty called. As Ephiny approached across the courtyard she watched Solari stop and turn, the sunlight flashing around her dark head, obvious relief showing in her deep, expressive eyes.

*   *   *

"So it seems the simple act of Xena waking up saves us all from a good fight." Eponin sighed, scratching a hole in the ground with her boot in frustration.

Lysia looked up surprised. "Anyone would think you were disappointed about that."

"I’m a little irritated at how pivotal Xena’s existence seems to always be in the daily affairs of the Amazons."

"It’s not us they were after, it was her." Lysia reasoned. "I don’t mind fighting when I need to, or even for fun if the killing part is taken out of the equation, but I can’t say I’m sorry to not see any blood spilled this time."

"You make me sound like I’m blood crazed or something." Eponin scowled, bending to tie up a bootlace that wasn’t loose.

"I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t mean it that way." Lysia bent to take Eponin by the shoulders, pulling her up to stand face to face with her. "I’ve only just met you. I wouldn’t want any of that blood spilled to be yours."

"I can take care of myself." Eponin replied, less defensively.

"I know you can. But, things happen in battle. We’ve both seen it. Someone else’s mistake can get you killed as quickly as your own. I’d just as soon avoid it altogether."

Lysia looked deeply into the huge brown eyes of the weapons master and sighed, lifting up a hand to gently remove a strand of hair that strayed onto her face. The touch made Eponin shiver under the strange Amazon’s fingertips. Lysia playfully pretended not to notice.

"You know, I feel like another lesson in those wooden things you fight with. What do you call them again...?" Lysia suggested casually.

"Chobos." Eponin finished for her, smiling slowly.

"Chobos." Lysia repeated and nodded. "Yes, that’s it, another lesson in Chobos. But I’m afraid I left the ones you lent me back at the hut..."

"I think I have a spare set in my quarters." Eponin replied, even more casually, picking up on the game.

"Really? If you did that would be great." Flirtatious eyes settled on the Amazon’s bare shoulders, tracing a line of sight down her side, over her half naked torso and down to her fit, muscled legs.

"Follow me." Eponin winked, turning on her heels and striding purposefully away from the half-gaping woman. Lysia collected herself and followed quickly after, noting with satisfaction the exceptional view from behind.

"I guess with war kind of postponed a little, practice in battle techniques couldn’t really hurt..." Lysia stated bluntly as they reached the door to the weapons masters hut.

"Exactly. I’ve thought since we met that we had a lot to learn from each other..."

Eponin let her voice trail off as she opened the door to the hut and pulled Lysia roughly inside.

*   *   *

"Solari, if we keep all the Amazons inside we can keep everyone alive. I just don’t want anyone else to die."

"I think I trained my scouts better than that, Xena."

"But why take the risk at all?" Xena reasoned, trying to sound as much like a seasoned battle commander, and as little like the Destroyer of Nations, as she possibly could.

"We know they’re out there, we know how many there are, and we know what they want. They want me, and they’re not at all picky about who they kill to get to me. I might as well give them what they want."

"You’re in no condition to start riding alone into an encamped army." Gabrielle argued. "I know you, Xena, you’re going to challenge Patrakas. You know you’re not up to it."

"I’m not going to fight him, not unless I have to. I’m just going to let him know that I’m very much alive. With any luck the entire army will lose heart and run back to where they came from."

"You could probably do that from the walls, but I’d have to send out a messenger to bring Patrakas here."

"Patrakas...hmmm. Did we kill one of his messengers?"

"No. We gave him quite a fright, but he left the gates alive."

"Then one of ours might be safe. I know of Patrakas, Hercules has told me stories about him. He might be a butcher, but he’s not a dishonourable butcher. He’ll probably give the messenger a chance to prove themselves before he thinks about killing them."

"You make him sound positively appealing." Ephiny remarked with dripping sarcasm.

"Then I’ll take the message to him myself." Solari stated firmly.

Ephiny’s eyebrows shot up. "No, Solari, you can’t..." The regent started to protest.

"I’m not going to send a message to the Amazon nation that one of our other warriors is more expendable than I am. I’m going, and I’m going alone."

After a moment, Xena stilled the protest that sat on her lips, and simply nodded. Solari’s words made sense. One of the leaders putting themselves on the line would go far towards healing the breach settling firmly over the Amazon village. And as valuable as Solari was, Xena thought grimly, she was definitely more expendable than either of the two Queens.

"The message is that I’ll meet Patrakas just beyond the main gate of the village at noon tomorrow. That should give me plenty of time to recover from...from whatever this is."

Without hesitation Solari was gone. After a long, baleful glance at Xena for not backing her up a worried Ephiny took off on her heels, leaving Gabrielle alone with Xena.

"Here, drink this. It’ll ease the pain and help you sleep." Xena smiled lightly at Gabrielle the doctor telling Xena what her own medicines would do, but she drank the brew all the same. The acrid mixture sat on her tongue and fizzled, the aroma instantly cooling the sharpness of the pain, and her senses.

As Xena relaxed into the comfortable mattress Gabrielle just sat and stared, as if she found it hard to believe Xena was really back again. Xena sensed her stare but didn’t open her eyes.

"I’ll tell you everything, Gabrielle, everything you want to know, just later...OK?"

"Just tell me one thing. When I was talking to you, could you hear me?"

"At first I could hear everything, but that faded. Then every now and then some sensation of you would come to me..."

"Why do I get the feeling this is going to make an interesting story?" Gabrielle reached out and smoothed the hair from Xena’s face, the warrior beginning to doze off into a comfortable sleep as the herbs took their full effect..

"It’s not over yet Gabrielle..." Xena whispered, before slumber came and took her peacefully away.

*   *   *

"If this is some kind of joke, Amazon, I’m not laughing." Patrakas growled, lifting his helmet off to expose a deep yellowing scar that ran from his scalp to his chin. Solari always wondered whenever she saw wounds like that if Xena had been the one to inflict them.

As if reading her thoughts Patrakas laughed, a bitter, humourless grumble that made Solari’s skin crawl. "This is not Xena’s doing I assure you. This lovely addition to my fine features I owe to Hercules’s friend Iolaus. I assure you, he came out of the encounter looking far worse than I did." Solari found the boast a little difficult to believe, but decided pressing the matter in the enemy camp was certainly not worth the aggravation.

As she watched Patrakas’ guard circle her from behind she began to search for an escape route. "This is not a joke, Patrakas. Xena will meet you by the northern gates to the Amazon village at noon tomorrow. There you can see for yourself if she’s alive, or dead."

"And what will I find at the Amazon gates tomorrow, hmm? Some kind of Amazon treachery no doubt?"

"You’re standing on traditional Amazon hunting grounds and you have the gall to call us treacherous? I lost at least five good warriors because of your army."

"The messenger is being rather feisty for being in such a...vulnerable position. Should I treat you the same way my messenger was treated?"

"We let him live." Solari replied simply, her face completely composed against the fear she felt welling up inside of her.

"Barely, as I understand it."

"Is that what the coward told you? I assure you, the only thing in danger out there was his flailing ego as it turned tail and ran for the nearest tree cover."

Patrakas laughed at the audacity of the young Amazon, his open mouthed grin revealing blackened, rotten teeth filled with gunk from his last meal. Paling at the old man’s stinking breath alone, Solari showed no emotion, standing perfectly still as the ring of Patrakas’s warriors came closer.

Finally, as one of the soldiers came within kicking distance Solari lashed out, taking the man down with a swift strike to the groin. Others drew their weapons and threatened to advance on the Amazon as she turned to face Patrakas savagely.

"I’m a little touchy about personal space." Solari quipped, with courage she didn’t feel. Patrakas’s eyes went momentarily wide. In the background the afflicted warrior groaned pitifully.

"Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now."

"Xena told me you were an honourable butcher. She’s rarely wrong."

"Did she now? Well, you’re standing in quite a precarious situation to be testing that fact."

"Only if your belly is a yellow as your teeth. I thought cowardice was a trait reserved for expendable messenger boys."

Patrakas held up a hand and the warriors ceased their approach. The man Solari had kicked hauled himself halfway up, scowling as he crouched, a crooked dagger resting dangerously in his hand.

"I like you Amazon, so I’ll make you a deal. You give us a little ‘entertainment’ before you go, and I’ll let you live, with your virtue intact."

Solari snorted loudly at his reference to her virtue. She stood up straight, placing a wary hand on her hip, the other on the sword that hung by her side. "What did you have in mind?"

"Three warriors. My choice. Knock them over, bloody their noses, spit them on the end of your sword for all I care, but get past them and I guarantee you leave the camp alive."

"Well now..." Solari drawled as she leisurely drew her weapon. "That sounds downright sporting of you. Who’s the lucky guys?"

Patrakas pointed seemingly randomly to three burly warriors who stood nearby, but Solari knew he wouldn’t take any chances with her. They were bound to be some of the best fighters in Patrakas’s entire army. And even if they weren’t, it was safer to assume that they were.

All of them laughed and threw comments to the other warriors before approaching the Amazon. The warrior who Solari had already disposed of scrambled up to Patrakas, waving his arms and growling roughly to his commander. Patrakas looked pained, but hailed Solari again.

"Ahh, Amazon, would you mind if I made it four? It seems my friend here desires a re-match." Solari shrugged her shoulders as calmly as she could manage.

"Whatever. Do I have any choice?"

"Well, a deal's a deal." Patrakas exclaimed. Solari could have sworn the man was serious.

"If he wants more pain, who am I to deny him?"

"My thoughts exactly." The commander waved the man into the fight with a sardonic smile.

Solari stood in the centre of the circle with four men approaching. She tried to rid her mind of all thought except those she’d had drilled into her by her weapons master. Most of all she shoved Ephiny to the back of her mind. Curls, warm nights, long walks, hours of talking and was better not to think of what was at stake.

Solari found herself wondering idly what Xena’s last thoughts before battle were now that the warrior travelled with Gabrielle. She’d heard Xena tell stories of a cold rage that swept over her, she’d even been on the receiving end of that frozen, bitter smile. Staring around at the approaching warriors, Solari wished fervently that she could call up some of that coldness into this fight, but it wasn’t anything that was within her to tap into. She struggled to find a focussing image, something that would rally all her strength into the battle, a temporary insanity of hatred. She pictured the faces of the Amazon guards as they were surrounded and killed by Patrakas’s men in their watchtowers. She felt the first wave of heat and stirrings of anger in her breast.

That will do...

The first careless attack came as one of the men tried to charge the Amazon from her feet. Side-stepping neatly, Solari didn’t have time to watch the soldier careening past as a low dagger thrust came from the still limping man who’d already received the flat side of her boot. With two swift strokes the man lay bleeding at Solari’s feet, a sword thrust slicing open the man’s throat cleanly, exposing the bone.

Her first attacker recovered from his wayward pass as Solari faced the two remaining warriors at once, their blades slashing down on hers. She held up their combined body weights before dropping her centre and twisting out from underneath, rounding to deliver one of the men a slice across his back from behind. She felt her sword deflect off armour, feeling her already shaky balance shift dangerously. She regained control enough to hop out of the way of the enraged first soldier as he swung a club with all his strength towards the Amazon’s head. As the hapless soldier hurtled by once more Solari sliced his thighs from behind and the man dropped like a stone, screaming and clutching at useless ligaments.

The two remaining warriors became more cautious, circling the Amazon, watching for any weakness in Solari’s stance. Sending a silent thank you to Eponin for a favourite little trick, Solari opened up her right side, enough to show her right hand opponent that she was weakened, but not so much that she couldn’t close the gap in a hurry if the man took the bait. The warrior’s eyes flashed triumph and Solari saw him bite, lunging forward with all his strength into the opening.

As she quickly sidestepped and closed the gap she brought up her right elbow under the man’s chin, feeling bone snap as her attacker’s jaw slammed up into the roof of his mouth. The man fell quickly, leaving Solari with one more opponent between her and her horse, and freedom.

Looking at the escape route had been a mistake, as the remaining man surged into attack, catching the Amazon off guard and sending her careening backwards. A sting in her shoulder informed her she’d been hit, but she paid no attention to the wound. Finding her feet quickly, Solari avoided the follow-up stroke that swished uselessly above her head. She backed away, her concentration sharp and focussed. Blood from her wound seeped down her arm and onto her hand, making the grip slippery.

The two fighters exchanged passes, more evenly matched now that the Amazon’s shoulder was weakened. With a twisting move the warrior spun the sword deftly from the Solari’s hand, sending the weapon flying to the opposite side of the clearing. Judging quickly that it was too far to run to retrieve her weapon Solari counted it lost and prepared to finish the combat unarmed.

Dropping her weight onto both legs she prowled around the warrior, looking instantly more savage and animal-like than she had while wielding the sword. Vulnerable without her weapon, Solari knew the only way to win was to attack quickly and disarm her opponent. Feeling her way under his defences, Solari reversed into the man’s attack and threw the warrior over her shoulder, dumping him unceremoniously onto the packed ground. The impact threw the sword from the warrior’s hand and Solari finished him off with a boot to the face, snapping his neck to one side like a twig. The man convulsed and then lay still, the lifeblood draining quickly from his face as he died.

Without waiting for a sign from Patrakas, Solari ran for her horse and mounted, speeding off into the undergrowth before the remainder of the warlord’s army had time to draw their weapons. Expecting pursuit, she spurred the horse hard towards the village, choosing a convenient spot in the trees to leap from the animal's back onto a heavy bough and curled her way up into the dense forest cover above the trail.

There she sat until Patrakas’s guards rode past, catching her breath and doing her best to cover and put pressure on the now gushing wound. Her heart racing, Solari ripped strips of cloth from her skirt and shoved them tightly against the flow of blood.

Then she waited.

It was almost nightfall before she judged the danger was past. Taking care not to agitate the throbbing wound more than necessary, Solari scrambled down from the tree, recovered her bearings, and prepared for the long trek back to the Amazon village.

*   *   *

Ephiny paced back and forward angrily as Solari told her story, punctuated with soft gasps of pain as the healer worked gently on the wound in her shoulder.

"Honourable warlord, ha!" The regent snorted in disgust, her worry for Solari seeping over into irritated sarcasm.

Xena looked up wearily from her seat in the corner. Despite Gabrielle’s firm protests Xena had insisted on going to see Solari in the infirmary as soon as she was told the Amazon had returned. "She’s alive, Ephiny. If Patrakas weren’t so fond of a game then Solari probably would have been dead with an arrow in her back as soon as she tried to leave the camp."

"Ephiny, Xena’s right. It’s lucky it was me who delivered the message and not one of the others. At least I could handle myself well enough in the combat to give myself a fighting chance."

"Was the old buzzard still as polite as he used to be?" Xena asked wryly. Solari stared at her for a second before breaking into a small smile.

"You know, he was surprisingly hospitable, for a warlord." Solari joked, and the two women chuckled softly.

Ephiny fumed. "I’m so glad the two of you find this so funny."

Solari finished with the healer and stood up shakily, approaching the regent with an outstretched hand. "Ephiny, calm down. I’m alive. I’m home. The message is delivered. That’s all that matters now." Ephiny took Solari roughly in her arms and held her tightly, all the panic and worry the regent had been feeling spilling out in long sobs of relief against the warrior’s good shoulder.

The second in command held the crying woman, her Queen, and sighed, closing her eyes and whispering gently into Ephiny’s ear. Krista wisely took that as a sign to retreat and did so quickly, rushing out of the infirmary with indecent haste. Winking broadly, Gabrielle helped Xena to her feet and they left too, the bard supporting the warrior as they made their way out into the crisp moonlight of the courtyard.

"Did you have any idea about those two?" Xena asked, unable to keep the bemused tone from her voice.

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Only since we arrived here. It’s good to see Ephiny has moved on from Phantes’ death." Gabrielle looked up, becoming concerned as Xena gingerly touched her head, the pain still throbbing behind her eyes. "Xena, who did this to you? Was it Ares?"

"Well ... actually, most of it I did to myself." The warrior laughed quietly at the bard’s confused expression. "I promise I’ll explain it all to you, everything. But right now we have bigger things to deal with."

"Patrakas." Gabrielle replied glumly. Xena nodded.

"Yes, him, and other things..."

"Other things like what?"

"Gabrielle, do you trust me?" Xena’s eyes clouded over and her face become grim.

"With my life, Xena. You should know that by now." Xena stared at the bard and sighed, taking Gabrielle’s hand in her own.

"It’s just, after this is over, I need to do something, and I need for you not to intervene."

"Xena, you’re tired. You’re not making any sense."

"I’m making perfect sense, Gabrielle, I just don’t think I can get it to make sense to you right now." Xena sighed and looked away, up into the starlit sky. "There are so many things I’ve done that I’m ashamed of. I need to wash some of that guilt from my hands. For my own sanity. Even if it’s just a little bit."

Gabrielle framed Xena’s head with her hands and gently pulled the warrior’s lips down upon her own. The warrior pulled back after a while, smiling down gently at the beautiful woman staring back up at her. The eyes were filled with such love and trust that Xena found herself having to look away.

"Xena, what is it? You can tell me." Gabrielle insisted, her voice thick with concern.

"I made a promise."

Before Gabrielle had a chance to reply a cry of alarm came up from the guard at the watchtower. "Attackers! At the west gate!" The Amazon managed, before an arrow thudded into her chest from an unseen assailant. The woman crashed helplessly from the tower, dead.

"Gabrielle, quickly! Help me into my armour!"

"If you can’t even do that yourself, how do you expect to fight?" Gabrielle retorted in frustration.

"Don’t argue with me, Gabrielle, come on!" Xena hobbled towards their hut with Gabrielle supporting her as best she could. "Damn that bastard, damn him to the seventh layer of Hades! I didn’t want any more of them to die!"

Xena could hear Solari’s barked orders coming from the confusion of the courtyard as she wrestled with her breastplate. Gabrielle’s practiced fingers slid the buckles easily into place as Xena tried to block out the furious throbbing in her head. Grabbing her sword and chakram from the bed-head, Xena headed for the door, Gabrielle catching her arm in protest.

"Xena, you’re injured, you can barely walk! You’re not going to be any use to them like this!"

"Injured or not, I’m always going to be useful in a battle. As long as I can ride a horse and yell orders I’m fine. Now are you coming, or do you just want to just stand here while your Amazons are all slaughtered?"

Realising she sounded harsh she shook head in apology. "Gabrielle, this is all my fault. As long as they’re out there I have to be out there too, and I don’t have time to stand here debating the matter with you."

The warrior moved as quickly as she was able out the door of the hut. Gabrielle barely had time to watch Xena’s retreating back heading across to Solari on the main wall before a group of armed warriors ran by, and the bard herself was swept up in the tide of battle.

*   *   *

"Solari, I need you to open the gates for me when I give the order." Xena called out as she climbed the battlements. Solari just shook her head.

"Xena, no, you can’t go out there. What are you planning to do?" Solari loosed an arrow into the mass of soldiers attempting to drag a battering ram up to the main gate. One of the men clutched wildly at his neck and fell, only to be replaced by another as the waves of Patrakas’s army kept coming.

"Ares has Patrakas convinced that I’m lying helpless in bed. He obviously didn’t believe our message, I’m going to have to convince him."

Solari looked dubious, but Xena gave her a determined scowl. "Just do it."

Eventually Solari nodded her obedience and went back to concentrating on the action below. Xena climbed down from the wall, pain shooting through her body, and headed off towards the stables where she could see Argo prancing excitedly at the sound of battle.

The warrior reached for Argo’s tack with great difficulty, the weight of the saddle bearing uncomfortably down on her already reduced strength.

"What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing?" Lysia demanded, pointing at Xena’s half saddled horse.

"I’m going out there." Xena replied shortly. She turned back to her task, tired fingers fumbling frustratingly with the halter.

"I’m not letting you go out there alone." Lysia declared simply, pulling a saddle quickly from the rail near the door. Xena spun on the Amazon furiously.

"Don’t be stupid, you’re just going to get yourself killed."

"I’m in damn sight better shape than you are for a stunt like this!" The Amazon threw the saddle over a chestnut gelding and began fastening the girth.

"Regardless of what I look like, they’re afraid of me, that’s what I’m going to be relying on. They have no idea who you are. You’ll be a walking target." Xena replied, flipping the reins over Argo’s neck. "I don’t want any more Amazons to die for my sake." The horse took the bit hungrily, stamping her feet in a restless rhythm.

"I’m not riding out to sacrifice myself, I’m riding to help you."

"You don’t owe me anything, Lysia."

"I’m not doing it because I owe you something. I want to go because...because you’re my friend."

Xena looked piercingly at the young Amazon. Lysia could have sworn she saw the smallest trace of a smile tease the older warrior’s lips, but it was gone before she could be sure.

"I’m going to be riding right behind the warrior princess, making the most damn noise they’ve ever heard in their lives." Lysia grinned, shoving the bit roughly into the gelding’s mouth. She quickly apologised to the horse, whose only response was to snort indignantly.

"And I’m going where she’s going," came another voice from the doorway. Eponin stood with an already saddled horse, armoured from fetlock to neck in full Amazon battle harness. Xena led Argo quickly from the stable and mounted clumsily, circling the horse around to face the gate. On Argo’s back she felt instantly stronger, trusting the horse's legs now more than she trusted her own.

"Well, if you insist on coming, stay back, and don’t get in my way!" Xena cried out, Argo prancing impatiently.

The warrior thought she caught a horrified glance from Gabrielle as the mare wheeled around, but she had no time to think about it. Torches lined the top of the gate as Amazon archers loosed arrows into the fray with deadly precision. The three could barely hold back their mounts as Xena led the way.

"Open it up, Solari." Xena cried out, eyes flashing. Her head throbbed so badly she was in danger of slipping into unconsciousness, but she knew she could count on Argo’s years of battle experience and training to get her away if anything like that happened. Having easily the two best Amazon warriors in the nation behind her made her more jittery than comfortable. To her pain affected mind they were just more Amazons walking into slaughter.

As the wooden gates parted enough to allow the horses room to pass through, the noise of Patrakas’s assault rushed in. Xena touched Argo’s sides lightly and the horse bolted into the chaos, spurred on by Xena’s loud distinctive war cry that split the air as she rode, a couple of vicious, bellowing Amazons riding wildly at both her flanks.

Gabrielle watched the sight from the battlements, her heart in her throat. While Lysia and Eponin slashed to the sides with their swords, Xena ploughed a path through the attackers, yelling like a ghost risen from the dead in the eyes of the suddenly frightened and disenchanted warriors.

Seeing Xena’s charge the group dragging the battering ram broke up and began to fight their way back. Eponin and Lysia whooped at each other excitedly, happy to see them go. Then, in a rush, the attacking army, and Xena, disappeared amongst the trees.

The two Amazons on their horses milled around anxiously, undecided.

On the wall Gabrielle saw the two women engage in heated conversation about what to do. She heard Solari to her left calling the warriors back inside, Amazon bird cries wafting over the din of the pursuing army. To Gabrielle’s dismay, the two women finally seemed to come to an agreement, spurring their horses into the undergrowth in the direction Xena had taken, and disappearing from sight. After a few minutes the night was deathly still again.

Xena had taken the battle away from the Amazon nation. Now, all anyone on the wall could do was wait for a sign.


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

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