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The characters, names and storylines which have appeared in the syndicated television show Xena: Warrior Princess are copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters in this story and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story can not be used or sold for profit in any way. This story has been written solely for the reading enjoyment of Xena: Warrior Princess fans of the internet.
This story is meant to take place between the episodes "Sacrifice II" and "A Family Affair".
Note to Reader:
Chapter five in this story is the same as chapter seven in "The Quiet Survivor". This story can be read on its own or with the other story. In any story or television episode, I've always wondered what the other characters were doing before or after the time they are mentioned in the story being read. That inspired this fanfic.
General Maertan and all his soldiers were harmed directly after this story for the opening scenes of "Adventures in the Sin Trade, Part One".
Making it Through the Night
Prologue:"Why mother, why!?" Xena turned her head to the direction of the voice. Her movements seemed painfully slow as she looked down to the pit Gabrielle and Hope had just fallen into. Her boots scraped against the sandy dirt on the cave floor. Xena felt as though she might slip. Her senses felt numbed with the weight of realizing what her friend had just done. She reached forward, starting to kneel down near the pits edge.
An unimaginable wave of heat flooded the air in front of her. Xena seemed oblivious to it. She had to look down and reach out to her. Somewhere behind her, Xena's mind faintly registered the hollow wooden sound of a staff rattling on the floor. Gabrielle had used the staff to vault herself over to where that evil demon had stood.
She dared to lean further over the pits edge. As she did so, beads of sweat rolled down her face. Xena blinked her eyes slowly, trying to clear her vision. A thin layer of smoke drifted up from the lava pit below and it made her eyes water. She called out to her friend. Her voice sounded slow and helpless even as she called out to her friend. "Gaaa... briiiii... elllleeee!"
That was when she saw an image in her mind that made the depths of Tartarus pale in comparison. For just one brief haunting moment, Xena could see Gabrielle's eyes lock onto her own once more just before her friend touched the burning lava. Xena let out a deafening yell.
"NOOOOOOOOOO!!!" Xena bolted up from her blankets with a force that sent nearby forest animals running for cover. Her blankets were tossed to the side. Xena's eyes darted around quickly, looking to everything to catch her surroundings. She looked to the trees, the blanket, the campfire and to the grass beneath her.
"A dream. Just a dream." Her breath was still quick and labored. She closed her eyes briefly and tried to think of something to calm herself, but she couldn't. She never could catch her breath when she had that dream. She had it often. Xena continued to sit there for some time just trying to relax, though she knew the underlying dread would never quite go away.
She was in her camp, not in that cave. She gradually began to realize that. It had been over two weeks since that painful day. The dreams continued regardless of the time since then. She could only hope that with time her problems with nightmares would stop. It was bad enough to have witnessed that event the first time. Living through it over and over again in her mind was unbearable.
The minutes passed by into a couple of hours. By then Xena had managed to wake up fully and put the problem behind her. She had put out the fire, packed up her sleeping blankets and had eaten a small meal. Xena ran her hand across Argo's side and mounted her. Argo made a light sound and turned to the direction of the camp.
Xena looked quietly to the camp for a few seconds, waiting to hear the complaints of a sleepy bard wanting to stay a few hours longer. She smiled to herself slightly. Her smile weakened as she realized she would hear no complaints from her bard friend. Xena sighed. She needed to break camp and continue with her work. She led Argo out of the camp and along the trail. Xena's thoughts began to focus on her destination, the nearest temple of Ares.
Beyond the line of trees, Xena could see Ares' temple as a cold dark fortress devoted to a cold dark god. She frowned while studying the area. He would have probably taken that as a compliment. Her deep blue eyes ran across the length of the building. There was no sign of movement. It was just like the last temple she had visited, but she wouldn't allow herself to be too careless. Years of experience in warfare had taught her that much.
Argo remained near the edge of the clearing while Xena carefully advanced forward. She held her sword to her side. Within a few minutes she stood at the steps of the temple. She walked up the steps and pushed the door open slightly. The inside of the temple was decorated with all kinds of gold and gems. Xena ignored the assorted riches as she made her way to the central room.
There in the middle of the room, a warlord and three of his men were talking to each other. Xena didn't recognize any of them. That was no surprise. New warlords seemed to pop up no matter what area of Greece she traveled in. She turned her head slightly, trying to hear what was being said. Apparently the warlord thought that sacking some small village nearby would earn him favors with the war god. He was upset that Ares didn't show himself. Xena wanted the same thing herself, but for completely different reasons.
Just then a cup of some kind fell to the floor off to the left of Xena. She glanced over and saw a fifth man crouched down with a dagger. He was trying to sneak up on her. Xena's eyes narrowed.
"Eeeyyaaah!" A quick push off sent Xena flipping though the air toward the center of the room. She quickly picked up a gold bar sitting on a nearby table and threw it at the man that had been sneaking up on her. It hit him with enough force to knock him back into a tray of gems. The falling gems made a loud enough sound that the men in the center were confused. Two of them looked in her direction and the other two looked to the gems.
Xena rushed forward and hit one of the soldiers in the chest and he stumbled back. The second rushed her from the left side and took a swing at her. She grabbed his arm as he extended it out and threw him to the side. She could hear him crash into a table full of gold cups. By now the warlord and the other soldier had recovered. The soldier drew his sword and slashed out at her. She backed up at his two repeated swings. The man swung at her again and she let herself fall back. Xena used her right leg to sweep out and knock the man onto the floor. She kicked him twice and stood up again.
Two soldiers approached her from opposite sides with swords. She quickly met each attack with her own sword and kicked one of them away. She grabbed the shoulder of the other man and leaped behind him, kicking another soldier. Then she smacked the soldier she just leapt over in the neck and he flew to the ground.
As she continued to fight three of the soldiers, a forth tried to sneak up from behind. Xena rammed her head into a soldier's head in front of her and grabbed his shirt. She kicked the soldier behind her with both feet and sent him flying to the ground. A couple of quick punches to his sides and the soldier in front of her fell to the floor unconscious.
She looked around quickly. Three of the soldiers were knocked out and the fourth was clearly in bad shape. Xena heard the sound of something near her ear and she rolled to the side. The warlord had just swung his sword at her and missed. She gave a quick kick to the side of his knee and he fell hard. He tried to grab her legs, but Xena jumped back up to her feet quickly and grabbed him by the hair. She continued to hit him in the chest and sides until he weakened.
She felt like she was possessed. The adrenaline within her was unstoppable. Once the warlord collapsed to the ground like the rest of his men, Xena allowed herself to relax a little. She looked to all five of the men. None of them appeared to be interested in a rematch. She smiled.
Xena took hold of the warlord's collar and pulled his face halfway up to hers. "I want you to give a message to Ares if and when he does show up. I want him. No matter where he goes. No matter where he hides, I'll be there waiting. Even if I have to tear apart every single temple of his in Greece." She released the man and he slumped down to the ground. An almost evil, predatory smile was on her face as she left the war god's temple. She had found new strength after Gabrielle's death in her old ways. She knew her friend wouldn't exactly approve, but it got her through each day somehow and she would need that when she found Ares.
"So, let me get this straight." Ares was sitting in his temple throne. "Xena just walked in, laid waste to a temple in your province, and you just let her?" He was obviously displeased. Xena had attacked four of his temples so far and each of them lie in ruins. That didn't look good for a god of war.
The general standing before Ares, Maertan, gave a feeble reply while looking down. He mentioned something of her strength and his not thinking a woman was so fierce and other such things.
"Excuses, excuses, excuses. Why do you mortals always thing failure is acceptable when you give an excuse? I want results! Is that understood?!" The general jumped slightly at Ares sharp tone.
"Oh, I can assure you that your gonna get some results Ares." The soft sound of a woman's voice could be heard in the back of the temple. Ares concentrated to find the person speaking. "Your just not going to like them."
Ares heard something flying in the air. He ducked down and saw a chakrum embed itself into the top of his throne. He growled and stood up quickly. General Maertan had already taken his sword in hand and was running to the back to deal with her. In just a few seconds Maertan returned, flying through the air and landing on the hard floor. He staggered to get up but fell back down. Xena emerged from the shadows with her sword. She was grinning at Ares in that way that made a mortals blood run cold.
"I love it when you do that." Ares smiled to her and touched the seat of his throne. "Care to sit down and rest? I've been saving it for you." He moved to the side of the throne and watched her as she stepped up closer to him.
Xena raised her sword up slightly. "I've been saving something for you too Ares."
"Uh, uh, uh." Ares waved his finger at her. "Hasn't anybody told you about playing with sharp objects?"
He opened his hand and despite her grip, the sword flew out of Xena's hand and into his. She looked to the sword with surprise. Then she kicked at him. Ares jumped back quickly. Xena leaped out at him and they both landed on the floor. She struggled to get a better hold on his throat and they rolled around, but he was stronger and she was starting to loose her advantage.
Xena drew her legs in and kicked him in the stomach. He flew up into the air and fell off to her side. She quickly jumped up and spun around to face him. A fist greeted her from the side and she was thrown back. Ares took another swing at her, but she caught it. She took his hand and pulled him closer with a jerk. Then she landed a few hits of her own to his side.
Ares stumbled to one knee for a second. He reached out to grab the back of her leg and Xena found herself falling to the ground. Ares was quickly on top of her. He managed to pin her arms and legs down, though it was taking considerable effort on his part to do so. She continued to struggle.
"Well, this isn't exactly the best way for us to share a few quality moments. But it'll do." Ares smiled down to her. He was breathing heavy after their fight, but he still had an amused sound to his voice. "What's say we call it a draw and... make up." Ares looked into her eyes in a romantic way.
"Never!" Xena found some renewed strength and hit him in the head with her own head. They both lost focus for a second. She drew one of her legs up and kicked him off to the side. Xena quickly grabbed a heavy gold vase near the foot of the throne and threw it at him. Ares dodged the vase, but it gave her time to get back on her feet.
"You certainly do have a fire lit under you today. Just like old times." Ares reached for a shield and brought it up just as Xena's sword thrusted out at him. The shield deflected the hit. She kept advancing with more swings. "Was it something I said?" He backed up a few paces as she continued.
"Something you said?" She yelled. "You cost me my best friend." She swung the sword at his head.
"And you cost me my legacy." He brought the shield up and hit her hand forcefully, causing her sword to fly up in the air. Then Ares advanced on her, pushing her backwards with the shield. With a properly timed move, she tripped on his foot and fell back to the ground. He was on top of her again with the shield between them. "My new race of ultimate war gods. Like I said, I guess we're even."
Xena struggled beneath him and realized something was happening to her. The shield was reaching out to her hands. It formed a pair of metal handcuffs which kept her arms at her sides. Ares was laughing lightly at the look of confusion on her face.
"Don't blame me." Ares stood and pulled up on the shield. She stood up as well. The shield had reached out behind her legs and fastened itself together. She couldn't move. "Hephaestus owed me one a while back, so he made this little gem. I call it, up close and personal."
"In your dreams Ares." Xena sneered at him.
Ares shrugged. "Your choice." He pushed on the shield slightly and she fell back to the ground. She continued to struggle. She was certain she could find a way out of it in time. "Thanks again for the practice. You know I always enjoy a visit from you now and then. We'll have to do this again." He gave her a charming smile as he disappeared from the room in a flash of bright blue light.
"Ares! Get back here!" Xena yelled out to him, slowly prying apart the shield that held her hands in place.
Argo trotted along the small dirt path as Xena looked to her wrists once more. The shield which had held her in place had cut into her wrists slightly as she escaped from it. A few days and the wounds would heal easily enough. It was more than she could say for the wounds she intended to inflict upon Ares assuming he dared to show himself again. Ares could act as smug as he wanted to. Xena imagined that once the other gods heard of his intended plans with the Destroyer children, he would have alot of explaining to do. That was the annoying characteristic to Ares, he could be in serious trouble and still lead an enemy into thinking he was in control. She shook her head at the thought of him.
Xena could see the path widen further ahead. It would most likely lead to a split in the path or a small village. It was a small village. She could see twenty or more buildings grouped tightly together for defense. Along the edges of the village, lone houses stood. They belonged to farmers or cattle owners.
She led Argo through the small village and stopped near a tavern. She jumped down and tied Argo to a post and then entered. The door opened easily enough and Xena could see the place was well taken care of. The tables and chairs were clean and in good condition. She made her way to a side table and sat with her back to the wall. A couple of people in the tavern nodded to her politely and she responded in kind. The tavern owner, a man by the name of Reyn, approached her and asked if she wanted a drink. She mentioned an ale and he dutifully returned to the counter to get it and bring it to her.
For most of the evening Xena stayed in the tavern, drinking one ale after another. She needed to consider her next move. She'd had her say with Ares and as always it had not been enough. It never was with him. Perhaps a few more temples and he would get the message. She sighed. Even that was loosing its appeal by now. Ares would no doubt rebuild the temples anyway. She closed her eyes and tried to relax.
There were only a few people in the tavern this evening. A man and woman to the far side of the tables, a couple of men to the right, and a man on both sides of her at their own tables. Each looked like simple farmers or cattle owners. There clothes were worn with dust from work on the fields. She looked at the man to the left of her and saw something extra of interest. He had a sword attached to his side in a scabbard. She studied him for a few seconds wondering why a simple farmer would need a sword. Then she recognized the design on the handle. It was like the soldiers she had fought in the temples. It was the design of general Maertan's army.
The man took a slow drink and looked to his side at her. He quickly turned back when he realized she had already been studying him. Xena's hand instinctively went to her side. The man stayed there and took a few more drinks before he stood to leave. He pushed his chair in and walked by her table. As he did so he stopped and said hello to her. Then he left the tavern. Xena watched him leave and then got up to leave herself. She put a couple of dinars on the table and exited the tavern.
Right around the corner, the man and two of his soldiers jumped her. The two soldiers grabbed each of her arms while the man smiled hatefully at her. His smile was quickly replaced by a gasp for breath. Xena kicked him with her left foot and he fell to the ground. She then forced her knee into the stomach of the soldier to the left of her. The soldier to the right tried to reach out for her shoulder, but a quick hit to his jaw sent him flying back.
The man from the tavern ran at her and she ducked quickly. Xena grabbed his leg and his shirt and sent him flying though the air to land in a pile of hay. She quickly ran back to the tavern as the three men got up and regrouped. She entered the tavern and pulled a table up to the door and then backed up to the center of the room. The people in the bar were sensible enough to retreat to tables near the walls.
"Please lady. I just want to run a nice establishment here." The tavern owner said.
Just then the three men busted through the door. Two of them were climbing over the table that was in the way. Xena turned to the tavern owner and apologized. "Don't tell me, tell them."
Xena could see that all three of the soldiers were in the tavern now. One of them grabbed a bottle of ale and ran at her. He swung at her and missed. The bottle smashed to pieces against a table. Xena kicked him in the stomach and he fell forward. Then she hit him and sent him into a table that busted apart with the sudden force. The other two men ran toward her with swords drawn. Xena drew out her sword as well.
Her blade met each of there swings. She sent one of them a few paces back as their swords met, only to be met with the other one's sword. Xena made her way around to the opposite side of the table. She hooked her foot in the bottom of a chair and jerked her foot up. The chair raised up into the air and she shoved it forward. One of the soldiers stumbled back and onto the floor. He quickly got up again.
The other soldier made his way around the table. He forced his sword forward and grazed her shoulder armor. She looked to her shoulder and then to him. With renewed anger Xena rushed at the man and knocked him down. She hit him a few times and then used both of her feet to kick a soldier away that was moving up behind her. She walked backwards on her hands, kicking at the soldier until he hit up against the bar and flipped over it to land on the floor.
The tavern owner Reyn reached over quickly and smashed a bottle of ale over the soldier's head knocking him unconscious. Then he quickly poured himself a drink as he mentally added up the repair cost in his head.
Meanwhile, Xena was trading blows with the soldier who had managed to get up. He was a strong man and had probably well earned Maertan's army sword. The man was growing tired and he reached out for her with both hands. Xena grabbed his wrists and fell down to the ground. She threw him up and over her to land on a nearby table. It broke apart with the soldier's weight. The soldier himself was too tired to move any more. He just laid there breathing in a tired way.
Xena quickly stood up and brought her sword up to his neck." All right smart guy. Who sent you?"
The man looked to her sword nervously. "It was general Maertan all right. General Maertan. He said we were supposed to keep an eye on ya. Said it was an order from Ares."
"See, now that wasn't so hard was it." Xena smiled down to him. The soldier appeared to relax a little and returned her smile. She knocked him unconscious and then looked around the room. The other people in the tavern were still standing near the walls. Each of them was looking to her with amazement.
"Two tables. Five chairs. A door. And six bottles of good ale." Reyn shook his head as he tried to figure out the cost of the damage.
Xena heard what the tavern owner said and looked to the soldier nearest her. She reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pouch full of at least twenty or more gold dinars by the weight of it. She tossed it onto the bar. "There. That ought to cover it."
The others in the bar made a quick exit, except for a couple of women who worked at the tavern. Xena walked up to the bar and spoke to the tavern owner. She told Reyn that the men were soldiers working for a warlord and that they should be turned over to the authorities. He thanked her for the advice and promised they would be before the night was over. Xena asked for any available rooms, so she could sleep off the ale she had been drinking.
He hesitated for a few seconds, considering the damage that was done. Then he looked to the pouch of dinars she had tossed to him. It was more than enough for the repairs. Reyn pointed up the stairs to a free room for the night. She thanked him and went to the room. He would be content if she would just leave the room undamaged when she left the next day. He sat down and poured himself another drink.
Reyn, the tavern owner, jumped up out of bed in the middle of the night. He had just heard the most horrible of screams. It came from within the tavern. He quickly lit a candle and walked into the main drinking area, using the lighting as much as the candle to find his way to the stairway. He walked up the stairway and stopped at one of the doors. The door was open. He stuck his head in to find something flying directly at him.
"Aaahhhh!" Reyn was pulled into the room and slammed against the wall. Someone had a hold on him in a viselike grip and he couldn't break free. Over the thunder of the storm a woman's voice called out to him with a cold, threatening tone. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I uh-I was just checking on a noise." Reyn took a deep breath.
The woman's hold on him relaxed. She let go of him after a few seconds and walked over to sit on the bed. Reyn could see that she was feeling sad about something. She wasn't drunk like the previous night, but she still felt miserable. "Is there anything I can get for you?"
She brushed her hand over her face, giving him a sad smile. She whispered her response. A simple, "No."
Reyn nodded his head, not really understanding but trying to act like he did. He was going to ask her a question when a strong knock sounded at the door below. He excused himself from the room and made his way down the stairs to the door. One of the townsmen was there, a farmer that lived on the outer east edge of town. He mentioned hearing some screams from his neighbor's home. The man seemed upset.
Xena stood quietly within the doorway of her room, listening to the two men. Reyn suggested finding Celeme if someone was hurt. The farmer left to look for her while Reyn put on a rain coat. He turned to pick up a dagger hidden behind the counter, when he saw the woman standing before him. She was already dressed and ready for travel.
"I heard what he said. Thought I might join you." Her voice was calm and controlled.
Reyn nodded. He could see the sword and another round weapon of some kind at her side. He welcomed her assistance. If she was half as good with a sword as she was in a barroom brawl, she could hold her own. They made their way quickly down the main road toward the outer edge of town. The rain was still strong, but the worst of it had past.
Reyn could see that the woman wasn't one for unnecessary conversation. She was a woman of action. As they approached the gate of the widow Alyssa's home, the woman took on a noticeably more aggressive role. Xena walked into the yard first, narrowing her eyes across the darkened area, looking from the house to the barn. She could see the barn door gently rocking back and forth. She and Reyn made their way to the barn.
As they reached the front of the barn, Xena slowly drew her sword. She held it in front of her, carefully looking inside before entering. Reyn followed her inside with his dagger drawn, keeping to the side wall of the barn. Xena walked carefully inside. She could see hay scattered around the floor all the way to the entrance. A few bails of hay had been knocked over. There was also a lit lantern and a bag of some kind on the floor.
Xena walked over and reached for the bag, immediately drawing her hand back. She raised her hand up to her face to smell the blood. She heard Reyn yell and spun around to see him shaking, standing near the side wall behind a stack of hay. Xena looked around quickly and joined him. What she saw surprised her, even with her battle experience. Something had made a meal of two people.
As Reyn took his time to regain his strength, Xena made a quick search of the barn and lofts. She returned to him and let him know all was safe. It was probably some wolf or bear most likely. She walked to the barn entrance and looked out, noticing the faintest of blood trails on the ground. It extended straight out, past a tree line and into the forest.
Xena gave Reyn a few last minute instructions of locking the barn up and going back for the authorities. She intended on following the trail. Whoever did this needed to be brought to justice, and besides that she needed something else to do to take her mind off the loss of Gabrielle. She couldn't keep up the attacks on Ares' temples forever. With her sword drawn and at her side, Xena walked carefully into the forest behind the barn to find the animal responsible for this destruction.
Xena felt exhausted as she rested against a tree. She hadn't slept well that night and this wild animal she had been chasing was tough to find. It was either good at leaving no trails or it was so fast that the trails were no longer a good lead. The night was calm and she could hear the sounds of the thunderstorm in the distance. It had passed over her and it was behind her now. The grass and all the plants around her were wet from the rainfall.
Thunder rolled across the distant sky once more and she was greeted by a sudden flash of light. She though it might be Ares at first but by the look of the man, she knew it wasn't. He was wearing dark clothes, a dark cape and a simple crown. "Hades." She said to him.
"At your service." He smiled. "Going on a midnight hunt?" He looked to her noticing that she was tired.
"You could say that." She allowed herself a small smile. "Any word...?" Her voice trailed off.
"Nothing yet, Xena. You know they don't always come to me right away. These things take time." He could tell by the frown on her face that she didn't want to hear that. "I have to go to a village nearby."
Xena nodded her head. "Yeah, I just came from there. It isn't pretty."
"It never is." He thought to himself for a few seconds. "I have my suspicions... well, I'll find out soon enough." He started to walk toward the village when Xena reached out to touch his shoulder.
"You will promise to tell me once you see her? Right?" She asked.
He looked to her and saw that she was tired in more ways than one. "Try me later Xena. Its been busy right now. The upcoming summer months are always a big time for wars. This warlord belonging to Ares is keeping me booked up solid with all the looting he's been doing. I'll try to look into it." With that being said, he disappeared in a fading dark blue light.
Xena frowned at his comments as she watched him leave. She didn't have much use for gods and Hades hadn't done much to change her mind about that. She'd make sure he remembered. There was no doubt about that. If need be, she would constantly bother him until he searched for Gabrielle just to get rid of her. Xena took a better grip on her sword and continued with her current search.
The brush was thick and the heat of the noon sun made her progress slow. Xena had decided to explore slightly off of the trail into some shoulder high brush which covered a large area of the land ahead. Her instincts has paid off. She had spotted a line of brush which had been trampled down by an animal. Xena was now following the trail. She heard some people on the path not far from her. Xena decided to sit down and rest in the brush. She could gain her strength and avoid any awkward moments of explaining herself to the travelers.
As the people passed, Xena heard the voices of women and a child. She shrugged to herself, thinking they probably lived in the village. Hopefully, they would be spared the full story of what had happened at the farm widow Alyssa's home.
Xena continued on and found a larger area of brush cleared out in a rough circle. The beast had changed its tactics, if she could call it that. Its movements certainly were efficient in throwing off a trail. The area before her was roughly circular. For some unknown reason, the creature had felt the need to lay down a great deal of brush. Perhaps it had decided to sleep here for the night.
A bright flash of sunlight against metal directed Xena's eyes to the outer edge of the clearing. A dagger was stuck into the dirt. She reached over to take it and pulled her hand back. The remains of someone lie not far beyond the dagger. What was more surprising was the dagger itself. Xena could tell alot about a person by the weapon they chose. It showed their level of fighting skill, their professions, their wealth and groups to which they belonged. She could tell by the short straight markings on the daggers handle that this weapon belonged to an Amazon initiate.
Xena closed her eyes briefly, thinking of Gabrielle. Gabrielle never owned an Amazon knife, it was just the thought of the Amazons, of this Amazon and a likely painful death, that brought back thoughts of that dream. She looked around her carefully despite knowing that the beast was long gone. The brush that had been pushed down on its passing was now slowly starting to drift back up. There was a gentle breeze blowing in the opposite direction, not enough to account for the brush returning the way it had been. Xena guessed the creature must have been through here two or three hours ago.
She took the fallen Amazon's dagger and a nearby pouch and vowed to herself that she would return them to the nearest Amazon village she would pass by. She slowly continued looking for the beast. The path seemed to weave through the brush and then headed onto the path.
She had traveled for some time and not once had the beast left the path. Xena sighed and continued down the trail. The prospects for catching the animal didn't look good, but she would continue on regardless. It was what Gabrielle would want her to do.
"Open the gates!" Two of the Amazon women near the entrance stepped forward and pushed the large gates out so Xena could enter. This was the outer east border of the Amazon territory. An Amazon village had been built here and it was regularly visited by merchants and travelers. It was one of the few locations where the women warriors socialized freely with those not of the tribes.
Xena continued along the cleared path. There were a couple of merchant men who walked past her with their horses beside them. Xena noticed that every man within the village was closely watched by at least one Amazon warrior at all times. Just a precaution she imagined, but it was a sensible one. Not everyone who traveled through this land necessarily had good intentions toward the Amazon Nation.
Two women greeted Xena and directed her to a large open hut. She sat down and was given a berry drink. In about twenty minutes, Solari arrived. The two of them greeted each other and began to talk. Solari gave her condolences on Gabrielle's loss. She said the news had especially hit Ephiny hard, but for her part Ephiny said little. Xena nodded, saying she was making the best of it day by day. They both remained quiet for some time.
Eventually Xena brought up the topic of the dagger. She passed it over to Solari. It was the dagger of a young initiate, a girl by the name of Lyssa. Solari had trained her on a couple of patrols. Xena asked if there was any special reasons for her being out on her own. She had found no evidence of any other Amazon's attacked in that location. Solari shook her head. It was not a common practice for their warriors to travel anywhere alone. She promised to look into it further.
The rest of the evening was spent with tales of battle and heroics. Solari told of a few border skirmishes with a band of raiders a few days ago. She also mentioned a recent festival between several allied Amazon camps. Xena talked about her attacks on the temples of Ares. She made a light joke of that possibly being her new career in life and they both laughed. Ephiny was apparently on a secretive mission to the north. She would have to settle for hearing of Xena's visit from Solari.
The night hours continued until they both agreed it would be time to rest. Solari informed her that a couple of Amazons would be sent back to the village. Argo would be waiting for her in the morning. Xena thanked her and Solari left. Xena laid back and rested on the deer skin blankets. She looked up to the stars and wondered exactly what Ephiny was doing which was so secretive.
A passing warrior stopped at Xena's request. She knew enough tales to know that Xena was an honored guest. With a few carefully asked questions, the warrior told her enough for her to know where Ephiny was. It was a forested path not far from a large lake. Xena knew where that was located. She thanked the woman who then departed. Xena rested back on the deer skins once more and fell asleep.
Xena woke up early the next morning and was treated to a guest's breakfast of juice, fruits, breads and breakfast meats. True to her word, Solari had arranged to have Argo waiting for her, well rested and fed. A necklace was given to Xena by one of the Amazon women who led Argo up to her. The warrior said that showing the necklace would allow her to pass through the Amazon lands unquestioned as an honored guest of the Queen. She thanked the woman and mounted Argo to begin her journey.
The path north was not traveled often. It appeared to lead gradually up to a forested mountain side. The growth of trees and plants was considerable. Xena guessed there must be a lake nearby and within a few minutes more of travel she saw the lake. Its surface appeared peaceful and calm. Xena stopped there a few times on her trip to rest and catch fish for dinner. In just a few days, she continued along the edge of the lake and she reached a clearing where she could see several people.
About two dozen men and Amazons were speaking to one another around three campfires. Xena's looked over the crowd and saw Ephiny standing near a couple of men. The men wore dark leather clothing and each had swords, though there was no signs of any likely battle. Xena allowed herself to relax slightly as she took Argo closer into the campfire area. A couple of Amazons noticed her approach and greeted her. They saw the necklace that Xena wore and guided her over to their Queen.
Ephiny excused herself from her talks with the men to greet Xena. She had been negotiating a passage agreement between the Amazon border tribe and a group of merchants who needed to find a quicker means of reaching their buyers. With a small part of their profits agreed upon, they would be allowed to travel through this land. Xena was impressed with Ephiny's bargaining skills. Gabrielle had been wise to choose her as the next queen.
The two of them sat down near a campfire and spoke of past events. Ephiny mentioned that her son was doing well. Xena mention that she was progressing along despite the loss of her best friend. Ephiny felt a sense of loss as well at Gabrielle's passing. Both women agreed that their friend had been special and would be a person they would never forget.
Xena's thoughts focused on a comment Ephiny made regarding Gabrielle. She had mentioned something about how the soul of an Amazon could live again. Xena questioned her on the subject further. Ephiny told her of an ancient belief held by the Amazons. An exceptional warrior or leader had a soul that transcended the limits of mortality. It was a gift given to them by the goddess Artemis. Ephiny admitted she had never seen such a situation herself, but there were always tales of such things. She remembered hearing of a few when she was a child.
One of the merchant men passed by the campfire where Xena was sitting and got some wine from the food trays. Xena glanced over to him casually and nodded. He looked to her for a few seconds and then nodded back, quickly returning to his friends. She thought that was a bit odd, but Ephiny comforted her concerns with a mild laugh. The rumors of Amazon fierceness were well respected by these merchants. Ephiny was glad for the rumors as they usually gave her people an advantage in trade and border negotiations.
Xena said that was probably true. She listened to the queen explain of previous encounters where the Amazon reputation had helped in trade disputes, all the while looking to the man out of curiosity. He joined his friends and each of them took a quick turn at glancing over to Xena before returning to their conversations. Xena's eyebrows lowered slightly in concentration. She had an uncanny feeling that she had seen that man before.
A clear image of the man entered her mind. She had seen the man before, although he had been dressed differently. He had been one of the soldiers she had fought in a temple many days ago. Xena looked back to Ephiny who was still speaking of an Amazon adventure, not wanting to concern the queen unnecessarily. She glanced over to the man again and caught him looking at her. He looked back to his friends as their eyes met, but she had still noticed. Xena excused herself and stood up to walk over to the men.
As she did, one of the man's friends whispered into his ear. The man stood up along with his friends and they looked in her direction. Xena wasn't one for starting unnecessary trouble, but she could tell when the thought crossed someone else's mind. The man had that certain look in his eyes. A look Xena had learned to read from years of experience.
The man started to walk toward her and reached down to his waist. Xena looked quickly around and noticed a rock in front of her. She quickly reached down to take it and with a sharp fling of her wrist, the rock flew across the distance between them to hit the man on the hand. It bounced off of his hand and hit the dagger he had been reaching for before it hit the ground. The other two men near him looked to her. The sound of rock striking the dagger echoed loud enough that several of the Amazon's turned to look at the three men.
The other two men realized they had been recognized by Xena. They wasted no time in reaching for their swords and charging toward Xena. She leaned down as one of the men approached her. His sword missed her shoulder and struck a nearby tree. Xena quickly brought her knee up and hit him hard in the stomach. He fell down, holding his front as his sword dropped out of his hand. Xena was forced to back away as the other man took a couple of swings at her with his sword. She waited for the right moment and kicked the sword up and out of his hand. Then she kicked him in the chest and he flew back ten feet to land on the ground.
By this time, Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons realized it was a set up. All of the merchants had dropped their food and drinks for their swords. The peaceful gathering quickly became a heated battleground. Xena could hear the repeated metal sound of sword against sword from all around her. A soldier approached her from the side and she raised her sword up to stop his attack. She swung her sword down and hooked it under his foot, sending him to the ground. A quick glance over to the right showed Ephiny was holding back two men at once. Her sword deflected one sword attack after another, eventually catching the men off guard and ending their attacks with a quick thrust of her sword.
Another soldier attacked Xena from behind. He tried to put a strangle hold on her, but she easily flipped him up and over her head. She reached down and hit him twice until he became unconscious before picking up her sword again. Another man swung his sword at her. She caught the tip of her sword on his sword handle and flung it high into the air. On the way down, it stuck into a tree branch. The man ran off and was tackled by an Amazon.
Xena spun around and deflected a sword attack, bringing her own sword against the soldier's midsection. He fell. She looked to the left and saw in the battle's chaos that three soldiers were advancing on a lone Amazon woman. Not far from her was a log that had been used as a place to sit. Xena ran up to it and kicked it hard. It rolled toward the men and knocked each of the over at the same time. The Amazon managed to jump and roll out of the way.
Xena made her way over to Ephiny, who had just swung her sword into a soldier's leg. Ephiny looked over to her as well and ran over to join her. She stopped to hold her hand up to an approaching soldier. Ephiny's hand caught the soldier in the chest and he fell to the ground. Ephiny's sword did the rest. She closed the distance between them and they clasped hands. Her Amazons were making short work of they deceptive soldiers. In a matter of minutes the battle was over. Over half of the soldiers had lost their lives while the rest were now Amazon prisoners.
Ephiny and Xena stood before the captured soldiers who had been tied up and lined in front of the queen. The man who Xena had recognized was the second in command of general Maertan's forces. With a little pressure point persuasion, Xena convinced him to talk. It seemed Maertan had heard of the spiritual life of Amazons as well. Ares had instructed him and his men to search out any nearby Amazon burial grounds to see if there was anything of interest.
Now Ephiny understood the peculiar routes the supposed merchants had requested. She told Xena that their paths would have been slightly out of reach for normal trade routes, but well within reach of a few burial grounds. With a disgusted look on her face, Ephiny ordered her Amazons to take the prisoner's back to the nearest Amazon village. These men and any others that general Maertan planned to send across the Amazon border would receive a swift version of Amazon justice.
"Well, we'll certainly miss you." Ephiny looked up to Xena with a smile. She helped to tie up some supplies that were on Argo's saddle.
Xena looked down to her and returned the smile. "I appreciate all the hospitality I've received. But I need to be moving on."
"Actually I think I should be thanking you." Ephiny responded. Xena looked to her slightly surprised. "We never would have found out about those men if you hadn't come along."
Xena shrugged modestly. "Yeah well. It was all in a days work." They both laughed at that. "I was thinking about what we were talking about and what those soldiers said"
"What was that?" Ephiny asked.
"Artemis and the Amazon afterlife." Xena explained. Ephiny nodded. "If there's any chance..." Xena lost her train of thought for a few seconds. When she looked back down, she noticed Ephiny was thinking of something too.
"What little I do remember from the stories suggests there might be a chance. A chance for you to talk to her one last time at least. The closest of friends and family would be able to do that." Ephiny explained.
"Well, I hope I qualify." Xena took hold of Argo's reigns gently.
"I'm sure you do Xena." Ephiny reassured her. "Only you need to hurry. There's a limited time before the soul of the departed start their journey to the other side. The closer the bond with a person, the longer you have. But you can never tell."
Xena nodded and said her final good-byes. She took Argo into a full run as she thought more about Ephiny's words. She imagined she would be able to find Hades easily enough. This time, he would listen to her without any hesitation. With a renewed sense of purpose to her, Xena and Argo raced across the valley to be reunited one last time with a very special bard.
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