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DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.
VIOLENCE: This story occurs in a hard, violent time and my writing reflects that. If you are sensitive to that, you may want to skip some of the battle scenes.
SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.
Author's notes: Reading my previous stories would help to fully understand references in this story, but it is not absolutely necessary to do so.
How does one count the worth of a friend? Priceless? Invaluable? Incalculable? They all apply to Karen Surtees, but my word of choice is "cherished." Thank you, my friend, for "holding my hand" as I write, and for keeping me motivated. You are a treasure!
And, finally, thank you to all of you wonderful readers who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I deeply appreciate your marvelous encouragement.
© Copyright 1999
Learning the Hard Way
As soon as Xena and Gabrielle heard the distinctive birdcalls, they knew they had reached the perimeter of Fidalia's Amazon territory. Both women slid down from Argo's back and raised their clasped hands in the Amazon signal of peace.
Four women dropped from the trees, two in front and two behind them. Xena's body jerked infinitesimally as a stick prodded her back, and her lip curled. "Shalene, I presume," she ventured dryly. What the Hades is going on with these weapons masters? Is it bait Xena week, or what?
The weapons master walked around in front of the warrior and grinned sarcastically. "At least it was the butt end of the spear, Xena."
"That's the only reason you're still standing, Shalene," Xena's low voice purred.
Damn, you're just as cocky as ever! Fidalia will get a kick out of seeing you. Shalene nonchalantly offered her arm and Xena took it. The Warrior Princess squeezed harder than necessary, but let up when Shalene's knees wobbled and the woman's eyes glared.
"You got an Amazon Queen here that you are totally ignoring," Xena admonished them curtly. The four Amazons immediately went down on one knee until Gabrielle beckoned them to rise.
"Sorry, Queen Gabrielle, we forgot our manners for a moment." Shalene sounded suitably apologetic. The little Queen is a sweetheart. It's the brazen warrior I have trouble accepting. Hope Fidalia brings her down a peg or two this time. Though she seems to think it's funny.
"We've come to see Queen Fidalia," the bard informed them.
"Risada will escort you in." Shalene nodded to one of the Amazons who stepped forward.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said. Xena got back up on Argo and effortlessly swung the bard up behind her. Risada jogged down the trail toward the village, and they followed her.
Birdcalls had gone ahead of them and, as they rode into the Village Square, Queen Fidalia and an honor guard awaited them. Other Amazons had gathered around the edges of the Square, curious to get a look at the new arrivals.
Xena and Gabrielle dismounted and strode forward. "Hello, Fidalia," Gabrielle greeted the other queen and clasped arms with her.
"Welcome, Gabrielle. It's good to see you again." Fidalia turned to Xena and offered her arm. "And your warrior. Hello, Xena."
Xena was about three inches taller than the Queen who was a medium-tall, muscular woman with red hair and a square-jawed, powerful face. The Warrior Princess drew herself to her full height and clasped the proffered arm. "Fidalia."
Fidalia's eyes were an odd, cinnamon-red hue that almost matched the color of her hair. They twinkled at Xena. "I understand you ran into Shalene at the perimeter." One Amazon had ridden ahead with the news of their encounter.
"More like she ran into me," Xena drawled. "With the butt of a spear."
"Well, she does have a little ornery streak in her," Fidalia admitted.
"Next time she gets ornery with me, spear and butt will have new meanings," the Warrior Princess growled.
Fidalia threw back her head and a hearty laugh boomed from her throat. "She was right. She said you are just as cocky as ever... and I love it!"
Gabrielle joined Fidalia's laughter, as did some of the surrounding Amazons. Xena tilted an eyebrow and a small grin tugged at one side of her mouth.
"C'mon, let's go into my hut and have a few refreshments and you can tell me why you are here."
While Fidalia dispersed the group of Amazons, Xena loosely looped Argo's reins over a hitching rail. Then the queen turned to lead Gabrielle and Xena into her hut.
In an Amazon village, queens were accorded the highest respect and the warrior stood back, careful to let Gabrielle precede her. The bard, recognizing this tribute, smiled up at Xena and lightly touched her arm as she stepped ahead of her. Here's a woman who ruled over half of Greece, making sure that I get put to the forefront as befits an Amazon queen. I wonder if she realizes how grateful I am for that consideration?
The women sat down and helped themselves to the food and drink that was set out on the table. They spoke for awhile of inconsequential happenings. When they had finished eating, Fidalia looked from one to the other. "You're here for a reason, right?"
The Warrior Princess slanted her eyes toward the bard, who then spoke up. "We have a problem, Fidalia, and we are hoping you can help us." Gabrielle nodded toward her friend. "Xena will explain."
Xena used mugs and plates to demonstrate the serious situation the southern Amazons were facing. When she finished, she looked back to Gabrielle. The young queen spoke earnestly to her northern counterpart. "We need your help, Fidalia. If the second army hits us, we could be destroyed. If you could bring your people down to engage them, it will give us a fighting chance."
Fidalia gazed down at the battle scene staged on the table. "I can see you could use our help. But my first concern is for my own people. What do we stand to gain from this?"
"Maybe our help when your Amazons are in trouble again," Xena uttered softly. A contingent of southern Amazons had assisted Fidalia's group against a threatening warlord, with the Warrior Princess being the deciding factor in their victory.
Fidalia went to the door and summoned a passing Amazon. "Send someone out to the perimeter for Shalene and you get help in gathering the rest of the village council. I want them all in the council chamber as soon as possible."
She sat down again at the table and leaned back in her chair. "We'll see what the council says. I know we are indebted to your tribe, but I have to warn you, they will not be too willing to go to war. We've had some really bad times lately and our food stocks are dangerously low. I've had every available person out hunting for game and the rest are cooking and salting it to tide us over the winter." The weary look suddenly appearing on Fidalia's face told its own story of a woman walking a tightrope.
"Tell you the truth, I was hoping you had come here to help us. But let's leave the rest of the discussion for the council meeting. Tell me how your people are doing. How are Eponin and Solari and those two tall kids--Leese, isn't it, and Gwynna?"
Gabrielle and Fidalia continued conversing until news was brought that the council members were all present. Xena didn't say a word, just sat there with hooded eyes and stony face. Gabrielle looked her way a couple of times, then gave up trying to reach her. I don't like the look on my partner's face. She's almost breathing fire.
Xena's lack of communication wasn't missed by Fidalia either. The queen glanced at her once and that was enough to unsettle her. Wonder what she's up to. Looks like we might be having a looong afternoon.
When Fidalia and Gabrielle finally rose, the Warrior Princess rose, too, and silently followed them to the chambers.
Fidalia indicated two chairs set apart in front of the council table for Gabrielle and Xena. Before they sat, the queen's half-sister, Mara, came over to speak with them. Tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed, Mara was the Amazon who had found a bewildered bard wandering alone in the forest. She had brought Gabrielle, suffering from amnesia, back to Fidalia's tribe where she had been taken care of until circumstances had restored her memory.
The bard had been a special favorite of Mara's and the two women greeted each other enthusiastically. Mara also extended warm greetings to Xena who had saved her life. The Warrior Princess unbent a little when Mara greeted her, but returned to her stoic mien when the Amazon was summoned back to the council table.
The queen joined the other members at the table and called the meeting to order. She explained the difficulties their sister tribe faced and told them they were being asked to assist by engaging the northern army in battle.
"How many of our people do they need?" A question came from one of the women.
Gabrielle answered, "The army you would go against has about 200 men." This caused a buzz of conversation around the table.
One of the Amazons stood up and the others quieted. "We would have to send almost all of our able-bodied people. The same people we have been counting on to hunt game for us, not only for food for now, but also for food to store for the winter. I know we owe a debt of gratitude to your people, Queen Gabrielle, but I don't see how we can help you without jeopardizing our whole village." A bevy of voices chimed in, agreeing with this statement.
Gabrielle hastened to make an offer. "My Amazons could send you food. We usually have a surplus of flour, meal and dried vegetables that could supplement what you have. I'm not sure how much is there, but you are welcome to share it with us." Concern for Fidalia's tribe showed on Gabrielle's face. "Whether you fight for us or not," she added.
"That's a very generous offer, Gabrielle. But you say you are in imminent danger of being destroyed. Not to sound heartless, but that sure makes the offer very conditional, not one we can rely on." Fidalia tempered her usually strong voice. She liked the little queen and wanted to spare her feelings.
Xena stood up and a hush fell over the assembly. Sunlight coming through a side window draped softly over her, cloaking her with its radiance and accentuating the blue fire in her eyes. She stood tall, with her chin tucked in and her face solemn. Slowly, her intense eyes roved across the face of each woman at the table. "Can you spare 100 women?" her low, vibrant voice questioned. "We could forage supplies on the trail, and that would be 100 fewer mouths to feed here."
Heads swung slowly in denial. To take 100 women out of the hunting parties would be too dangerous.
"How many could you spare?" Gabrielle hurriedly asked. She could feel animosity growing in her touchy friend.
"Maybe 25," Fidalia answered slowly. "But that number wouldn't be much help against 200."
"We'll take the 25," Xena agreed as though it had been a solid offer. "But I'd like to choose them." Fidalia's eyebrows raised and she opened her mouth to speak.
Before she could answer, however, Shalene jumped up and stormed around the end of the table. She strode furiously up to Xena. "Who the Hades do you think you are, warrior? You come in here looking for a favor, and, next thing you know, you're making demands!"
Xena tilted her head back and looked down her nose at the weapons master. "Why don't you keep this monkey on a chain, Fidalia?"
Shalene shoved her face into Xena's. "You big-shot ex-warlord, it's about time someone kicked your arrogant butt. You don't have your friends here, now, to help you."
Xena's bronzed cheek twitched. Uh-oh, thought Gabrielle. The bard moved to stop her friend, but not quickly enough. The Warrior Princess grabbed Shalene by the neck with one hand, lifted her a foot in the air and threw her against the wall. Her body hit with a loud thump, then she slid to the floor, trying to suck air back into her lungs.
This new development was so unexpected that the usually cool, calm and collected Fidalia had to lean against the table. Shalene, how could you be so stupid? She indicated with a wave of her hand that a couple Amazons should assist Shalene. They picked her up and sat her in a chair. The weapons master doubled over, gasping but unhurt, except for assorted bruises.
Fidalia looked from Shalene back to Xena and expelled her breath. "25 women it is."
"I want them on horseback, and I get to pick them." Xena's voice was low and vibrant again. Fidalia knew something else was coming that she probably wouldn't like, but she nodded.
"I pick her... ," the Warrior Princess tossed her head toward the now panting Shalene, "and you, Fidalia, if you can arrange that. You strike me as possibly the best fighter here and I'd like to have you come, too. If not you, then Mara. You can pick the other 23 and I will check them out. I want your best, Fidalia." Xena's eyes bored into the Queen's. "I intend to bring them all home. Have everyone ready in two hours. I'll be back."
"Please," added Gabrielle with a small grimace at the queen.
The corner of Fidalia's mouth twitched in chagrin. I don't think the Warrior Princess is in a mood to say please. But after that display, who's going to argue with her?
Xena turned on her heel and walked out, bringing Gabrielle with her by taking hold of her arm and guiding her.
Once outside, Xena whistled for Argo.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked after Xena had pulled her aboard the golden palomino.
"Hunting," the warrior answered. She guided Argo out beyond the Amazon territory, up onto a mountain path, her eyes searching the ground. Slowing Argo to a walk, Xena swung her head slowly back and forth in her customary alert mode. Suddenly she stopped, swung Gabrielle to the ground and dismounted.
"When you hear me whistle, you jump up and down and wave your arms and shout, and keep coming toward me. Got that?" The bard nodded and Xena disappeared into the trees. Gabrielle heard Xena's whistle and went into her act. She heard something large running through the trees ahead of her, then the noise stopped. Soon Gabrielle came upon Xena standing over a large deer whose throat had been cut.
Xena was leaning over the animal, gutting it with her boot dagger. The warrior turned to her with a big smile. "Good work, you drove him right into me."
Xena whistled for Argo, then hefted the animal up and tied it onto Argo's back. "We're going to have to double up in the saddle. Let's go." She boosted Gabrielle up into the saddle, then vaulted herself up behind her, swinging her leg high to clear the carcass.
"Where are we going now, if I may ask?"
"After one more, I think." They went through the same routine, then turned back down the mountain toward the Amazon village. When they arrived, Xena rode past the mounted group Fidalia had assembled in the Village Square and stopped at the kitchen hut. She and Gabrielle dismounted and Xena hoisted a deer across her shoulders and carried it into the hut.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle grabbed a rag, dipped it in a nearby crock of rainwater and washed Argo's back. Xena carried the second deer in and reappeared, carrying a large sack. She tied the sack to Argo's saddle and when she turned to Gabrielle, the bard started washing her off, too. "Hey!" the warrior ducked away, protesting.
"Hey, yourself! If I'm going to ride behind you, I don't want my face in deer's blood," Gabrielle scolded. Thank the gods, her cuts are almost healed already.
"OK, OK," the Warrior Princess laughed. "Not quite the same as sweet berries, huh?" She stood still while her smiling friend cleaned her off, front and back.
"That was nice, wasn't it?" Gabrielle said, thinking of their time in Athens.
Xena looked down at her clean body and nodded. "Yeah, it was."
"I meant when we were in Athens!" The bard poked her in the ribs.
"That, too," the warrior chuckled. "You do a lot of nice things for me, Gabrielle. I'm finally remembering to thank you once in awhile."
Xena gave her friend a one-armed hug, mounted Argo and pulled the beaming bard up behind her.
Xena's mood had improved and she actually smiled at Fidalia as she guided Argo next to the queen's horse. Her eyes roved across the chosen women. They looked like a solid bunch of warriors, each with a bow slung across one shoulder and a blade across the other. Xena nodded to Mara, who was at the front of the bunch, next to a dour-faced Shalene.
"So, are you coming, too, Fidalia?" The Warrior Princess cocked an inquiring eyebrow.
"Yes, I am, Xena. Loka, the head of the council, will take charge of the tribe in my absence. You and the southern Amazons helped us when we needed it and we owe you for that. I'm frustrated that I couldn't give you more warriors, but," the queen's eyes glinted and she smiled, "I figured I'd come along and make up for at least 50 of them."
Xena grinned. "And you call me cocky?" You're not kidding me, Fidalia. You just don't want to miss a chance for some action.
"The queen, the weapons master and the queen's sister? You sure you want all of you at risk?" Gabrielle knew this would be a fierce fight and was worried about their survival.
Fidalia dragged her eyes from Xena's mesmerizing blue gaze and rested them on the bard. She appreciated Gabrielle's concern. "You have all your people at risk, Gabrielle. And looking at it from a purely selfish point of view, if your tribe falls, ours could be the next target. I believe in stopping danger at its source, whenever possible. So, I've brought some of the best warriors we have."
The Warrior Princess leaned over and clasped arms with the redheaded queen. "Glad you're with us."
"We can provide a horse for you, Gabrielle, if you wish."
"No, thanks, Fidalia. I'm not too comfortable on horses. I'm happy right where I am."
A knowing smile broke across the Amazon's face. "I'll just bet you are." She's an Amazon queen who can't climb trees, doesn't like riding, and doesn't even carry a sword. Strange. I'd think she was hiding behind Xena if I hadn't seen how good she is with a staff.
"Your people carrying any rations at all?" Xena inquired.
"Tea herbs, some biscuits, assorted dried vegetables, waterbags. I figure they can forage, as you mentioned."
"Well, I'd like to just push on, only stop to sleep." Xena patted the sack she had picked up from the kitchen hut. "I traded those two deer for some dried meat. This way, we can eat on the trail, as we ride."
Fidalia grinned. "Always thinking ahead, warrior. I like that."
Xena's face grew pensive. "I've had a lot of thinking to do about this situation we're facing. I'll spell it out for you as we travel, get your input, too. Let's get moving."
The imposing woman turned Argo south and chucked her into a trot. Fidalia gave an arm signal to her Amazons and everyone fell into line, leaving their village behind, following the Warrior Princess into a battle yet to come.
When Fidalia's Amazons were within a day's ride of the southern tribe's village, Xena sent another message to Ephiny. The Warrior Princess also put a number of Amazons out ahead of the group, to clear the way of any enemy scouts. Reports kept filtering back that none were seen. Eventually, Fidalia's point Amazons connected with several Amazons scouting ahead of Ephiny's group. One rider brought a southern scout back.
Xena halted the column and a grinning Gwynna slid off Nightmare and went down on her knee. Gabrielle motioned the girl up. "Hi, Gwynna. Good to see you, but get back on Nightmare; we're in a hurry!"
Gwynna climbed back on and guided Nightmare alongside Argo as the column continued its journey. Xena flicked an eyebrow at her and Gwynna answered, "Ephiny is about the same distance from the meeting place as you are, maybe two hours. Both groups should arrive together. We ran into only one scouting party, but we stayed away from them and, seeing nothing, they left the area."
Xena nodded in satisfaction.
Gabrielle asked a question she knew was in her friend's mind. "Where's Leese?"
Gwynna grimaced. "She's watching the army that's headed toward the pass. Ephiny said she wanted to keep us separated, at least for awhile, so we weren't both in the same danger at the same time. I don't understand that thinking when we're both still in danger."
Xena always tried to educate the two youngsters on the finer points of leadership when the occasion arose, so she explained Ephiny's decision. "When two people as close as you and Leese are in a battle together, neither can focus completely on the fight. There's always one part of your brain that is concerned with the other one's welfare. That lack of focus can get you, or someone near you, killed."
While Gwynna pondered this lesson, Gabrielle did, too. That's true. I always wonder where Xena is when I can't see her. I never really thought of it as lacking focus, but it has to be a distraction. I wonder... "You never seem to lose focus when we're in a battle together, Xena," the bard said softly, against her partner's back.
"No?" was the warrior's somewhat cryptic rejoinder. Ah, my bard, if you only knew! I have never told you about it because I know you would feel guilty if I got hurt, thinking it was your fault. But I ALWAYS look for you; I can't help myself. "Guess that's good for both of us, then, huh?" she said quickly. A little too quickly.
But Gabrielle didn't persist. That Xena, who always stepped into the most dangerous parts of a battle, might not be totally focused because of worry over her was too scary a thought to accept all at once. But, like most scary thoughts, it crept into her subconscious brain, crouching and ready to pounce when its prey least expected it.
"Get on back to Ephiny, Gwynna. Tell her we'll be seeing her shortly." Xena and Gabrielle waved to the departing girl and Xena dropped back to let Fidalia know what was going on.
Mara was riding next to her sister, the queen, and when she found they were only about two hours from their destination, she called to the bard, "Gabrielle, come ride with me for awhile. It'll give us a chance to chat."
Xena didn't even bother to ask her friend if she liked the idea; the warrior moved Argo over next to Mara's mount and swung Gabrielle from one horse to the other. Xena grinned as the bard started talking to Mara even before she left Argo's back.
As she moved forward again, Xena motioned for Shalene to follow her. For a few minutes the two women rode side by side, ignoring each other; but when it came to a waiting battle, Xena always won. Always.
Finally, Shalene spoke. "Why did you choose to bring me?"
Xena waited a little longer then asked, "Would you rather I hadn't?"
"No. I'd rather fight than hunt," the weapons master growled.
"Well, that's reason number one; you're a fighter," Xena stated. She resettled herself in her saddle, sitting up straighter and putting on her formidable look. "Are you afraid of me, Shalene?" she asked.
"I know you kicked my butt with hardly any effort, so I guess I'm dumb. But I won't let myself be afraid of anyone. No, I'm not afraid of you." Shalene threw a belligerent look at the Warrior Princess. Shalene, your mouth is gonna get you in trouble, again.
"That's reason number two; you aren't easily intimidated." Xena slanted her cobalt-blue eyes at the woman riding next to her. "And reason number three is that you remind me of Gabrielle's weapons master. You two feisty critters just don't know the meaning of the word 'quit.' And I admire that. I'd pick you on my side anytime."
Shalene was dumbfounded. They rode in silence for awhile, then the weapons master turned her head to look at the Warrior Princess. "I judged you wrong, Xena. I'll try not to give you any more trouble." Then she grinned wryly. "But I can't honestly promise that."
A snort of laughter came from the warrior as she returned Shalene's gaze. "That's good enough for me, Shalene." The two women grinned at each other and shook arms.
Fidalia saw this and winked at Mara. A good leader always works towards harmony in the ranks. I like you better all the time, Xena.
Mara glanced back at Gabrielle who also had seen the arm clasp. "Your warrior is a pretty tough cookie."
"Yeah, she is... when she has to be. When she doesn't have so much pressure on her to take care of everyone's problems, she's a different person."
Mara nodded. "I see that with my sister, too. When there's a battle coming, she grows about a foot taller and a yard tougher. But she's always trying to protect me, like I'm not old enough to take care of myself. Does Xena treat you like that?"
Gabrielle's forehead furrowed. "She's super protective, but I don't think it's for that reason. We're both so close, we feel responsible for each other. If one gets hurt, the other one suffers, too." Then the bard's frown cleared and she grinned. "Of course, she has a lot more skills than I have, so I benefit more than she does."
Mara's deep blue eyes glanced again at the golden-haired woman behind her. "I saw Xena's face when you were over at the kitchen hut. I think she feels that she got the better part of the bargain. I think so, too."
Gabrielle gave Mara a quick squeeze. "What a nice thing to say. Now, how about telling me about the time you rescued me? I've heard the story from Xena, but I'd like to hear your firsthand account."
"That's right, I guess you forgot all that when your memory came back." Mara grinned and launched into the tale, delighted to spend this time with the gentle bard. The two could be seen laughing and chatting for the balance of the trip.
Soon the two forces came together in the designated meeting spot. Everyone dismounted and stretched. Xena introduced Ephiny and Solari to Fidalia, Mara and Shalene. Ephiny's practiced eye roamed over Fidalia's Amazons and was cheered by what she saw. "Thanks for coming, Queen Fidalia. We sure need the help."
"Glad to be here. Just wish we could have brought more. And you can drop the queen bit, it's easier without it."
"Ephiny," Xena interrupted. The regent turned directly toward Xena without thinking and caught the full force of the cobalt-blue eyes. A gentle flush crept up her face and she stepped back and cleared her throat.
Fidalia's eyes hadn't missed the regent's change of expression. What have we here? The Warrior Princess seems to be held in high esteem by some of these Amazons... very high esteem! Not that I blame them.
"We need to contact Leese. The timing here will be critical. We need an estimate of when the army will reach the pass and then we will need to know exactly when the army starts through." A smile quirked one corner of Xena's lips and she reached out and shook the regent's shoulder. "OK?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ephiny retorted and playfully knocked Xena's hand away. "I'll send Gwynna; she'll be thrilled."
"And we'll need several groups to constantly sweep the area to get rid of any scouts and to intercept any messages being sent between the two armies," the Warrior Princess continued. "Maybe three groups with three people in each group. And I want two people up there," pointing, "in shifts, to keep a close eye on everything."
"I'll have Solari take care of all that."
"Good. Come back and see me after you get that arranged, OK? You can fill me in on Eponin's progress. Now everybody else is going to have to get busy. We have a lot of work to do."
Both queens and the regent agreed and the Amazons pitched in together to get the work started. The work was hard and would take the rest of the day, all the next, and part of the following, but finally, everything was set.
"Fidalia, I have an idea." Xena pulled the Amazon queen to the side, as the work was finishing up. "Solari's scouts just brought in a messenger from the army approaching the pass. The message he's carrying says they will be coming through the pass at first light tomorrow. Then they expect to line up the catapults, and while a small group gets ready to set them off against the Amazon village, the larger group will swing northeast and attack from that direction."
Fidalia nodded. This fit in with what Xena had already told her was planned by the invaders.
"How good an actor are you?" The Warrior Princess slanted her cobalt-blue eyes down into Fidalia's cinnamon-brown eyes. The queen could see mischief dancing in the blue depths. Her mind raced.
She drew her body to attention, pulled in her chin and lowered the pitch of her strong voice. "Pretty damn good actor, SIR!" she mimicked as a huge smile appeared on Xena's face.
The warrior clapped her on the back and the muscular queen planted her feet and didn't budge. "Perfect," Xena crowed as she shook a balled fist in the air. "Here's what I want you to do..."
"Where in Hades is that messenger?" Bergados stomped back and forth in his command tent. He had received word two days ago that Mundicles' army was within two days' march of the pass. The army was supposed to send word as soon as they knew what time they would be entering it. But no messenger had arrived and Bergados was in a fury. "I've already sat here for five weeks waiting for that idiot to get here. The men are ready to mutiny. I'm attacking tomorrow morning, whether he is here or not. He will still have time to get the catapults set up and hit the flanks."
"Do you think that is wise, sir?" one of his long-suffering lieutenants asked. "We've waited this long, a bit longer shouldn't hurt us. We wouldn't want things going wrong at the last minute."
Bergados turned on him with a snarl. "The message said he would be there in two days and two days have passed." Then his better sense won out over his impatience. He threw himself down onto a chair and pounded his fist on the table. "You're right. We'll wait."
Just then one of his men entered the tent flap and said, "A messenger is approaching, sir." Bergados jumped up and ran to the flap. Looking out, he watched as a man rode in on a black horse. The soldier dismounted, retrieved a scroll from a saddlebag and came up to Bergados. "Come in, come in," the warlord walked to the table and sat down.
He held his hand out for the message and the soldier laid the scroll in it. Bergados unrolled it and read it aloud. "My army will come through the pass at first light day after tomorrow. We will move the catapults into place and leave a small force to man them. We will then swing northeast as planned and should be ready to begin our assault at two o'clock. (signed) Mundicles."
"Wonderful! We finally get a chance for some action. We will smash these Amazons clear back into the river. And when Mundicles comes from the north, they won't know what hit them." His evil laugh boomed through the tent.
He looked up at the messenger. "Go back and tell your commander we will strike from the southwest at two o'clock, day after tomorrow. If he gets the catapults ready before then, tell him to go ahead and fire at the village. Might as well soften them up for us if he can. Get going now."
"Yes sir," answered the messenger. He turned around and started out.
"Just a minute," Bergados called. The soldier turned back around, cinnamon-brown eyes meeting the hazel of the commander. "What happened to the other messenger?"
"His horse lost his footing coming down the other side of the mountains. Fell and broke his leg."
"Couldn't he just get another horse?" Bergados asked, his eyes narrowing.
"It was Bud fell and broke his leg, sir, not the horse."
"Oh!" The commander barked a laugh. "Go on, get outta here." The soldier left.
One of the soldiers in the tent said, "Do you think he is an imposter?"
Bergados smiled. "Nah, just a funny feeling I had there for a minute. No real reason for it. Must have been my female intuition acting up." Everyone laughed with the boss.
Well away from the camp, Fidalia tore the dirty bandana from her head and untied the rawhide thong holding back her red hair. She shook her head, flinging her shoulder-length locks out to lay smoothly on their return. Then she unbuttoned the bottom half of her shirt and pulled the dagger out that had lain against her belly. She shifted it to a more comfortable position in her boot, finished unbuttoning the shirt and tore it off, revealing her Amazon garb.
Fidalia lifted her horse into a gallop and savored the feel of the air flying freely past her face. The joy of a mission accomplished made her heart sing. Well, Bergados, my boy, you got your message all right. You'll soon find out it's your ticket to Tartarus.
Gwynna rode to where the horses were tied, dismounted from Nightmare and crept toward the spot where Elisa and the two other Amazons were spying on the army. The dark-haired young Amazon had picked a near-perfect vantage point. The forested outcropping gave a view for miles in the three directions on which it opened. Trained by Xena to use her ears, as well as her eyes and body, as weapons, Elisa heard her friend approaching and slipped back deeper into the forest to greet her.
The two embraced, then Elisa spoke. "I'm glad you're back so soon. They have reached the northern end of the pass and will be ready to march down it in the morning. You have to go back and let Xena know."
"A scout intercepted a messenger from this army and Xena already knows they are coming in the morning. She sent me to get you three and bring you back." Gwynna couldn't help smiling. She wasn't comfortable when Elisa was away from her, especially on the eve of a battle.
"Great!" Elisa turned to go and advise the others of their change in plans. But first, her head swiveled back. "I've missed you, " she said and then swung her head forward and continued toward the small outcropping.
Gwynna's smile grew even broader. Gabrielle was right when she told me that some of these stoic types have a sweetness locked behind their silence. Just gotta keep searching for the right key.
The four Amazons mounted their horses and headed back to join the Warrior Princess. Elisa and Gwynna rode side by side. "The pass is too wide to block off anywhere," Elisa was saying. "We'll just have to let the army come down it and try to hit them before they reach the southern end. We could put archers at the top edges. That should help."
Every time Elisa made another suggestion, Gwynna just smiled and agreed with her. Finally, Elisa demanded, "It's not like you to agree with everything I say. Has Xena come up with something really special? Inquiring minds want to know these things!"
Gwynna was having obvious difficulty keeping a straight face. "Just wait and see," was the most Elisa could drag from her.
Elisa knew they were nearing the opening to the southern end of the pass, where she expected the Amazons to be bunched. When they rode around the last bend in the mountains, the sight she saw astounded her. Twelve large structures loomed against the sky, sitting at the pass opening. There were four rows of three each, staggered so each had a clear shot. A minimal number of Amazons worked near them, going through the motions of loading and firing, but not actually doing it.
"Catapults!" Elisa's eyes shone. She shook her head in admiration. "Where in Tartarus did the Warrior Princess come up with those?"
Gwynna laughed out loud. "She found them! She went down a hole in the top of the bluff to rescue some little kid and when she got to the bottom of the hole, there was a cave full of catapults. They were just sitting there, waiting for the army that you spied on to use them against our village. There were even chopped logs, covered with oil, for ammunition. All we had to do was move them here."
The blonde Amazon rolled her eyes. "And, boy, was that a job! You're lucky you weren't there. First we had to cut an access to the trail. Then we had to use six horses and six women to move each one. We kept staggering people and horses and worked all day, all night, and another half a day moving them. Aren't they awesome?"
Elisa nodded in agreement. "They sure are. Where's everybody else?"
Gwynna was getting winded from shouting and riding at the same time. "I'll explain when we stop."
At last, the four riders pulled near the catapults and dismounted. Shalene, who was in charge of the preparations, came over to them. "Leese, isn't it?" She extended her arm.
Elisa grasped the offered arm and nodded to the weapons master. "Shalene. Where's Xena?"
"Xena's up on the mountain."
"Scouting the pass." Elisa made it a statement rather than a question.
"Yes, she's scouting the best place to put the archers and how far we should let the army come before we start the catapults. She asked that you and Gwynna wait here for her. You other two come with me, I can use some help over here." Shalene started back to rejoin the women at the catapults.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Elisa inquired.
"She's over to the right of the pass with our Amazons. They're getting ready for the battle tomorrow morning." Shalene stopped and answered, then started to move forward again.
"I ought to be with her," Elisa muttered under her breath.
"What was that?" Shalene asked, stopping once more.
"Where's Ephiny?" Elisa asked shortly, instead of answering.
"You one of the commanders around here or something?" Shalene demanded. The edginess that seeped under her skin on the brink of a battle leaped forth. "Just wait here for Xena, like you were told."
Elisa drew to her full height, towering over the shorter weapons master, and pinned her with narrowed eyes. "I asked you a simple question."
Shalene's eyes narrowed, too, and she stepped back toward the young Amazon. "And I gave you a simple order." What is it with these tall, dark and gorgeous warriors, always ready to fight? They're worse than I am. Something in the water around here?
Gwynna quickly stepped forward and grabbed Elisa's shoulder. "C'mon, Leese. Let's wait for Xena. Shalene's on our side and she has work to do."
The two women stood with eyes locked, neither making a move. Finally, Elisa relaxed. "Right."
Shalene hesitated a moment more, then when Elisa turned away, she turned and joined the other women at the catapults.
"Leese, what was that all about? Shalene was just impatient to get back to work." Gwynna's scolding tone showed Elisa she was at fault.
"I know. I'm just kinda outta sorts about Gabrielle. I should be with the queen. It's my job to stick to her..."
"Like a burr," Gwynna finished, smiling. "But this time, Xena told us to stick with Ephiny. She's our regent and she needs us."
"I have a bad feeling about this. I don't know why; I just do." Elisa turned her concerned smoke-gray eyes toward her friend.
Gwynna squeezed the shoulder she was holding. "Gabrielle will be all right. She's with Queen Fidalia and Mara and they are both strong fighters. And don't forget, Gabrielle is a pretty good hand herself with that staff. Stop fretting, OK?"
Elisa patted her friend's hand. She knew she was worrying Gwynna, so she tried to put the bad feelings behind her. "OK." Elisa's sharp ears picked up a sound. "Here comes Xena, now."
As Argo appeared through the trees, the afternoon sunlight shimmered against her golden coat and lit her and her rider with a moving curtain of black and red-gold stripes. Xena dismounted in front of the girls and greeted them. "Glad to see you."
She quickly grabbed a stick and squatted down, drawing a diagram of the pass on the ground as she spoke. "I want to let you two know what is going on. It'll give you a chance to see how battle plans are set up and carried out. Every extra hand has been busy all day building arrows. We'll have archers here," pointing to the hills on one side of the pass, "and here," pointing to the opposite side.
"When the army reaches here," she drew a line across the pass, "we'll start the catapults."
"How much ammunition do we have?" Elisa queried.
"We hauled a lot of cut tree trunks that are covered in oil. We'll build a fire and torch them just before they get shot from the catapults. If we run out of them, we have plenty of trees available." The Warrior Princess looked back to the drawing. "When the barrage starts, the archers will pick off anyone they can, starting at the rear of the column, including any trying to flee up the mountainside."
"What if they retreat?" Xena smiled when she saw that the dark-haired Amazon was trying to think of every contingency.
"Then we'll pursue them until they are routed. But it's more likely they will try to keep on coming. In my experience, foot soldiers are trained to follow orders, not to think. Their orders are to come through the pass and hit the Amazon flank, so that is probably what they will still try to do."
"When they exit the pass, Ephiny's group will hit them from the left and Fidalia's from the right."
"Where will you be, Xena?" Gwynna asked.
"I'll round up the catapult crews and we will hit the army from the front. Any more questions?" Xena stood up, followed by the two youngsters.
"Thank you, Xena," they both said together, then looked at each other and grinned.
"No problem," the Warrior Princess assured them. "Why don't you see if Ephiny has any supper fixed? I'm going to give everything a last check, then we all better get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day. Good luck."
Xena and Gwynna clasped arms, then the warrior hugged Elisa and said, "Be careful."
In a perfect imitation of the Warrior Princess, Elisa cocked an eyebrow and answered, "I'm always careful."
"Riiiigggghhtttt!" Xena grinned and softly punched her arm. Then all three mounted and went their separate ways.
The early morning sky had changed from inky black to dusky gray. Xena sat on the mountaintop fashioning arrows. A figure dropped stealthily from a tree behind her and crept silently forward. "OK, Solari," the warrior said. "What can you tell me?"
"Humph!" the Amazon exclaimed as she hunkered down next to the Warrior Princess. "I can tell you that I've never been able to sneak up on you, yet!"
"Besides that," Xena said dryly. A lopsided grin teased the corner of her sculpted lips.
"They're just beginning to enter the pass, moving slowly but pretty steadily. Will probably get right here in about two hours. The archers on this side are in place and ready. They'll start shooting when the catapults start."
Xena stood, reached down and squeezed the Amazon's shoulder. "Good. Send a couple women to relay your call and let us know when the army gets to this point. Then keep your eyes open. Some of the army might try to come to the mountaintop to get through. Your archers will have to prevent that."
"Fortunately for us, the mountainsides are pretty steep. The soldiers will have to move so slowly, they should be easy targets." Solari's eyes were starting to shine in anticipation of the battle. She stood up and clasped arms with the warrior. "Artemis be with you, Xena."
The lopsided grin finally reached its zenith. "Better let Artemis watch over you Amazons, Solari. She doesn't exactly like me."
Solari looked puzzled. "But you're here to help the Amazons."
"Well, you remind her of that next time you see her, OK?" The Warrior Princess grinned and waved. "I gotta go start a fire. Be safe, Solari." Xena climbed aboard Argo and rode down off the mountain.
When she got to the catapults, she dismounted. Shalene already had several fires burning with torches laid next to them. The blonde weapons master strode over. "The first row should go the farthest. Shall we start with it?" Her hazel eyes looked up into cobalt-blue eyes that gleamed at the thought of battle.
"What's your thought on that, Shalene?" the warrior inquired.
Shalene was taken aback for a moment. She turned her gaze away and pondered the question. "If we fire the first row, then the next row won't be effective till they move forward again. By the time we fire the third or fourth row, they might be retreating or trying to go up the mountains and get out of range, but that would put a heavy burden on the few archers we have."
She furrowed her brow in thought. "If we timed it right, the best bet would be to let the army come close enough to be in range of the last row and fire it first, followed by the third, the second and the first, maybe about two minutes apart. That should wipe out a huge segment of the army, whether they keep coming or retreat. By the time we fire the first row, there will hardly be any lapse until the last row has been reloaded and is ready to fire again." Happy with her thinking, she looked up again at her commander.
A small smile played on Xena's face. "Sounds like a good plan to me. You might want to hold additional waves about 10 minutes apart. Give them time to regroup and come forward again."
Shalene realized that Xena had encouraged her to think through the tactics of the battle, rather than just take orders from her that might have been misunderstood and resented. "Thanks, Xena."
An eyebrow went up. "For what?"
Shalene grinned. "For letting me be one of your students." And what better teacher than the Warrior Princess?
The small smile tweaked up on one side. "You're an apt pupil, Shalene. Solari will send a birdcall when the troops have reached the proper place. Let your squad know what the timing is and start firing as soon as you hear the call. Keep firing until you get word to stop."
Xena looked thoughtfully toward the pass opening. "By the time they reach this end of the pass, they'll be too close to use the catapults. I'll be back here before then. When that happens, your group will come with me. Ephiny and Fidalia are hitting their sides and we'll hit their center. Any questions?"
Shalene shook her head. "We'll be ready."
"Good luck." The warrior mounted Argo and took off toward Ephiny's side of the mountain pass.
As she approached and surveyed the area, she saw that all were ready. They were sitting, relaxing as much as possible while waiting for the battle. She rode up to Ephiny, dismounted and flexed her arm and back muscles to stretch them.
"Tense?" The curly-headed regent's face displayed its usual serious mien. But her heart was thudding. I can't believe this. Here we are on the brink of battle, Xena shows up, and my heart starts racing like a silly schoolgirl's. How come emotions are so hard to control?
"I'll be OK when the fighting starts. The waiting is never easy. Looks like you have everything ready."
"Yeah, I told them to take a rest till we hear some army noise. Everything OK with Solari?"
Xena nodded. "She's ready. She's sending a birdcall as a signal for the catapults to start. You placed some scouts behind us just in case Bergados decides to investigate, right?"
"Just as you ordered," Ephiny answered. "Four in the trees and someone back on top the bluff to keep an eye out by the cave. How's Gabrielle?"
"I'm checking Fidalia's group next. I'll see her then. I'll be back by the catapults before the army reaches the end of the pass and our group will hit their center."
"I remember." Ephiny looked deep into the cobalt-blue eyes of a woman she loved and admired. "Be safe."
Xena pulled her close and they hugged. "You, too, Eph." She released the regent and, reaching up a long, bronzed arm, ruffled her curly, blonde locks. "Keep your head," Xena grinned.
The Warrior Princess vaulted onto her golden warhorse and headed for the next checkpoint.
Continues in Chapter 11
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