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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
Eponin felt a deep satisfaction in spite of her typical battle-ready edginess. Under her direction, the Amazon village had been made as impregnable as humanly possible. Sharpened trees had been strapped together in three separate rows of breastworks, encircling the entire village, except along the riverside.
The only safe way across them was through the treetops and since most soldiers weren't used to tree fighting, they were unlikely to attempt it now. If they wanted to take the village, they would have to move the ramparts first.
A corps of archers would assemble in the treetops at a relatively safe distance ahead of, and on either side of, the army column. Their task was to shoot as many of the enemy as possible while gradually retreating to the village proper.
When army scouts had informed Bergados of the breastworks, he had laughed. "They're trying to keep us out, of course. But wait till the catapults start firing at them. The breastworks will keep them in! What fools they are!"
But allowances had been made for every contingency. At Xena's suggestion, Eponin instructed that enough additional canoes and rafts be made to handle every single person in the village. If the battle turned against them, they would be able to flee downriver to save themselves. Gotta hand it to the Princess; she thinks of everything. And that idea with the catapults is absolutely wicked! Eponin's mouth curled into a sinister smile in anticipation of the retribution about to descend on the invading army.
The weapons master stepped into the healer's hut, looking for Claris. Seated at her worktable grinding herbs, the healer looked up and smiled a greeting.
Eponin walked over and sat next to her for a moment of peace. "You all set, Claris?"
Claris let go of the mortar, laid down the pestle and turned to face her friend. "Ready as I'll ever be, Pony. We've been preparing for weeks now. I have Rhea and three other helpers standing by. A couple of people came in awhile ago for some headache powders, but everybody seems to be itching to fight. How about you? You all set?"
Rubbing her jaw to release some of the tension that threatened to freeze her face forever, Eponin answered. "Yeah, we're set. Xena sent word that Bergados thinks his flanking army is arriving tomorrow. But it's coming today and her force is attacking it--with their own catapults! She said to be ready, because when Bergados sees the catapults in action, he's going to get wise to the fact that his message was a phony and he will probably mount an attack as soon as he can."
"So, today's the day?"
"Looks that way."
Claris could see that Eponin was as tight as stretched wire. She reached over and patted her on the arm. "You'll be OK. With you leading one force and Xena in charge of the other, those armies don't stand a chance!"
The weapons master grinned wryly. "I sure hope and pray to Artemis that you are right. I gotta go." Pushing herself up and striding to the door, Eponin hesitated for a moment before walking back out to face her heavy responsibilities. Drawing herself taller and sucking in her breath, she walked out into the Village Square, proud to be an Amazon. And, as Claris said, itching for a fight.
As she pulled into Fidalia's encampment, Xena's gaze swept the area, looking for a familiar golden head. She spied it next to the other queen's red hair and guided Argo in their direction. Dismounting, she nodded to Gabrielle's welcoming eyes and addressed Fidalia. "As soon as the birdcall comes, the barrage will start. Be ready to hit anything that makes it to this end of the pass."
As the Warrior Princess spoke, Gabrielle moved to her side. Xena could feel waves of apprehension pouring from her friend.
Fidalia nodded just once. "We will be there."
Xena looked up toward the mountain. "I'll be up with your archers to see how effective the catapults are, then I'll be back down in time to hit the center between you and Ephiny."
"Korminy is in charge up there," Fidalia informed Xena. "She's one of the best."
"I have no doubt," the warrior responded. She looked at the sun to check its progress. "We still have about an hour, so relax while you can."
"We'll do that... until the battle starts," Fidalia promised, her eyes glowing.
Xena slanted her cobalt-blue eyes down at Gabrielle. Raising one eyebrow and tilting her head, she murmured, "Come with me." She walked over to Argo. The golden warhorse nickered and hit the Warrior Princess in the chest with her head.
Xena laughed, put her arms around Argo's neck and hugged her. "What's wrong, girl? I rode you to Hades and back all morning and never thanked you?" She straightened up and patted the mare's neck. "You know there's a battle coming, don't you? You can sense it. Still the old warhorse, huh?" Argo's head moved up and down in perfect timing, as if she were saying yes.
Grinning, Xena mounted her and reached down for the bard. Puzzled, Gabrielle put an arm up and was hauled aboard. She threw her arms around Xena's waist as she turned Argo and proceeded to a secluded spot in the forest. The Warrior Princess threw her leg over the front of the saddle and jumped down, then turned and helped Gabrielle to the ground.
"Xena, what...?" That was as far as she got before her friend reached one long arm around her waist and the other arm down behind her knees and swept the bard up against her chest. Startled, Gabrielle threw her arms around Xena's neck. Xena marched over to a fallen tree and sat down on it, then settled Gabrielle onto her lap, wrapped her arms more securely around her and started to rock back and forth.
Perplexed, the bard rolled her eyes up to meet mischievous blue ones. "OK, I give up. What is going on?" she asked. "Not that I'm complaining, you understand. I'm just curious."
The Warrior Princess answered, quite seriously. "I just happened to remember that when I was a little girl and I was frightened, my mother would hold me on her lap and rock me. You kinda looked like you needed to be rocked."
"Sure, like you were ever frightened," the bard scoffed.
"Well, one time... when I was a reeeeeaaalll little girl, an earthquake shook the ground and I was scared. I ran into the inn and Mother held me on her lap and rocked me, and I felt safe." Xena's eyes smiled down into Gabrielle's. "I knew that I would have to go back outside... and maybe, someday, the ground would shake again, but right there, right then, in Mother's arms, I knew I was safe."
"But I'm a grown woman, Xena."
"I know that, and you know that, but your emotions aren't paying any attention to that at all. Emotions are tricky rascals; they're really tough to control. Take Ephiny, for example..."
"Ephiny would rather have you take her," Gabrielle interrupted impishly.
"Behave yourself," Xena snorted. She could feel the bard's tension loosening. "Ephiny would rather not turn red and embarrassed like she does, but she has trouble controlling that. Her emotions are controlling her. And it's the same thing with you. You don't want to be trembling inside, but you are."
"So how do I stop that?"
"I'm going to sit here and hold you and rock you till you feel safe."
"I do feel safe in your arms, Xena." Gabrielle snuggled her head down against the warrior's chest. "It's not me I'm afraid for; it's you."
Gabrielle could actually hear Xena's breath as it moved her chest up and down. She heard it catch as she finished her last sentence.
There was silence for several long minutes then Xena's low voice, roughened with her own emotion that she was having trouble controlling, nudged the silence aside. "You know the vision shows us both alive. That means we survive... at least till then."
Gabrielle was so struck by the irony of Xena's attempt to use the vision in a positive light that she didn't know whether to laugh or cry. In her confusion, she got flippant and mimicked the warrior's velvety voice. "Oh, Gabrielle, don't worry about today, we won't die until later!" Then she came back to her own dry tone. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
Against her cheek, Gabrielle felt Xena's heartbeat increase until it was thudding. And the warrior stopped rocking. The bard raised her head and pulled away to look at her friend. Xena's eyes were dark pools and her face seemed carved from stone. Gabrielle's heart suddenly felt like stone, too. I know how hard this damn vision has driven her and I still try to make a joke out of it. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Gabrielle took Xena's face between her hands and turned it toward her, but Xena's eyes wouldn't meet hers. "Xena," she said softly. "Xena, I'm sorry. That was a really, really stupid remark."
The Warrior Princess stood up abruptly and set Gabrielle on her feet. "I've got to get back. The barrage will be starting soon." Her voice was cold and flat.
Xena strode over to Argo. Gabrielle ran next to her and grabbed her arm. "Don't go away feeling like this, Xena, please. I've told you before, my tongue sometimes moves faster than my brain." She forced a smile, but the warrior didn't change expression. Actually, the fact that she hadn't yet mounted Argo gave the distressed bard some hope.
"You brought me here to help me and you were so sweet. Then I wind up hurting you." Gabrielle stood there slowly shaking her head in sorrowful disbelief. Then her face changed as an idea surfaced. She reached one arm behind Xena's waist and her other arm down behind Xena's knees and tugged several times, with no result.
Some light began to show in the dark pools. Xena's eyebrow twitched. "WHAT are you trying to do?"
"I want to pick you up and hold you in my arms and rock you until you feel safe," the bard explained, tugging and grunting. "You kinda look like you need to be rocked."
Xena reached for Gabrielle's lower arm and pulled her upright. The warrior's mouth twisted, fighting a grin, and the grin won. "C'mere," she said, her voice hoarse. She wound her arms around the smaller woman and drew her close.
Gabrielle sighed in relief and returned the embrace. "Sometimes, I really am a dope."
"Yeah, but you're my dope." Xena's still twisted lips curved into a broader smile and she kissed the bard's golden hair.
The two stood together for a long while until both hearts slowed down and beat in synchrony. Finally, Xena stepped back and her long fingers caressed Gabrielle's cheek. "I really do have to get back, or this war is going to go on without me."
Gabrielle's eyes crinkled. "That is an awfully tempting thought!" Then she stood on tiptoe and kissed Xena's cheek. "Take good care of the one I love most in all the world," she whispered.
"Always," the Warrior Princess pledged. Xena climbed on Argo and swung her friend up behind her. Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's waist and laid her head against the broad back. As they headed back to Fidalia's camp, she could feel the changeover that turned her friend back into the focused warlord. She knew that until the battle was over, her Xena would stay hidden.
Xena had been riding below the mountain ridge, out of sight of the army she could hear coming nearer through the pass below. She stopped, sensing the presence of another person, and dismounted. An Amazon dropped from a tree in front of her. "Korminy?" Xena reached her arm to the sturdy woman.
"How are you, Xena? Good to see you again." Months ago, Korminy had been with Mara when they had discovered Gabrielle wandering in the forest, her mind clouded by amnesia. The subsequent arrival of Xena, to find the bard, had introduced the Warrior Princess to Fidalia's Amazons.
"Good, thanks. You ready?"
"Ready and anxious," Korminy nodded and her eyes swept over to the figures marching toward them. "They're almost here." Her voice became animated in anticipation. She pulled an arrow from the stuffed quiver on her back and notched it in her bowstring.
Now! flashed through Xena's mind one-half of a second before a birdcall sounded clearly from across the pass. The Warrior Princess heard it being passed along the mountain. The sounds of the nearing army covered the last birdcall, but within a fraction of a minute, the first round from the catapults roared through the air and smashed into the soldiers below.
Four huge chunks of burning tree trunk struck men and earth. Bursting, bounding, bouncing and ricocheting, they crushed bones and flesh with wild abandon, painting everything they touched with fiery streaks of flame. Then came another round, and another and still another. Men and horses, alike, screamed and panicked.
Some tried to turn back, but those behind them forced them forward again as they scrambled to escape the rain of arrows that showered down upon them. Some men tried to escape up the mountainsides, but the arrows cut them down before they got far. Well-aimed bolts, shot from crossbows, quickly dispatched those officers foolhardy enough to expose their leadership qualities by trying to rally the men.
Watching the carnage from above, Xena silently applauded the near-perfect execution of orders performed by Shalene's band and Solari's and Korminy's archers. She tried to push from her mind the horror that the terrible destruction of human beings threatened to evoke in her. The stench of burning flesh, the screams, the panic... Scenes from her past broke through the surface of her mind, but she forcefully submerged them by an almost physical act of will that raised a fine sheen of sweat on her bronzed skin.
In the lull after the first wave from the catapults, the soldiers beat down the fire that was engulfing many of their cohorts, then haphazardly regrouped themselves as best they could. They proceeded forward again, just in time to be bombarded by the second series of shots, renewing their agonized suffering.
But, trained in blind obedience to orders, the survivors persisted, even though the continuous volleys of burning ammunition continued to decimate their ranks. By the time they had proceeded to a point where the catapults were no longer a danger, little more than a third of the army was still mobile.
After the third wave of shots, Xena went back down to the catapult site to join Shalene and prepare to meet what was left of the army when it reached the end of the pass. When she arrived, she informed the women of the effective devastation of their work and congratulated them. Then she directed Shalene, "Take several of these women over to the other site to guard it. You can keep a lookout from atop the bluff. I will join you, later. If there's a problem and I don't get there, you know what to do." The weapons master nodded.
Xena gathered the others together as Shalene picked several out and they went on their way. The rest mounted and awaited the signal from the Warrior Princess.
The remnants of the army charged out of the pass, their swords and pikes ready, expecting opposition. Retreat had been impossible as an unbroken torrent of arrows kept sweeping behind them, pushing them forward. They almost welcomed the sight of Amazons rushing at them from both sides. Here, at least, was an enemy they could engage in hand-to-hand battle, with the possibility of winning.
But then they heard the trilling yell of the Warrior Princess, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and saw her charging headlong toward them, twirling her huge sword. Those who recognized the yell cried her name, taking the heart out of many who knew of her prowess in battle. Still, unwilling to go down without a fight, they raised their weapons and converged on her.
Seeing this, both Ephiny and Fidalia urged their forces on and they lunged into the sides of the pack, forcing those soldiers to turn and defend themselves.
Xena charged into the thick of the battle, thinning the army with every swing of her blade. Some she kicked into oblivion as she passed them; others she skewered with their own pikes. She grabbed the long pikes with one hand, yanked them powerfully from startled fists, twirled them around and sunk them into the soldiers' chests.
Some, seeing this awesome display, threw their pikes down and pulled their swords, hoping for a better chance. A few lucky ones encountered the Amazons coming behind the warrior and got in a few hopeful sword thrusts before meeting their fate.
On either side of the pass, the Amazon forces, more comfortable fighting on foot, had left their horses behind. Ephiny had placed Elisa to the left edge of her squad and Gwynna to the right edge, with more seasoned women in between. But the ferocity with which the two young Amazons fought was evidenced by the fact that the two edges of Ephiny's group made the quickest headway into and through their opponents. "You gonna let those two youngsters show you up?" Ephiny yelled, inflaming her group into greater devastation. Elisa and Gwynna didn't have a clear view of each other, but the regent's hollered words told each of them their friend was OK and fighting well.
On the other side of the army, Fidalia's Amazons fought just as fiercely. The redheaded queen might have been joking about being worth 50 enemy soldiers, but she was a strong and fearless fighter, and so was her sister, Mara. Tirelessly slashing and thrusting, together they cut a swath through the luckless soldiers. Their Amazons, fighting just as fiercely alongside and behind them, more than held their own; they destroyed a huge segment of the enemy.
Gabrielle did her part, too, running constantly to the aid of anyone who was temporarily outnumbered. Her staff smashed into heads, knees, chests and necks as she evened the odds.
As the battle wore on, the Warrior Princess dismounted, freeing Argo to escape from the fray. With sword grasped in one hand and chakram in the other, she soon enlightened those who thought she would be easier prey afoot. With another yell, "Yiyiyiyiyiyyi," she jumped in the air, knees bent, then thrust her feet forward under two chins with such strength that the fastened helmets broke their moorings and flew off the heads of their badly wounded owners.
Unknown to Gabrielle, as she swung, thrust, jumped, ducked, and cross-hit, she moved ever closer to Mundicles, the army's leader. The craven man was at the rear of his soldiers, expecting them to defend him from the onslaught. But the remnant of his army was disappearing before his eyes. Everywhere he looked, Amazons moved forward and his men fell. And here, before him was a golden-haired woman helping to take apart his vaunted force with a... a staff? A crazed light flared in the warlord's eyes and he silently rushed at Gabrielle as, her back turned to the warlord, she was engaged in a fight for her life with two sword-wielding soldiers.
At almost this same moment, Fidalia had just laid out two soldiers when a third, behind her, thrust his pike at her with both hands. She turned and hit the pole with her sword, ruining his aim at her chest but his strong hold kept the weapon in line with her body and it ripped into her thigh, spraying blood. She went down with a thud, hitting her head on the ground and losing consciousness.
Mara, wild-eyed with distress, thrust her sword downward into her sister's attacker with such force that it stuck in his hipbone and she struggled to pull it out. Taking quick advantage of her distraction, a soldier ran at her with his sword poised to end her life.
Elisa, who's peripheral vision was extraordinary even in the heat of battle, saw Gabrielle's jeopardy and fingered a knife lying against her back. But the bard's body loomed between Elisa and Mundicles. Frustrated, the young Amazon hurriedly flipped over the soldier she had just perforated, trying to enhance her position to get a clear shot.
Gwynna, too, was just finishing a kill when she caught sight of Mara's difficulties. Knowing she was too far away to offer immediate help, she nevertheless started running toward the dark-haired Amazon.
Xena, with her remarkable battle sense, saw the peril of both women. She was halfway between the two, but able to move to only one of them. Gabrielle or Mara? Her speeded up brain, in an infinitesimal part of a second, assimilated the situation, the possible solutions and the necessary actions. But logic didn't make the final decision; love did.
She drew her left arm back and, with all her might, cast her chakram at Mara's assailant. Taking two mighty leaps, she yelled her battlecry, "Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi," and jumped high into the air in a tremendous flip, landing with a ground-shaking thud between Gabrielle and Mundicles.
The Warrior Princess thrust her sword beneath that of the warlord, locking hilts with him. With a mighty heave, she flung her arm up and twisted her wrist, sending Mundicles' sword flying into the air. Xena's arm reached a peak and immediately swooped back down and sideways, beheading Mundicles before he even had a chance to react.
A terrible, "Nooooo," behind her, made her swing her head swiftly toward the bard, then just as swiftly toward the spot where Gabrielle's mist-green eyes were aimed. Both women broke into a run.
Xena's chakram had sliced through the air like hot iron through grease. Nothing would deny it its target. The round disk buried itself halfway into the soldier's chest and Gabrielle and Gwynna both began a breath of relief. A breath that was shortened and transformed into a cry by a grotesque turn of fate.
Just as the dying soldier began to fall backwards from the impact of the chakram's hit, a careening horse banged into his back, sending him abruptly forward and causing his sword to bury itself into the soft flesh of Mara's torso. The Amazon went to her knees, then rolled to the side, off of the sword, and fell over.
Xena reached her first. She quickly knelt beside the fallen Amazon and examined the wound. Mara groaned and the Warrior Princess slipped an arm under her shoulders and gently turned her so she faced up. Dark blue eyes looked up into crystal blue as Gabrielle arrived, followed by Gwynna, then Elisa. The two young Amazons took up protective stances near the site, but the battle was winding down.
The look in Xena's eyes answered Mara's questioning gaze. The warrior spoke the words in her velvety soft voice, "I can't help you, Mara. I'm sorry."
"Then, please, help my sister," Mara struggled to say. Xena nodded and slid aside, handing Mara into Gabrielle's arms. The bard, welling tears threatening to roll down her cheeks, caressed the Amazon's hair and face with her hand.
The Warrior Princess had moved to Fidalia and was inspecting her wounds. The still unconscious queen's head carried only a bump, but her thigh wound was deep and steadily bleeding. Xena looked toward Gabrielle and nodded at the pouch the bard constantly carried into battle. Slipping the strap from her shoulder and over her head, Gabrielle tossed the pouch to Xena.
"How's Fidalia?" Mara questioned anxiously, holding her face stern to mask her pain.
"She's doing OK," Gabrielle soothed. "Xena's taking care of her now. She'll be all right."
The Warrior Princess found needle and gut string. She enlisted the aid of one of the Amazons who had gathered around their fallen queen and, while the Amazon held Fidalia's thigh, Xena started deep inside and gradually sewed together the wound.
"Gabrielle." Mara grasped the bard's arm. "Fidalia's going to be really upset about this, you know?" Dark blue eyes, filled with concern for her sister, tugged at the bard's heart. "She's always tried to keep me out of danger. She didn't want me to come... wanted me to stay home and be safe. I told her a thousand times that I'm a big girl now, but that didn't matter. To her I was always the little sister she loved and felt she should protect."
With a jolt, Gabrielle recognized a mirror of Xena's actions toward her. How would Xena feel if this were me lying here? Her hand stopped at Mara's cheek and she bent down and kissed the Amazon's forehead.
Mara's voice gradually weakened. "I kidded her that nothing could hurt me with her by my side, she wouldn't let it... she said I have a lot to learn... no one is invincible. Said someday I might learn the hard way." Mara struggled for a breath. "She was right, you know?" A tiny smile turned her lips up. "She's always right."
These words clanged through Gabrielle's brain, seeming to ricochet against her skull. Learn the hard way. Learn the hard way.
One of the Amazons completed the bandaging while Xena returned to Gabrielle's side. She took one look at the bard's face then squatted down and put a long arm across her shoulders.
Elisa had retrieved the chakram from the chest of Mara's assailant. She cleaned the weapon and handed it to the Warrior Princess as she hunkered down next to Gabrielle. Xena tore her eyes from the dying Mara and looked up into smoke-gray eyes shuttered in a stony face. Aw, Leese, even good warriors die in battle. But there was a familiarity to that lack of expression that conveyed more than sorrow and something clicked in Xena's brain, to be examined later.
Mara's deep blue eyes closed for a moment, then reopened, slowly refocusing on Gabrielle's face. "Tell her this wasn't her fault... not to blame herself."
"I will, Mara. I'll help her." Gabrielle swallowed hard against the cry that fought to come from her throat.
The dark-haired woman's hawk-like face softened even more and she smiled at the bard. "Can't think of anyone else whose arms I'd rather die in," she whispered. Her hand dropped away from the bard.
Gabrielle's tears overflowed. She had to sniffle several times before she could talk. "I'm really glad we met, Mara. I just wish we had had more time to spend together."
"Me, too," the Amazon answered. "Tell Fidalia I love her." The light in her eyes dimmed, then faded away. The bard tenderly smoothed her palm down across Mara's eyes, closing the lids forever. Then she just sat there for awhile, holding her close, with Xena's comforting arm draped around her.
But the Warrior Princess didn't feel very comfortable. Berating herself for Mara's death, she went over and over that split second of decision, when she chose to go to Gabrielle rather than to Mara. If I had thrown the chakram at Mundicles, and flipped to Mara, she would still be alive. Was I right to choose Gabrielle? I knew Gabrielle would live, the vision showed me that. Why did I go to Gabrielle instead of Mara? Why?
But, of course, she knew why. That's where the guilt was coming from. Never mind that there was no clear choice of right and wrong, or that an errant horse had changed the outcome; the decision had been made with her heart instead of her head. So, the weight of guilt the Warrior Princess always carried became even heavier.
A scout came riding hard into Bergados' camp and pulled up by the command tent. Escorted at once into the tent, he proceeded with his report. Bergados had been seated at his table, finishing a mug of ale. The scout's news caused the commander to jump to his feet.
"What? You saw catapult fire? That's impossible! Mundicles won't be here until tomorrow." He strode back and forth, trying to adjust this news to the message he had received yesterday. "Where did you see it?"
"North of here, sir. Looked like over near the pass."
Bergados shuffled through the scrolls lying on the table until he found the one he wanted. Laying if out flat, he ran his finger over the portion of writing that gave the time of arrival for Mundicles' army. Cursing, he grabbed the scroll and took it to the opening of the tent where he examined it under the sun's light.
"It's been changed," he muttered. Then when the full meaning of this deceit struck him, he screamed, "IT'S BEEN CHANGED!" It didn't take Bergados long to realize that the "someone" who had sent him the adulterated scroll was attacking Mundicles' army, seemingly with their own catapults. In a rage at this totally unforeseen change of events, Bergados sent one man to round up his lieutenants and another to send a scouting party toward the battle in progress.
As soon as the lieutenants gathered, Bergados gave them the news and told them to prepare the army to move out. "I'm not going to let the Amazon territory slip through our fingers, now. Mundicles can fight his own battle, then come join us when he gets through. We're going to go ahead with our assault of the Amazon village."
"Are we waiting till the scouting party returns with information about who is battling Mundicles?"
"I don't see any need to wait any longer!" Bergados hit the table with his fist. "By the gods, we've got three hundred men! We've had no reports of any other army in the vicinity. It must be Amazons and, if that's the case, they've weakened their village's defense, making this a perfect time to strike. But we must strike in a hurry and take advantage of the situation. Get moving!"
The lieutenants rushed out and initiated preparations to leave. Within the hour, all were ready and the army moved out.
There were many birds in the forest, but the call that was relayed to the Amazon village came from a human throat. As soon as the call was received, Eponin sent a messenger to Xena.
Fidalia's Amazons, now in Korminy's charge, had built a litter and placed both sisters on it, with Mara's body wrapped and tied in a light shroud. Hooked to Mara's horse, the litter would be carried to the nearby Amazon village as soon as Bergados' army was stopped. Similar treatment was accorded the other wounded. Though some of the wounds were very serious, Mara's death was the only one suffered by Fidalia's group and Ephiny's band lost just three.
Gabrielle stayed to assist Korminy in getting her Amazons in place next to Ephiny's, to ride to the next battle site. Xena had left earlier to meet Shalene.
As the Warrior Princess came to the site and dismounted, Eponin's messenger found her and informed Xena that Bergados' army was on the move. "Great," she answered. "Tell Eponin that the other army was destroyed. Just about the time Bergados reaches the village, the rest of the Amazons will be attacking his flank." Xena turned about and swung her arm indicating the nine catapults standing in three rows next to her. "And tell her as soon as we hear from her, we'll start firing these."
The messenger's eyes lit up and a wide grin appeared. "I'll be happy to tell her everything, Xena!"
The warrior nodded. "She knows the plan, this is just confirmation. Be careful going back, Bergados may have sent some soldiers this way to find out whats going on."
"I will, Xena, thanks." The Amazon left.
The Warrior Princess walked over to Shalene, who, again, had her force ready for their task. "Good job, Shalene."
The weapons master dipped her head in acknowledgement. "How'd the fighting go?" she inquired. "Looks like we won."
Xena gauged Shalene with her eyes. "Yeah, we won, but at a price. Fidalia and Mara both got hit pretty bad."
Shalene's head jerked back and her eyes flew wide. "How are they? What happened?"
"Fidalia took a pike in her thigh. It's a bad wound, but she should recover. When she went down, Mara jumped in to save her and got hit in the back with a sword thrust." Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I couldn't save her."
The news staggered the weapons master. She put her hand against a tree to steady herself and looked away, blinking rapidly. A lone tear moved down her cheek and she impatiently flicked it away. "I grew up with Mara," she said softly. "We've been great friends."
"She fought well and died a warrior's death, defending her sister." Xena praised her.
The blonde Amazon nodded as sorrow pooled in her hazel eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, but the warrior threw up one hand and with the other held a finger to her own lips, shushing Shalene.
"Someone's coming," Xena whispered and motioned Shalene to step back into the trees with her. A birdcall sounded from the bluff overlooking the waiting catapults. Both women drew their swords as eight soldiers crept into view through the trees.
From the corner of her eye, Shalene saw the Warrior Princess cock her arm and let her chakram fly. Ricocheting through the trees, it cut down two of the intruders without a sound other than the hiss of its flight. Xena followed right behind it and Shalene hurried to join her.
With a powerful leap, Xena hit the leader of the group in the chest, smashing him into a tree with tremendous force. She flipped off of his chest, rising higher into the air and came down with booted feet on the backs of the necks of two others, the loud double crack signaling their fates. Turning swiftly, she observed that Shalene had disposed of one soldier and was clashing with the last two.
The warrior leaned her sword on her shoulder and strolled over to watch. The weapons master thrust and parried expertly. One soldier shoved his sword at her with arrogant abandon and she stepped nimbly out of the way and sliced through his side as he went past her. The second lifted his arm high and attempted to hit her with a down stroke from behind. She threw her sword up above her head to block his, pulled a dagger from her belt and swung around viciously, tearing open his stomach, just below his armor.
With red-hot rage driving her, the Amazon rushed over to the soldier whom Xena had kicked against the tree. He had slid down the trunk and sat neatly on the ground, his upper body leaning against the tree as though in repose. Shalene drew back her sword with both hands and swung with all her might at his exposed neck, decapitating him.
She had to put a boot against the tree to tug her sword free from the trunk.
Xena walked into her view, then came over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "I think he was already dead." She looked at Shalene with understanding eyes. She knew the tension shuddering through the weapons master's form came from rage at the death of her friend.
After a moment, the blonde Amazon calmed down and her hazel eyes came up to meet Xena's silvery blue. "Yeah, I knew he probably was, but I wanted to be sure every one of those bastards was dead." She knew from Xena's look, warrior to warrior, that she was aware of Shalene's feelings, and had stood aside, allowing her a chance to vent them.
"Thanks for saving some for me," she said with a small, wry grin.
"No problem." Xena released Shalene's shoulder, made a fist and tapped her arm lightly with it. "Lots more where those came from. So, maybe we better do something about that, huh?"
"Sure thing," Shalene answered, the grin widening and becoming feral. "Soon as we get the word from Eponin, we start shooting. How effective do you think it will be? The pass was more like pasture. There are lots more trees here."
Xena nodded. "May not do as much damage right off, but when those burning logs hit a solid tree trunk, they will spew all over anything near. So just keep firing as fast as you can, and they'll feel it, all right. Eponin has breastworks all around the village so that should slow them up enough to take some heavy hits. Her signal will come as soon as her archers are out of the trees in that area."
Xena whistled for Argo and mounted her. "Korminy's leading your Amazons. I'm joining them and Ephiny's and we'll be hitting the army's flank. You just keep firing till you hear from one of us." She turned to go.
"Xena," Shalene called and the warrior looked back, eyebrows raised.
"Take some down for Mara," the weapons master growled.
The Warrior Princess' face hardened. "You bet," she promised hoarsely, then galloped away to meet up with the Amazons already heading toward the village.
Eponin watched as the last of the archers filtered from the trees, back into the village. She had already received a report of the extensive damage they had been able to inflict on Bergados' army. The men had come through the trees in a solid phalanx, much as they would have on open ground. Bergados, aware of the breastworks, planned to hit one long section with his heaviest concentration of soldiers. His strategy was based on the belief that if one section were breached, his army could flow through it into the village, easily overcoming the Amazons within.
His strategy was sound, but this concentration of his forces played right into the hands of the archers and the catapulters. With the men bunched so closely, the archers couldn't miss. The women had been organized into three waves. One wave fired and moved to the rear, then the next wave and so on, keeping a constant torrent of arrows raining down on the army even as the women retreated to the Amazon village. As soon as the last archer dropped into the compound, Eponin sent a birdcall which was quickly relayed to Shalene's group, reaching her just moments after Xena left. The barrage started immediately.
In the village, every Amazon who was capable of using a bow was lined up behind the third row of breastworks. The ground sloped up slightly toward the village at this point, giving the Amazons clear shots at their targets, while making forward progress difficult for the soldiers. They kept up a steady attack, firing easily at the soldiers who had reached the first ramparts.
Suddenly, fiery logs flew through the sky, landing amidst the large block of soldiers. Again, Shalene had her people firing in sequence, barely giving respite to the startled and panicky soldiers. Just as Xena had predicted, the burning shards that resulted when the dried logs hit anything solid flew every which way, spreading havoc and death.
Between the archers and the catapults, Bergados lost more than half of his army before he was able to get them moving to their left, closer to the catapults, but not in their current field of fire.
Just as he thought they finally had a chance to work on getting past the ramparts and into the village, a ululating battlecry made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. An audible groan sounded from his troops who turned to their left to meet this latest challenge.
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Korminy rode together down the trail, at the head of the Amazons. Everyone's spirits lifted to another level when Xena pulled Argo in beside the bard. Her silvery-blue warlord eyes flicked a smile at her friend, then checked in with Ephiny and Korminy.
Gabrielle always felt an odd mixture of apprehension and admiration for Xena's warlord persona. Look at her. Power comes off her in such a strong wave, I feel I can almost touch it. And she is so focused! And scary. And even more beautiful.
That was a new and rather startling thought for the bard, who already knew Xena was beautiful. But why do I think she's even more beautiful? She turned it over in her mind, examining it. I think it has something to do with the combination of power... and self-confidence... and, yes, even a touch of arrogance. It seems to light some kind of fire in her that everyone sees. And seeing it, they recognize that she is exceptional.
Gabrielle smiled just a little and glanced over at her partner to double-check her conclusion. Sensing the bard's interest, Xena swiveled her head and eyes toward her friend, smiled briefly, then turned forward again. Her eyes are gleaming, her face is glowing, her whole being sings. Yep, she is exceptional. And... even more beautiful.
Elisa rode up next to Ephiny who turned toward her. "Gwynna and I want to stay close to Gabrielle. Is that all right with you?"
The young Amazon's surly tone surprised the regent, but she had no quarrel with Elisa's request. Before, when the forces were separate, she felt she needed to keep the two youngsters with her, since they both were strong fighters. Now that they were all fighting as one group, it didn't matter. "Go ahead, Leese."
Elisa signaled Gwynna and the two of them dropped in behind the bard. Xena threw a quick glance back at Elisa and the two dark heads nodded.
The Amazon force could hear sounds of the battle as they neared the village. The catapults had been firing nonstop for about 30 minutes and there were shouts and screams coming from the area being showered with the fiery chunks of wood. Bergados had just succeeded in getting what was left of his army to move inside the range of the catapults when the flanking Amazons hit them.
"Yiyiyiyyiyiyiyi," screamed Xena as they thundered toward the side of the army, forcing them to try to turn to meet the charge. She swung her sword with enormous force, one hit serving to incapacitate each adversary. Judicious use of kicks kept others at bay until dispatched by a following Amazon. Soon, all the riders slipped from their mounts and engaged the men hand to hand.
Xena kept pushing forward, relying on Elisa to her left and Gwynna to her right to keep reasonably close to her, while Gabrielle watched her back. The Warrior Princess sliced and thrust, kicked and butted, elbowed and punched as the others finished off the ones she felled.
Both Ephiny's and Korminy's groups fought ferociously and under the withering assault, the enemy was being driven back. Eponin saw what was happening and made a quick decision. She left a small force defending the breastworks and sent the bulk of the Amazons out into the trees, some to again shoot arrows into what was now the rear of the army, and others to drop down and fight hand to hand with isolated pockets of men.
Finally, Xena caught up to Bergados. The others continued fighting, but she and the warlord stopped and faced each other. She smiled a feral challenge at him and twirled her sword. "Who are you?" he sneered, still not being sure of his opponent.
"My name is Xena," the warrior said.
"Xena. Yes, I've heard of you. I heard your army threw you out; made you walk the gauntlet and you quit fighting."
"Well, Bergados," he flinched, surprised that she knew his name, "you are a little behind the times. That was four years ago, and I didn't quit. I just changed sides. And... since we're not on the same side, I guess that means I have to get rid of you."
"Humph! Not if I get rid of you first." Bergados looked her up and down as though she were a piece of garbage.
Xena smiled. "I think you'll find that easier said than done."
Bergados leaped at her and she easily turned the thrust away. He came at her again and again, from different directions, but Xena foiled each attempt. "Just when are you going to start fighting?" she taunted him.
Apparently, Bergados had been feigning his lack of swordsmanship, just to feel out Xena's skills. He suddenly turned into an expert. And the ruse almost worked. He clanged his sword against Xena's and, with a strong twist, disarmed her. He thrust quickly at her and she managed to turn sideways, avoiding a solid hit, but taking a graze across her belly. She brought her elbow down hard against his ear as she swept away from him. Recovering, he feinted with his sword and, instead, delivered a roundhouse kick aimed at Xena's unarmored side.
The Warrior Princess leaned down into the kick, taking it on her shoulder, and grabbed Bergados' ankle as his foot bounced past her. Thrusting her powerful arm up into the air, she threw him into the dirt. When he hit the ground, she kicked his sword from his hand. He jumped up, grabbed a dagger from his boot and came at the warrior with his knife hand lowered, intending to slash upward into her stomach.
Xena thrust her left arm down and grabbed his wrist. Swinging her body around as she lifted his arm up high, she stuck her shoulder in his armpit, yanked his arm down and threw him away from her, onto the ground. He rolled over and came back at her, walking slowly and swinging the dagger back and forth in front of him, in a small arc. When he got close and reached the left end of his swing, the Warrior Princess grasped his wrist with both hands, twisted his arm and forced the dagger into his heart.
She stepped back and let his body fall with a thud at her feet, then walked over, retrieved her sword and rejoined the battle going on around her.
While Xena had been fighting Bergados, Gabrielle had moved over to work in tandem with Gwynna, who had lost her sword and reverted to using a staff, the weapon with which she was most proficient. With Elisa's help, they were intent on keeping the soldiers from assisting their leader by attacking Xena from behind.
Gabrielle stuck one soldier in the stomach, then hit him against his shoulder, staggering him over toward Gwynna. The blonde Amazon cracked her staff down across his neck, then turned toward two other men coming at her. She tucked one end of her staff beneath her arm, crouched down and made a complete circle. Her momentum brought her staff against their legs hard enough to upset them both, whereupon Gabrielle smacked their heads.
Turning, with an upsweep, the bard caught the next soldier in the groin, and as he stumbled toward Gwynna's retribution, Gabrielle came down with a mighty cross-hit against the side of another's head. She stuck her staff in the ground and, using it to hoist herself in the air, she booted another oncomer in the stomach, and Gwynna crunched him under the jaw with an upthrust.
Gabrielle hit the ground in time to duck a sword swing at her head, then backed quickly out of the way as Elisa stepped between them and smashed her sword through his chest.
With their leader gone, and the Amazons constantly forcing the soldiers back into the area being besieged by catapult fire, the army lost heart. What started as a retreat, turned into a rout. Xena sent a message to Shalene to halt the barrage, and as soon as it stopped, the Amazons pursued the army, taking out as many more as they possibly could without dispersing their own forces. There would be no danger from the few soldiers who had survived.
Finally, the fighting was over. Xena sent word to Shalene to bring her group in. Ephiny picked some Amazons to help their wounded sisters and gather any who had died defending their homes and friends. For now, their bodies would be washed, covered with a light cloth and laid in a special hut of honor, affording opportunity for relatives and friends to say their last goodbyes. Funeral pyres would be prepared for them tomorrow.
Xena and Gabrielle went to the healer's hut to help where they could. Claris especially welcomed Xena's fine sewing skill, and, as soon as the two had cleaned up a bit, she put them right to work. Gabrielle praised the women for their efforts and gave them an encouraging word as she cleaned and bandaged their wounds.
Though Fidalia was still unconscious, Claris said it probably stemmed more from loss of blood, and exhaustion, than from the bump on her head, and expected that she would awake as soon as her body had rested and replenished some of her blood loss.
Because the invaders had never reached the interior of the village, the cooks had been able to fix a normal dinner for both the local and the visiting Amazons. So, after the preliminary cleanup had been completed, Ephiny, Eponin, Shalene, Solari and Korminy handed the reins of command over to others and entered the dining hut, taking a much-deserved break. When Gabrielle and Xena had finished in the healer's hut, they joined the leaders who were assembled at a table, rehashing the battle as they ate.
No sooner had they finished eating than Gwynna approached. Apologizing for the interruption, she spoke to Xena and Gabrielle. "Can you come and talk to Leese? She chased me away and now she's out in the woods, slamming and slashing things. She's acting pretty scary."
Taking their leave, the two got up from the table and followed the young Amazon outside and into the forest. "What seems to be upsetting her, Gwynna?" asked Gabrielle.
The young woman frowned and shook her head. "I'm not really sure. She started acting really savage during the battle and afterwards she didn't seem to calm down. When I asked her what was wrong, she wouldn't explain; she just clammed up. You know what that's like, Gabrielle." In her agitation, Gwynna had forgotten that Xena was right behind her. A blush rose in her cheeks and she glanced back at the warrior. "Sorry," she mumbled.
Xena looked sympathetically at the girl and the corners of her lips tilted a bit. "No need to apologize for being right," she said softly. "Some of us have a little problem talking about our feelings."
Her partner's answer brought a gentle smile to the bard's lips.
Xena heard Elisa's movements ahead of them and raised her hand to stop the two fair-haired women. "Maybe you two better wait here while I talk to Leese," she suggested, and they nodded in agreement. "I'll give you a whistle when it's OK."
Elisa heard Xena approaching, and she stopped her furious slashing of trees and branches. A number of trunks had large chunks chopped out, from her powerful sword strokes against them. Xena stepped into her space and looked around. "Don't think we have to worry about an attack from any of these. Looks like you've taken pretty good care of them."
Elisa's jaw clenched and she gazed at the warrior with stormy gray eyes. "Don't laugh at me, Xena, I'm not in the mood for it." Her tone was flat, and harsh.
"OK." The Warrior Princess nodded. She could see Elisa's sword trembling from the girl's jittery state. "You want to tell me who it is you're killing?"
Elisa's hand tightened on her sword and her lip curled. "Ephiny!"
Xena's eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs. Ephiny? Ephiny split Leese and Gwynna apart in the battle at the pass, but that turned out OK. No reason to get this angry over that. Then what? Whoooaaaa, back up, Xena. What else did Ephiny do? She took Leese and Gwynna away from me...so they didn't get to guard Gabrielle...so I went to Gabrielle's rescue...and Mara died. And Leese thinks it's Ephiny's fault.
The eyebrows came down into a frown. "You think it's Ephiny's fault that Mara died." Xena wasn't asking a question, she was making a statement. "Leese, if it was anyone's fault, it was mine. Put the sword away and come over here and sit down." The warrior walked to a fallen tree trunk and sat on it.
Elisa hesitated, trying to make some sense out of Xena's remark that she was to blame. Finally, the girl sheathed her sword, moved to the trunk and sat beside the Warrior Princess. The cessation of her furious activity and the calming effect of Xena's quiet voice had soothed her enough that she was able to sit still.
The two women who looked so much alike--who were so much alike--sat together for a few minutes, not speaking, until Elisa's trembling had stopped.
At last, Xena spoke. "Who is Ephiny, Leese?"
Eyes straight ahead, Elisa's lips twisted and her jaw worked several times before she answered. "You know she's the regent."
"And what is she responsible for?"
An impatient breath sounded from the girl's nose. "I know what you're getting at, Xena. It was for the greater good that Ephiny kept me and Gwynna in her force. But there are plenty of other good fighters who would have done just as well. It's my job to watch the Queen!"
Knowing that Elisa had more to say, Xena waited.
"I don't feel right when Gabrielle is in a battle and I'm not right there, looking after her. It's like I have her name engraved on my heart, right under yours and Gwynna's." Both women turned and gazed at each other; troubled, storm-gray eyes entreated cobalt-blue ones. "You know how I feel, Xena. You put her name there."
Xena looked fondly at the earnest young Amazon. She patted Elisa's arm. "I know I did, Leese, and I believe I chose really, really well. You are loyal and steadfast and willing to give your life to protect Gabrielle. No one can ask for more than that." She glanced away for a moment, then brought her magnificent blue eyes back to her young friend.
"But Ephiny made the right choice, too. Had I been her, I would have done the same. She chose two of the nation's best fighters to help preserve that nation. You can't hate her for that."
Anguish wrung Elisa's voice from her throat. "But if I had been with Gabrielle, I could have taken care of Mundicles. Then you could have gone to Mara and Mara would still be alive."
"Think a minute, Leese. There's no way you can be certain that you would have survived to take care of Mundicles. Or that you would have been free at that very moment. I, on the other hand, was there and I was free. I had a choice to make about which one to go to, and I chose Gabrielle." Xena's eyes took on a haunted look. "Because of that choice, Mara died. So, I'm the one to blame, Leese, not Ephiny."
What Xena was "confessing" sank into Elisa's agitated thinking. She suddenly realized that Xena was carrying a tremendous load of guilt over what had happened to Mara, a guilt that puzzled Elisa.
"But, Xena, you had no way of knowing that a runaway horse would hit that soldier at the same time the chakram did."
The Warrior Princess bent forward and rested her elbows on her knees. Lowering her head, she forced her fingers across her forehead and back through her hair, then brought her hands together, fingers interlaced, and stared at them.
Xena's next words were low and strained. "Not too long ago, Leese, I had a vision of the future. Gabrielle was in it, and she was still alive. So, I knew that she wouldn't die today, but I didn't use that knowledge. I saw she was in danger and I went to her."
When Elisa saw the tortured look that twisted Xena's face, her anger washed completely away from her. Her heart went out to her friend and mentor.
"No, Xena, you had no real choice. You had to save Gabrielle. Everyone knows you are her ultimate protector. Her name is carved on your heart, too."
The Warrior Princess pursed her sculpted lips and stared even harder at her entwined fingers
Her ultimate protector? Yes, I am. My heart IS her heart and hers is mine. Leese is right; I had no real choice. I would do the same again, and again, and again. But I still feel guilty that I didn't save Mara; I guess I always will.
Xena reached over, grabbed Elisa's arm and gave it a little shake. "Thanks, Leese." Then a wry grin appeared on the warrior's face. "I came here to help you and you wind up helping me."
"You OK, now?" Elisa's concerned voice queried. "Maybe Gabrielle can help you with this."
"No doubt about that," Xena agreed, her grin broadening. Then a thought occurred to her. "You know, Leese, maybe you should let Gwynna help you, too. Don't shove her away when you get so upset; give her a chance to help you cope with it. It's amazing what someone you love can accomplish."
"I was filled with so much anger, I didn't know how to handle it. I was afraid I might harm her."
"Even if you are raging at the whole world, you won't harm her. Trust yourself." You're not fighting the same demons I have to constantly subdue; but I swear I will never, ever harm Gabrielle again. "We learn to love and trust ourselves from others who love and trust us. Gabrielle is always there for me. I can't be there for you all the time, but Gwynna can. Gwynna even WANTS to be there for you all the time. Count your blessings."
The cloud-gray eyes cleared and Elisa slowly smiled. "I know you are right. Other times when I got really upset, Gwynna was able to calm me down, just by letting me know she stood beside me. From now on, when I start to lose control, she'll get first shot at bringing me back."
Xena stood up, followed by Elisa. "There are a couple friends of ours waiting for us." She whistled and Elisa's sharp hearing picked up Gabrielle's and Gwynna's incoming progress.
Gwynna broke through the trees, half running. She flew to Elisa, and fell into her open arms.
Gabrielle reached Xena's side and looked up at her tall partner. "You worked it out, huh?"
Xena threw an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, turned her around and started them toward the village. She smiled down at her bard. "I have many skills."
The golden-haired woman, eyes twinkling, slipped her arm around the waist of her imposing friend and gave her a squeeze. "You sure do."
Gabrielle and Xena stopped at the healer's hut as dusk arrived. On their way in, they passed several of Fidalia's Amazons standing by a litter. They entered and saw Shalene and Korminy visiting Fidalia, who had finally regained consciousness. Stopping at each bed to speak with its occupant, the warrior and the bard made their way toward the Amazon Queen. Finally, they reached Fidalia's bedside and offered their condolences to her.
Struggling to hold her composure, Fidalia thanked them for their kindness, then turned sad eyes on Xena. "You said you would bring us all home, Xena. We lost two women here in the village fight and... Mara... at the pass."
Standing next to the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle felt the tension swirl through her friend's body and she leaped to her defense. "Xena did her best, Fidalia. Even she can't be everywhere. She came to my rescue, but she hit Mara's attacker dead-on with her chakram. Mara would have been saved if a runaway horse hadn't crashed into the man."
"Korminy told me about that." The Amazon Queen looked deeply into Xena's cobalt-blue eyes and saw a flicker of uneasiness. "Do you believe you did your best for Mara, Xena?"
The dark-haired warrior stood taller and squared her shoulders. "I can't say I did my best to save your sister. Had I gone to Mara, she would still be alive. Instead, I chose to go to Gabrielle."
Cinnamon-brown eyes gazed steadily into cobalt-blue eyes for a long, tense moment. Silent messages of grief, accusation, guilt and, finally, understanding, passed between the two powerful women. Fidalia nodded slowly and offered her arm to Xena. "I'll accept that."
The Warrior Princess relaxed and clasped Fidalia's arm as expelled breaths sounded from the others.
An Amazon came in and whispered into Shalene's ear and she answered her. The weapons master spoke up. "Fidalia, all of our women have finished paying their respects to our fallen comrades, and are preparing to retire. We'll be able to take you there now, and you can visit with some privacy."
Several Amazons came in with a litter. Fidalia's face clouded. "I'm not going over there on a litter. I'm walking over." Shalene and Korminy both opened their mouths to protest, but Fidalia forestalled them. "Bring me my clothes."
The queen pushed herself to a sitting position, but when she swung her legs to the floor, she gasped with pain. Xena took one look at her pale, sweating face and said softly, "Fidalia, you're not walking anywhere tonight."
"You're not in charge of me, Xena," the grieving woman responded crossly. "Keep out of my way."
Shalene and Korminy exchanged startled glances. Their eyes swerved quickly to the Warrior Princess, but she seemed to be in perfect control.
The redheaded queen put both hands flat on the cot next to her thighs, intending to push herself up. Xena reached an arm toward her and pressed her forefinger down firmly against Fidalia's right shoulder.
The queen, even more determined to show that she was able to rise, pushed down as hard as she could against the cot. Several tries later, her body still hadn't moved.
Finally, she batted Xena's arm away and glared up into two perfectly innocent looking blue eyes, locking them with hers. For a short time there was absolute silence in the room, then Fidalia screwed up her mouth and blew a strong puff of air through her nose. The glare softened and the twisted mouth gradually settled into a wry grin. "I think I'll use the litter tonight."
"Good choice. And just think, you don't have to change your clothes." Xena leaned forward. "Put your arms around my neck." Fidalia did, and the Warrior Princess straightened up, pulling the queen up with her. She reached one arm behind Fidalia's back, reached behind her knees with the other, and picked her up. Fidalia sucked in an astonished breath as Xena swung around and gently laid her on the litter. She swung back, pulled a blanket from the bed, and covered Fidalia with it.
Fidalia looked up at Xena and Gabrielle. "I'll see you tomorrow at the service." The two nodded and the Amazons carried Fidalia out.
"Xena, Claris is over at the mixing table, taking a break. Let's go ask her about what was wrong with you that Artemis sent the potion for." The two walked over to the healer who gave them a tired smile.
Gabrielle initiated the conversation. "Claris, there's something I want to ask you that I am really, really curious about. When Xena was ill and you brought her that potion from Artemis, what do you think was wrong with her?"
The healer glanced up at a healthy Warrior Princess and her smile broadened. She turned back to answer the queen. "I'm not absolutely sure, but I think maybe Xena had lost too much blood, too many times and too close together."
She looked again at the warrior. "Even your wonderful healing powers were overcome, Xena. The herbs that Artemis chose led me to believe that it was a blood problem. She picked the ones I would have treated such a condition with, then added some more to build a body's strength back up. Plus, she went out hunting then came back with some special elixir to add to the mixture. I have no idea what that was, but you scared the Tartarus out of me, Xena, with your reaction to the potion. I thought you were going to die!"
A humorless grin tilted Xena's lips. "So did I. I think Artemis felt I owed her a price for saving my life and the pain was my payment."
That thought sobered both Claris and Gabrielle and they gazed sorrowfully at the warrior.
"Hey, don't look so sad, I'm here, aren't I?" Xena clapped Claris on the shoulder and gave Gabrielle a quick squeeze with her other arm. "Thanks, Claris, for your help. I owe you one." She looked down at the bard, "I think it's time we turned in. Tomorrow's going to be a long day for all of us."
Claris smiled at the two women. "I was glad to help you, Xena. You don't owe me anything. I'll see you two tomorrow. Goodnight."
The Warrior Princess and the bard said goodnight and walked out of the hut, together.
Xena was right; the next day was a long one.
First, Gabrielle spoke to Ephiny about the food needed by Fidalia's tribe, and the regent picked several women to gather the necessary provisions and pack them on wagons for the trip to Fidalia's village. The northern group of Amazons would be leaving the next morning to return home, and the provisions would go with them.
Then, Ephiny singled two more groups out. One contingent of Amazons went to the pass to dig a common burial pit for the dead soldiers. Another contingent handled the same grim duty near the village. Bodies were stacked on wagons, trundled to the pits and dropped into a heap on the ground next to the hole. Several women lifted the bodies, one by one, and laid them neatly in the pit, next to each other, for row after row. There were so many dead, it took hours to clear them all from where they had fallen.
Although Gabrielle had insisted that Xena did not have to help, the Warrior Princess stood in the pit near the village all day, placing the bodies in order. Gabrielle wondered if something in her warlord background drove her to pay this homage to the fallen soldiers. Maybe it helped her assuage the guilt she carried for having sent so many others to their deaths in her brutal past. Whatever her motivation, Gabrielle soon learned to get out of her way and let her do her thing.
Finally, the burial was completed, supper was over, and it was time for the funerals for the fallen Amazons. The funeral pyres had been built and the service was about to start. Xena and Gabrielle were standing with the assembled Amazons, waiting for Fidalia to be brought, when shouts were heard from the healer's hut, and Rhea, the assistant healer, came running up to Xena.
"Xena, Claris asks that you come, right away! It's Fidalia. She's..." Rhea stopped, because Xena was already halfway to the hut.
The Warrior Princess bounded into the hut, into the middle of a shouting match. "You are NOT taking me out of here on a litter today!" Fidalia's heavy voice seemed to shake the walls themselves. She threw her muscular arms wide, staggering Shalene and Korminy who were trying to grab them.
Claris, red-faced, was yelling back. "You want to go to your sister's funeral? That's the only way we can get you there! So, relax, and let us help you!"
"What in Tartarus is going on here?" At the sound of Xena's firm voice, everyone froze and their eyes swept swiftly to her imposing form. She strode to the side of the bed, put her hands on her hips and glared at each of them in turn, her intense blue eyes finally coming to rest on Fidalia's.
Several women started talking all at once, but stopped in mid sentence when the Warrior Princess raised her hand for silence. Her eyes hadn't left Fidalia's and she nodded at the Amazon Queen.
Fidalia had been seething, but she struggled to compose herself. "I got dressed so I can walk to Mara's funeral. Next thing I know Claris is telling me I have to go on a litter and Shalene and Korminy agree with her. So, now what? Did they come running after you to stop me like you did last night?"
Claris stood across the bed from the warrior and Xena's eyes raised to meet her. An eyebrow crooked up. "Xena, Fidalia's a large woman. She's unable to even stand on that leg, let alone walk on it. The only other alternative would be for a couple of Amazons to walk on either side of her, supporting her weight. But she doesn't want that either. She thinks she can make it by herself."
"I'm an Amazon Queen, damn it. I'm not going out to my sister's funeral looking weak!"
Xena's eyes locked on Fidalia's. The two women stared at each other, one stern faced, one belligerent. An unspoken message passed between them. It's a matter of pride with Fidalia. The gods know I can relate to that!
"Shalene." The weapons master, hearing the note of command in Xena's voice, unconsciously stood at attention. "Hand me that staff behind you."
Shalene reached back, got the staff and handed it to the warrior. Xena, in turn, handed it to Fidalia. "Stand up, Fidalia."
The queen grabbed the staff with both hands and hoisted herself upright in front of the Warrior Princess. Xena moved to the side of the injured leg and slipped her right forearm under Fidalia's left. "Rest this arm in mine and keep it stiff. Now lean on me instead of on your leg and plant that staff solidly on the ground for balance."
Fidalia did as Xena directed. The warrior lifted up on Fidalia's forearm, taking the place of the injured leg and freeing her good leg for a step forward. Then Fidalia balanced between Xena's arm and the staff, and swung the injured leg up even with the other, never letting it touch the ground.
By the time they reached the door, Fidalia had caught the proper rhythm and was walking with scarcely a limp. The other women gaped at them, open mouthed, then recovered and fell in line behind them.
Xena slanted her cobalt-blue eyes down toward Fidalia. "How's that, my Queen?"
Fidalia looked up and caught the full force of that captivating gaze. Now I understand Ephiny's discomfort. Poor regent! "This is perfect, Xena. Thanks." Fidalia's eyes conveyed her gratitude.
The two women walked in a stately manner to the pyres. Gabrielle joined them and Shalene and Korminy lined up behind their queen. Fidalia's Amazons had already assembled. As soon as the two queens were present, the funeral service began.
Fidalia remained stoic throughout the service, but when the pyres were lit and Ephiny's sweet voice lifted in the dirge, Xena felt a tremor shoot through the redheaded woman's body. Xena shifted Fidalia's forearm into her left hand and reached across the queen's broad back to grasp her shoulder in solace.
Tears glistened in the eyes of the Warrior Princess as she fought the grief sown by the guilt of which only she and Elisa were aware.
Gabrielle was crying for Mara, but, sensing Xena's sorrow, she put her arm around her friend's waist and her soothing touch helped to tame the warrior's turmoil.
The three stood together for a long while after the other Amazons had been dismissed. Silent tears streamed down the queen's face as they finally made their way back to the healer's hut. Xena helped Fidalia to her bed and turned to leave. "Xena." Fidalia grabbed Xena's hand and the Warrior Princess looked back at her.
Fidalia's voice was hoarse from her crying. "Stop blaming yourself. If you feel there's something that needs forgiven, then I forgive you. I know Mara would, too."
Xena pushed her lips tight together then opened them. "Thanks, Fidalia." But how do I forgive myself?
Gabrielle put her arm through Xena's and led the Warrior Princess back to the Queen's hut. They entered and prepared for bed. When they both had washed and were dressed in clean shifts, Xena, as she often did, sat crosswise on her bed with her back against the wall and her feet propped on the table's crossbeam, watching Gabrielle eat a piece of fruit from the basket on the table.
Mara will never eat a piece of fruit again. The thought rose unbidden in Xena's mind and shot a fleeting look of guilt across her face that she was too tired to mask. Gabrielle was just finishing her last bite when she saw the look flash by.
"Xena, what's wrong?" Gabrielle crawled onto the bed and sat next to Xena, slipping an arm around her waist as Xena laid an arm across her shoulders.
The warrior was too tired to pretend. "I knew you wouldn't die; I should have saved Mara."
"Xena, you can't keep feeling guilty about that. No matter how much you wanted to save both Mara and me, you just weren't able to do it. Remember how you kept telling me that you might not always be able to solve every problem, but I didn't really pay any attention? Now, I've learned the hard way what you meant."
"Sometimes we HAVE to learn the hard way, Gabrielle. And that applies to me, too." A wry grin came to Xena's lips. "My common sense tells me I can't solve everything, but still I think I should be able to."
"Now I understand better, too, your concern about the vision of our crucifixion." Gabrielle felt a quick shudder run through Xena's body. She hugged her friend tighter. "I'm sorry I've been so careless about your feelings."
The two women sat silently for awhile, each lost in her own thoughts.
Finally, Gabrielle sensed that Xena's eyes were closed and she removed her embrace with intentions of slipping away from her, to let her sleep. Xena's arm tightened around the bard. "Gabrielle..."
"What Xena?" She tilted her head back and looked up at the woman she loved most in all the world. Fatigue had, indeed, drawn the magnificent blue eyes closed and laid its finely threaded veil over the bronzed face.
"We saved the village, but it's been a really bad couple of days."
"Yeah, it sure has," the bard agreed, her own heart still heavy with loss.
"I want you to stay beside me tonight. I need... I just need..."
Gabrielle put her hand against her friend's lips. "I'll stay right here. For as long as you want me to. You want to lie down?"
The Warrior Princess slowly waggled her head. "No. I want to sit up, like this."
"For penance, huh?" Gabrielle asked with sudden insight.
"Yeah... penance." Something to help wash away this awful, awful guilt. If anything can.
The bard laid her head back down on the warrior's shoulder and slipped her arms back around her waist. But how can this be penance when we are in each other's arms? "Goodnight, Xena. I love you."
"Goodnight, my bard. I love you, too."
You look at me with trusting eyes,
So sure I have the key,
To save us from all perils
That endanger you and me.
You think that I will always have
The answers that need found.
You trust I'll be right by your side;
You know our souls are bound.
I want to keep you from all harm,
Forever guard your light;
But some things even I can't halt,
Or overcome with might.
You really do believe in me,
Perhaps too much, my bard.
To learn I'm human after all,
Could make your lesson hard.
That awful vision sears my soul,
And grieves my frantic brain;
My Gabrielle's nailed to a cross!
My heart screams out in pain.
But we will face the future's trials
As we have lived each day,
Still side by side, together bound,
Each on our destined way.
And if death comes upon that cross,
In spite of all I try,
One truth will transcend dreadful pain:
Our love will never die.
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