The Huns

by Eimajj
Eimajj@earthlink.net

Disclaimer:

All the characters except the Huns belong to MCA Universal. The story is mine and contains graphic violence including the death of children. There are sexual overtones although not graphically described. This tends to be a dark tale so readers beware. The story follows the events of A Mother’s Plea in time but it is not necessary to have read that story to understand this one.

This story is dedicated to my father who had Hun blood in him and proclaimed me a Hun at birth.

Comments are greatly appreciated, please send to Eimajj@earthlink.net

Prologue:

The spring sun warmed two travelers who crested a small hill and stopped to peer earnestly in all directions. The smaller of the two, an ash blond haired woman turned to her silent companion and shook her head.

"No sign of them anywhere, Xena." She turned to the golden palomino warhorse that accompanied them and pulled a waterskin from the horn on the saddle. She took a long swallow of cool water and wiped her month with the back of her hand.

Her tall beautifully muscular companion continued to study the terrain that stretched out before them with piercing cobalt blue eyes. Finally she turned and accepted the waterskin offered by her best friend. She wore the attire of a warrior: breast plate, gauntlets and leather with a large sword that hung over her back and a chakrum attached to her right side. She drank deeply and then returned the bag to the saddle horn.

"Guess it’s time to head north again, Gabrielle. We criss-crossed east and west pretty thoroughly."

"Maybe Ares was just joking about the Huns massing on the northern border. It could have been a trick to get you to agree to his terms."

Xena shook her head. "He doesn’t work that way. The god of war loves to keep his promises of death and destruction," bitterness coloring her low melodious voice. If anyone knew how Ares thinks and acts, it’s Xena, the dark souled warrior who followed his path as a war lord for ten long blood soaked years.

Gabrielle searched the cherished face beside her. "When we find the Huns, what will we do? How can we stop them?"

The warrior resumed scanning the horizon. "I don’t know. We’ll just have to find a way. If we tried to gather an army to fight them, we’d be annihilated. They are the best and most fierce warriors in the world. From horseback, they are almost unstoppable."

"You sound as if you admire them."

Xena turned back to her friend, "I do in a way. They are nomads that raid to survive. They conquer territory but move on and don’t really try to hold it. When they take a village, they capture the able bodied men and woman and sell them as slaves. The rest of the villagers, young and old or those who oppose them are executed. They do not torture or maim, just remove. They kill cleanly. All the village stores are sent back to the Hun family clans left behind and the village is burned to the ground."

"I don’t see anything to admire in a people that survive by murder and slavery," Gabrielle retorted angrily. She remembered many times as a little girl growing up in Poteidaia when villagers would warn their children the Huns would get them if they were bad. The Huns were something to be feared and hated.

They came like the plague to sweep death and destruction over the land and wipe out all civilized life in their path. Then like the ocean’s tide, they would recede only to reappear again at some future time when life had returned to normal.

"They are truly wonderful warriors and horseman," Xena patiently explained. "I admire their skills and the pragmatic logic they use. Once a village is destroyed, the old and young would die of hunger. The Huns are, in a sense, merciful by killing all that are left. They don’t particularly enjoy killing and are not pain worshippers or inflicters. They just live by their code. I don’t condone their life style but I do understand it."

"How do you…." Before Gabrielle could complete her sentence, Xena was suddenly in motion. She swung onto the back of the warhorse and pointed to the north. A thin column of smoke was rising over the trees in the far distance.

"I’ll meet you there. Gabrielle, if it is the Huns, stay hidden. Your staff would not protect you from their swords. Ya, Argo!" With that call, the warrior was off in a neck breaking gallop. The large warhorse flattened into a full run moving across the open fields and sailing over a fallen tree in their path. Gabrielle watched them turn into a smaller and smaller speck in the distance and then started after them in a dead run.

Chapter 1

The ride to the smoke’s origin had turned out to be a long and difficult trip through forests and meadows. At one point, Xena had run into a deep canyon that had required retracing her path. Frustrated and worried, she finally found the road which entered the smoldering village late in the day.

She pulled Argo up on the edge of the town and studied the landscape before her. It was deathly quiet. Her keen ears picked up no sound of wailing or injured people, no sound of animal life and even the birds were still as if afraid to sing. The village lay in smoky ruins with most of the thatched roofed structures only charred ashes. The smell of death and the start of decay hung in the air.

Bodies were scattered across the road and around the remains of the structures. They lay in twisted heaps like discarded rag dolls tossed around the blackened ruins. Xena slowly dismounted and began a search for survivors. She saw elderly men and woman laying motionless and cold, each face permanently etched in horror. Death had come with precision sword strokes and for the most part instantaneously. It was the children which clenched the jaw of the strong warrior and made her stop in dismay. The still little forms were also scattered about, some in the arms of their parents, others lying by themselves. All had been surgically executed. The warrior tightly pressed her eyes shut against the savage butchery as she took deep breaths trying to calm her churning stomach. In an instant, another village passed before her mind’s eyes. This one she saw from horseback with her own sword delivering the telling blows, bodies collapsing and blood spurting like miniature fountains.

A small sob escaped her tightened throat followed by a surge of white hot rage. She pulled down the protective steel curtain from her inner being, recognizing it as an old friend she hadn’t needed in a long time. With the walls firmly in place around her emotions, Xena coldly surveyed the surroundings. There was no sign of the destroyers of the village and its inhabitants. She stepped slowly and carefully around the dead but found no life anywhere. She knew that only the Huns could have devastated a village in such a fashion. She looked carefully at the ground and read the story imprinted there of the mounted warriors sweeping down on the unsuspecting. She saw no defenses and it appeared few were able to put up much of a struggle.

She followed the tracks to the other side of the village and across a small creek. It was clear a large group of warriors headed north and a smaller group of mounted soldiers moving people on foot headed to the west. Xena guessed they had several hours head start. She shook her head as she debated with herself and weighted alternatives. If she started now, she wouldn’t be able to catch up with the Huns and the villagers headed for slavery before dark. She could reach them the next day perhaps but then what? She knew the odds were against her of stopping the Hun guards by herself. She also recognized that the danger that lied to the north was more pressing and needed immediate attention. If the Huns were truly massing, then any day now they would sweep down the central valley and plain. No village in their path would be safe. Nothing could stop them till they reached Athens. It was not clear that the Athenian army would have any success against such ruthless and skilled warriors. The civilized world would be in ruin.

It was a terrible choice and making it enraged the warrior once again. She swung around on her heels and purposefully strided back into the village. The dead needed tending and the trail north called. She had to accept that the villagers were headed to the slavers and there was nothing she could do about it. The warrior remembered the cruel lines she had hissed at Gabrielle when they were in a fight for their lives with the Horde. "There are no good choices in war, only lesser degrees of evil." This seemed like another terrible example.

As she made her way back to Argo, Xena saw movement in the road ahead. She swung onto her horse’s back, reined her around and galloped back up the road. She slid the warhorse to a stop in front of Gabrielle who had just started running down the hill into the village.

She swung off the warhorse, planted herself firmly in front of the young bard and placed both hands on her shoulders. "Gabrielle, there is no need to go further. I was too late." The warrior’s voice sounded harsh and cold. Her face was set in a stone mask, emotions firmly in check.

"What do you mean, can’t I help with the wounded?"

"No. There are no wounded. Traveling with me, you’ve seen horrors that no one should ever have to experience. You don’t need to go down there."

Gabrielle starred up into the cold, hard set face of her friend. "And its fine for you? Are you so unaffected by all that you see? Are you so used to it?"

A bitter look traveled across the warrior’s face as she muttered, "I see this every night in my dreams. What’s one more village among so many?"

Gabrielle’s eyes softened as she looked with pity at her tormented friend. She grasped Xena’s hands and pulled the warrior to her. Suddenly, they were in each other’s arms in a tight hug. Tears streaked down the bard’s face and the warrior’s eyes watered as well. With one swift gesture, the bard had once again shattered the warrior’s defensive walls and protected her humanism.

Xena pulled back from the warm embrace of the bard and gently wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her cold bitter eyes soften with love and pain. "All right, Gabrielle. Let’s go down there. The young and old have all been executed. The healthy were marched off to slavery. It clearly looks like the work of the Huns. We have to build a funeral pyre and administer to the dead."

The bard nodded and followed Xena down the hill into the village. The warrior turned and grabbed the young bard’s arm as she got her first look at the devastation. Xena pointed to a pile of wood stacked neatly to one side. "Build a pyre over there. I’ll bring the bodies." Gabrielle lifted pained eyes to the warrior and turned numbly to do as she was bidden. She needed to keep busy right now, to do something. The world had gotten darker and more frightening to the normally optimistic bard. She wondered how humans could do this to humans, to children.

The warrior made trip after to trip to the pyre Gabrielle built, her arms full of the dead. Gabrielle helped placed the bodies on the wooden structure and finally the task was completed. Xena poured oil from a jar she had found and soon the pyre was engulfed in flames. As they watched the orange glow, a deep sadness and a terrible dark premonition of evil days to come entered Gabrielle’s soul. Xena lifted her beautiful clear voice in song as the haunting funeral dirge which had become way too familiar to both of them rang out over the village.

Pulling her eyes from the flames, the warrior gathered Argo’s reins and swung onto the warhorse. She reached down a hand to her friend and without comment Gabrielle swung up behind her. They cantered through the destroyed village and across the creek.

Xena headed the mare north and at a quick lope followed the tracks of the Hun raiding party. There was not much daylight left and the warrior wanted to get as far along the trail as she could. Gabrielle was silent behind her, always a bad sign from the normally talkative bard. The mood between them was somber, filled with sadness and dread. Xena’s worst fears had been realized. She wondered if she would be strong enough and doubts of her own ability to deal with this horror crept into her soul.

Chapter 2

As twilight glimmered through the trees, the trail of the raiders stretched out before them. The Huns made no attempt to hide the signs of their march as if arrogantly laying claim to the land around them.

Argo alerted them first by raising her head and flickering her ears forward. Xena’s senses soon picked out the presence of another and pulled the horse to a slow walk. A rider moved out in front of them from the trees and sat motionless on his horse. He was clad in a brightly colored baggy shirt and pants with a leather sleeveless tunic pulled over his chest. A large curved sword hung at his waist as did a dagger. A bandanna was wrapped around his forehead of bright material. He was mounted on a small wiry horse that sprung into action, galloping towards them at his command. He let out an ululating war cry "YaYaYaYaYaYa" as he rushed forward. Gabrielle starred in astonishment at the charging horseman. The yell was identical to the war cry Xena used in battle.

"Hun rear guard," Xena muttered as she turned and pulled Gabrielle off the back of the horse. "Stay here," she commanded in a harsh tone and then urged Argo into action.

Both warriors drew their swords and metal on metal clashed as the two horses met in the opening between the dense forest. The smaller horse flew by Argo. The Hun turned the animal on his haunches and was back on top of Xena before she could turn Argo around. She was just able to block the flashing slash of his curved sword before the Hun was by and around again. His speed was incredible. She knew she had to get him off his horse.

As he came at her again, she was able to block his thrust. Suddenly, he twisted and caught her with an elbow to her throat. Xena lost her seat on Argo and felt herself falling. She tucked and flipped landing on her feet. Before the Hun could turn around again, she leaped onto the back of his horse and pulled him off the plunging steed. Both warriors ended up on the ground in a heap as the Hun’s horse thundered away.

Each rolled to their feet immediately and the clash of swords sent sparks flying. The battle raged fast and ferocious as each thrust was blocked and followed up with a counter. Xena’s heavier sword forced the Hun back. His smaller weapon slashed so quickly though, that he inflicted several cuts on her arms and a nasty one on her thigh.

Gabrielle watched the battle with growing apprehension as they seemed almost evenly matched. Suddenly, the Hun charged in close and was able with an upper thrust to knock Xena’s sword from her hand. She immediately back handed him across the face and leaped at the stunned Hun with both feet forward. She hit him chest high and he fell backwards dropping his weapon. Before he could recover, she was on top of him as they rolled and wrestled on the ground. He ended up on the bottom with Xena straddling him as they traded blows. Suddenly, a dagger flashed as the Hun drew it from his side and thrust it forward. Xena grabbed his wrist and bent it back, breaking the bone in a sudden snap. The blade fell from his limp grasp. The Hun did not make a sound but used his left hand to grab the warrior by the neck and pull her off him. She whirled around and drew her own breast dagger as she saw the Hun pull a knife from his boot with his left hand. She plunged the weapon into his chest as he jerked forward and then rolled away from the danger of his blade. He gasped and fell back with life draining from him.

Xena knelt beside the Hun and looked into his face. "Hov`a l`asd az hadsereg?" she asked. He only looked at her and smiled. "Szep katona," he whispered and then all fire left his eyes as he starred into the unknown. She looked up as Gabrielle came to her side.

"What did he say?" she asked.

Xena turned back to the dead Hun and stated flatly, "He called me a beautiful warrior." She stiffened waiting for the next question from the person who met more to her than life itself. Gabrielle surprised her by being silent.

After a pause, Xena rose and turned. "I’ll get his horse and put him on it. We have to get him and us out of here. It’s getting dark and that will buy us time until tomorrow."

Gabrielle looked at the tall woman in front of her, dust covered, sweaty and bloody. She had not often seen her warrior so tested by another and so close to losing a fight. "Was he one of their best soldiers?" she asked tentatively.

Xena was already striding away after the Hun’s horse and called back over her shoulder. "No, he was pretty much average."

"Gods," Gabrielle uttered between clenched teeth. She was finally realizing what they were really up against and their situation seemed almost hopeless.

Chapter 3

Their camp spot was protected by large boulders nestled near a tumbling stream. Xena had allowed a small fire and their meal was consumed in silence. The body of the Hun lay nearby as a constant reminder of the day’s ordeal. Xena had not wanted to bury the guard as she planned on delivering him to the Huns the following morning.

The warrior took out her sharpening stone and began to work on her sword with smooth even stokes. She glanced over at Gabrielle and found the young woman quietly contemplating the fire in front of her. The silence between them was dragging at her soul and this was not good for the bard. She knew her Gabrielle. She had to talk through her feelings or they swirled inside her, eating at her positive outlook and sunny disposition. Xena also sensed a hopelessness in her friend, something that was not the normal Gabrielle approach to life.

"Come over here." As Xena uttered these words she put aside her sword and held out her hand to the bard. Gabrielle drew her eyes from the fire. After a moment, she rose and slipped to Xena’s side. She was quite surprised when the normally stoic warrior pulled her down next to her and drew her close. "It’s been a pretty rough day."

Gabrielle’s eyes widened a moment and she shook her head. "Xena, you are a master of understatement."

As sea green eyes met crystal blue, the warrior chuckled. The tension was broken at last. "You know any foe can be beaten, even the Huns. Even me."

Gabrielle continued to search her friend’s face. The calm confidence of the warrior was beginning to have a positive effect on her mood. "So just how do you intend to do that, princess?"

Xena smiled at her friend’s comment as she squeezed the shoulder of the bard. She sensed that Gabrielle needed close physical contact with her soul mate just as much as she needed to work through her emotions. "Any foe, no matter how strong can be defeated in two ways. You can use their weakness or you can use their strength against them."

"Finding a weakness, I get that. You used the soft spot between the eyes of the giants we faced. What is the Hun’s weakness?" Gabrielle was now fully into the discussion. Xena smiled at the bard’s enthusiasm.

"The Huns do not speak our language nor are they familiar with the people they will have to fight. They also don’t know the lay of the land. We can use their ignorance against them. That is a weakness."

"I can see where that might be useful. What about you? What is your weakness?"

Xena looked long at the face of the bard with gentle eyes filled with love. Finally Gabrielle dropped her gaze and lowered her head. "Oh, I get it."

The warrior gently raised her bard’s chin so that green eyes met blue. "Gabrielle, I wouldn’t have it any other way."

Gabrielle smiled her agreement. "So what about this strength thing? How do you use a foe’s strength against them?"

"Well, since we’re on giants, I defeated Gareth by using his height and speed against him. That’s what got the flying parchment into the sky and directed Zeus’s thunderbolt to kill him."

"I see that, what about the Huns?"

The warrior thought a minute. "The Huns charge on horseback. It’s how they attack and feel comfortable fighting. It could be used against them if we could get them to ride into some sort of trap."

Gabrielle looked up at her friend with shinning eyes. "Is that possible?"

"I’m not sure. We’ll need to see where they are camped tomorrow and how many Huns are there."

Gabrielle now had the look of devilment on her face and she again questioned the warrior. "What about you? How could your strength be used against you?"

Xena let her lopsided grin turn the corners of her mouth. "Well, first Gabrielle, if you were trying to kill me, I would strongly suggest you do not fight me in close with sword or staff. You are very good but I still would have the advantage. You should stay at a distance, perhaps unleash a hail of arrows that I was too arrogant to heed. I couldn’t catch them all."

Gabrielle’s face lost the fun loving expression and her eyes grew serious. "I don’t want to talk about this anymore." A cold chill, almost a premonition shook her frame.

Xena saw the change but pressed on gently. "Gabrielle, we are going into the fight of our lives. You must keep the greater good in mind. Promise me that you will put that over my life or our love for each other. It may come to that and if it does, you’ll have to be strong. Never ever lose focus. Remember, we are fighting for our families and civilization as we know it. The Huns will destroy everything and everyone. We must be willing to do anything, to sacrifice everything in order to stop them. Now promise me."

The bard looked deeply into her friend’s eyes and listened to the intensity in the warrior’s voice. She nodded slowly. "I promise. Xena, you have to make the same promise as well."

Xena looked into her bard’s face and wondered if she could keep such a promise. Finally she nodded, knowing that surviving beyond the death of Gabrielle would be impossible for her. "I promise."

The warrior continued to hold the bard closely as they both starred into the fire. The meaning of their promises sank into both their hearts. Gabrielle turned and reach for Xena’s hand. "I have something I must ask you."

She felt the warrior stiffen and then turn back to her. "I know. I’ve been waiting."

"How do you know so much about the Huns? How did you learn their language?"

The warrior looked into her best friend’s face. Would she see the revulsion and disgust she had always feared? Could she bear it? She had learned to love this woman with all her being. Now she had to trust her as well. She had given her heart and now it was time to risk her soul to another. Gabrielle’s rejection at this moment could plunge the warrior back into the darkness always hovering nearby that threatened her.

"I rode with the Huns and led part of their army for over a year."

Gabrielle sensed that her reaction to this disclosure was critical to the warrior at her side. She steeled herself and never flinched from the crystal blue eyes before her. Her own eyes were filled with love and devotion to this woman who meant everything to her.

"Tell me if you want. I have told you time and again that your past is gone. Only the here and now matter to me. You matter to me."

The warrior let out a ragged breath and pressed her forehead against the bard’s. "I don’t deserve you, Gabrielle."

Chapter 4

Similar thoughts crossed the minds of the bard and the warrior. Gabrielle was always amazed at the contrast between the woman she knew today and the war lord of the past. She never could understand how a heart so pure and loving have allowed such evil deeds to be done by her own hand. Xena asked herself the same questions over and over again. How could I have inflicted the pain and horror I did on so many and will I give into the dark passion and do it again?

Xena looked searchingly at her friend’s face but saw only love and concern for her in her eyes. With a sigh, she began her tale. Gabrielle knew how difficult it was for the warrior to speak of her former life but she had to admit Xena was getting better at disclosure. The bard was sure that the more the warrior shared and faced her past, the closer she was to healing and to forgiving herself. Maybe then the nightmares would end and the tormented warrior would find peace at last.

"After my battle with the Centaurs, they had lost over half their troops but my army was decimated as well. I decided not to build up a new force but pick twenty of my best fighters and raid the countryside. I figured that a small group of raiders was easier to feed and control then a large army. Frankly, I could do more damage that way. A black cloud had engulfed me and I wasn’t happy or content unless I was causing death. I enjoyed the killing and felt at rest only when blood flowed. I was incredibly restless and ranged farther and farther north."

"This was after you gave up your son," Gabrielle noted.

Xena nodded and continued her narrative. "We headed north and then finally east across a wide plain and desert. I didn’t care much where we went, as long as we could find villages to raid. We kept moving. We crossed a very high mountain pass and found a wide grass land below. As we rode down into the valley, we saw a small cluster of tents and huts being raided by a mounted war party. The villagers were holding their own and the small group of raiders were being beaten back. Naturally, we rode in on the side of the raiders and killed the villagers. All of them." Xena’s face grew bitter with a cynical self-hatred.

She felt Gabrielle’s hand tighten its grip on her own. She let out a deep breath and continued. "The raiders welcomed our help and shared the spoils with us. They motioned us to follow and led us to their camp, quite a distance away. There we met the Hun leader and his followers. You see the Huns live in family clans, grazing their sheep and horses. They live off the land and plunder villages to fill their needs."

"Every once in awhile a great leader will come along, win all the events of the csata and unite the clans into a fighting army. Then they will go raiding and destroy all that is in their path. This had just happened when we arrived and Emre the vez`er had amassed quite a force. We joined up immediately. They accepted us into their clan after I persuaded a few doubters."

Gabrielle looked at her friend and rolled her eyes. Xena grinned crookedly.

"I was really at home with the Huns and soon learned their language and customs. It just felt natural, almost as if I had always been a Hun myself. We practiced warrior skills every day and I grew stronger, faster, better than ever before. Finally, I challenged one of the group leaders under Emre and won. Now I was leading a large group of Huns myself. I don’t think I ever felt better or more alive. My men fit right into the Hun way of life and soon married into the clan."

Gabrielle was now totally caught up into the story and as Xena paused she asked, "Did you fall for Emre?"

"No, he had a wife. But we did become friends and I respected his courage and capabilities. I followed him as my commander. Probably the only time in my life when I was content not to lead myself. I never challenged him for leadership of the clan. When we parted, I rode alone back towards Greece. However, I warned him never to come to my homeland or I’d kill him. He laughed but agreed."

Xena turned her face from the fire to look into her friend’s eyes and then dropped her gaze. "One day we hit a small village in the eastern mountain foothills. It was a quiet place, pretty with nothing much unusual about it. But my men were feeling really good and aggressive, just as I liked. We swarmed into town without warning and murdered everyone in the village; men…women….and even children. As I saw the Huns finish off the wounded, I just knew I had to leave."

"Did you….?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

Xena jerked her head up and her cold icy stare stopped Gabrielle’s question. "What do you think? The great warrior princess has always claimed she never harmed woman or children except perhaps for a little mistake in Cirra." Xena spat the words out with contempt in her harsh voice.

Gabrielle’s green eyes flamed and she grabbed the shoulders of her soul mate. "I know what’s in your heart, in your soul. The Xena I know would never harm innocent people. Don’t do this to yourself. The past is dead."

Gabrielle embraced the warrior in a tight hug. She felt her heart skip when the warrior after a pause returned the pressure of the embrace and took a raspy breath. "You don’t really know me, Gabrielle. You don’t understand what I am truly capable of," she whispered into the soft hair next to her lips. "By the gods, I pray you never find out. The day may come when you will have to protect the world from the dark side of my soul."

"You will never allow that to happen," Gabrielle replied with a ring in her voice.

Xena pressed her forehead against Gabrielle’s and tried to smile. "I wish I had your confidence."

"Then I have enough for the both of us. Let’s turn in."

With that comment made, the bard pulled the warrior down towards the blankets. She always knew when her warrior was at her emotional limit. They curled up together, sharing each other’s warmth. Sleep did not come easily to either of them and both saw the gray of dawn through the trees.

Chapter 5

The morning sun found the warrior and the bard high in a oak tree on a small rise overlooking the Hun camp below. Xena touched Gabrielle’s lips with her finger and then pointed down between the trees. After a moment, Gabrielle picked up the movement of Hun guards and nodded. For quite awhile, Xena continued to stare at the camp below. It was very orderly with three main clusters of tents, a central tent and eating area. The horses were kept to one side and were well guarded.

Xena motioned for Gabrielle to stay and silently slipped down from her high perch to the ground. She noiselessly glided through the trees. It was almost impossible for Gabrielle to follow her path as she moved between the guards. Finally, she lost sight of her altogether. After what seemed like years, a rustle at the bottom of the tree alerted Gabrielle that the warrior had returned. Xena motioned to her to come down and the two quietly slipped away from the Hun camp.

"Well?" Gabrielle asked with her eyes wide with concern.

Xena glanced around and decided they had traveled far enough from the Huns to speak freely. She knelt down, drew her dagger and began to draw a map in the soft dirt. "The Huns are holding a csata tomorrow and plan to break camp the next day. That doesn’t give us much time."

Gabrielle knelt down next to the warrior and looked at her with shinning eyes. "You have a plan."

"Ahuh."

The bard ginned openly. Xena’s supreme confidence was infectious. "So?"

"Gabrielle, we’re going to have to split up." Before the bard could protest, the warrior continued. "Look at this map I’ve drawn. The Huns are here and a day’s ride to the southeast lies Amazon territory and the Centaur village across the river. The most direct route into the central valley and our home villages is through Amazon country and over the pass between the mountains. Your job is to get to the Amazons and Centaurs and lay a trap for the Huns. Then you must travel over the pass and warn my home village of Amphipolis and your village of Poteidaia in case the Amazons and Centaurs are defeated. You’ll have to help the villagers set up defenses and get them to hide the old people and the children."

"And while I’m doing all of this, just what are you up to?"

"I must stall the Huns for a few weeks to give you time. Then I’ve got to get them to divide their forces so that only a third or so actually attack the Amazon village and the rest head up into the narrow pass. If you divide the Amazons and Centaurs, half for the village and the rest for the pass, we may be able to defeat the whole Hun army.

"Xena, just how are you going to delay the Huns and get them to attack the way you want?" Gabrielle looked at her friend’s sparkling blue eyes and then shook her head. Xena was actually enjoying all of this. "I know, I know. You have many skills."

Gabrielle gave her friend an exasperated stare. "So just how are the Amazons and Centaurs suppose to trap the Huns?"

"Remember what I said about the Hun’s strength? They charge into villages on horseback. So, you should have a few Amazons on the ground as decoys and the rest in the trees with cross bows and spears. Tell Ephiny to dip the arrow heads in Amazon poison. It is a very lethal brew that kills on contact. It defuses through the skin, so you don’t even need to have a direct hit.

"Why haven’t I heard about the Amazons using this poison before?" Gabrielle asked with a puzzled look on her face.

"No one really likes to use it since it is so deadly. The archers have to wear protection on their hands and the clean up afterwards is tough. You really need to pay attention or you can wipe out your own people."

Xena continued with a thoughtful look on her face. "Have the centaurs take out the Hun rear guard and press the Hun forces from the back. The Amazons should be able to cut them down and the Centaurs can take care of the rest. At the pass, have the same deployment; Amazons in the trees and behind rocks high up on the canyon walls and Centaurs to the rear."

"What’s to keep the Huns from just riding over the pass and into the valley and villages below?"

"Dig an Amazon death pit in the front. The Huns won’t be able to get over it and the Centaurs can press from the rear. It should be easy for the Amazons in the trees and on sides of the high canyon to pick apart the Hun army. Make sure that nobody tries to take on the Huns on the ground with swords. Kill them from a distance."

"Gabrielle, you are the queen of the Amazons and they will obey you. The Centaurs will listen to you as well. But please understand, you are risking your people to a terrible battle and possible death. This plan may not work. You must decide if you are willing to sacrifice Amazons to stop the Huns. There is a good chance that if I don’t steer the Huns towards the Amazon village, they will escape detection and harm."

Xena continued her thoughts. "This is really not their fight but we have the best chance of stopping the Huns by using their warrior skills. What do you think? This is your decision to make. If you think its wrong, then we’ll have to come up with something else." Xena piercing blue eyes met the bard’s green. She knew she was asking the bard to take lives, something the bard morally abhorred.

Gabrielle pulled her eyes from the face of her soul mate and starred out at the forest land that surrounded them. How peaceful the country side looked. How deceiving looks could be. She knew that Xena was under playing her role and the dangers she would face. She dreaded being separated from her best friend at this most desperate hour. Finally, she hated asking the Amazons to give their lives in this terrible struggle. Yet she saw the value of their skills and the cleverness of Xena’s plan.

"Xena, I understand how desperate our situation is and I’ll do as you say. However, I’ll give the Amazons a choice in the matter."

"Gabrielle, you don’t understand. Once you leave here, the plan goes into effect and there will be no choice. I will either be successful and the Amazons will be attacked or I will fail. Then the Huns will sweep over the pass and destroy all the villages in the valley below. If the Amazons are not attacked, you will know I have failed and am probably dead. Stay with them for that will be the safest place you can be. It will be too late to help our home villages and the people in the valley." Xena’s eyes pleaded with her soul mate to be brave.

There was a silence between the two friends as Gabrielle searched her conscious. Finally, she replied, "You’re right. As the queen, this is my decision to make and I agree to your plan. It’s the only choice we have to save the people and their homes." Gabrielle looked up at the face of the warrior with determined clear eyes.

Xena smiled proudly at her best friend’s resolve and grabbed for her. She held her in a close embrace, perhaps their last in this world. "One more thing, after the Amazons are ready and you warn the villages in the valley, stay in Poteidaia. You will not be able to make it back in time to the Amazons. You should be with your family at a time like this. If the Amazons are successful, then you will be safe. If they are not, then the chances of any of the villagers stopping the Huns are almost non-existent. Perhaps you can get them to hide in the caves until the Huns are gone. They will need you to think for them and plan how to survive."

"And you?"

"If the Amazon trap fails, then I’ll have to try desperate measures to stop the advance. Gabrielle, I won’t lie to you. My chances will be about zero. So let’s not think of that. The Amazon trap has to work. It’s up to you to see to it. I know you can do it." The warrior smiled at her friend and held her a moment longer.

"Ready? Cut through the forest and go as fast as you can."

Gabrielle looked long into her friend’s face memorizing the firm lips, high cheek bones and clear piercing blue eyes. "I love you, Xena."

The warrior placed her hands on the shoulder’s of the young bard and whispered softly, "I love you."

Gabrielle turned, ran lightly between the trees and was immediately gone from view. Xena starred a long moment after her and then whispered to herself, "If any of you gods are listening, keep her safe from harm."

Xena turned and back tracked to where she had left Argo and the dead Hun tied to his horse. She mounted and turned towards the Hun camp. She glanced back in the direction Gabrielle had taken. She knew the chances she would ever see the bard again were slim at best. As long as she was safe, the warrior could face anything.

Xena’s eyes grew even more piercing and steely. Time to focus. In order for this plan to work, she would have to be at her very best, the most skilled and evil warrior ever to walk the earth. She knew she was the only one who could pull this off and the challenge thrilled her to the core. She rode into the face of death fearlessly and determined. She gave one last thought to Gabrielle and then put her bard out of her mind. There was no place for compromise, ethics or even love now. She was riding into Tartarus on earth.

The warrior was ready.

Chapter 6

Xena walked Argo boldly towards the Hun’s camp leading the horse with the dead body of the Hun guard draped across its back. She sensed the presence of guards on either side of her but ignored them and moved forward. As she came to the edge of the trees with the clearing that housed the Huns beyond, she smiled slightly and called to the guards in their language. "I am here to see your leader and to return a brave Hun to his comrades. Let me pass, I mean you no harm."

"That may be but we don’t have to return the favor," replied one of the guards as he stepped out from behind a bush.

Xena starred coldly at the guard. "I have information your leader can use and demand to see him. We can fight it out now or later as you wish."

The other guards moved out from behind the trees and Xena found herself surrounded by a fairly large force. She let a sinister smile curl her lips as she moved forward, daring the guards to attack. They closed and looked to their captain for his orders. "Well disciplined," Xena thought and nodded with approval.

The captain smiled slightly and motioned Xena to follow him. He led her down into the camp and by clusters of tents. He stopped her in front of the large colorful tent set up by the cooking area and ducked inside. Xena slipped off Argo’s back and took a step forward. At that moment, the tent cover was pulled back and a tall muscular swarthy man stepped out. He had sharp brown eyes and a quick smile which showed gleaming white teeth.

"I am told you wish to speak to me," he said in a rich deep baritone.

"If you are the vez`er, then yes, I do. I am Xena and you’re in my territory." Xena made this statement with a challenge in her voice and a harsh glare in her icy blue eyes.

"I am Gaza, the vez`er. You speak our language very well. I have heard stories of a Greek warrioress who rode with Emre some years back. Was that you?"

Xena nodded slowly. "I warned Emre to stay out of my lands when I left him."

The Hun leader smiled widely but his dark brown eyes never lost their piercing quality. "I killed Emre and massed this army. I don’t heed such warnings."

Xena never flinched at the news of the loss of the leader she admired. She continued to stare coldly at the Hun. "Well, since you have decided to pay me a visit, perhaps we can make a deal that will benefit both of us."

The Hun laughed outright at the boldness of this woman and nodded. His eyes flickered back to the horses behind the warrior and he noted his dead guard. "I suppose you are responsible for this loss."

"He was a good fighter and did his job as your rear guard." Xena inclined her head back to the guard and let respect be heard in her voice.

Gaza waved his hand and motioned. The horse with the body was led away. "Come inside and let’s talk further. Your horse will be cared for." He deliberately turned his back on the warrior and went into the large tent. Xena followed without comment.

Once inside, he motioned Xena to a mat and he sat down as well. A soldier came in and offered fruit, bread and wine which Xena took readily. "You are either very brave or very foolish to ride in here after killing one of my soldiers."

"He challenged me and gave me no choice. Gaza, I am not here to fight you. My proposal is simple. I am in between armies right now and I know the countryside. I could show you the best routes and villages to raid. In return for my scouting services and fighting at your side, I will accept half the spoils."

Gaza laughed. "Half, you don’t want much. Why should I trust you?"

Xena grinned back. "You shouldn’t, not anymore than I would trust you. However, I once rode with the Huns and we made a good team. I have many skills."

"Tomorrow we hold a csata. Since you have killed one of our soldiers, it is only fair that his comrades have a chance to kill you. The winner of each event will fight you to the death. If you survive, you will have the right to challenge one of my three generals for leadership of their division. Defeat my general and you can take his place at my side. This is a true warrior’s test. Do you agree?"

Xena nodded without hesitation. "I accept the challenge of the csata. However, if I win, I still expect half the spoils of our victories." Xena starred openly at the man before her. The dominating presence of this Hun was amazing. His darkly attractive good looks, black curly hair and flashing smile complimented his muscular lean body. He even smelled of raw power and masculinity. This was a man to be reckoned with and Xena felt an animal attraction stir within her. She sensed he was truly a great leader.

Gaza returned her complimentary gaze with one of his own. He felt her power and strength as he was attracted by her beauty. "What a great team we would make,’ he thought, "If she is as good as she brags. Otherwise, she will die."

"You can only challenge one general at the csata, so that is a third of my army. Why won’t you settle for a third?"

Xena replied softly. "If I win, then I will demand another csata the following week as is my right and challenge another of your generals. Then perhaps you will see the value of giving me half."

Gaza threw back his head and roared at the audacity of this woman warrior in front of him. "Once you beat all my generals, will you challenge me?"

Xena eyed him coldly and let her silence speak for her.

"Very well Xena, we are agreed. We’ll see what the faiths have to say about the outcome. Spend the night with me," he pleaded softly.

"Not tonight, Gaza. To make love to me, you will have to defeat me in a csata." Xena uttered this challenge with a sneer.

The Hun leader smiled sadly. "I will have a tent put up next to mine. Stay there till first morning’s light when the csata begins. Try to leave during the night and my guards will kill you."

Xena rose and turned towards the opening in the tent. She looked back over her shoulder and with a parting grin said, "I have no attention of leaving." She left the tent and took a quick walk around the camp.

Gods, it felt more like home being here than in her own village. The camp was set up perfectly, with orderly structure and guards posted in all the correct places. The soldiers were busy practicing their skills, taking care of their equipment or doing camp chores. They gave her hostile glances as she strolled by but no one challenged her. Their discipline was clearly in place. The officers instructed and gave clear orders and the men followed them without question. "Yes," the warrior thought, "It is just like what any military camp should be and seldom is." She checked on Argo and then made her way back to the small tent put up for her use. She crawled into it and stretched out. Tomorrow was going to be one tough day.

Chapter 7

At the first gray light of dawn, Xena left her tent and stretched her lanky frame. She slowly moved to the center of the cooking area and accepted some hot porridge from a soldier stirring a pot. She squatted down on her heels, soldier style to eat watching her surroundings carefully. Once finished, she made her way to Argo and saddled her faithful warhorse. She whispered into the mare’s ears and petted her gently, waiting developments. It wasn’t long before the soldiers from the different divisions marched out in rank order and then broke off into units.

Gaza appeared ridding a sorrel stallion which pranced under his skilled master. The Hun leader looked over at Xena and nodded. She returned the acknowledgment. He turned and addressed his assembled troops in a deep booming voice.

"Let the csata begin. Remember the winner of each event fights the woman warrior, Xena to the death. The one who kills her will be well rewarded." He turned to look back at the warrior who gave him a slight grin and crossed her arms in front of her as if in boredom.

The Hun leader raised and dropped his arm. He then reined his mount around and trotted off the grounds. The contest was underway!

The first event was sword fighting from horseback. The soldiers paired up and charged each other with swords flashing as their horses galloped furiously in tight circles. The first to hit the ground lost and the victor then went on to fight another mounted soldier. The dust swirled as the melee continued. Finally, one lone horseman remained as the others limped off the field. He trotted his mount towards the waiting warrior and flashed his large curved sword around his head. Pointing the shinning blade at Xena, he grinned broadly.

Xena nodded, leaped onto Argo’s back and joined the soldier in the center of the open field. She drew her sword and made a few figure eights in the air. With a mirthless laugh, she turned and pointed her weapon towards her challenger. Suddenly, he leaped into action spurring his mount right for the palomino warhorse. Xena urged Argo into a gallop and met him half way. The larger Argo was able to push the soldier’s horse back as the swords clashed and sparked.

Grinned viciously, Xena kept a constant barrage of sword thrusts hammering her opponent. Her larger heavier weapon was having an effect and the soldier gave ground. He spun and caught her on her wrist but her gauntlet blocked the blow. She on her counter move cut him on his shoulder. He again thrust his sword forward in rapid strokes all which the warrior was able to easily block. She again countered and gave him a nasty cut on his arm. Xena pressed forward giving her war cry, "YaYaYaYaYaYaYa," as she plunged Argo into the smaller horse. The animal went down in front of the charging warhorse and rolled. The soldier was thrown and before he could recover Xena was on top of him. She knocked his sword from his hand with a quick upward sweep of her own. Holding him at sword point, she looked over at Gaza. "This is a brave soldier who fought well. I will spare his life to fight our enemies with your permission." With these words, she lowered her sword and waited for a command from the Hun leader.

"As you will," he replied and nodded.

Xena sheathed her sword in the scabbard on her back and mounted the warhorse. She swung Argo around and returned to the area where she had awaited the event. There were nods and murmurs from the crowd of Huns that had witnessed her victory. It was clear they appreciated her gesture of saving the life of the young soldier.

She slipped off the warhorse and checked her for any cuts or scrapes. Relieved that Argo was unhurt, the warrior turned back to the crowd as the next event was getting under way. The soldiers paired off and attacked each other with swords, this time from the ground. The winner was identified by knocking the loser’s sword from his hand. Xena watched again with arms crossed in front of her and sleepy disinterest on her face.

Finally, the winner of all matches moved towards the warrior princess and with a cocky grin, pointed his sword at her. The warrior drew her own weapon, swiped it about her head and leveled it at her opponent. They circled and then he attacked. The swords clashed as each thrust was blocked. Xena became a blur of motion, quickly jabbing forward and then dancing away from harm. She flipped over her opponent and whacked him on his backside. When he turned, she easily flipped the sword from his hand. Again she asked Gaza for permission to spare the life of her adversary and again Gaza replied, "As you will."

The third event was hand to hand combat with long daggers. The winner was declared when he subdued his opponent by holding him on the ground with the dagger placed at his throat. The winner of all the pairings strutted towards the warrior. Xena drew her own dagger and met the soldier in the middle of the clearing. He was a big tall brute and charged rapidly at the warrior. She side stepped and let him go by harmlessly. However, he whirled suddenly and gave her a bad cut on her thigh. She responded with a cut to his arm. Then each grabbed the wrist of the hand of the other holding the dagger. As they pushed back and forth, the strength of the soldier forced Xena back. She suddenly dropped, rolled on her back, and planted both feet on his chest. As she gave him a shove, he fell back and before he could rise she leaped on top of him.

She forced his dagger hand back towards his own neck and pushed down. He tried to struggle but the warrior had him in a death grip and wouldn’t let go. "Give up," she panted. The soldier grinned, shook his head and gave a mighty thrust forward. Xena shoved down with all the strength she had and broke the soldier’s hold. His dagger slit his own throat and he slumped back. Xena got off the soldier, stood up and turned to the crowd. She put the dagger in her belt and walked slowly back to Argo. The cut on her thigh was bleeding steadily but she ignored it and stood waiting for the next event.

The last event of the csata was hand to hand combat and the winner was the soldier who pinned his opponent. Xena watched with half closed eyes as finally a victor strolled over to her. He was short, stocky and waved a meaty fist at her. Xena’s lips curled in a feral smile as she walked toward the soldier. He surprised her by being quicker than he looked. With a quick fake, he grabbed her arm and swung the warrior’s body into his raised knee. The slam cracked a couple of ribs and left the warrior gasping for air. He came in fast again with fists flying but Xena moved out of his way. The sudden pain was excruciating but she blocked it from her mind. She delivered a solid kick to his midsection as he came into her again. She then hit him soundly in the head with hers and delivered a pinch to his neck. He dropped like a sack of grain.

She turned to Gaza and gasped, "He will be dead in thirty seconds unless I release him. He fought well, with your permission I will spare him."

Again Gaza nodded and said "As you will."

Xena turned back to the soldier and applied the release pressure point. The man lay gasping as the warrior turned her back on him. The crowd of soldiers began to chant "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na." She smiled proudly and limped back to her waiting horse. Still holding her sore ribs, she swung onto Argo’s back and rode over to Gaza and his generals.

Xena stopped in front of them and lifted her head proudly. "I have won all the events of the csata and beaten your best soldiers. I now challenge your greatest general for his command. He may choose the event."

There was a pounding in her ears and a black blood lust was consuming her soul. The warrior princess was in her glory and ready to go hand to hand with the best the Hun’s had to offer. This time there would be no mercy.

Chapter 8

Gaza looked into the eyes of blue fire of the warrior and began to understand the true mettle of this woman. "Very well, Shandor will you accept this challenge?" Gaza turned to the tall scarred warrior to his left and smiled.

The Hun nodded and replied, "As you wish." He turned to Xena, looked her over carefully and proclaimed, "Swords on horseback."

Xena thought to herself wiry, "Some surprise."

He rode forward out into the middle of the field and turned his mount back towards her. Xena pulled Argo around and faced the Hun general. Both drew their swords. A sharp pain under her right arm accompanying this action told Xena that this was not going to be an easy fight.

Both warriors set their mounts galloping straight at each other. At the last possible second, they veered away with swords clashing in the passing. Then around and back at each other they came again with a violent force. The dust kicked up was so thick it was hard to see the combatants within the yellow haze.

The Hun came at Xena from the side, quickly cut her arm and then pulled out of harms way. He turned and caught her on the shoulder with a short swing of his curved sword. Although her armor blocked most of the blow, the blade slipped off and cut her below it. Again the Hun whirled away before Xena could return the compliment. He was cutting her up bit by bit.

The Hun chief pushed his mount in close to Argo and set up a barrage of powerful downward thrusts of his blade. Each block that Xena made caused her to reach upward with her own weapon and pull at her damaged ribs. The pain was excruciating and she knew she could not last long in this situation. She had to get the Hun off his horse.

Suddenly, she reined her warhorse around and gave her the signal. Argo kicked out her back legs and caught the Hun horse in the chest. With a lurch, the animal dropped down on his front knees, jarring the Hun forward. This was the opening Xena needed. With a spectacular back flip off her horse, she struck the Hun in the chest with both feet. He fell backwards hitting the ground hard. Xena landed next to him and swung her sword in an arc. He rolled as her sword cut his left hand. As he jumped to his feet, she cut his shoulder with a quick swing of her blade.

Now both warriors were sweaty, grimy and bloody. Still they circled and swung their swords at each other. Xena kicked low and caught the Hun on the knee. He went down but rolled to the side and blocked her thrust. He jumped to his feet and tagged her with a left handed blow that snapped her head back. Xena was tiring and dazed from the loss of blood. She had to end this quickly. Again the Hun came in and struck her with a left handed blow which connected. This time she staggered back and thrust herself forward for another flip. The Hun was ready for the move and jerked his sword upward. To late he realized the move was a fake and Xena thrust her sword into his exposed midsection. He dropped to his knees with an amazed look on his face. She pulled the sword out of his gut and showed the bloody blade to the watchers with an exhilarated savage smile.

She turned to Gaza and asked with a harsh ring to her voice, "Shall I finish him?" Gaza nodded silently. The warrior turned to the kneeling general. "You were a brave and noble warrior." With those words she cleanly killed the Hun with a firm slice to his neck. He dropped immediately to the ground, dead.

Xena turned and again held her sword high. The Huns cheered and then began to chant "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na."

Gaza smiled slightly and then put up his hand for silence. Immediately the Huns grew quiet. "You have proven you are a worthy Hun warrior, Xena. Here are your troops. You are now the commander of Shandor’s division." Again a mighty cheer went up.

The warrior princess smiled fiercely and held her head high as she walked towards the Hun ruler. "I will take command of this division and we will bring honor to you, Gaza. I pledge myself to you as the vis`er. However, by the right I earned today, I challenge for the leadership of another division at the next csata. By Hun code, this must occur a week from today."

Gaza starred at the warrior and smoldering blue eyes met fiery brown. "Very well, one week from today another csata will be held and your challenge will be accepted."

Xena nodded her agreement, turned and made her way slowly back to Argo. Although the pain of her injuries and loss of blood had weakened her greatly, she slowly swung onto the back of the great warhorse. She circled the crowd of Huns who continued to chant her name. With her proud dark head held high, she walked Argo back to her tent. She stripped off the saddle from the mare and instructed a soldier standing by to rub her down carefully. As Argo was led away, Xena crawled into her small tent and collapsed on the ground. Only she knew how much that last ride had cost her.

As she curled on her side holding her ribs, she fought for control of the pain. She knew she needed to tend some of the deeper cuts, but for the moment a weakness overtook her. Then a sweet face appeared before her closed eyes and smiled gently. "Gabrielle," Xena whispered. Her eyes flew open as she suddenly jerked up, catching her breath with the sharp sensation the movement cost her. Was the young bard well? Xena searched her soul and did not feel a sense of dread. She relaxed slightly with a small smile. She would know in her inner being if the bard was hurt or in trouble. All was well.

Then the warrior dropped her head as another thought pierced her soul. If Gabrielle had seen her best friend today, she would have had disgust and loathing in her eyes, not love. Xena sighed and willed herself to a sitting position, her back against the tent pole. In order for this plan to work, Xena knew she would have to become a true Hun, body and soul. If Gabrielle witnessed this transformation, she would forever fear and despise her for Xena was about to become everything the bard abhorred. Carefully and tenderly, Xena put all thoughts of Gabrielle from her mind and heart. "Goodbye my friend. Where I’m going you can not and would not follow. My end lies in Tartarus. For by the gods, if I did not earn my place there before, my acts here will surely put me there for eternity. Yet, if I can save you and our families, its worth it." With these words muttered, Xena turned her head and yelled commandingly, "Guards, come in here!"

Quickly a young soldier stationed outside her tent, stuck his head through the opening. "Bring me hot water and a clean cloth so I may make myself presentable for the victory celebration tonight."

The soldier nodded, swung around and quickly left the tent. Once he was gone, Xena slowly began to remove her breast plate. When he came back, Xena thought darkly, he was going to have some fun cleaning her weapons and armor. They had better shine or he would feel the wrath of the warrior princess now a Hun general.

Chapter 9

Xena pulled back the flap that covered the opening of the tent of Gaza az nagy as he was called by his men. The Hun leader sat at the head of a large gathering of his chief officers and selected warriors. Food and drink were placed on a low stand in the middle of the gathering and the men were helping themselves freely. Xena entered the tent slowly and stood tall with a proud bearing before the seated group. Gaza smiled up at her and motioned for her to sit next to him. She inclined her head slightly downward acknowledging his leadership and said quietly, "By your leave." She sat down in the position indicated and reached for a wine goblet and a hunk of browned meat.

"You were very impressive today. It is not often that one makes claims such as you did and lives up to them." Gaza’s smile was wide showing his white teeth and lively deep brown eyes.

Xena once more was impressed with the sheer magnetic power of the Hun leader. "I always do as I say," she replied quietly.

"I’ll remember that for the future."

Xena sipped the wine and found it excellent. Biting into the hunk of lamb, she realized she was hungry. The food was well prepared, spiced with savory seasonings. It was delicious. She listened without comment to the talk around her which was mostly about the exploits of different soldiers in the csata. She found the conversation to her liking and after a pause joined in making her observations.

"The young soldier who won the mounted horse and sword competition was very skilled. He switched his sword from his right to his left hand depending on the side of his pass. That was very effective and he was very strong with both hands."

The old general at the far end beamed and announced that the boy was his star pupil.

"You have trained him well," Xena noted.

"Perhaps," the old Hun grinned, "But you had little trouble defeating him."

"Tomorrow I will work with my soldiers and teach them a few special techniques." Xena grinned openly and her eyes danced with this promise.

The group laughed their delight and it was clear that the next day would be exhibition time for the warrior princess. Each of the soldiers in the room was determined to have a practice round with Gaza’s newest general.

Gaze leaned over to the beautiful woman sitting next to him and whispered. "Your ribs will not stand too much pounding tomorrow. Go easy. You have proven your point."

Xena’s flashing blue eyes met the Hun leader’s merry gaze. "What makes you think my ribs are sore?"

"You favored your right side in the fight with Shandor. He knew it but could not take advantage of your weakness. I would have."

Xena grinned back at the Hun leader. "He could not take advantage of my weakness because there was no weakness."

"Perhaps." Gaza leaned closer to the dark head next to him and whispered, "You’re lovely, spend the night with me."

"Only when you beat me in a fair fight."

"I don’t want to kill you, I want to make love to you. All night long."

Xena lifted her head and with her full lips only inches away from his mouth whispered, "You can’t kill me and I don’t believe you can last all night long."

"Let me prove it to you."

"Only after I have defeated all your generals and you give me half your spoils of conquest. Oh, and you still have to beat me in a fight." Her dancing blue eyes maddened the Hun leader and filled him with desire.

Their quiet exchange was interrupted by a raucous toast. The Hun warriors all stood, held their goblets high and turned towards the seated couple. "To the best Hun warrior on the field today, Xena. Long live Gaza az nagy, Gaza the great," they shouted in unison.

Gaza and Xena stood, accepted the toast and the cheers of the men with smiles. Gaza grabbed Xena’s hand and held it aloft with his own. The men cheered again.

The celebration went on long into the night as more wine was brought and drank. Several soldiers came into the tent with stringed instruments, a violin and lute. They played beautiful soulful melodies that made the instruments sound as if they wept. Xena remembered some of the Hun folk songs and sang. Her beautiful clear voice surprised and delighted the men. When she finished singing, they broke out in loud applause and cheers. She had won their hearts. Gaza stared at his woman warrior with admiration and lust in his eyes.

Xena thanked the men and Gaza for their kindness and then begged to be excused. "I must be up early tomorrow with my men," she noted.

Gaza nodded and whispered softly "Szep katona, you’re going to be mine."

Xena smiled at the Hun leader, rose and again inclined her head as a show of respect. She left the gathering and made her way back to her little tent. Once inside, she collapsed in exhaustion. Gods, she was going to be sore tomorrow.

Chapter 10

As the sun climbed over the rise of the eastern mountains, Xena was up and checking on Argo. She did her best not to limp or show any discomfort but in truth ever step hurt. She again sat on her heels soldier style and ate breakfast with the men in silence. She then ordered her tent moved to a location next to her new division.

The young guard who had done an excellent job cleaning and polishing her armor pointed to a large tent. "My leader, you can use Shandor’s tent. It is very large and fitting a general."

"Call me Xena," growled the warrior. "This tent is fine for my purposes. Set it up and strike Shandor’s."

"Yes, my lead…that is, Xena," the lad stammered and hurried off to do as he was bidden.

Xena finished her breakfast conscious of the soldier’s looks and quiet comments to each other. She had made another favorable impression with the Huns.

The warrior shrugged and got up slowly. She saddled Argo and pulled herself onto the tall warhorse. A Hun general never walked when he could ride and she knew what was expected of her. She sat in the saddle most of the day watching the drills of her men, learning the names of the group leaders and sergeants, and fighting the nagging pain of her injuries.

The next day found Xena able to move easier and she took part in some of the drills. Her teaching skills became apparent as she showed young soldiers how to block and thrust their swords more effectively and to keep eye contact.

After yet another day, she was able to practice her normal routine of sword thrusts and swings combined with amazing flips and kicks. The Hun soldiers were in awe and begged for lessons in how to fight like their general. Soon half the division was spending part of the day practicing forward rolls and back flips.

Gaza watched all of this with interest from a distance. He left his new general alone to learn her men, the strengths and weaknesses of her division. After a week, he summonsed Xena to his tent the night before the next csata.

She appeared as he asked and again inclined her head to him in respect. "As you wish, Gaza az nagy. How may I serve you?"

"I have watched you with your troops. You are a very good leader with your men. They admire and respect you." Gaza smiled at his warrior general. "You have not disappointed me."

"Thank you, my leader. They are very good soldiers, well trained and disciplined. Shandor must have been a very good general."

Gaza’s smile disappeared and a look of sadness crossed his face. "He was the best I have ever seen until I now see you. He was my boyhood friend and I miss him."

Xena kept her mask firmly in place and did not show surprise at this unusual remark for a Hun. "Why did you wish to see me?"

"Since you insist on challenging another of my generals tomorrow and might be killed, I would like to at least get some useful information from you. You said you know the land south of here well. I plan on moving out the day after the csata and I would like you to help me with my plan of advance."

"Gladly Gaza, but understand I don’t plan on being killed. If I beat your general tomorrow, then I will challenge your last general as is my right. This means that another csata will have to be held in another week as is the code."

Gaza smiled but his piercing brown eyes narrowed and he stared hard at this woman warrior in front of him. "So," he said softly. "You do intend to challenge me if you beat all my generals."

Xena returned the Hun leader’s cold stare with one of her own. "I never denied it."

Her warrior mask softened slightly as a crooked smile turned up the corners of her mouth. "I’ll have to challenge you if we are ever to get to enjoy each other."

Gaza threw back his head and laughed loudly. "Fair enough, warrior. You give me a great incentive to beat you."

Xena turned and motioned towards a table which had a crude map on it. "Let’s take a look at what you have here. I will draw in the details for you."

Gaza nodded and they both moved towards the table. His body drew close to Xena’s as they bent over the map. Again Xena felt the strong animal attraction she had for this Hun leader. Concentrating on the map before her, Xena took up a quill and began to lay in landmarks and locations on the crude drawing.

"This is where we are now. Gaza, there is little to fear or stop us to the south. It is ripe for the taking. Our path lies through Amazon land and over this high pass and into the flat lands below. There the villages are fat and unguarded. Nothing will stop us from marching all the way south to Athens. The only fighting we will have to do is with the Amazons located here. They are weak women fighters and not much threat but to leave them at our back would be unwise. I propose we have one of your divisions march through here, destroy their village and kill them all. They make poor slaves and not worth the bother. While one division takes care of them, the rest of us will keep moving into and over the pass. We will attack the first village on the other side, get supplies and wait for the first division to catch up. Then we march through the valley and on to Athens. All Greece will belong to Gaza az nagy. What do you say?"

Gaza stared at the woman next to him. He brushed his lips against raven colored hair and smiled softly. "Sounds almost too easy."

"It is always easy with good soldiers and great leadership."

"If I agree to give you half, will you give up fighting my generals and instead come to bed with me?"

Xena smiled softly at the Hun leader and shook her head. "You will give me half and you will have to defeat me to get me into your bed."

They embraced and the Hun kissed the woman warrior with heated passion and fire. He devoured her lips and then repeatedly kissed her neck. He returned to her lips for a long moment as his tongue sought hers. His heart leaped when he felt Xena return his passion with her own. She finally drew away from him with flashing eyes and said mockingly, "Better start practicing, Gaza az nagy." She turned and quickly ducked out of his tent.

The next day the csata was held with the same events as before. This time Xena sat Argo next to Gaza and watched as the soldiers from her division took every event. She smiled proudly when one soldier won the sword contest by flipping over his opponent and striking him from the rear. With the last event completed she turned to Gaza and issued her challenge.

"You shall fight Mikal. Mikal, do you agree?"

The older general who had toasted Xena in the celebration of a week ago turned to Xena and nodded.

Xena looked into his quiet piercing eyes and said, "Choose your weapon."

"Swords from the ground." As he declared his challenge, he leaped from his horse, drew his curved sword and pointed it at the warrior princess.

Xena swung from Argo’s back and drew her own sword. She swiped it in curves about her head and then leveled it at the Hun facing her. They began to circle each other slowly. Suddenly, the Hun sliced in and Xena met his thrust with a sharp swing of her sword and kick to his stomach. He backed up and then shot forward again. Once more she blocked his swing and thrust her sword forward. He parried that move and whirled for a side cut. She blocked that low, swung her left arm and delivered a blow to his neck. He gave ground and then attacked again. The sharp clang of swords was heard as metal met metal. Back and forth the fight raged neither warrior giving ground. Finally, with a vicious thrust the general caught Xena on her shoulder armor and left himself open for a cut to his side. As he backed away, Xena flipped into the air and hit him with both feet in the chest. He fell back. As he went down, she thrust her sword into his belly. He grunted and stopped cold as she drew the blade out.

"Gaza, Mikal is a great and mighty general and deserves to die well. What do you wish?"

Gaza looked at his fallen general and the woman warrior before him. "As you will."

Xena nodded and turned to the stricken man. With a quick swipe of the blade, she killed him instantly. She turned and mounted Argo holding her bloody sword high in the air. The soldiers shouted in unison, "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na." She smiled proudly and Argo pranced a lap around the Hun army. Xena reined her warhorse into position next to Gaza and inclined her head to him.

"Xena, you have proven yourself a worthy Hun warrior. You will now command Mikal’s division as well as your own."

"I will take command of this division and we will bring honor to you, Gaza. I pledge myself to you as the vis`er. However, by the right I earned today, I challenge for the leadership of another division at the next csata. By Hun code, it must be held a week from today."

"As you wish." With this statement, Gaza turned his mount and slowly rode back to his tent. His heart burned with fierce desire for the warrior princess. Yet at the same time he was saddened and worried by the loss of yet another general who had been his loyal friend. He almost hated her and yet he acknowledged to himself that he had fallen deeply in love with this complex and difficult woman. He would never let her leave and yet he might have to kill her.

Chapter 11

Gabrielle walked slowly through the main street of the Amazon village with Ephiny and Tyldus, the Centaur leader. "It looks like all preparations are going well."

Ephiny nodded and reported, "My queen, the scouts watching the Hun army encampment report they are not moving or getting ready to break camp."

Gabrielle smiled openly. Some how Xena was keeping the Huns in place. "That is terrific news. How much longer do you think we’ll need before all is ready here?"

Ephiny thought for a moment, "We still need to make more arrows and spears. The runners brought back fifty more Amazons from the southern villages to reinforce us but we need to make sure they are well armed. Another week and we should be in good shape. How does it go with you, Tyldus?"

The Centaur, half man half horse, swished his tail and sifted his weight. "We are ready now."

"Keep watch on the Hun camp, Ephiny. Xena will try to hold them as long as she can. I’ve got to get down to the villages in the valley and warn them."

"Gabrielle, I’ve been thinking. Our fastest Centaurs are Bori and Mardi. Let them take you to the low land villages. They will get you there quickly and help you to organize defenses. They can also spread the word to all the other towns in the area."

"That’s a great idea. Thank you Tyldus for your offer and I certainly accept. Speed is of utmost importance now. I don’t know how much longer Xena can hold up the Hun advance. We really need to give the villagers a chance to defend themselves in case the trap fails."

"When do you leave, my queen?"

"I’ll start out at first light tomorrow. How is the training going on handling the poison?"

Ephiny shook her head. "We all really hate this stuff. We’re only using it because you ordered us to do so at Xena’s request. All the Amazons dislike wearing protective hand and arm covers. None of us think we shoot as well and then we are all worried that we may hit Centaurs on the ground."

"Well, if that’s the case, I’d rather you not try to hit a Hun if a Centaur is close. Leave the ground fighting up to them."

Ephiny again shook her blond curls fiercely. The fiery warrior was not happy with this part of the plan and it showed. "I’d rather we just took them hand to hand. We can beat these Huns."

"No, Ephiny. Xena was very clear about this. You must not attack them from the ground. I’ve seen how they fight from horseback. They are close to unbeatable. Xena had a tough time defeating one of their average guards. We can’t take the chance of losing this battle. The survival of the villages in the valley depend on us."

"All right, Gabrielle. We’ll do as you say. Remember the rest of the plan and stay in Poteidaia."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes upward. Ephiny was acting very much like a dark haired warrior friend of hers. Maybe this protective stuff was contagious.

"Don’t you worry about me. You take care of yourselves. Ephiny, if you are leading the Amazons here at the village, who will direct them at the pass?"

"I’ll have Solari lead the scouts watching the Huns and Eponin lead our Amazons at the pass. The Amazon death pit is almost completed which blocks the trail. No Hun will be able to get over it."

"Good. Sounds like we are all set. I’ll gather some supplies together and be ready to leave at first light. Thanks you again Tyldus for your offer."

"My pleasure. If we have to face the Huns, I can’t think of better allies to have."

Gabrielle looked from the Centaur leader to the fiery Amazon. How wonderful to see the once bitter foes work so closely together. In fact they were actually related. Tyldus was Ephiny’s father-in-law.

"Both of you, be safe. Do not underestimate the Huns. The civilized world as we know it depends on you and your fighting skills."

Gabrielle turned from her friends and walked slowly towards the queen’s quarters to pack her things. Tears tugged at the corner of her eyes as she thought of the lives she risked by asking the Amazons and Centaurs to fight. The one Amazon who could never take a life and still had her blood innocence intact was ordering the possible deaths of many Amazons and Centaurs. Just because she did not kill by her own hand, she was still to blame in her eyes. Somehow ordering others to go to their deaths seemed almost worse.

Gabrielle stretched out on the small cot and tried to rest for her long journey the next day. Sleep would not come as her conscious tormented her with what she had done. Yet there seemed no other way to stop the Huns. Someone was going to have to fight them and Xena’s plan seemed like their best chance. "Oh, Xena. What are you doing now? I need to talk to you about this. It’s really bothering me." With these whispered words, the young bard rolled on her side and closed her eyes. She wondered if she could go to the Hun leader and reason with him. The picture of the destroyed village and dead bodies she had seen came into her mind, and she discarded that idea as too idealistic. Besides, Xena might kill her herself over that hair-brained scheme.

As she lay still, suddenly her soul shivered and she had a terrible fear for her warrior. Xena was in trouble, she could feel it. The warrior was hurting. Gabrielle opened her eyes and tried to calm her fears. She realized she did not have a dread or heaviness of spirit like the sensation she had when Xena died. This was different, like she was losing the warrior to an unknown darkness. The premonition of disaster again struck at her heart but she put it aside. "Xena said we would have to focus on the common good. I’ve got to do that now." With these thoughts, she closed her eyes again and drifted off into a troubled sleep. She was glad when dawn came and she could be off.

Chapter 12

The days passed quickly for Xena. Each morning she was up early with her soldiers. Her attention and training were paying off in a force even more disciplined and skilled than before. They were rapidly turning into an unbeatable unit. With the constant sparring and practice, Xena’s own skills reached yet a new level. Never had she felt stronger, faster or more unstoppable. As she walked among her men, Xena had the feeling that this was her intended destiny and it had always been so. She need not hide her feelings or watch her actions here. She could be natural and just act as she felt was necessary. She never had to question the motives or correction of her thoughts or deeds. She just knew she was doing the right thing. There were no ethics to consider or conflicting values to balance. There was only preparing for the fight to come and the conviction that victory was the only acceptable outcome. Days ago she had crossed the line and let the darkness of her soul have full control of her emotions. She built a very strong wall around any higher human sympathies or more altruistic inklings she once possessed and made sure they never reached her conscious mind or tainted her actions. In the same well secured place, she placed all thoughts and influences of Gabrielle. She placed her love there as well, never to be examined or allowed to come out in the open, even for a moment. The victory of darkness over the warrior was complete and the focus and power that it brought coursed through her veins. She knew what had to be done and without further thought or analysis she just did it.

As the warrior barked orders and demonstrated her own skills, her soldiers formed a bond with their leader. They would follow her into the jaws of death, unquestioning. They worshipped her as a goddess and gave her a fierce devotion only possible for Huns. She returned that gift by giving her own body and soul to her men.

The only emotional softness that could be detected in the warrior was seen in the attention she paid to her warhorse. She continued to care for Argo even though the young soldier that had attached himself to her, complained it was his job. As she saddled the palomino, the horse’s ears flickered back and forth as she listened to her master and seemed to understand every word. Finishing the job, she led the horse over to the open field. It was a good day to work on some new sword techniques from horseback.

Suddenly, she heard the rapid steps of a soldier approaching her. He bowed his head and stated, "Xena, Gaza az nagy requests you join him immediately in his tent."

She nodded, swung up on Argo and urged her into a cantor. With a sliding stop that scattered dust up from behind, she leaped off the horse and strolled into the tent of the Hun leader. He heard her approach but did not turn around, hands clasped behind his back. Xena stood tall and silent waiting for him to speak.

Finally, he sung around to face her.

"By your leave, Gaza, you sent for me?" As she uttered these words with deference in her voice, she inclined her head.

He smiled as her beauty and power assaulted his senses. Gods what a woman, he thought. Desire again over took his better judgment and he caught his breath.

"So, Xena. Your troops look to be in excellent fighting shape. And of course you look quite fit yourself."

"We are well and ready to serve your bidding." Xena’s eyes flashed as she proudly stood before the Hun leader.

"You are still determined to challenge my other general in the next csata day after tomorrow?" he asked with his own deep brown eyes returning the piercing fire of blue.

"Yes," Xena replied with steel in her deep voice.

"Very well. That means we will be here for a few more days before we march south. We are running out of provisions. This army takes a lot to feed it." He grinned slightly. "Our scouts have reported sighting a small village to the west of here that appears to be unguarded. Pick a raiding party and bring back supplies. This should hold us until we are ready to break camp."

"As you wish, Gaza az nagy." With this statement, Xena turned to leave the tent and was stopped by Gaza’s voice.

"Xena, you win. You can have half the spoils of our victories. Take your place at my side and we can lead this army together. Nothing can stop us. Join me now." He spoke these last words softly with almost a pleading quality in his voice.

Xena turned back to the Hun leader and allowed her warrior mask to soften slightly. "I have joined you, Gaza and I will accept half the bounty of our victories to come. But I will challenge your last general and replace him with myself. After I am successful, I will come before you and offer you my life as part of the allegiance ceremony for new generals. You shall decide if I live to ride at your side as is the right of a Hun vis`er."

Surprise showed on the Hun’s darkly handsome face. "I don’t ask this of you." He paused a moment and his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, "I don’t want to witness your suffering."

"I know but it is the custom and your army will expect it. You should demand nothing less and I am willing. Huns do not believe in words but in action. It is a part of your code and I understand this well. I must be able to prove my devotion, my loyalty to you and to your leadership, unquestioningly."

His eyes searched hers for what could lay behind these words. He longed to see love and respect but only piercing blue fire met his gaze. He abruptly turned and harshly ordered, "Gather the raiding party and leave now. We’ll see if you live beyond the csata day after tomorrow. Your death may come by my general’s hand or by mine."

"As you wish." Xena turned and strolled from the tent. She swung onto Argo’s back and galloped back to her soldier’s camp. With sharp firm tones, she instructed her soldiers to split into a raiding party and mount up.

Once assembled, she turned Argo and motioned the mounted unit forward. As they rode she turned to her young lieutenant, "Belia, you will lead this raid. I will be here with you but I want to see you in action."

The young soldier smiled openly, "Thank you for this honor."

Xena nodded and they rode on in silence soon covering the distance to the unsuspecting village. The raiding party grouped behind a small rise in ground as Xena and Belia rode ahead to surveyed the village below. It was a small cluster of thatched houses and fields set in a clearing between large trees and dense undergrowth. There were no defensive works and the few inhabitants visible did not appear to be on alert or even aware they were being watched.

"All right, Belia. We’ll ride straight down into the village. You know what to do." With this comment, Xena turned Argo back around and with the young leader at her side rejoined the raiding party. Looking at the fiery eyes of her troops, she saw they were ready for battle. She did not think of this upcoming fight as a slaughter but as a test for her newly acquired soldiers. She turned Argo and with Belia at her side moved to the front of the army.

Xena drew her sword and screamed at her men, "Take the village." Argo leaped forward and soon the entire party was at a dead run swarming over the hill and down into the unsuspecting town. Xena led them into the main street and galloped through until she reached the other side. She then shoved her sword back into the scabbard on her back and turned Argo around so she could witness the action taking place.

The fight did not last long. All the villagers were cut down and murdered on the spot. Others were dragged from the small huts and dispatched in a similar way. A few soldiers rode out into the fields and took care of the inhabitants working there. It was over in minutes. Belia was complete and disciplined in his orders. He had all the stores and provisions pulled from the huts and the town set afire. Horses were hitched to carts and the provisions loaded. Within a half hour, the mission was complete and the Huns turned back towards the army encampment they had recently left.

Xena watched all the events with cold, clinical appraisal, noting which soldier did well and which seemed confused or uncertain. She smiled at Belia’s abilities. She knew he was going to be a good leader. He just needed experience.

When all was ready, she surveyed the effects of the raid and gave a last order. "You three stay behind and throw the bodies into the burning huts." Belia looked at his general with surprise but did not question the order. He turned to make sure it was carried out.

With the sun just dipping behind the western hills, the party made its way back to the Hun encampment. Xena rode straight up to Gaza’s tent. The Hun leader was standing outside waiting for her with his arms folded in front of him.

Xena pulled Argo to a stop but did not dismount. "Gaza, we have returned with supplies. The raiding party was successful and we did not lose a man." Xena made her report with a cold emotionless voice.

"Well done. See that the supplies are distributed."

"As you wish." With these words, Xena galloped back to her men and shouted clear, clipped orders. As the men did her bidding, she unsaddled Argo and rubbed the mare down. Her face was an emotionless mask and only a slight tremble in her hand slipped through her strong defensive wall.

That night, the men bragged and laughed around the campfires. This was the best part of being a soldier, reliving the victory of the day. Brave feats of courage and skills exhibited were described in loud voices. Belia was applauded as a good leader and he beamed with pride at his troops. If the soldiers wondered why their general stayed in her tent and did not eat with them as was her custom, they made no comment. After all, no one questioned Xena or her actions. If her name was mentioned at all, it was with soft deferential tones of respect befitting a great Hun leader.

Chapter 13

Solari gasped for breath as she finished her hurried report and then looked fearfully at the Amazon in front of her. Ephiny’s fiery passionate nature was well know and she was not above striking a messenger that brought bad news.

Ephiny starred hard at the scout before her. With cold eyes she asked sharply, "Are you sure it was Xena? No mistake? After all, watching such a slaughter is unnerving."

Solari shook her head. "Ephiny, it was Xena. She led the charge and they killed everyone. Gods, ..the children. Then she burned the village. I’ve been telling you she’s different, somehow changed"

"What do you mean changed?" Ephiny demanded.

"She walks around the Hun camp like she owns it. They all bow before her like she is a queen or god. I tell you she is one of them now. You can see it in how she walks, moves and how she fights. I saw her take on five men at once in a practice drill and beat them all almost instantaneously. If she leads the Huns, we won’t be able to stop them." The fear in Solari’s normally strong, brave voice startled Ephiny more than her words.

"We keep to the plan. I’m going back with you to the Huns to see this for myself. You say they have not made any move to break camp."

"No, they just stay put and practice. It’s like they are waiting for some special event or something. I can’t say for sure. I have a feeling it has something to do with Xena and the Hun leader. You can see the attraction they have for each other when they are together. I think she has fallen for him."

"I don’t believe it. Xena knows what she’s doing. But I must admit I’m concerned about this devastated village. Still, she may have had to do it. Let’s go." Solari turned and the two Amazons walked rapidly in the direction of the Hun camp. Ephiny’s thoughts turned towards Gabrielle, her queen and friend. "Mother of Zeus, I hope this isn’t so," she thought. "It would kill her."

At the same time at the Hun encampment, the csata was in full swing. Once more Xena sat on Argo next to Gaza and watched the events unfold. Again her soldiers won every event. Once the csata was finished, Xena moved Argo from Gaza’s side to come before the leader. "As is my right, I challenge your general."

Gaza nodded and turned to the warrior on his left. "Do you accept this challenge, Mita?"

The slight, dark man nodded and softly stated, "As you wish."

He spurred his horse and galloped into the center of the open area in front of him. He drew his curved sword and pointed it at Xena. "Come, let us began."

Xena turned Argo into the open field and drew her own sword. With a nod, the two warriors charged directly at each other. Argo met the Hun’s horse chest to chest with a crunching impact. As both horses fell back on their hind quarters, Xena leaped high into the air, flipped and drove her feet into the startled Hun general’s chest. He was immediately knocked from his horse and fell solidly on his back with Xena on top of him. They rolled in the dirt but Xena’s larger frame soon had the slight general pinned beneath her. She pushed their crossed swords closer and closer to his neck and finally with a sudden thrust, his throat was slit. He died instantly.

Xena rose and raised her bloody sword as the Huns yelled and cheered her name. She turned and shoved her sword back into the scabbard on her back. She looked briefly at Argo and convinced that the warhorse suffered no injury, mounted the mare and returned to Gaza. Facing the Hun leader directly her eyes bore into his. "I have now defeated all of your generals in fair combat and have earned the right to challenge you for leadership of the army before us."

At her words, a deadly silence descended over the grounds and surrounding area. It was almost as if each Hun held his breath. Gaza eyed her coldly, his deep brown eyes flashing fire and rage.

In a loud clear voice, Xena continued. "I have no wish to do so. Gaza az nagy is the true Hun leader, a great leader, my leader. I will submit to the allegiance ceremony and give Gaza my life to prove that he has my unquestioned loyalty and devotion. Long live our great leader, Gaza!"

With these words, Xena raised her fist into the air and the Hun army began to chant "Gaza, Gaza, Gaza."

Gaza raised his own arm and asked for silence. Immediately, the yells stopped. "I accept Xena’s request for the allegiance ceremony and will take her life in my hands." He turned his head and gazed coldly into Xena’s eyes. She read her death there. "So be it," she muttered to herself and followed his lead back to his tent in the center of the Hun camp.

The young guard came up to her as she swung off Argo and took the reins from her hand. "If I die here, take good care of her," Xena commanded. The lad nodded his head solemnly and led the brave mare away. Xena turned and walked into Gaza’s tent. She looked around and saw twelve of Gaza’s best soldiers assembled in one corner in low conversation. Gaza had not yet entered. She moved over to the raised bed that Gaza used and stripped off her armor, weapons, gauntlets and belt. Now clothed only in her leather under garment, boots and white shift underneath she returned to the middle of the tent. She looked up and saw two leather strips with leather rings attached from each, dangling from the cross bar of the tent structure. She sighed and steeled herself, eyes focused straight ahead.

Gaza entered the tent and walked around to face her directly. He motioned to the twelve witnesses. They fell silent and stood at attention. As their eyes locked in a cold stare, Gaza recited an ancient oath. When he completed the sentences he asked, "Are you ready?"

"Yes," Xena replied and reached her arms high above her head. By stretching out her long frame and raising to her tip toes, she was just able to place her wrists through the loops dangling high above her head. Gaza then reached up and drew the leather straps tight, one in each hand. As he did so the leather rings cut into Xena’s wrists and pulled her taunt off the ground. Her shoulders screamed with the sudden pain the wrench cost them. She returned her cold stare to Gaza, dangling helplessly from the tent cross bar.

"I give my life to you as a pledge of my loyalty and devotion to your leadership," she recited in a monotone.

Gaza took his sword from his side and swung it around his head in an arc. He pointed the tip at the neck of the warrior and locked eyes with her. He recited another ancient passage and turned the sword around so that the handle end extended to the warrior.

He brought it back and drove it deep into Xena’s midsection. With a gasp, all the air left her lungs and the tent swam before her eyes. "I have taken the air that you breath," Gaza intoned.

Gasping, her eyes watering from the sharp pain in her gut, Xena finally was able to re-capture enough air to speak. "I give my life to you as a pledge of my loyalty and devotion to your leadership."

Panting and gasping as air rushed back into her screaming lungs, Xena kept her eyes firmly locked on the Hun leader in front of her.

He pulled the sword back, grabbed hold of the handle and pointed the sharp end at Xena. He again repeated the ancient oath. He then placed the tip of the sword under the left strap of the leather garment and the shift underneath and cut it. The cloth fell away to expose the left side of Xena’s body. Gaza dropped his gaze from Xena’s eyes to stare at her breast. Her own eyes never left his face. He brought up his left hand and with his finger gently traced an old scar on the top of her breast over her heart that had been etched there long ago. It was shaped as a crude letter "E".

"You have passed the allegiance ceremony before," he whispered.

"Yes, for Emre."

"Did you love him?"

"No," Xena replied softly. "I followed him. He was my sworn leader."

Gaza placed the tip of his sword at her breast over her heart and again uttered an ancient oath. He stared into her eyes but could read no emotion, only an icy fire.

Gaza pressed the point of his sword into Xena’s left breast. She felt the hot fire of the stab as blood began to slowly trickle down. She steeled herself to the pain and repeated for the last time, "I give my life to you as a pledge of my loyalty and devotion to your leadership."

"I love you, do you love me?" He asked her with their eyes locked, ever so slightly increasing the pressure of the sword.

"No, Gaza. I will fight for you and follow your leadership but my love belongs to another."

He never took his eyes from hers as he brought pressure to bear on the sword. The tip buried deeper into Xena’s flesh. He cut sharply with firm strokes in a circle until the crude "G" was completed over the faint scar that was there before. The fire in her breast was almost unbearable. Xena could not tell if he had cut to brand or cut to kill, so painful was the wound which bled freely. When he finished, he withdrew the blade and touched the bloody point to his lips. He backed away from her, turned to the witnesses and recited a last oath. They recited after him. Then one by one they filed passed the warrior as she hung from her wrists, blood flowing freely and puddeling on the tent floor. Each witness touched his finger to her blood, then to his lips and left the tent. Finally, only Gaza remained.

Xena was becoming light headed and she focused her eyes on his to stay conscious. He finally dropped his gaze and with a shrug turned, made his way to his bed and sat down. Only then did she look down at the wound and discover that it was not deep enough to kill.

"You must stay as you are with no food or drink until tomorrow when the sun is high. You understand the ritual?" Gaza’s voice was cold and emotionless.

"Yes," she whispered. In spite of her best intent, her head began to sag and drop towards her chest. He saw her weariness and pain and got up. He reached for the straps to lower them to allow her feet to touch the ground and take the pressure off her shoulders.

"No, Gaza. Leave it be," she admonished him. "We must follow the code."

He returned to his bed and stretched out, watching her face, his own impassive and cold. "This is going to be a long night. I didn’t intend my first night with you to be spend like this."

"I know," she whispered. "Why didn’t you kill me?"

"Its hard to kill the thing you love," he replied ruefully. Only then did his face soften and a deep sadness invade his clear brown eyes.

"Yes, its hard to kill love." Without further words, she lost the battle and slipped into unconscious. When she awoke, she found that early morning was at hand and Gaza’s eyes were still on her. He had watched her the whole night through, never sleeping or eating himself.

As noon approached, the twelve witnesses returned to the tent, each with a gift of food or drink for the warrior. Gaza gently let her down, took the leather binds from her wrist and placed her on his bed. He cared for her wound tenderly and fed her himself as she was too weak to move. The witnesses left and Gaza moved to her side. She watched a softness come over his face and handsome features. She knew he would have made a good husband and father. She closed her eyes and a restful sleep came over her tired body.

The next day Xena challenged Gaza to the fight he had promised her. He laughed and knew in her weakened state, it would be short lived. He picked hand to hand combat. They stole from his tent in the evening to have their contest unobserved. Xena surprised the Hun by putting up a fiercer struggle then he thought her condition would allow but soon he was able to pin the warrior princess in the dirt. He gathered her in his arms and gently carried her into his tent. That night and all the next day he lay with her and made good on his boast.

Chapter 14

Ephiny paced back and forth in front of the council chambers. Tyldus watched her with fire in his eyes. "If she has betrayed us, I’ll send her to Tartarus myself just as I should have done long ago."

Ephiny glared at her father-in-law, "Great, just take a number and get in line."

Solari and Eponin watched their leader pace with worried glances at each other. Finally, Solari could stand it no longer. "What should we do, Ephiny? We can’t continue with our plan if Xena is leading the Huns. She will counter it."

"Let’s forget this whole idea of staying in the trees and attack them in their camp now." Eponin was always impatient and favored quick action.

Ephiny stopped pacing and starred into the forest. "I know what I saw but I still can’t believe Xena would do this to us. My son and I would not be alive today if she hadn’t delivered him. I just don’t know anymore."

Solari spat. "She has betrayed us to the Huns because she has always been like a Hun. She is evil, a monster. I watched her fight. I tell you she loves it, loves to kill. Ares owns her and it shows."

"Well, she sure fooled me. When I saw her, I wanted to kill her immediately but somehow I saw a change in her eyes I couldn’t explain. How could she fake such a thing?" Tyldus shook his head. "And why did she help us come together and stop the war?"

Ephiny spread her hands in front of her. "I don’t know why and I don’t know how she can do this but I saw enough. Xena is one of the Huns and in love or at least in bed with the Hun leader. We need to think of a new plan fast. With the skills of that army and Xena leading it, we are all dead."

Suddenly, a warning shout was heard and two scouts came running into the Amazon village. They made for Ephiny and stopped in front of her. "We bring news, our queen has returned. She will be here shortly."

"What, Gabrielle is back? By the gods, can things get any worse?"

The sound of a galloping horse was heard and a lathered Centaur came into view. The Amazon queen had his neck in a death grip. Gabrielle’s hair flew in disarray as she bounced up and down. He slid to a stop in front of the waiting group and Gabrielle slipped from his back.

"Thanks Mardi for the lift. Next time though, I walk. My tail bone is never going to be the same." Gabrielle turned shinning eyes towards her friends. "So it looks like the Huns haven’t showed up yet. I knew Xena would hold them." She rushed on enthusiastically. "You should have seen the villagers. Xena’s mom was great in Amphipolis. They got to work and have their defenses all set up. We alerted the surrounding towns. They decided to send all their men and women to fight in Amphipolis and Poteidaia since they were the largest villages and most easily defended. The old, women who couldn’t fight and children were all hidden away in the caves in the mountains with all the food stores. I tell you if the Huns get by us, they will have quite a welcome in the valley."

"Gabrielle, what are you doing here? You were suppose to stay in Poteidaia," Ephiny reminded her queen severely.

"Please don’t be mad, Ephiny. I just had to come back and be here with you." Gabrielle smiled at her friend and touched her arm. "So how is Xena doing? Have you seen her?"

Suddenly, all eyes dropped to study the ground and the silence took on a strain that was not lost on the young bard. Worry crossed her face and she looked imploringly at Ephiny. "What is it, what’s wrong? Is Xena all right?"

"My queen, I have bad news. Xena appears to have changed sides and become a Hun. We fear she has betrayed us."

Gabrielle threw back her head and laughed with relief. "Oh, is that all. I thought something bad had happened. Ephiny, you of all people should know that Xena can play her role perfectly. What would make you think she has betrayed us?"

"Gabrielle," Ephiny started with soft eyes begging her queen to be brave. "You don’t understand. We have been watching the Hun camp. Xena now leads them. She has taught them how to fight as she does. The Hun army is now almost unbeatable."

As Gabrielle started to speak, Ephiny put up her hand for silence. "There’s more. She seems to be quite taken with the Hun leader and they walk the camp together. Finally, and I know this will be hard for you to hear but Solari saw Xena lead a raid on a defenseless village and kill all the inhabitants."

Gabrielle turned to Solari and her eyes widened. "Solari, no."

"I’m sorry my queen but I saw it with my own eyes. They killed them all; men, women, children and fired the town. Xena led the raid and congratulated her men afterwards. She even seemed pleased with the result."

Gabrielle turned stricken eyes towards her friends as her hand pressed against her beating heart. "Xena would not betray us. I know her. She could not do this." A dark shudder came from within as a shadow crossed Gabrielle’s soul as she uttered these words. The dread and fear that had plagued her from the start returned yet again.

"No, I don’t believe it. Solari, take me to the Hun camp and I’ll observe Xena myself. None of you know her as I do. You don’t know her heart and what is in her soul. She is not capable of doing what you suggest."

Ephiny nodded. She knew that Gabrielle would request this. "We can leave immediately but Gabrielle, if Xena has betrayed us, what should we do about our plan?"

Gabrielle smiled slightly, "We don’t change a thing." Before Ephiny could protest, Gabrielle continued. "I know my warrior princess. Even if the worst has happened and she leads the Huns to destroy us, she will not change her plan nor should we. Her true weakness is her love of her own ideas and her arrogance. She thinks she can overcome anything that stands in her way. She will divide her troops and dare you to beat them. She doesn’t know you have more Amazons from the other villages. Even if she has taught them great hand to hand combat skills, the Amazons in the trees will kill them. This plan will work, I know it."

"Very well, my queen," Ephiny replied with relief in her voice.

"Now Solari, let’ go. We need to get to the Huns as fast as we can. They will be moving out soon."

Ephiny grabbed a bag of provisions and she, Gabrielle and Solari moved through the village into the forest at a rapid pace.

The next morning found them in the tree that Solari had been using for her scouting. It was close enough to give a good view of the Hun camp but far enough away from the guards to allow low conversation. The three Amazons had watched the camp for almost an hour with no sign of the Hun leader or Xena. It was clear from the bustle and movement about the encampment that the Huns were planning a departure. The soldiers were packing gear. The camp fires were going full blast making extra rations.

Suddenly, Solari nudged Gabrielle and pointed. Xena had just emerged from the Hun leader’s tent. She gave a long slow stretch with her arms reaching towards the sky. Gabrielle watched her and smiled. How many times she had seen her friend start the morning in that same way. Gabrielle’s eyes devoured her soul mate. How she had missed seeing the warrior and being with her. Many times she had conversed with Xena in her mind, heard her beloved voice and words of advice. Gods, it was good to see her well and so strong.

Xena turned slightly and Gabrielle saw a tall dark man come out of the tent behind the warrior. He held her from behind and kissed her neck. She leaned back into him a moment and then turned. Together, they strolled away from the tent towards the cooking fires. As they passed the soldiers, the men turned their heads and starred at their leaders or bowed with respect.

A strange emotion welled up in Gabrielle’s chest and grabbed at her heart. She was not sure what to make of the scene below. "See, I told you how it is with them." Solari jerked her head in the direction of the camp.

Gabrielle whispered back, "This means nothing. Xena is doing what she must to delay the Huns and to win their trust. I think everything is working just as she planned it"

Gabrielle thought a minute and then turned to Solari. She studied the short cropped dark hair of the Amazon and asked Ephiny. "Do you think Solari can pass for a Hun if she were wearing their clothes and carrying a Hun sword?"

Ephiny nodded with a worried look. "What are you thinking?"

"Solari, I’m going to write a note to Xena; ask her when the Huns will attack and if there is any change in plan. Will you deliver it to her?"

Solari looked with troubled eyes at her queen. She knew that if Xena had become a Hun, she was walking into disaster. Yet if her queen asked this of her, she would do it gladly. She nodded.

Gabrielle quickly scribbled a note on a piece of parchment she removed from her pouch and gave it to Solari. The Amazon slipped out of the tree and was soon lost from view. Gabrielle settled back and closed her eyes. She knew this would take awhile and was in need of rest. Ephiny watched over her queen and kept a sharp eye on the camp below.

After what seemed like several hours, Ephiny grabbed Gabrielle’s arm and when the bard opened her eyes pointed towards the camp. At first, Gabrielle saw nothing unusual and then she saw a small dark Hun casually walking towards Xena and the Hun leader. The figure passed close by the warrior, turned and abruptly walked away towards a group of soldiers. Suddenly, Xena stopped cold and began to yell and point. "Oh, no," Ephiny gasped between clenched teeth.

Soldiers came running and grabbed Solari. They pulled her back towards the warrior and the Hun leader. Xena pointed again and moved in front of the crowd that was forming. She grabbed Solari and pulled her into the middle of the camp where a large stake was standing upright in the ground. She shoved the Amazon against the wooden pole and drew a long dagger from her belt. The sun danced on the blade as Xena raised her knife.

"No, Xena," Gabrielle gasped with a stiffened cry.

The dagger flashed down and Solari slumped forward dropping to the ground. Xena slowly turned to the troops showing them the bloody knife. The faint cry of "Xe-na, Xe-na, Xe-na" could be heard from the distance. She grabbed Solari by the shirt, lifted the limp Amazon high over her head and walked purposefully to the forest at the edge of the clearing. She unceremoniously dumped the body into a large thicket and turned with both arms raised. The soldiers again cheered. Xena made a gesture that made it clear the body was to be left for the wolves and vultures. Then the warrior returned to her lover’s side and arm in arm they disappeared from view into the Hun’s tent.

"What do you say about your best friend now?" savagely spat out Ephiny.

Gabrielle sat stricken and dumbfounded. Her stomach churned as her mind wrestled with what her eyes had seen. Xena had stabbed Solari ruthlessly almost joyously. Her soul mate had killed in cold blood and enjoyed the act. Gabrielle buried her head in her hands and a low sob escaped her. She trembled with sorrow as she raised her dry eyes to Ephiny. The devastating knowledge that she had sent Solari to her death sent a shock through her body. She had killed her just as surly as had Xena. Her blood innocence was lost. The Amazon shrank from the look of horror in the sea green eyes of her queen. Gabrielle felt a coldness engulf her heart as she realized the warrior was lost to darkness. Evil had reclaimed Xena.

Ephiny watched her friend struggle for control as tears burned the corners of her own eyes. Slowly, Gabrielle shook her head as her eyes narrowed. A cold set expression crossed her face. "So be it. Come on Ephiny, we have to get back to the village. Now! We’ve got work to do." The harshness of her tone and the strength of her voice brought Ephiny immediately to her feet. They dropped down out of the tree and hurried away. Ephiny had a hard time keeping up with her fast striding queen. It was clear Gabrielle had learned all she needed to know. There was a purpose to her firm step and determination in her bearing.

"Just remember one thing," Gabrielle hissed in a low voice to Ephiny. "Xena is mine."

Chapter 15

Gabrielle and Ephiny reached the Amazon village with a few hours of darkness left before dawn. Gabrielle slipped off to the small hut she and Xena had shared so often when visiting the Amazons. Stretching out on the low wooden pallet, she tried to will herself to sleep. It was a losing struggle. Even through closed eyes, the demonic vision of Xena with her dagger raised over Solari came back to haunt the bard. Tears escaped her tightly pressed eye lids and sobs racked her soul.

Her best friend, her soul mate, had become a monster. Perhaps she had always been so. Gabrielle wondered if her own optimistic views of all humans had deceived her into not seeing the true nature of the warrior princess. After all, hadn’t Xena warned her time and time again of her dark nature and leaning towards evil? Gabrielle’s steadfast devotion and commitment to Xena’s goodness now seemed childish and naive. All along had the Xena she knew been a fiction, a part played for convenience by the warrior, or a hero made up by the bard’s own self delusions? Was she such a good actress or had Gabrielle’s own girlish blindness made the ruse easy?

Gabrielle twisted in agony. What a sentimental fool. She had cost the life of one of her people who looked to her for leadership and guidance. She had failed as a queen. She had let her own deep love of Xena interfere with her good sense. Everyone else saw the situation clearly, but not Gabrielle. The tears continued to flow down the cheeks of the young woman as Xena’s full betrayal of her trust sank into her heart. Suddenly, white hot rage coursed through her veins. The bard did not think it possible she could have ever felt such hatred.

"By the gods, I swear I will remove this evil from the earth. Never again will the warrior princess be allowed to destroy innocent people and their homes. I’ll kill her myself and send her to Tartarus where she belongs. Never again will I allow her to betray my trust." Gabrielle completed this vow through clenched teeth with a harsh whisper.

As early light filtered through the gaps in the wood siding of the small hut, Gabrielle gave up on any sleep coming to her. She swung to a sitting position on the edge of the pallet. A small voice in her soul pleaded with the rage that had overcome her heart. Gabrielle listened to that quiet whisper tell her that her soul would know the truth even if her senses and heart said something different. She shook her head. Even being played for a na´ve fool in front of all her Amazons, her trust betrayed before all eyes, even then she still loved the warrior princess. It didn’t matter. Gabrielle knew what she must do. She had to protect innocent people from the warrior who had lost all control. Xena as the leader of the Huns would be the death of all civilization. Gabrielle had no allusions about the power and strength of the great woman warrior. She was an unstoppable force and when teamed with the bloody army she had claimed as her own, the possibilities were truly frightening. Gabrielle had to think of the greater good. The promise she had made to Xena was becoming a reality. Had Xena known this would happen all along?

The bard left the hut and moved into the center of the Amazon village with her head down and feet dragging. Ephiny immediately appeared at her side, clearly watching for her appearance.

"Get any sleep?" the Amazon warrior asked solicitously.

"Not much. Ephiny, do you think Arisia is awake yet? I need something from her."

Ephiny nodded and motioned towards the small building at the edge of the village. "She has been up most of the night still working on the last batch of Amazon poison. She has been complaining that she is a healer, not a witch making potions and brews. Why, are you sick?"

"Yes, and Arisia can help me with my pain." Gabrielle swung around and strolled determinedly towards the healer’s hut.

She walked inside the fairly large enclosure and let her eyes adjust to the dim light. The old wrinkled Amazon healer turned to her guest from a pot she was stirring. She did indeed resemble a witch concocting a potion. "Gabrielle, it is good to see you, my queen. How may I help you?"

Gabrielle looked into the soft gray eyes of the healer and unbidden tears streamed down her cheeks. The memory of the hours Xena had spent with this kindly old woman comparing notes and remedies of the healing arts came back to the bard in a rush. The pain of what she now had to ask of the healer was too awful to bear.

The old woman moved to the side of the bard and put her arm around her shoulders. She gently guided her queen to a small bench and sat her down. She eased down next to her. " What is it, Gabrielle? What troubles you? Don’t worry about us Amazons. My poison will be deadly and we will defeat these bastards. This I promise you."

"It’s not that, Arisia. I’ve come to you for a special potion. It’s….it’s for Xena." Gabrielle rushed on with her eyes piercing daggers into the old woman’s. "She has betrayed us and now leads the Huns against our forces. I must stop her."

Arisia shook her head in disbelief and concern. Gabrielle continued with her request. "You know how strong she is. A simple mixture may not be effective enough. I need something from you that is very special and very potent." Gabrielle went on to explain her plan to remove the warrior princess from leadership of the Hun army.

Arisia nodded her understanding with sorrow in her eyes. "I have just such a mixture. It won’t take long for me to fix it. Wait here." She stood and went to her jars and herbs located on shelves to one side of the hut. The old healer turned back to her queen and straightened up slightly. "Gabrielle, are you sure you want me to do this?"

"Yes," Gabrielle whispered in a soft voice. "It must diffuse through the skin immediately. Can you make it instantaneous and painless?"

Arisia turned back to her jars and shook her head. "The effects of this potion will be felt by touch just as rapidly as if it were swallowed. I can promise you the results will be rapid. However, nothing I have this strong is painless. That’s impossible. It will be quick, though."

Gabrielle buried her head in her hands and sat quietly with her thoughts whirling and her soul on fire. The old healer went to work and shortly, poured a liquid into a very small vial and corked it firmly. "Now, Gabrielle you must be very, very careful when you use this. One drop on your hand or any part of your body and the effects will be immediate. I have never made a stronger batch."

Gabrielle nodded and put the vial in her pouch. The old woman hugged her queen fiercely. "Please be sure you want to do this. The effects can not be reversed. You’ll have to live with the consequences of your act."

"I understand, Arisia. Thank you," Gabrielle whispered softly and left the small hut.

Back outside in the morning sun’s glare, Gabrielle walked over to Ephiny who was surrounded by a group of Amazons. They were discussing last minute plans and placements as she walked up. "Gabrielle, we go with the plan as is, right?"

"Yes. Ephiny, you will lead the Amazons here. I’ll take Eponin and lead the attack at the pass. Is that all right with you, Eponin?" The brisk no nonsense voice of their queen caused the Amazons to smile in relief.

"Yes, my queen," Eponin replied.

"Now I require one thing more. I want the two best archers we have to accompany me to the pass. Eponin, who are they?"

Eponin grinned. "I’m the best and Mara is about as good as I am."

"Good, then I want you two at my side the whole time. When the attack starts, remember no archer is to shoot at any Hun near a Centaur and no archer is to shoot at Xena. Is that clear?" Gabrielle stared hard first at Eponin and then at Ephiny, waiting for any protest.

"Yes, my queen."

Ephiny looked searchingly into the eyes of her queen. "What do you plan to do?" she asked softly. "You know that Amazon code requires blood for Xena’s treachery?"

"I will bring Xena down with two arrows, one from each archer at my side," Gabrielle answered with no emotion in her voice.

"Gabrielle, it can’t be done. You of all people know how she can catch arrows from the air. We’ll need to rain arrows down on her to have any chance of killing her."

"Leave this to me, Ephiny. I told you all, Xena is my problem. I have a brew that Arisia made for me which will stop her on contact. I’ll pour the liquid on the shafts of the arrows." Gabrielle looked harshly around her, again waiting for protest. None came.

Ephiny suddenly turned away and then back towards her queen. She grabbed Gabrielle’s hands and began to wrap them in the protective leather they all wore. "I won’t have you risking your life when you do this."

Gabrielle watched in silence with misted eyes as Ephiny finished her task. "May Xena spend eternity in torment in Tartarus for what she has put you through. I’m so sorry." Ephiny looked deeply into the sea green eyes of her queen. The pain and anguish she saw there almost broke her heart. "Please Gabrielle be careful and come back to us. We need you desperately."

Gabrielle smiled bravely and then motioned Eponin to move out the Amazons that were to fight at the pass. "Ephiny, keep yourself safe as well. Stay in the trees. Remember, no hand to hand fighting. Now, promise me."

"I promise, my queen."

Gabrielle turned and followed the band of Amazons and Centaurs headed for the pass. She glanced back over her shoulder as Ephiny stuck her fist in the air in an Amazon salute. Gabrielle returned the gesture and walked quickly away from the clearing into the forest. She gave the small village a last look. If she ever returned all would be changed; the village, the Amazons and most of all their queen. How could she live with herself after her actions of this day? Could she survive at all?

Chapter 16

The morning dragged on as Ephiny paced back and forth waiting for word of the Hun advance. As noon approached, she knew that Gabrielle and Eponin would have their warriors in position at the pass waiting as she did. Still there was no word. The feisty warrior hated these moments before battle the worst. She remembered Gabrielle telling her that Xena seemed to grow calmer and more focused in the hours before a fight. Ephiny wondered how she did it. Her nerves were raw and tightly strung.

Suddenly, a runner appeared in full stride and passed through the middle of the village. She saw Ephiny and rapidly closed the distance between them. As she got closer, Ephiny stopped in her tracks in amazement. The runner was Solari.

Solari stopped in front of the Amazon warrior and was shocked when the normally reserved Ephiny grabbed her in a huge bear hug. "Solari, you’re alive."

"Yes, for now. You could help me stay that way by not crushing my ribs quite so hard," Solari teased. Quickly she lost her grin and with a serious look around continued. "I hope you’re ready. The Huns are less than an hour back and coming fast. I saw Xena order them to split their forces, about a third are headed this way. Xena and the Hun leader are leading the rest up the trail towards the pass."

Ephiny nodded. "We are ready. Gabrielle and Eponin should be in position as well with the Centaurs."

"Good. I saw a couple of Centaurs take out the Hun rear guards. All seems to be going just as Xena planned."

"Oh, gods, Xena. Solari, we saw Xena stab you. What happened?"

Solari grinned. "When I get a hold of that big muscular lug, I’m going to knock her head off. She dumped me in a thicket filled with wild raspberries. I’ve been picking stickers out of my rear ever since. Anyway, when she grabbed me, she told me to play along and so I did. She pushed me against a pole and drew her dagger. For a minute I thought I was a goner. Then I looked into her eyes, and I saw she was laughing at me. She even gave me a wink. I relaxed and realized she had fooled us all. She gave herself a cut on her left hand that bled like crazy. Then she plunged the dagger between my arm and body and I played dead. She smeared her hand over my chest and knife to make her blood look like mine. I heard the Huns cheering and Xena shouting something back. She picked me up and I just let myself go limp. While she carried me to the woods, she told me to tell you to keep to the plan and the Huns would attack within two days. She also warned that the one weakness of the trap is if the Huns counter charge the Centaurs. She said you should place extra Amazons near the rear in case they tried it. She also said she had killed all the Hun generals and would take care of the Hun leader. That way there would be no one to lead the Huns out of the trap we set. She told me to lay still till dark and then get back to you. I told her Gabrielle was with us and she got real mad. She said you were to keep her safe and she would hold you personally responsible."

The stricken look on Ephiny’s face surprised the Amazon scout. "Ephiny, what’s wrong? Everything is working out real well."

"Solari, you’ve got to go to Gabrielle. Never mind why. Just get to Gabrielle before the Huns reach the pass. She has to see you alive."

"I can’t make it there fast enough. They are well on their way."

"Don’t say that. You’ve got to reach Gabrielle before the fighting starts. Can you do it?"

Solari listened to the urgency in Ephiny’s voice and nodded. "I’ll fly if I have to." With that, she turned, grabbed a water skin and was quickly lost from view.

Just then another runner came up to Ephiny to report. "Huns are approaching the outer perimeter."

"Very well. Alert the village." Ephiny turned and with a last desperate look in the direction Solari had taken, she moved to the nearest tree and sounded the warning. The time for focus was now. The Huns were here.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle and Eponin surveyed the deployment at the pass. The Amazons were all in place as were the Centaurs. Tyldus was with his warriors, impatient and ready for a fight. The Amazon pit was ready, very deep and wide with sharpened sticks dipped with poison placed in it at all angles. Eponin had noted that no one had ever been able to jump their horse across its width. They didn’t bother to cover or hide the yawning opening. Any Hun who wanted to challenge it was welcome.

"There, Gabrielle," Eponin pointed, excitement in her voice. "See the dust rising over that hill. The Huns are coming."

"The word has been passed, right Eponin? No one is to aim at Huns near Centaurs and no one is to shoot at Xena."

"Yes, my queen. All know and will obey."

The dust cloud drew closer and then suddenly over the rise, the swarm of Huns appeared. How wild and magnificent they looked, riding at a fast gallop, shirts flapping and swords catching the sun’s rays. Gabrielle caught her breath. There directly in front rode Xena side by side with the Hun leader. How fearless and confident she looked, the leader of an unstoppable juggernaut ready to conquer the world. Closer and closer they came.

Eponin looked at Gabrielle for the signal but the Amazon queen kept calm and waited until the last possible second. "Now," she yelled. The cry unleashed a rain of arrows and spears. The Huns towards the back charged forward. Xena pulled up and let them pass her. They ran their horses right into the pit. The screams of horses and men were deafening. Behind, the cry of battle was heard with the yells of the dying and wounded.

Gaza looked around, starred at the slaughter that was unfolding before his eyes and turned back to the woman at his side. "What is the meaning of this?" he shouted.

Xena’s fierce wicked smile widened but never reached her cold icy stare. She drew her sword and pointed it at Gaza. "Party’s over. I warned you Huns to stay away from my homeland. You should have listened."

Gaza’s eyes narrowed. "Betrayed, you betrayed me. All along you planned this? And what of your oath?"

Xena laughed harshly. "I am Xena of Amphipolis and you threatened my family, my home. You think I care about some Hun oath. Get real."

With a roar of rage, Gaza drew his sword and swung at the grinning warrior. Xena easily blocked his thrust and pushed Argo forward against his stallion. Again their swords clashed as strength on strength was met. Gaza tried a side swing but Xena blocked this as well. She reached her foot out and delivered a kick that caught him on the chin. His head snapped back in surprise as she swung her sword again. He was just barely able to block it. She thrust her weapon again and again with such strength that Gaza was forced to back up. Xena seemed a demon possessed with super human strength as she kept ferociously hammering the Hun leader. Suddenly, she pulled Argo back and then pushed the warhorse right into the Hun’s animal. The crash of the two mighty steeds jarred Gaza loose from the saddle. As he slipped forward, Xena flashed her sword down and cut him across his chest. A look of surprise and wonder crossed his face. He hesitated his own counter thrust when he saw the beautiful face of the woman he loved so close to his own. That hesitation was his end as Xena shoved her sword deep into his midsection.

"Szep katona, I love you," he whispered and slipped from the saddle. Xena looked down at the fallen leader. For a moment her face softened as she saw the man, not the warrior. "I’m sorry Gaza. In another time, another place, you and I would have been great together."

He smiled and then his face set and went cold. His fiery brown eyes lost their glow and stared into emptiness.

Xena shoved her sword back into her scabbard and watched the battle proceed. It was pretty much over. Most of the Huns were dead or dying on the ground. The few that remained in the saddle were fighting hand to hand with the Centaurs. Suddenly, Xena felt a presence and looked up. There on the side of the canyon on a large flat rock stood Gabrielle with two Amazon warriors on either side of her.

Xena grinned widely up at her friend. She looked wonderful, a real Amazon queen leading her people to victory. How proud Xena was of her strength and bearing. Gods, how good it was to see her safe and well. As their eyes locked, she saw Gabrielle motion with her hand and point at her. The two Amazon archers aimed and fired their arrows. Without thinking and purely reflexively, Xena caught both projectiles as they flew towards her heart. She looked up at Gabrielle, complete astonishment on her face. She looked down stupidly at the arrows in her hand and felt the wetness of the shafts. Again she looked up at her best friend but this time she understood. Although there was a distance that separated them, Xena’s keen sight read Gabrielle’s lips as she uttered "I’m sorry."

Xena again looked down at the arrows and let them fall from her hands. All ready she could feel a numbness in her fingers that was slowly creeping up her arms. Tears came to her eyes as she gazed up at the bard. She had caused Gabrielle to lose her blood innocence. She knew how horrible this burden would be for her to bear. If only she had known, she would have done this deed herself and saved the bard this on her conscious. Now, it was too late. She could feel a coldness spreading out over her body and a strange light-headed feeling came over her. Won’ be long, she thought. The stuff is really fast acting. Suddenly, she realized Gabrielle would have to stand there and watch. No, that would be too much. She would protect her soul mate one last time. She must not see her die knowing the cause.

Xena swung Argo around. "Do this last thing for me and for Gabrielle, girl," the warrior whispered to her beloved horse. She looked up a last time at her best friend and with piercing eyes said "I love you." She pulled her gaze away and focused. "Ya Argo," she screamed and urged the powerful warhorse into a dead run, straight for the Amazon pit.

Gabrielle watched in cold silence. As she read the lips of the warrior, her heart broke and a cry escaped her. Suddenly, she realized what her friend was about to attempt and she screamed "No, Xena." It was too late and of course the warrior couldn’t hear her. Gabrielle and the Amazons could only watch as a golden blur charged ever closer to the wide chasm. Then at the last possible moment, the great horse leaped high into the air gathering her legs under her. She seemed to fly with the warrior hunched low in the saddle.

"She’ll never make it," Eponin stated.

Suddenly, Gabrielle couldn’t contain herself anymore and she yelled at the top of her lungs, "Go, Argo!"

The great horse landed the front half of her body on the other side of the pit but her hind legs fell back as the ground on the edge of the chasm crumbled under them. For an instant, Gabrielle thought both horse and rider would slip back into the pit. Suddenly, Xena threw her weight forward on the neck of the great horse allowing Argo to gain traction and pull her back legs over the edge. They galloped off in a wild run down the trail and out of sight.

Gabrielle caught her breath as she realized Xena had made the impossible leap. Eponin shook her head in wonder. "Was there every a warrior like Xena?" she asked no one in particular.

Gabrielle took one more look at the battle field below. All was well. The Amazons were finishing off the last of the Huns as the Centaurs pressed from the rear. Their victory was complete. She turned and began a rapid decent down to the trail below with Eponin and Mara at her heels. As she hurried along, she turned a corner and almost bumped directly into an Amazon running up the rocks towards her.

"Gabrielle, Ephiny sent me to you."

Gabrielle stopped and looked with complete amazement at the Amazon before her. A wide grin broke out on her face, "Solari, you’re alive. Thank the gods."

"Yes, my queen. I’m sorry I was too late to take part in the attack but it sure doesn’t look like you needed any help. I just want to get my hands on that warrior friend of yours. I owe Xena a good thrashing. Where is she?"

Solari stopped her chatter when she realized a strange silence had settled on the group. The lump in Gabrielle’s throat prevented speech so it was Eponin that broke the news. "Solari, Xena’s dead."

"What do you mean? How can that be?" asked the astonished Amazon.

Eponin stated flatly, "We shot her with arrows wetted with Amazon poison."

Solari could only look with horror at her queen. She didn’t know what to say or do. The pain in Gabrielle’s eyes was unbearable to see. Even more tragic was the cold set of her pale face.

"I have to go to her," she whispered and turned to pass Solari. As their queen moved down the path, the Amazons turned to follow. Gabrielle turned back and stopped them with a raised hand. "No, I must do this alone."

"My queen," Eponin began slowly and carefully. "You should not face this by yourself. She is dead by now. Let us go with you and help bring her back. Xena will have an Amazon funeral with the full rights of a brave and noble warrior."

A stern cold look crossed the young bard’s face as she replied harshly, "Leave me to do what I must. This I command you."

"Yes, my queen," Eponin stated weakly. Other Amazons joined the group and they all watched sorrowfully as Gabrielle walked with firm stride down the trail Argo had so recently traveled. She knew she would not have to walk far. Arisia had said the results were almost instantaneous and she had prepared the dosage so that even the strong warrior could not withstand the effects.

As she rounded a bend in the trail, Gabrielle stopped suddenly with a gasp. She had known what she would find but the actual vision struck her like a blow. Argo stood with her head down nuzzling a lifeless form on the ground. The warrior lay on her side curled in a fetal position with her arms wrapped around her midsection. Her last moments had come alone in agony.

Gabrielle moved forward slowly. Her mind whirled and a sharp pain stabbed her heart as she approached her best friend and soul mate. She slipped down next to the warrior and gently pulled the limp form onto her lap. "Oh, Xena," she cried as she cradled the precious head next to her heart. She brushed back raven black hair from the pale clammy forehead and held her tightly. "Xena, please wake up, please. I’m so sorry." As she bent down, hot tears poured from her eyes, ran down her cheeks and fell on the upturned face of her warrior. Gabrielle couldn’t stop the flow and great sobs racked her body as her grief poured forth and consumed her very being.

She shook the warrior she held and cried again, "Wake up, Xena, please wake up."

Xena’s head rolled forward limply and then came back to rest again against Gabrielle’s chest as she held her close. "Come on, wake up, wake up now," Gabrielle demanded in a desperate tone.

Suddenly, there was a slight shudder and moan from the warrior. "Gabrielle…," she whispered hoarsely.

"I’m here, Xena,"

"Gabrielle, I…I can’t see you."

"You might try opening your eyes," Gabrielle replied softly.

She smiled through her tears as she looked down into two cloudy unfocused cobalt blue eyes.

"Yes, that’s better, sort of. Am I still alive?"

"Yes, so it would seem." The bard sniffed slightly and let a half grin play across her face. "Well, no one has ever died from henbane I’m told, even though the dose you took was as strong as it can be made."

"Henbane? The arrows had henbane on them? Why, Gabrielle?"

"Long story. Xena, do you forgive me? I need to know," Gabrielle asked with sorrow and fear in her voice.

Xena looked up at the sweet face before her and smiled. "There is nothing to forgive. I love you." With these words, the warrior drifted off into a drug induced sleep. Gabrielle kept stroking the quiet head in her lap, as she gained control of her tears that had started again with the warrior’s last words.

She sat that way for quite some time holding the warrior close. It was Argo who broke the spell by reaching her head down and blowing through her nostrils, showering the bard and the sleeping warrior.

"Yuk, okay Argo you win." With this comment, Gabrielle scrambled to her feet. Looking down at the gently sleeping warrior, the bard smiled with relief and gladness. She signaled the warhorse to go down on her knees and pulled the limp form of the warrior across the saddle. Once Argo returned to her feet, they walked slowly back up the trail towards the Amazon camp.

As they came through the trees, they met a group of silent Amazons who came to a straight attention. Solari and Eponin moved to one side as Ephiny stepped out from behind them. The Amazons watched in anguish as Gabrielle led the golden warhorse towards them with the lifeless form of the warrior draped across the saddle.

Ephiny rushed forward and grabbed Gabrielle’s hand. "I’m so sorry," she whispered tears in her eyes.

Gabrielle eyed the women warriors, turned to Ephiny and sternly commanded, "Report on the battle results."

"Yes, my queen. All the Huns are dead. Our victory here at the pass and at the village is total."

"Loses?"

"I’m sorry to report we lost ten Amazons and fifteen Centaurs. A handful were wounded. We are about finished with clean up here. We have put all the arrows and spears tainted with poison and the bodies of the Huns in the pit and covered it over."

"Who did we lose?"

Ephiny listed the names of the Amazons and Centaurs killed and then looked sadly at Gabrielle. "Of course, I did not include the loss of Xena."

Suddenly, a growl from the back of Argo was heard. "Gabrielle, I’m upside down."

Gabrielle grinned at the shock on the faces of the Amazons before replying to her friend. "You’re on Argo. That seemed the best way of getting you back to camp."

"Ahuh. Then tell me why did Ephiny say I’m lost?"

By this time, a fit of giggles took over the bard. Finally, able to answer she said, "You’ve been lost for a long time princess, but I’ve found you now and I won’t let you go."

"Hmmm," was the reply from the saddle as the warrior settled back into sleep.

Gabrielle smiled at the happy faces before her as they all turned and walked back to the Amazon village. She knew that the legend of the warrior princess would now include the amazing leap over the Amazon pit and her incredible strength that could withstand Amazon poison. Yes, this had been quite a day. She glanced back at her sleeping friend and a worried frown crossed her face. They still had to settle some painful things between them before they could go on together.

Epilogue

The early morning light streamed through the small hut and awoke the warrior. Gabrielle still slept next to her. Xena shook her head and was immediately sorry as a sharp pain hit her between the eyes. She must have groaned because Gabrielle was immediately awake.

"So, you’re up. Good. How do you feel?"

Xena looked at her friend ruefully, "Feels like Argo kicked me in the head."

"Yeah, I sort of know the feeling. How about us going to the hot springs for a soak before breakfast? It might help you feel better and it sure would make you smell better."

"Oh, and just what is wrong with my smell?"

"You smell like a Hun. Don’t they ever bathe?"

"Nope."

"Well, if you and I are going to share this hut, you need to stop being a Hun."

"Okay," meekly replied the warrior.

They grabbed towels and walked across the village towards the hot springs. Several times the warrior staggered, still wobbly on her feet. Each time the bard grabbed her and slipped an arm around her waist to study her. As they passed by Arisia, who watched them from her hut, they waved. The old healer shook her head in amazement. The henbane she had mixed was strong enough to put a normal person out for a week and here the next day Xena was up and around. Still Arisia knew the effects of the drug and what her head felt like. She ducked back into her hut to mix up a little powder that would help the warrior through the day.

Xena and Gabrielle moved on to the hot springs and entered the enclosure. They were glad to see they were the only ones there. As Xena slipped off her shift and gently lowered herself into the rock pool, she turned as Gabrielle gasped.

"What is that wound on your chest?" Gabrielle asked a touch of horror in her voice.

Xena looked down, saw the red angry cuts on her breast and shrugged. "Don’t worry, Gabrielle. It is nothing. It’s just a wound that will heal. The scar that it leaves will fade with time. It means nothing to me. I’m sorry I startled you."

"Why did you let them do that to you?" Gabrielle’s voice held anger and concern.

"It bought us time, four days to be exact. It also helped me convince the Huns I could be believed. No one questioned my plan to divide the troops. No leader would ever allow such a move unless he fully trusted the person suggesting it. Forget it, Gabrielle. I have."

"Now, don’t you have a question for me?" Gabrielle courageously faced the warrior with serious and strangely sad sea green eyes.

Xena studied her friend’s face a moment and then looked down. "Why did you use henbane?"

"Wrong question. Ask the right one," Gabrielle demanded.

"All right, did you believe I had betrayed you and become a monster again, leading the Huns to conquer the world?" With these words, Xena raised her cobalt blue eyes to the face of her soul mate. The fear and pain in her eyes broke the heart of the bard but she faced her sternly. The truth had to be told.

"No, Xena. I didn’t. When I thought I saw you kill Solari I became angry. I hated you then. All night I worried and wrestled with what my senses told me, what everyone told me against what my soul knew to be true. In the end, I had to go with my soul. I know you, I know your pain and I know your heart. The Xena I know could never betray me. I could no more kill you than kill myself. In fact, it would be like killing half my soul. I couldn’t go on without you. So I decided to place my trust and my soul in your hands. Just like I’ve done so often with my life."

Gabrielle looked seriously at her friend as her eyes misted. "I had to do something, though. The Amazons demanded justice for Solari. I knew I had to get you away from the Huns and the Amazons. So I got Arisia to brew the strong dose of henbane. Everyone else thought it was Amazon poison and I let them. I figured if you were out for a day or so, it would give me enough time."

Xena stared searchingly at her friend as the conflict and doubt played across her face. Gabrielle could see her working through her desire to believe against the suspicion and uneasiness that would bring back the old walls between them.

"Xena, you have to get beyond this and trust me. We can’t go on together if you believe I was ready to kill you yesterday. You have to be able to place your trust and your soul in my hands. I knew the risk I was running was not for your life but the risk of losing you forever. That terrified me more than the thought of injury to you. Don’t turn your back on me now. Please. You can’t believe that I could ever betray you." The bard’s voice quivered with the soft plea.

The warrior suddenly reached forward and gathered the bard into a strong embrace. "I do trust you Gabrielle. I trust you with my life and my soul. I also trust that if you think I have stepped over the line and gone too far towards the dark, you will deal with it, for everyone’s sake. I would never think of that as betrayal."

Xena pushed the bard back so she could see her face. "That’s why I thought you’re use of Amazon poison was the right thing to do, not henbane."

Gabrielle searched the sad face of her friend, thoughtfully. "You’re talking about the village you raided, aren’t you?"

"Yes," the warrior whispered.

"Tell me about it, Xena. I won’t be judge or jury. Let’s just talk about it and how you felt. I know to defeat the Huns, you did what you thought you had to. I could never despise you for what you did to save us."

"All right," the warrior said as she drew a shaky breath. "I’ll tell you all. Just know I could never betray you or your trust in me."

"I know."

The two friends soaked quietly in the hot springs, arms draped around each other, talking softly. The warrior learned another lesson in the healing power of sharing her feelings with the one person she could trust completely. The bard learned yet again how deep the emotions of the warrior ran and how willing she was to sacrifice herself, body, and soul for her friend and her family.

The End


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