When Xena regained consciousness, the approaching darkness outside the cave resulted in even more blackness inside the enclosure. The warrior slowly raised her body away from the earthen surface, stroking the painful ache still radiating from the middle of her chest. She carefully settled back against the stone wall, struggling hard to regain her equilibrium. The sound of the golden mare's comforting whinny helped to center her focus. After a few minutes, Xena pulled herself to her knees and, using the cave wall to steady herself, stiffly made her way to the entrance of the cave.
Argo's soft muzzle massaged the sensitive center of her sternum. The warrior absently stroked the animal's face as she continued to gather her resources. The mare's large brown eyes drew the gaze of her mistress. Xena's solemn introspection was interrupted by the palomino's solicitous nudging. The blue eyes blinked and slowly filled with tears. The warrior wrapped both arms around the animal's thick neck.
"It's so hard, Argo," the warrior moaned. "Without her, I'm exactly what Ares wants me to be ... a worthless, bloodletting imbecile." The horse shook her great head. "And I'm so tired," the tall woman whispered. "If I could just rest ... and think." The warrior's sobs were muffled by the mare's silvery mane. Argo nickered sympathetically.
After a long moment, Xena released the animal and drew one long hand across her wet face. She stepped back to address the beautiful flaxen head. "Guess I need to get a grip, huh?" the warrior murmured bravely, her fingers massaging the horse's supple ears. "Yeah," the woman repeated softly. "Get a grip, warrior." The tall, slender form straightened, a new purpose showing in the sleek frame. Xena swept the remaining moisture from her bronze cheeks and bent to gather another bundle of dry grass for Argo's feed pile. She turned to inspect the level of water in the stone basin she had assembled for the mare. When she was satisfied with the horse's status, she brushed the light debris from her hands and faced the knowing brown gaze.
"OK, enough brooding. Time to shape up." Xena gave the mare's neck a firm pat. "See ya in the morning girl. We've got some work to do." The mare whinnied her approval.
Chapter 11 ~~
"Are you saying I can go back?" The bard's green eyes were wide and surprised. She looked to the Sibylla for confirmation until the unusual voice recaptured her attention.
'It may be possible ... yes,' the female Guardian said. 'But certain necessary conditions must be satisfied.'
"What conditions?" Gabrielle repeated, her breath fast and excited. "What must I do to ....?
The smaller male figure addressed her. 'Not you, Gabrielle. The benefactor of your forfeit must prove worthy and deserving of your unselfish act.'
"The benefactor of ...? Do you mean Xena?" the bard said, her heart thumping in her chest.
The other male Guardian nodded, as did his glowing companions.
Gabrielle's quick mind considered this information. "Prove worthy?" she repeated. "Prove it to who? Er .. whom?" the little blonde amended. Somehow, her bardic instincts deduced the necessity to be grammatically correct in this situation.
'Why to us, of course,' the larger male pronounced. The gleaming countenance actually seemed somewhat impatient. The bard's brows disappeared under her reddish-blonde bangs. She found herself rendered momentarily without comment. When her mind had resumed its function, the girl felt her own irritation. Absently, she swept an errant lock of golden hair away from her face.
"Of course," the young blonde muttered, letting the hair-sweeping motion cover her acerbic remark.
'And to herself,' the female Guardian added. Gabrielle's green eyes shot back to the feminine form. 'If that occurs ....'
"Wait a minute!" the bard said, her voice rising unintentionally. She made an effort to speak calmly. "Say that again? To herself?" The girl shook her head. "Now I'm really confused." Gabrielle turned to the Sibylla. Cumea sensed the girl's concern.
"Gabrielle," the small woman began, stepping closer to the little bard. "Xena has to accept that she is deserving of your selfless act, as well as your friendship and the love you feel for her. If she sees herself as unworthy, you have surrendered your life thread in vain." The bard searched the woman's gentle expression. "The Guardians require that Xena comes to consider herself ... worthy." Cumea's eyes were warm on the bard's. "Do you understand?"
Gabrielle swallowed, moistening her lips nervously. Suddenly, she found her breathing shallow and uneven. Her emerald gaze swept the twinkling chamber. "I think so," the bard said softly. She faced Cumea. "Xena has to accept herself ... believe in her own ... value. Is that what they mean?" the girl asked, glancing quickly at The Guardians.
Cumea nodded quietly. "Yes," the woman said softly. "But it must be Xena's decision." The bard's eyes found the Sibylla's again. "And hers alone." The little blonde breathed deeply. She turned to the three shiny forms.
"And how does she prove this?" the bard asked. "What does she have to do?"
'Her ordeal is about to begin,' the smaller male form told her. 'If you wish, you may observe her conduct.' The figure raised a silvery hand and a crystal panel near the bard began to glow brightly. Gabrielle stepped closer to the lustrous surface and stared in amazement at the scene displayed there. She placed a trembling hand on the opaque plane, imagining her fingers were actually touching the figure represented in the projection.
Gabrielle recognized the warrior at once. As she watched, Xena executed one of the many physical drills she had seen her perform countless times. The tall woman performed the exercise perfectly, her sleek, muscled body reflecting the bright sunlight filling the grassy clearing. Gabrielle noticed Xena wore the familiar attire the bard knew so well - the leather tunic, boots and leather coverings, as well as the metal armor covering her sleek, graceful torso.
The young face softened with the deep affection she held for her tall, slender friend. The bard scanned the panel hungrily, the image of her soulmate soothing the ache in the young woman's heart. Gabrielle's tears fell softly on the translucent surface as she slowly bent to lay her cheek against the glowing vision.
Xena performed the last thrust of the drill, her sword extending from her arm at a perfect parallel level to the ground. She held the weapon still for a few seconds, then relaxed her arm and let the blade fall to her side. As she walked toward the waterskin hanging from a nearby branch, she swept away the perspiration covering her forehead. She picked up the skin, swallowed a mouthful of the cool water, paused and tipped the skin again. Then she replaced the cork in the skin and flipped the leather strap over her shoulder. She turned to retrieve the long, wooden staff leaning against the tree at the side of the clearing, resting the pole on her shoulder as she strode back to the mare waiting patiently under the rustling leafy boughs of the trees.
Xena hung the waterskin on the large horn at the front of the saddle. She slid her sword into the sheath hanging on the side of the tack and secured the staff under the straps on the side of the rig. She lifted the flap on the saddlebag and located a length of soft fabric. After gathering the material in her hand, she poured some of water in the skin onto the cloth. She bent over at the waist, pulling her long hair forward over her head, and applied the damp cloth to the back of her neck. For a moment, the warrior let herself enjoy the refreshing experience.
Then she stood up, tossing her dark mane back to its original position. She refolded the cloth and pressed the cool material against her face. The blue eyes settled on the long quarterstaff secured under the straps of the saddle. A warm, loving smile softened the warrior's stoic expression. She gently stroked the staff with one long finger while visions of her young soulmate filled her mind. Xena drew a deep, quiet breath, shook out the damp material and tucked the small cloth in the belt of her leathers. She lifted the stirrup on the side of the saddle to adjust the girth strap. She paused for only a moment as the skin on the back of her neck began to tingle, announcing the return of the infamous god of war. The warrior's attention returned to securing the girth.
"Glad to see we're back to keeping in shape," the dark-headed man said. He stepped closer to the warrior. "Soon I'll have you in top form again ... a model of fighting perfection." The wargod's laughter cackled malevolently. He swaggered into the warrior's line of sight. His arrogant snicker faded slightly when the woman raised her eyes to his. Xena pulled the stirrup back into position and faced the man's sneer.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Ares. But like I told you last night, I'm not your 'chosen' anymore. I have other plans for the rest of my life."
Before the warrior had time to react, the gloved hand of the god of war clamped a powerful hold on her throat. She struggled bravely against the increasing pressure, her hand grasping the man's thick wrist. Xena's gaze remained willful, defiant. She felt Ares' fingers tighten against her windpipe and watched the smoldering rage rising behind the god's dark eyes.
Just as she prepared herself to be rendered unconscious, the vise-like hold lessened under her jaw. The wargod opened his hand, releasing the warrior's tender throat. She glared at the vengeful face and gulped against the soreness left by the man's hand. Xena spent a few moments massaging the abused area, her blue eyes resistant.
"I warned you about making me angry. I suggest you not do it again." Ares' expression had lost all evidence of joviality. A moment later, the handsome face smiled indulgently.
"Now, let's talk about your future, shall we?" The wargod took the warrior's arm.
Xena stood immobile next to the golden mare. She smoothly freed her arm from Ares' grasp and took a step backward, separating herself from him even further. The sleek body showed a controlled readiness.
"No, Ares," the warrior said evenly. "Afraid not." She focused on the man's dark eyes, her instincts sharp and alert. She anticipated his next move.
Ares' hand reached for the hilt of the long sword hanging from his belt. In one swift move, he unsheathed the weapon and leveled a lethal swipe at the warrior's middle. A split second before the blade would have sliced into her stomach, Xena launched herself upward, her body flipping in a perfect revolution with her boots making momentary contact with the tall tree just behind her. In the next instant, the tall form rotated, spinning in the air to land, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet, directly behind the dark-leathered male. Ares spun around to face his opponent.
The wargod growled in rage, his dark eyes narrowed in a frightening glower. He lunged at the supple form, missing the leather-bound body by a hair's breadth. Only the warrior's superior physical reflexes allowed her to twist away from the path of the weapon, causing the wide blade to skitter across the stony surface of a large boulder just to her left. Xena flipped her body forward, sailing high and again landing behind the furious god of war. Ares reversed his position a second time.
"Give it up, Ares" the warrior warned. "I'm not going to fight for you and I'm not afraid of you. So, let's just part company and you can go find another 'favorite' to torment."
The muscled mangod stood still for a long moment, the simmering anger behind his dark eyes producing a demented sneer across the bearded countenance. The two combatants faced each other, assessing the other's next attempt. Finally Ares relaxed as he returned his thick weapon to the casing at his hip. His eyes betrayed the forced friendliness in his voice.
"You are a magnificent opponent," the wargod chortled, smoothing the dark leather gloves with each hand. "I've always been proud of that. But now, playtime is over, my pet." Ares settled his weight between his ebony boots. "It's time for the master to teach the pupil a lesson." Xena kept her eyes on the man's vindictive stare.
Without warning, a flash of light shot from Ares' fingertips, covering the distance to the warrior. The force of the surge slammed her backwards into the thick, heavy bark of the tree behind her. Xena was suddenly held in place, motionless and without recourse, against the tree trunk, a crushing pressure attacking her chest. She screamed in agony as the blazing beam held her against the rough surface of the tree while she desperately tried to breathe.
Ares' evil snicker permeated the quiet dignity of the clearing. He watched with depraved enjoyment as the warrior's body contorted in pain. The torture continued for a number of seconds before Ares extinguished the flash of energy, lifted his finger and released the hold on Xena's body. She fell to the ground, face down in the grass, her chest heaving, her muscles pulsing in unbridled suffering. After a moment, her vision cleared and she leveled a livid, disgusted glare at the grinning god of war.
"Now," Ares said, smiling proudly. "What were you saying, my pet?"
Xena's breathing returned to a semi-normal rate. She pulled herself onto one side and faced her tormentor, her blue eyes retrieving their assured gleam. The warrior sat up slowly.
"I said, I will not fight for you. No matter what you do to me." Xena's smooth face creased in a subtle smile. "So, take your best shot, god of war. Do what you want."
Ares' expression was a study in arrogance and conceit. He smiled indulgently at his victim and shook his head. "Tsk, tsk, tsk, Xena," the wargod chirped. "You're being stubborn again." Ares watched with veiled appreciation as the injured warrior recovered enough strength to lean against the base of the tree. He waited until she had recovered most of her awareness; then the hardness returned to his eyes.
The dark-leathered god lowered his muscled frame onto the large boulder at the side of the clearing, drawing one black-booted foot to rest on his knee. He had to admit a grudging admiration of the warrior's courage, whatever level of audacity she might show toward his authority and prestige. However, he had waited long enough for her to return to his service.
"You ready to behave?" Ares asked insolently. His expression was sarcastic and indulgent.
Xena took a deep breath and started to rise to her feet. "In your dreams, you conceited piece of Olympian ...."
Ares fanned the air with his fingers as though waving off an annoying insect. An instant later, Xena's head snapped to one side as she felt a crisp, stinging slap land across her cheek, bringing a glaze of tears to her eyes. The blow drove her back against the tree again. She endured the mild discomfort, gritted her teeth and glared at the gloating god of war.
"Naughty, naughty," Ares chanted.
Xena ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek. She recognized the taste of blood; it was a familiar experience. She felt her body regaining its poise. The blue eyes remained focused on the mangod's arrogant smirk.
"C'mon, Xena," Ares said, lowering his foot and leaning toward the warrior. "I can keep this up all day, but I'm really not enjoying it. I hate damaging my own best creation."
The warrior's dark eyebrow climbed under one side of her bangs. "Tough day for you, huh?" the warrior taunted. "So why don't you end it? Find someone else .. someone who is excited by the killing and the destruction." Xena's tone was calm, determined. "I just don't care anymore. Don't you get it? I'm turning away from all of that."
"You don't really mean that, Xena. It's in your blood."
"Not anymore," the warrior said smoothly. The cobalt pools shifted from the male face to the soft grass around them. A slow, lingering smile creased the bronze features as the image of her young soulmate floated into her awareness. Her gaze drifted back to the wargod's agitated form. "I made a promise and I intend to keep my word."
"Oh, a promise," Ares chirped sarcastically. "Well, they'll understand."
"No," Xena said evenly. "I promised Gabrielle I wouldn't turn back to ....."
Ares stood up and took a flamboyant stride away from the warrior. "Oh, you promised Gabrielle!" the wargod declared, a bitter derision in his tone. The muscular figure pivoted back to the warrior. "Do you mean the Gabrielle who betrayed you .. the one who lied to you? The same Gabrielle who nearly cost you your life in Chin? And whose lie did cost your son's life?" Ares glared at the warrior.. "Is that the Gabrielle we're talking about?" His fraudulent grin was bitter and cruel.
Xena's jaw rippled under the smooth skin. She returned the man's insolent sneer, her blue eyes hardened and angry. She slowly drew herself away from the tree trunk.
"Yes," the warrior said in a low voice. "The Gabrielle who was my best friend .. the best thing that ever happened in my life." Ares' handsome face showed a bored disinterest. "The Gabrielle who gave her life to save mine." Xena's voice grew even more purposeful. "I made a promise to her, and nothing you can do to me will make me break my word to her." The warrior's face was composed. "Nothing."
For a long moment, a tense, brittle silence hovered over the small grassy clearing. The warrior and the wargod remained locked in a battle of wills, two inflexible, immutable, insistent personages, each determined and resolute, neither prepared to give quarter to the other. Finally Ares' manly form straightened and his expression creased in a haughty smirk.
"Very well. As long as you insist on defying me, you've left me with no other recourse." The wargod took a swaggering stride back to the boulder.
Xena's instincts began to prickle as a sense of foreboding invaded her senses. "What are you saying, Ares?" The warrior smoothly drew herself to her feet.
The dark-haired god crossed his thick arms over his chest. "Well, I don't really need to tempt you anymore .. I can always amuse myself with other subjects." The handsome face gloated.
"Other subjects?" Xena repeated, her senses at their anxious peak. "Like who? Gabrielle's already dead so you can't hurt her anymore." The wargod's expression remained smug. "And you've tried tangling with Hercules a number of times ... and lost every time." Ares' dark eyes twitched for an instant, his deep hatred for his half-sibling apparent in his stare. A moment later, the haughty smirk returned.
"What other subjects, Ares?" Xena asked, a new courage in her demand.
"Well, there's always Iolaus," Ares slurred. "The other irritating little blonde." He glanced at the warrior's angry glower. "I could give him a touch of madness. Might be entertaining, with the added incentive that it would drive my 'little brother' nuts at the same time." The dark mangod laughed maliciously.
"Then we have your pal Ulysses. I was really disappointed when you fell for that wimp, you know? What a loser." Ares stroked his bearded chin. "Or I could play around with Autolycus. He's too easy, though. Not much of a brain to mess up."
Xena's contempt was obvious in her angry stare. The sleek body tightened in disdain. "You really are a repulsive, worthless ...." The warrior's insult was silenced by the wargod's next threat.
"Or I could simply drive your mother completely out of her mind." The malicious god sent an ominous warning into the warrior's blue gaze. "I still owe her one for helping you with The Furies thing." Ares' vindictive leer brought a wave of nausea to the warrior's throat. "It's really up to you, my warrior. Who gets the honor of my attention?"
Xena's body trembled with contained rage, her clenched fists quivering in contempt and hatred. She glared at the wargod's insidious smirk, a violent anger rising within her. A tenuous discipline restrained her primal urge to retaliate against the depravity in the wargod's implication. It took every fiber of control the warrior possessed to submerge her desire for reprisal. She leveled a venomous sneer at the bearded face.
"You are such a vile coward, Ares," the warrior growled. "The only way you know how to win is to cheat."
Ares grinned deceitfully. "And this is wrong .... how?" he chirped. He spread his gloved palms in innocent confusion. The self-satisfied grin had returned.
The vain wargod rose from his seat on the boulder and smoothed the soft leather of his gloves over his knuckles. "I like to win, Xena. You know that. Any way I can." The warrior's jaw rippled in controlled fury, her eyes locked on Ares' gloating face.
"But, actually, I'm tired of this game, too," the god of war said. The handsome male face showed a sheen of brutality. "So, I've decided to offer you a compromise. I'll agree to a simple, little bargain." The warrior's expression grew darker. "You interested?"
"What sleazy deal are you selling, now?" Xena growled, her blue eyes narrowing in contempt. "And why would I agree to any sort of deal with you?"
"Very simple," Ares said, placing one black boot on the flat surface of the boulder, his elbow perched on the bent knee. "I'll agree to lay off your mother .... and your pitiful group of friends if ...." Ares pursed his lips in mock concentration. "If you give me .. one kill. Just one clean, straightforward slice into eternity." The warrior's throat convulsed. She kept her eyes on the man's evil glare.
"And who would that be?" Xena muttered. "Some harmless little despot who hasn't beheaded enough people for your taste?" Ares snorted his disdain. "Who, Ares? Hercules?"
"Nope," Ares answered, lowering his foot. "That Amazon bitch Gabrielle loved so much. What's her name? Oh yeah .. Ephiny." Xena's stoic face registered her genuine surprise. "Yeah, that's the one," Ares continued. He swaggered close to the warrior's rigid body. "You show me Ephiny, on the ground and you on my side .... and I'll ...." He rolled his eyes in feigned capitulation. "I'll leave mommy and the others alone."
Xena swallowed hard, the bitterness in her throat threatening to flood into her mouth. She glared at Ares' self-satisfied grin. The blue eyes had turned to steel.
"Why Ephiny? She's never shown you any disresp...."
"She's an Amazon," the god of war said. "Their allegiance is to Artemis ... not to me. Let Arty worry about them." Xena's glare was filled with revulsion. "And this babe was a favorite of Gabrielle's. If you 'do' Ephiny, it'll take care of any lingering loyalty between you and the blonde squirt. AND ... it'll make you an Amazon enemy for the rest of time. I like you being 'hated and feared' again." The mangod shivered maliciously.
Xena opened her fists, flexing her fingers, hate-filled eyes steady on Ares' sniggering smirk. "You've got it all figured out, haven't you, you low, despicable swine?"
"So, is it a deal?" Ares laughed, holding out one black-gloved hand. "Your mother's head for Ephiny's. Seems simple to me." He leveled an arrogant smirk at the warrior's seething look. When she failed to take his hand, Ares shrugged dramatically, dropped the hand and sighed. He fondled the warrior's chin, now quivering in rage.
"Think it over, my chosen," the mangod taunted. "I'll be back for your answer in the morning." He winked smugly. "Sleep well."
Ares' lecherous laughter filled the clearing as he disappeared in another flash of light. It took several moments for the warrior's mind to clear. When it did, Xena focused on the golden mare still waiting patiently under the trees. She retrieved the horse's reins, mounted and turned the animal toward the spacious cave where the rest of her gear was. She had some thinking to do.
Chapter 12 ~~
Gabrielle whirled away from the crystal screen, striding angrily toward the glimmering trio behind the long, stone table.
"You can't let him do that to her!" she shouted, glaring at each face of the triad. "Her mother's sanity for Ephiny's life? What kind of ridiculous test is that??" The Guardians exchanged questioning glances. Finally, the smaller male addressed the young bard.
'We have no control over these events, Gabrielle," he informed her. 'We are as much a witness as you are. We may only observe the consequences of the mortal Xena's decision.'
The bard's gaze was astonished. She brought shaking hands to cover her mouth. The green eyes sought those of The Sibylla. Cumea came to stand beside her.
"They aren't controlling this?" Gabrielle asked, searching the woman's pale face. "Are they telling the truth, here?"
"The Guardians invariably speak the truth, Gabrielle." Cumea's eyes met the bard's. "They hold no quarter with deception. They always communicate veracity, as they observe it."
"But it's so unfair, Cumea," the little bard wailed. "Making Xena choose between killing Ephiny and letting Ares steal her mother's sanity." The girl whirled back to the three glowing shapes. "That's not a fair test!"
'We only observe her actions, Young One.' The feminine Guardian's countenance glowed brightly. 'Yet, we have perceived her intention to remain faithful to her promise to you.' She consulted her companions briefly before returning her focus to the little blonde.
'We are pleased at her attempt to honor her oath.'
Gabrielle's tear-streaked face was slowly transformed by her glowing smile. The slender form straightened proudly, clasping her hands behind her and rocking back on her heels. She turned a confident grin to the Sibylla who seemed to share her optimism. The bard turned back to The Guardians.
"Well, as we say in Thrace, you ain't seen nothin' yet," the young blonde said, brightly. The three figures conferred, obviously not certain of the bard's intended meaning. Just as the taller male seemed about to pose a question, Gabrielle's cheery voice broke the silence in the chamber.
"So, now what happens?" the girl chirped.
The tall Guardian raised a shining hand and the crystal panel glowed again. Gabrielle's green eyes returned to the illuminated plane, her pulse thumping behind the bodice of the long, flowing gown.
'You'll come up with something, won't you, Xena?' the girl pleaded. 'I know you'll figure this all out.' The little bard laid her hands on either side of the panel. 'Sweet Artemis,' she prayed. 'Please help my best friend.'
Xena brought the whetstone down along the edge of her sword, repeating the action over and over. She examined the blade in the flickering light from the campfire, taking particular care with one brittle spot along the front. The warrior used the moistened cloth in her hand to polish the rough area along the side of the metal before resuming the sharpening motion with the whetstone. While her hands performed the routine task, her mind sorted and considered the many facets of the plan being formulated in her brain.
After a few more swipes of the stone, Xena ended the sharpening activity, laid the sword across her lap and picked up the waterskin. She let the water fill her mouth, leaving her mind to wander to memories of her absent soulmate. The blue eyes focusing on the yellow flames grew thoughtful. The warrior drew a shaky breath.
"Is this what you felt when I went to the other side?" she asked the vision in her head. "This ... blinding loneliness? The endless ache?" The azure pools blinked, their focus blurred by the moisture gathered along the long, dark lashes at their rim. "How did you survive ?" Xena's throat contracted in pain. "But you always were the strong one, weren't you, Little One?"
The slender form trembled as a wave of disabling guilt weakened her stoic reserve. "Even with all the pain I caused you, you were still there ... at my side." The tall warrior took a deep breath and raised her eyes to the blanket of stars across the dark sky above her.
"At least I thought that's where you'd always be .. beside me. Until we were both ...." Xena closed her eyes to stem the paralyzing wash of pain across her chest. She raised the waterskin again and swallowed more of the liquid before recorking the pouch. The dark head turned slightly to acknowledge the mare's warbling neigh.
"Yeah, you're right," the warrior said, running a slender hand over the smooth, sculpted features. "I said 'no more brooding', didn't I?" The horse tossed her great head, prompting the tall woman's crooked smile. "She'd really be giving me 'what for' right now, wouldn't she?"
Xena rose from her seat on the fallen tree limb at the mouth of the cave. The enclosure had seemed too confining when she'd returned from the glen and the disturbing confrontation with Ares. The warrior had decided to take advantage of the cool, crisp night and so had transferred her gear from inside the cavern to the small, sheltered cove outside. She tried to tell herself the decision would give her an opportunity to recondition the reflexes and responses which had grown lax and unkempt during recent weeks. But by evening's end, Xena had admitted being inside the cave alone, without Gabrielle's soothing presence, was more than she could bare at the moment.
Xena dropped the whetstone in the saddlebag hanging near Argo's shiny form, pausing to give the palomino a friendly pat. After checking the animal's provisions, the tall form moved to the blanket spread alongside the dancing flames.
She settled her long frame on the bedroll, positioning her sword in it's standard place ... no more than a hair's breath from her right hand. She gave the campfire one last scrutiny before drawing one long arm under her head.
After taking a moment to settle her thoughts, she said a silent good night to the small, blonde portrait in her head. When the blue eyes closed, the bronze face wore a subtle smile.
No more than a candlemark later, the warrior's keen senses detected the presence of her most insidious enemy. She kept her eyes closed as her body came quickly and completely awake. Her right hand made a tiny, imperceptible move toward the hilt of her sword. She sensed the presence advance toward her. Her hand continued its journey. A moment later, the warrior was sitting upright, weapon in position, her cobalt gaze fixed and disgusted on Ares' insolent face.
"You're slipping, Xena," the mangod chided her. "I was almost ...."
"Like I told you before, my skin was crawling the minute you showed up." Xena lowered her sword and smoothly rose to her feet. "You said I had until morning." Ares assumed a fraudulent 'hurt look'. "Yeah, right," the woman spat out. "What is it now?"
The dark-clothed god crossed his massive arms over his chest. He leveled an indulgent look at the warrior's scornful gaze. "I thought of another incentive to offer you." Xena scoffed and turned away from the bearded face. "I think you'll be interested in this one ... it concerns your little friend." The warrior's eyes returned the wargod's face. "I thought that'd get your attention."
"Ares," Xena said evenly. "Gabrielle is already on the other side. Whatever you're offering for her, you're too late. So you can forget your 'offer'." She turned away from the man's affected smile.
"Not quite true," the wargod said suggestively. "At least, not yet."
Xena's body stiffened, but her steel control prevented her reaction from becoming noticeable. "What does that mean?" she asked, her expression stunned. "'Not quite yet'? Stop with the riddles and just spit it out." Ares' smirk faded.
"I mean, she's not 'altogether gone'. She's in a 'waiting area' .. kind of like suspended between The Fields," the wargod raised his hand, palm upward. "And .... the other place," he snickered, rotating his hand and jabbing his thumb toward the ground. He sent a teasing smile at the warrior's agitated sneer.
"A waiting place? I've never heard of any ...."
"It's called The Aleaen Plain," Ares told her. "Believe me, it really exists, Xena. It's for those 'souls' that haven't been judged yet ... they're kind of 'waiting'. You get it?" The mangod's expression displayed his scorn and disregard for such ethereal matters.
Xena's senses stormed to life. She stared at the deceitful face, a raging conflict twisting her stomach. Her first instinct was to ignore the insinuation in the wargod's suggestion. Yet, the deep longing to secure the eternal rest of her cherished friend was weakening her better judgment. The warrior clamped her jaws together, striving to maintain her reserve.
"Even if what you say were true," Xena began, her voice noncommittal, "what does that have to do with our deal? If she's 'waiting', she's still safe from you. It's just a matter of time before she goes to The Elysian Fields. I'm as certain of that as I am of your total lack of decency and honor."
Ares' dark brows climbed upward. "She's only stuck there until someone 'intercedes' for her. Kind of 'pleads her case' for ... one place or another." He paused to check the warrior's reaction. Her blue eyes were suspicious.
"And who might that 'someone' be, Ares? You?" Xena's tone was increasingly skeptical.
Ares studied his gloved fingernails, glanced at the warrior then rubbed his digits against his black leather vest. "Could be." His smirk was suggestive. "I could speak to the folks who run the place ... make it easier for her to pass into The Fields." The warrior glared at the wargod's sneer. "That is, if you and I can reach an agreement."
Xena's disgust registered clear and precise. She strode away, returning her sword to it's 'ready' position, next to her bedroll. "You're really dreaming now, Ares. Gabrielle would never accept any help from you, no matter what her situation might be. She'd sooner spend eternity waiting in .. wherever it is," the warrior sputtered, waving an angry arm at the twinkling sky. Ares' grin widened.
Xena turned away from the dark-headed god, striving to restore her control. She pushed aside the revulsion and disdain she felt for her vain, arrogant tormentor and concentrated instead on her cherished, beloved soulmate. In spite of the continuing distrust she felt for the conceited, insolent wargod, the warrior's new-found conscience began to challenge her personal inclinations. She focused again on the man's smug grin.
"Would you actually plead Gabrielle's case?" the warrior asked quietly, her blue eyes clearly vulnerable and cautious. "Just once, Ares. Tell me the truth."
The leather-clad mangod faced the cobalt pools, his expression displaying an unusually stalwart attitude. Ares met the warrior's steady gaze, the handsome face clearing in a rare show of humanity.
"Yes, I would," the wargod said. "As a show of 'good faith', I would truly do my best for her." The warrior's azure gaze wavered slightly, then dropped to her boots.. "Will it get you back?" Ares pressed. Xena swallowed hard, raising her eyes to meet his.
"If you get Gabrielle into the Elysian Fields ...." the warrior gulped. Xena lowered her gaze, unable to cope with the wargod's obvious delight. She blinked quickly to combat the tears gathering in her eyes.
"All right," Xena whispered after a long moment. "I'll do it." The warrior took a deep breath. "You said 'Ephiny on the ground' and ..."
"And you on my side." Ares was nearly prancing with joy. He crossed the campsite to stand next to the warrior. "You mean, it's a deal? You'll take down ...."
"I said I would, didn't I?" Xena barked, impatiently. "And I have your word. You'll speak for Gabrielle in this 'Aleaen Plain' ... place. Agreed?"
Ares' smile was radiant. "Yes," he said evenly. "Agreed. BUT, you only have two days ... and no more." The man's dark eyes sparkled malevolently. "And then ... you are mine, forever. No more silly 'doing good and defending the weak'." Ares took the warrior's arm and spun her to face him. "And I want your word on that." The dark eyes showed a sinister glimmer.
Xena tried to twist out of the wargod's grip, but Ares tightened his hold.
"I didn't hear you say it," he taunted. "Your word, Xena. You'll come back to me forever."
The warrior's blue eyes now glowed a steel-gray. Xena glared at the man's menacing gaze until she slowly, and meaningfully, extracted her arm from his grip. Without changing her focus from the wargod's face, the tall leather-clad woman took a pace backward, her body tense and ready.
"All right, Ares," Xena said, her voice low. "I give you my word. And we both know whose word can or cannot be trusted." The warrior's blue eyes had turned icy and threatening, her abhorrence of her one-time mentor now clear and obvious in their gleam.
"Now get out of here and let me get some sleep."
After a long, challenging stare, Ares doffed an imaginary hat at the warrior's scowl and, in his usual flashing style, was gone.
The warrior stood still for several moments, making a fervent attempt to calm the thunderous clamor under her leather tunic. She swallowed hard, her eyes darting about the dark campsite. Finally she settled on the fallen tree limb, her blue gaze focused on the leaping fire, her thoughts regretful and filled with self-loathing. Eventually, the mare's derisive guffaw broke the warrior's reverie. The dark head turned slightly toward the mare.
"I don't have a choice. If there's the slightest chance, I have to try." Argo whinnied quietly. "At least she'll be in The Fields .. where she belongs." The warrior studied the fire. "So don't give me any grief, Argo. I feel bad enough as it is."
The horse remained unconvinced.
Chapter 13 ~~
"No," the bard gasped, turning away from the vision on the panel. "Xena wouldn't betray me ... wouldn't degrade our friendship." Gabrielle stepped away from the crystal plane, the young face blanched in amazement and shock. The verdant pools scanned the floor of the chamber as the girl's mind struggled to reconcile the disdainful scene she'd witnessed. She reached for Cumea with a shaky hand.
"This is all wrong, Cumea," the bard whispered. She turned frightened eyes to the Sibylla. "I know Xena ... she's an honorable person. She would never do this ... kill a friend. Make a deal with Ares. No, it's impossible."
The Sibylla's expression showed her sympathy for the bard's disappointment. She led the bard to a stony bench. "Gabrielle ... I know this must be difficult for you to accept ...."
Gabrielle turned sharply in the woman's kind embrace. "No, there's something else happening, here!" the girl wailed. She sat down on the bench and pulled Cumea to sit beside her. "I know this woman ... she wouldn't consider betraying Ephiny. Or any other friend. I know she wouldn't."
The Sibylla covered the bard's hands, her gray eyes regretful. "Gabrielle, did she not try to kill you? She nearly succeeded, isn't that true?"
Gabrielle gulped as Cumea's statement brought a staggering tightness to her chest. She stared at the Sibylla's kind, compassionate face. After a moment, the girl's expression changed as a quiet resolve swept across the soft, young face. Confusion and concern were replaced by determination and assurance.
"I must speak to her. Is it possible for her to see and hear me ... just for a few moments?"
Cumea's reaction suggested the impossibility of the bard's request. Gabrielle's persuasive skills sprang to life. Her green eyes displayed a heartfelt petition.
"Please, Cumea." The bard searched the woman's eyes. "Please. It's very important. I'll meet any conditions ... I'll promise anything. If I could please talk to her. Please."
Cumea studied the young woman's face. She saw the bard's noble, honest heart. She recognized the deep, unfailing affection the girl felt for the friend she so respected. The Sibylla's intuition told her this was a genuine, unselfish request. She sighed heavily.
"Very well," Cumea said, touching the bard's soft face. "But you must not attempt to influence her behavior. This is Xena's ordeal. She must choose her own response. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered. "And thank you." The Sibylla's smile was understanding. "So, what do I need to do?" the bard asked. Cumea laid one slender hand against Gabrielle's temple.
Xena slowly became aware of the change in temperature that had invaded the little cove. Her gaze traveled from the waning campfire to the stack of firewood at the edge of the clearing. She chastised herself for breaking one of her own strict rules - never become so preoccupied that you find yourself caught unaware. The warrior shook her head slightly, lamenting her lack of foresight. She rose from the tree limb and strode across the campsite to retrieve the logs piled there.
The warrior returned to her seat on the tree limb to add the new wood to the fire, absently arranging the lengths in a proficient pattern. It was a practice she performed without consideration, a routine exercise, one she had completed countless times in the past. Perhaps it was the reason the warrior's normally razor-sharp reflexes were momentarily suspended ... and why she didn't anticipate the arrival of the small, glowing figure until it materialized at the edge of the campsite, a short distance in front of her.
"You still stack the firewood so precisely," the shining form said. "I never could get the hang of that."
Xena's eyes floated up to the radiant shape, her gaze locked on the familiar features. For a moment, the warrior battled her own disbelief. Very quickly, she admitted, what she felt was a deep sense of gratitude and a soothing wave of peace. The blue eyes grew soft and loving as the bronze face warmed in a gentle smile. The trim form moved a step closer.
"What took you so long?" the warrior asked.
"I'm sorry," the small figure answered softly. "I couldn't come sooner. And I'm sorry I left you so abruptly. I know I hurt you by doing that."
"It's all right," Xena murmured. "As always, you did what you thought best." The little blonde likeness smiled warmly. "How long can you stay?"
"Not long, I'm afraid," the lustrous entity said. "I just wanted to tell you not to worry about me. I'm in ... a very nice place. And I don't want you to blame yourself for what happened." The warrior's throat tightened. "It wasn't your fault ... not any of it. Will you believe that?"
A wash of tears covered the warrior's smooth face. "I know that's what you want ... but it's hard for me not to feel ... responsible, somehow." The slender form drifted closer. "I can only promise to try. Will that be enough for now?"
"I know I can trust your word," the glowing figure answered. "And I always will."
Xena stared at the luminous being, a raging anguish pressing against her chest. The clear blue eyes devoured the beautiful likeness of her most cherished companion. The warrior's first impulse was to wrap her arms around the petite vision and press it tightly against her. Yet, she couldn't seem to make her body move or respond in any normal way. All she could manage was keeping her eyes on the transluscent form. Her heart shuddered when the embodiment spoke again.
"Take care of yourself, will you?" The lean warrior trembled. "I know you'll be using your 'many skills' in the best way." The slim figure smiled. "Just follow your heart. I got the same advice once ... from a very wise friend." Xena swallowed against the pain in her throat.
"You're going to be fine. I have faith in you. You must remember that. Please try, all right?"
The warrior tried to speak, but could only manage to nod wordlessly.
The glowing shape began to flicker, the edges growing dim. The young face looked down at it's own fading configuration. "I'm afraid I have to go." The warrior's pulse thundered in her ears. Without realizing she had moved, Xena reached out toward the muted shape.
"Good-bye, for now," the illuminated Gabrielle said. "I'll be waiting for you." The shape
was nearly gone. The warrior strained to hear the last discernible sound.
"And remember I love you, Xena." The soft words melted into the silent forest when the slender figure disappeared. The warrior closed her eyes.
Chapter 14 ~~
When the sun finally crept across the crimson sky, peeking through the thick foliage around the campsite, the solemn warrior was still awake. The gentle, muted noises of the awakening forest hardly registered with the silent, pensive figure seated on the large, fallen limb, a thin woolen blanket draped loosely around her slumping shoulders, a thick, wooden fighting staff cradled in her lap. The woman's clouded, azure pools stared unseeing into the ashes of the lifeless campfire, her smooth, bronze face a portrait of misery and unending grief. The warrior's awareness eventually drifted back to the small, sheltered clearing. The sleek, lean body stirred.
Xena cast a befuddled gaze around the empty campsite, unconsciously searching for the absent bard. After a few futile moments, the reality of the situation abruptly refocused the warrior's concentration. She closed her eyes, coming to terms with the numbing, devastating truth; Gabrielle wasn't just 'away' from the camp, gathering the makings of their breakfast. Her gentle, decent, loyal best friend was gone ... forever absent from her life ... never to return.
For a long moment, the sounds of the warrior's pathetic moans filled the campsite. Xena wrapped her long arms around her stomach, her body rocking in agony as she battled the rampant desolation now threatening her sanity and undermining her sensibilities. It seemed as though her shattered, wounded heart would surely explode from her chest.
Finally, the warrior's heroic spirit began to restore her. She shook her dark head briskly, wiped the tears from her face, unfolded her long legs and rose from the thick tree limb. Xena swept the blanket from her shoulders, pulled at the cork of the waterskin and splashed some water across her tired face. The cool liquid cleared her head and reinstated her focus.
Xena moved toward the palomino mare with a revived purpose. It was time to deal with Ares' proposition. In a short time, the warrior had broken camp, saddled the golden horse and turned her path toward the person she knew would provide the help she needed.
'I just hope she understands what I have to do,' the warrior prayed, pressing her legs to the mare's silky coat. Argo responded accordingly, stretching out to carry the warrior home.
"Absolutely not! I can't believe you'd ask for my help in this!" The warrior lowered her gaze to the floor of the snug cottage.
"Lanessa," Xena said quietly. "I don't have a lot of time to waste." She raised her eyes to meet the furious brown pools. "You'll just have to trust me on this."
The petite woman across the room remained agitated. The warrior waited, her tall frame leaning against the heavy table in the middle of the room. She lowered her gaze to her boots.
"By the gods, Xena," Lanessa . "You know very well - either of those two compounds can cause very serious effects. But combined, they could be lethal!"
The warrior's cobalt pools closed for a moment, then refocused on Lanessa's angry glare. "Yes, I know that," Xena said evenly. "That's why you'll have to mix them to my exact instructions."
"No!" Lanessa countered. "I will not be mixing them at all!" The small, slender woman marched to the door of the cottage, her arms crossed over her slim waist. She paused in the opening, a rare angry scowl fixed on her face. A long tense moment passed between the two women.
Xena's gaze settled on the slight form of her oldest friend. A great reluctance swelled within the warrior at the pressure her request had levied on the woman's faith. She knew Lanessa's staunch loyalty, however deep and secure it might be, would only abide so much. She regretted pushing the boundaries of their mutual respect. But she also knew she had no choice in this instance. The bronze face remained determined.
Lanessa turned from the doorway to meet the warrior's gaze. She saw the fragile reserve stoically maintained behind the clear, blue eyes and her heart ached for the visible pain still in residence there. Her personal standards were at odds with her affection for her valued friend. She took a step toward the brooding warrior.
"Have you considered what Gabrielle would say about your plan?" The blue eyes left hers to scan the cottage floor. Lanessa stepped closer to the lean form. "Have you thought about how she might feel about this ... agreement with Ares?"
"I've thought of nothing else except Gabrielle for the past moon," Xena snapped, roughly pushing herself away from the table. She strode across the room, spreading her hands on the heavy doorjamb leading to the smaller room adjacent to the kitchen area. The dark head hung dejectedly. After a moment, the warrior pivoted to face the smaller woman.
"Lanessa," Xena began in a thready voice. "I have to do this. If there's the slightest chance I can secure eternal peace for her, I must take that chance.. Please try to understand. It's something I have to do." The blue eyes showed a pathetic entreaty. Lanessa tried another approach.
"But you've said yourself ... Ares can't be trusted." The warrior sighed impatiently. "Xena, there must be something else ... some other way to accomplish this." She touched the warrior's sleek forearm. "Surely we can devise another plan."
Xena backed away from the consoling pat. "No, no," she chanted. "Ares will only be satisfied if I do what I said I'd do." She ran a trembling hand over her eyes. "Now, I need your help with this so, do I have it or not?"
Lanessa's brown eyes held the warrior's gaze for a long, unsettling moment. "What would you do if I refused?" the slender woman asked quietly. "What would happen to your plan then?"
Xena's blue eyes hardened slightly. "There are a number of healers in the area. With Argo going flat out, I'd probably be able to find one and get back by tomorrow."
Lanessa's chin drifted upward. "Because that's all the time I have, Lanessa," Xena said. "Ares has only given me two days to meet his demands." The warrior's gaze locked on the smaller woman's. She felt her unflappable composure beginning to crumble. Xena dropped her eyes from the shrewd observation. After a moment, she met the knowing glance again. Lanessa spent a moment in private consideration before scanning the blue pools again.
"All right, Xena," she said, her auburn head traveling slowly from side to side. Xena swallowed heavily. Lanessa directed a slender forefinger at the warrior's taut expression. "But I hope I won't be disappointed in you this time," she warned her tall friend. An instant later, the warrior's tightly strung control splintered raggedly. Xena's smooth face contorted in scorn.
"Well, if you are, it won't be the first time, right? You must be used to it, by now, I would think." The warrior flounced away from the smaller woman, returning angrily to the side of the table. Lanessa focused on the warrior's heaving shoulders. A moment later, the tall form slumped into a wooden chair, slender fingers massaging her bronze forehead.
"I'm sorry, Lanessa," the warrior whispered, closing her eyes tightly. She brought her hands together, nesting one fist in her other palm. Lanessa noticed the tears pooled against the clear blue orbs. Xena battled to regain her control. "You don't deserve that." The azure pools were trained on her friend's face. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."
The slender woman strode slowly toward the table.
"It's just ... I'm so ... She was my ...." The warrior's words were garbled, her voice shrill and plaintive. Xena sighed forlornly. "I miss her so much," the warrior moaned, covering her face with her hands.
Lanessa quickly crossed the room to stand next to the sobbing warrior. She cradled the muscled form to her chest, stroking the long, dark hair with one hand and hugging the woman close with the other. The warrior's arms wrapped around the slender waist and she buried her face against the woman's chest. Lanessa held on tightly, rocking the mournful figure.
"I know," she murmured. "She was very special. A splendid, unique young woman." Lanessa blinked away her own tears. "Gabrielle graced the life of everyone who knew her." The warrior's sobs quieted slowly. Finally, Lanessa pulled back from the sleek form to capture the sorrowful face in her hands. She brushed the dark strands away from the wet cheeks and sent a reassuring smile into the tearful blue eyes.
"Now, we have some work to do, don't we?" Lanessa swept the warrior's tears away with her fingers and took a step back from the warrior. Xena took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and nodded bravely. She wiped the rest of the moisture from her face and pushed the chair away from the table. Lanessa held out a slim hand and the warrior took it. She rose from the table, her footsteps following those of her small, compassionate, understanding, loyal friend. The two women passed through the cottage doorway, headed for the well-tended herb garden beside the house.
Later that evening, the warrior refilled the fodder bin at one end of the palomino's stall. Next she emptied the water in the wooden bucket into the trough near the animal's head. While the horse enjoyed the cool liquid, Xena finished brushing the silver mane and the silky, golden hide on the mare's neck. When she was satisfied with the conditions of both the occupant and the provisions of the shelter, she massaged the soft, pliant ears one last time, closed the gate behind Argo's tail and turned to leave the building. The sound of the animal's nicker halted her steps.
Xena retraced her path to stand near the flaxen head, meeting the gaze in the large brown eyes. She stroked the animal's face. Argo nuzzled the warrior's chest, a comforting neigh filling the little shed. The warrior patted the sinewy neck.
"It'll all be over soon, girl," Xena murmured into the shiny mane. "Let's just hope Lanessa's mixture works like I think it will." Argo's head bounced solemnly. "Tomorrow we'll know for sure." The warrior closed the gate again.
"See you then," Xena said. She strode out of the shed and headed for the small, welcoming cottage. Halfway across the grassy yard, the warrior's sharp instincts detected another presence near her position. Her hand moved automatically toward the hilt of her sword. A moment later, the entity made itself known.
"I've been expecting you," the warrior said as the figure materialized an arm's length away. "Have you been listening all along?" Xena lowered her hand.
"I have," the female answered. "Are you certain your plan will work? I'd be very angry if you caused harm to one of my subjects." The lovely feminine countenance scowled briefly.
"If everyone does their part, things will work out just fine. I'll have to ask you to trust me." Xena met the woman's steady gaze.
"I've been very pleased with your conduct lately, Xena." The warrior shifted her weight between her boots. "You have proven the honor of your quest and that your motives are for the good of your kind." Xena waited nervously for the female to continue. "I wish you success in your endeavor." The warrior studied her fingers.
"I'll be close by when the sun rises tomorrow," the being said. She smiled benevolently at the tall warrior's uneasiness. "Just to make sure all involved subscribe to the same precepts." The attractive countenance offered the warrior a modest salute. "Good luck."
A moment later, the feminine manifestation disappeared. The warrior sighed hopefully and strode toward the small, lovely cottage.
Chapter 15 ~~~
Ephiny scanned the field below the ridge. She recognized it from the description in the scroll inscribed with the warrior's message. It was a small, open clearing, a grassy plain surrounded on nearly all sides by trees and ground-level growth. Large boulders and aging, gnarled tree stumps journeyed across the landscape, forming a natural separation through the middle of the small glen. It was as if the Gods of Landscaping had erected a series of convenient resting places for travelers through the lush little dell. The charming attributes of the area escaped the Regent's attention, at the moment. The next thing she saw was the great palomino mare standing casually under the copse of trees. The Amazon Regent turned to her assistant.
"You're really going through with this?" Solari said, a dark scowl across her tanned forehead.
"Yes," Ephiny answered, untying the small leather flask from the side of her saddle. She pulled at the cork at the container's neck. "And it's to be just she and I, Sol'," the tall blonde said. "And only the two of us." Her gray eyes met those of her lieutenant. "Understand? Noone else is to interfere."
Ephiny raised the skin and gathered a mouthful of the liquid in her mouth. She swallowed the mixture, her attractive face twisting in a disdainful grimace at the taste of the brew.
"Artemis!" the Regent grumbled. "This stuff tastes worse than Aurora's Star Anise potion." She replaced the cork in the skin. "Brrr!" she shivered, retying the strap on the saddle. She gathered the reins of her mount.
"Eph'," Solari said, her strong hand on the Regent's wrist. "I don't feel right about this." She let her eyes scan the small clearing below them. "I don't trust her ... not after what she did to Gabrielle."
"But that's just why I have to do it," Ephiny said. "Xena requested The Dauktas ... she's the one who wants the judgment. She did try to kill the Queen." Solari released the Regent's arm. "The scroll she sent said she feels she should answer for what she did . She wants to pay her debt to the Amazon Nation. I think she's trying to soothe her conscience."
"But why has she waited until now, then?" Solari asked suspiciously. It's been nearly half a season. Where has her conscience been all this time?" The assistant looked down at the tall, leather-clad figure now visible next to the great horse. "Seems to have taken a long time for her to ...."
"Solari," Ephiny said, silencing the muscled warrior. "The point is, the Law says I can't refuse her. I have to allow her to find repentance. Right?"
Solari drew a deep breath and straightened herself in her saddle. "Fine," she muttered. "But we're not sitting up here and watching this." Ephiny's brows lifted toward her Amazon headband. "We'll be close enough to take over, if she tries anything ... outside the rules."
"Sol'..." Ephiny began.
"No, Ephiny," Solari barked. "No matter what Gabrielle requested, I still don't trust her." Ephiny sighed in resignation.
"OK, but do me a favor, will you?" Solari's expression was grim. "Keep the rest of the warriors back against the trees. And have them rest their mounts." Ephiny glanced back at the grassy glen. "Give the horses some shade, all right?"
"Yeah, OK. But I'm still going to be watching close. I'll only be a hawk's call away." The Regent smiled. "So, let's go. If you're set on doing this ... let's get it over with."
"Ok, thanks," Ephiny said, her hand on the soldier's thick forearm. "Just stay out of it unless you hear my order. Understand?" She gave the lieutenant's sullen nod a stern glance. "Sol', I mean it. Don't advance unless I signal .. no matter what happens. We clear on that?"
"All right!" Solari said stubbornly. "I'll wait for your order ... as you say."
The Regent blinked a few times, and shook her blonde head slightly. Solari's dark eyes narrowed as she gazed at her commander with concern.
"You OK?" she asked the Regent.
"Yeah," Ephiny said, waving her hand. "I'm fine. Let's go." She gathered the reins of her mount and urged the sorrel mare toward the narrow path down the side of the hill. 'OK, Xena,' the Regent thought regretfully. 'I hope you get what you need from this.'
Xena watched the small Amazon party descend down the side of the hill. Her sleek body was stretched tense and alert, the blue eyes riveted on the approaching warriors. The warrior's jaw rippled, her right hand tightened on the wooden quarterstaff standing beside her, one end planted in the dirt next to her boot. She felt the pounding pulse clamoring in her ears. The bronze body stood tight and ready.
"You're not going to waste time with the staff, are you?" The warrior's teeth ground together at the sound of the wargod's voice. "Why not just use your sword, get it over and done?"
Without taking her eyes from the Amazon riders, Xena addressed the insolent being only partially visible behind her under the leafy boughs. "I asked for The Dauktas, Ares. The Ritual of Retribution." She ignored Ares' scoff. "I have to at least begin with the staff ... that's the Law."
"Law, schmaw," Ares jibed. He sighed in exasperation. "OK, fine. Do it your way." He stepped closer to the warrior's shoulder. "But just do it, Xena. I'll be watching from over ..." The wargod pointed to an area several paces away.
Xena turned, addressing the wargod over her shoulder. "No, Ares," she barked. "You stay here and watch." Ares' brows lifted slightly at the warrior's commanding tone. "Over there, on that side of the rock wall." The warrior gestured toward a spot on the other side of the natural barrier through the center of the area. She glared at the mangod's smirk, her blue eyes hard. "If you leave, the whole thing's off. I want you close, to make sure you keep our bargain." The wargod's handsome face creased in an admiring grin. He nodded in mock capitulation.
"As you wish, my chosen," he said, executing a small bow. "I'll stand wherever you want." He moved to the position mandated by the warrior. Xena turned back to the riders who had arrived in the clearing.
Ephiny's gray eyes met the warrior's cold blue stare. One dark eyebrow climbed subtly upward, temporarily disappearing under the black fringe of bangs. The Regent's head moved in a tiny nod. Solari glared at the warrior, her expression distrustful and suspicious. Ephiny handed her reins to her lieutenant, dismounted and pulled the fighting staff from the straps on the side of the saddle. She took a stride toward the leather-clad warrior.
"Xena," Ephiny greeted the warrior, her expression serious. "You certain you want to proceed with The Dauktas?"
Xena swung the low end of the staff backward, then twirled the wand in a tight circle around and over one shoulder. She caught the wand with her free hand, slapping the pole in position across the center of her body. Ephiny recognized the aggressive maneuver. She waved a hand in a signal to her assistant. Solari's head jerked in a nod and the small band of Amazon's directed their mounts to the far side of the clearing. Ephiny spun her staff, duplicating the movement performed by the warrior. The two women moved toward each other.
Xena's piercing war cry echoed across the grassy clearing, shattering the quiet, restful sounds of the early morning. She lunged at the Amazon, swinging the hard, wooden staff in a violent arch directly at the Regent's throat. Ephiny blocked the blow, pivoted and retaliated with a hard blow to the warrior's back. The impact of the strike only enraged the warrior. She advanced toward the Amazon and delivered a heavy slap to the woman's jaw. Ephiny's head recoiled from the hit. She staggered backward a step, then spun to her left, barely escaping the jabbing motion her dark-haired opponent thrust at the center of her stomach. Ephiny took advantage of the warrior's momentary lack of balance. She landed a heavy kick to the woman's shoulder, sending Xena sprawling sideways into one of the heavy boulders at the edge of the open spot. The warrior grit her teeth as the side of her head smacked against the granite mass.
The Amazon raised the staff above her head like a club. She started to bring the wand down, an angry snarl covering the intensity on her face. A split second later, Xena raised her foot and planted the leather sole squarely in the center of the Regent's stomach. The force of the kick forced the breath from her lungs and launched her backward, sending her sailing over the line of stumps dividing the clearing. She landed hard on her back, her staff lying useless a short distance from her outstretched arm. She blinked quickly to restore her focus, regaining her awareness just in time to see the livid warrior, her leathered form flipping high over the row of tree trunks, rushing straight for her, a feral gleam in the woman's steel-blue eyes. Ephiny rolled to her left.
Xena stabbed the end of the staff at the Amazon's skull, but Ephiny's move took her out of the warrior's targeted space. The pole crunched into the hard ground, missing the Amazon's blonde head by a narrow margin. Ephiny rolled herself over again, drew up her knees and sprang to her feet. Xena whirled to face her opponent, using her momentum to bring a hard, backhanded slap across the woman's face. The cuff nearly spun Ephiny completely around. She shook her head to clear the cloudiness there and strained to regain her perspective. A moment later, she knew she needn't have bothered; she was desperately trying to dislodge the heavy wooden staff the warrior had clamped across her throat.
Solari's body stiffened in fury when she saw the warrior move behind the Regent and pull the staff back hard against Ephiny's neck. A moment later, the two figures fell to the ground, the dark-haired warrior half kneeling, half crouching, the Regent's form twisting in her lap. A livid sneer contorted the soldier's tanned face, her lips curled back against her clenched teeth. The muscled lieutenant instinctively turned to mount her horse but, at the last minute, the rigid discipline of her Amazon heritage overrode her impulsive action. Solari turned back to the scene in the glen, feeling helpless and ineffective. She clenched her fists in frustration, her dark eyes riveted on the blonde Regent's valiant efforts. The lieutenant swore loudly.
Ephiny struggled to get her hand between the fighting staff and her skin, each passing moment threatening her equilibrium. She pulled at the inflexible shaft jammed against her throat, fighting the choking sensation as the warrior's strong hold pressed the wand against her windpipe. The Amazon found her consciousness waning. Her gray eyes swung up to meet the blue gaze of her opponent. A silent message passed between the women. Soon it became apparent that the Regent's efforts would be in vain.
Slowly Ephiny's body grew limp and unprotesting. Her focus clouded, her breathing became rasping. Finally the gray eyes closed and her gloved hands dropped away, falling uselessly to her waist. The leathered chest fell once more then remained totally, completely still. The warrior waited, her eyes vigilant and cruel. Finally she pulled the staff away from the Regent's neck.
Xena lifted Ephiny's lifeless body away from her lap and lowered her victim to the ground. She stood up stiffly, her expression hard and surly. She looked down at the vanquished Amazon for a long moment before raising her eyes to meet the dark gaze of the delighted god of war. Xena dropped the wand in the dirt and turned a loathsome sneer in Ares' direction. The warrior took a deep breath.
Ares rose slowly from his seat on the tree stump where had settled himself to enjoy the warrior's demonstration of strength. His beefy arms were crossed over his chest, his gloating expression bringing more loathing to the warrior's senses. He uncrossed his arms and began to applaud, his gloved hands clapping in joyous delight, his insolent stride taking him near the warrior and her conquered casualty. The ruthless wargod cast an unfeeling glance at the Amazon's still form.
"Well, done, Xena," Ares chortled. "As usual, you have made me proud." He looped his thumbs in his black leather belt.
The blue eyes glanced quickly to the lifeless Regent. She faced the god again. "Now you can keep your part of the bargain. You said you'd speak for Gabrielle .. to send her to The Fields." Ares pursed his lips and scratched his bearded jaw with abandon.
"When does that happen, Ares?" the warrior prodded.
"When does what happen, Xena?" the wargod goaded her. "We have to determine if all the conditions were met." Ares' glare showed a slightly sinister warning. He strode past the warrior and knelt next to the defeated Amazon. He touched the side of the woman's neck, pressing firmly against the pliant pocket beneath her ear. After a moment, he rose to his feet again, facing the warrior. "Well, well," he slurred. "The Amazon really is dead." He glanced down at Ephiny's body. "No troublesome pulse there. Like I said, you do such nice work."
Xena's expression hardened.
"And that means you're mine again," Ares laughed. "Welcome home." He opened his arms to the warrior. Xena planted one hand in the center of the wargod's chest.
"Not so fast, Ares," she told him. "We still have that 'intervention' to discuss. You gave me your word." The warrior's gaze was steady on the man's dark eyes. "Now just when does it happen?"
Ares' eyes lit with a devilish gleam. "Well," he began, sending a teasing grin at the warrior's infuriated scowl. "It doesn't. It was never going to happen." The brazen mangod snickered. "See, I lied." Ares' insidious laughter filled the little clearing. "She can stay there for the rest of eternity, for all I care."
Xena's scowl slowly changed to a hateful glare. The bronze jaw rippled in controlled fury. She took a step toward the god of war, rage and revenge hardening her gaze. "You contemptuous, revolting ...."
"Ah, ah, ah," Ares jeered. "Remember, I can also send her to Tartarus, if I choose. Watch your language, warrior. I might just decide to do it." Ares planted his black gloves on his hips.
Xena's outrage was quickly diverted when the bright beam of blinding light flashed through the trees, the incandescent stream smoothly converted into the glowing figure of the goddess Artemis, her shining yellow hair and lustrous archer's garb gleaming in the sunlight within the cove. The warrior's chest loosened slightly.
"I'd be glad to speak for Gabrielle, Xena," Artemis said. She cast a disdainful glower at the sulking god of war. "After all, she is an Amazon Queen. I'd be proud to endorse her passage into The Fields." The warrior's blue eyes were radiant.
"I'd be forever grateful," she told the female god. The warrior sent a triumphant smirk at the mangod's pout.
Artemis turned a menacing frown at her brother's pout. "I couldn't let you win this one, Little Brother," she chided him. "See, you messed with my Amazons." Ares rolled his eyes. "So, I had to handle this one." She took a step closer to the dark-leathered god.
"You know, the rest of the family isn't that pleased with you as it is ... since your dalliance with Dahok's little princess." Ares' smug expression faded quickly. "So, I'd suggest you keep a low profile for a while. They can be rather vengeful, you know? I wouldn't push them."
Ares sent a silent appeal toward the warrior's blue gaze, his dark eyes displaying a demanding request. Xena shook her dark.
"Don't look to me for any help," she told the wargod. "I gave you what you asked for. Ephiny's on the ground," she said, gesturing toward the still immobile Amazon. "And me 'on your side'."
Xena glanced pointedly at the row of tree trunks marking the center of the clearing. Her eyes traveled to her own position, clearly on the same side of the wall of stumps as the god of war. She spread her hands innocently. "See? I'm on your side." The warrior shrugged her shoulders. "So, I guess I did my part." The blue eyes hardened. "But as usual, you won't abide by the rules." Ares' eyes glinted in rage. "You lose again, oh, god of war. Remember, no good deed goes unpunished."
For an instant, it appeared the god of war was considering his own revenge. His dark eyes glared at the warrior's defiant expression. A moment later, the handsome face cleared as the muscled male form relaxed.
"As I've always said," Ares murmured. "You are a magnificent opponent." The wargod smoothed his soft, black-leather gloves. "Well done, again, my warrior." A wave of disgust traveled across the warrior's blue eyes.
He gave her a little salute. "However, you're still without your little bard," the wargod sneered. "So, it's just a matter of time before I get you back." He winked. "Until our next discussion." Xena's breath caught in her throat.
In characteristic fashion, the wargod disappeared in a bright flash. Xena turned to the Goddess Artemis.
The goddess sent an approving smile at the warrior's cobalt gaze. "Congratulations, Xena," she said, touching the warrior's face. "You've served my little queen ... and your friend ... very well." Xena swallowed hard.
"I'll try my best to honor her memory, Artemis. Gabrielle had faith in me, even when I didn't have faith in myself. She made me realize I'm worth something, more than what I've done in my past. I'll try to remember that from now on."
Artemis nodded. She took a step away from the wariror. "I'll go now and see that your efforts are rewarded."
The bronze face softened. She silently thanked the blonde goddess. A moment later, the shining form disappeared.
Xena took a slow, deep breath. She closed her eyes and visualized her beloved soulmate. Her heart glowed warmly as the young bard's countenance formed in her mind. The warrior's smile was peaceful, content. After a brief moment, she opened her eyes.
"Rest well, Little One," Xena said quietly. "Forever."
Chapter 16 ~~
The warrior knelt down next to the still figure of the Amazon Regent, deftly applying firm pressure to a specific area near the woman's temple. With her free hand, she touched the center of the Amazon's chest. As she watched Ephiny's face, Xena became aware of the muscled female running angrily toward them. She ignored Solari's rough grasp on her shoulder.
An instant later, Ephiny's body jerked and she took in a loud gasp of air. The Amazon's eyes snapped open, blinked then focused on the tanned face of the warrior. The stoic features softened as the two women shared an affectionate smile. Xena sat back on her heels.
"Ephiny?" she said to the Regent. "You OK?"
The Amazon sat up slowly, supporting the weight of her torso on her elbows. "Yeah. Still a bit dizzy." She shook her blonde head briskly, raising one hand to massage the side of her head.
"When do my ears stop ringing?"
"Sorry," Xena said a bit sheepishly. "I tried to pull that hit. Guess I misjudged the distance."
The warrior stood up and extended an arm to the woman on the ground. Ephiny grasped the forearm and pulled herself to her feet, still shaking the tousled ringlets. She released the strong hand and brushed away the dust and light debris from her Amazon leathers. She sent a knowing grin at the warrior's twinkling blue eyes. Finally, she turned to her assistant.
"I'm not a ghost, Solari," Ephiny quipped to the dark-haired lieutenant standing open-mouthed at her elbow. "It was all a charade," the Regent said to the warrior's subtle smile. The Amazon scanned the area. "Did it work? Did he buy it?"
Xena touched the Regent's shoulder. "Yes, it worked. Thanks to you, Gabrielle is in the Elysian Fields forever. Ephiny, I really owe you BIG, this time." The Amazon waved off the statement.
"It was for Gabrielle." The warrior's smile was warm. And it was a pleasure ... beating the god of war at his own game." The tall blonde soldier smiled warmly at the warrior. "But you gotta figure a way to make that stuff taste better." The Regent's lovely face contorted in a comical grimace. "Really baaad, Xena."
"SOMEbody's gonna tell me what's going on here, right??" Solari barked, her strong hands perched on her hips. "RIGHT?" she said pointedly, glaring first at the Regent and then at the warrior.
Ephiny faced her assistant's irritated frown and put a hand on the woman's shoulder.
"Remember the flask that came with the scroll from Xena?" she began. Solari nodded. "Well, inside was a potion of combined terebinth oil and valerian." The lieutenant's brows sprang upward.
"Yup," Ephiny said. "Simulated death." Solari's jaw dropped even further.
The tall warrior's smile flickered a moment before subtly disappearing.
"I'll explain it all to you on the way home," Ephiny said, patting the lieutenant's solid arm. "Go get the rest of the group. I'll be with you directly." She gently ushered her friend toward the surrounding forest. Ephiny turned back to Xena.
"You going to be OK?" The Amazon's gray eyes were concerned on the warrior's.
"Eventually," Xena answered quietly. "As long as I know she's safe now. I'll learn to live with the rest." She held out her arm to the Amazon again. "Thanks, Ephiny. You're a good friend."
The Regent stepped closer to the tall warrior, risking her own physical safety by embracing the sinewy form for a very quick moment. When she pulled back to focus on the woman's face, she found the blue eyes soft and appreciative. Ephiny turned toward the advancing riders. Solari handed her the reins to the sturdy sorrel mare and The Regent smoothly mounted the horse.
"Don't be a stranger, OK?" she told the warrior. "You'll always have a home with us, Xena. Always." Xena nodded and raised her open hand.
"Safe journey," she said to the Amazon riders. The women turned their mounts and rode out of the little glen. The tall warrior's eyes followed the retreating figures for a few moments.
All at once, Xena felt an enveloping warmth surround her body. She froze in position, focusing her senses on locating the source of the soothing pressure. An instant later, the small, glowing form materialized in front of her. She recognized the trim figure at once. The warrior's chest tightened, the blue eyes locked on the radiant, young face and the shiny, long blonde hair. Even in the brilliant light, Xena could clearly see the soft, mist-green eyes focused on her face. The warrior smiled.
"I'm very proud of you," the glimmering figure said.
"Thanks. I'm pretty proud of me, too." Xena swallowed heavily. "So," she began, her voice thick. "I guess I won't be seeing you again ... at least not in this reality." The warrior's smile was shaky.
"I'm not sure," the small figure answered. "But I don't think so." The beautiful emerald pools seemed sad. "But then, you never know. I might pop in when you least expect it." The shining young face smiled, tightening the warrior's chest even more painfully.
"Some things never change," the tall leather-clad woman said drolly. She became aware that one eyebrow had climbed upward onto her forehead. Xena took a deep breath. "I'll miss you," she said softly.
"I already miss you," the slender blonde figure replied. The two pairs of eyes remained locked on each other. Finally the warrior spoke again.
"Do you think ...." Xena whispered. "Can I touch you?"
The translucent figure smiled bravely. "We can try," the sweet face answered and the warrior's heart shuddered at the sight of the gleaming tears on the beloved face. She slowly extended her hand toward the vision, her palm open, her fingers spread wide apart. The luminous entity did the same. Seconds later, the two hands met and their fingers entwined. Xena felt a soothing warmth radiate through her entire body. She closed her eyes, luxuriating in the wondrous pleasure. The light surrounding the two friends glowed even more brightly.
Suddenly, Xena became aware of another bright pocket of light. It materialized at the edge of the clearing, just beyond where the two friends stood. The warrior swiftly drew her sword as she pivoted, placing herself between the new glittering cloud and the small, glowing figure of her soulmate. The bronze face grew solemn and threatening.
"Who are you?" the warrior asked brusquely. "What do you want?"
The large illumination separated into three, distinct segments, the triad eventually assuming the appearance of two males and a female. The faces of the beings beamed in gentle assurance. Xena was surprised when the slim shape behind her smoothly exchanged their positions.
"It's all right," the small figure said, her touch warming the warrior's arm. "You can trust them. They brought me here." The tall woman lowered her sword and focused on the three sparkling configurations. She watched as the small figure turned to address the trio.
"Thank you for letting us say good-bye. I'm ready to go back now."
The three opaque figures twinkled brightly. The female form floated closer to the little bard. 'You won't be coming with us, Little One,' the soft voice said. 'Not this time.'
The shape in Gabrielle's likeness stared blankly at the shifting figures. The blonde head swirled toward the warrior's astonished expression then returned to the lustrous threesome.
"Do you mean ... I can stay?"
One of the male figures floated closer to the bard's glowing form. 'You have spoken in truth about the warrior's heart. It is noble and decent. She is striving with courage to return to the Light. She is indeed worthy.'
The third, manlike form shifted to join the other two. 'And we believe she now accepts that about herself. She is ready to believe she is deserving.'
The warrior stared at the figures, for once in her life, totally awestruck. She shifted her attention to the small, glimmering shape beside her. The two friends exchanged happy smiles; the warrior's brow was furrowed in confusion, nonetheless.
'It is true that you are her source,' the female-looking entity said. 'But it is also true that she is your heart's protector. One essence is incomplete without the other.'
The first male figure brightened slightly. 'There is more than enough hatred and greed and vengeance in your mortal world. It is rare to find this quality of love so complete ... so unquestioned ... and above all, so unselfish.'
'It is so unique, we have chosen to honor it ... by granting your plea.' The smaller male figure turned to his companions. The female shape smiled warmly at the young blonde's likeness.
'Gabrielle of Poteidaia,' the three forms recited together. 'You are once again mortal.'
Each member of the triumvirate extended a glowing hand toward the little bard. A thin thread of light traveled from each of the open palms and gently surrounded the young woman. The interwoven streams danced and sparkled brightly, caressing the small, trim form. The bard breathed deeply, closed her eyes and surrendered to the benevolent, loving illumination. After a moment, the beams merged, expanded and flashed into a brilliant, blinding sheen. An instant later, the light .. and the shimmering figures ... were gone.
Gabrielle looked down at herself. The long, flowing gown had been replaced by the familiar sleeveless, green top and short, brown skirt. The braids in her hair had returned and her feet rested comfortably in a pair of calf-length, rust-colored boots. She turned slowly to face the warrior. Xena's expression was wide-eyed ... amazed ... totally and completely thankful. The clear, blue eyes glistened brightly. The warrior dropped her sword as the two women moved toward each other.
Xena opened her arms and the bard stepped happily into the waiting embrace. Gabrielle hugged the warrior's waist tightly, her cheek resting snugly against the tall woman's shoulder. Xena stroked the soft, blonde hair, tears of joy streaming over the smooth, bronze face. The little bard pulled the sleek form closer. For a long moment, the two friends stood there together, blissfully enjoying the luxury of their closeness.
Eventually, Gabrielle became aware of the growing pressure of the warrior's strong arms around her body. The little blonde began a subtle attempt at freeing herself from the tall woman's grasp. She quickly found her efforts unsuccessful. When she discovered she couldn't draw a deep breath, she decided to address the matter directly.
"Xena," the girl grunted. "You're squishing me." The warrior's grip relaxed immediately. She stepped back to gaze at the treasured face.
"I'm sorry. It's just .. I'm so ...." The bard giggled adoringly at the tall woman's chagrin.
"I know," Gabrielle crooned. "Me too." The two friends resumed their hug.
Finally, Xena released the trim figure, raising shaky hands to capture the girl's soft face. The blue eyes, still glistening with happy tears, searched the bard's cheerful expression.
"How ...?" the warrior sputtered. "Wha ... what did ....?" Xena gave up, choosing instead to enfold the compact bard in her arms again.
"It's a very long story," Gabrielle joked, giving the sleek body another quick squeeze before smoothly extricating herself from the firm embrace. She wrapped both hands around the warrior's bronze forearm, favoring the blue eyes with an impish grin.
"Let's have some lunch and I'll tell you all about it."
The warrior's mouth dropped open for a moment before her hearty, raucous laugh filled the clearing. Xena pulled the bard closer, her chin resting against the smaller woman's temple.
"Like I said," the warrior quipped. "Some things never change." She bent to retrieve her sword from the ground. When she stood up again, she leveled a loving smile at the young blonde's cheerful grin.
"C'mon," Xena said, moving them both toward the golden mare. "I have some of Lanessa's sweetbread in Argo's pack." The two friends began walking. "You can tell me the whole story while we eat."
"Oh, goody! Sweetbread!" the little bard chirped. The warrior shook her head and smiled.
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