Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Very small spoilers: Sins of the Past
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Ten: Argo was slightly harmed in the production of this fanfic, but she recovered quickly. She figures it was bound to happen sooner or later anyway.
After an hour or two of riding, Xena passed a stand of trees bare of branches, and soon after that she could feel eyes watching her from the cover of other trees. She clucked Argo to a halt and dismounted, pulling Korain down with her and holding her in place so that the unseen renegade sentinels could clearly see Korain's hands bound in front of her. Xena remained still, waiting.
It was only a few minutes before a handful of masked figures emerged from the bushes and walked to within speaking distance. "Xena," one of them said, keeping her hands away from her body.
"I want no trouble," Xena said, moving her own left hand away from herself as well, keeping her right on Korain. "Give me the girl, and take this one back. A simple trade, no tricks."
"No tricks," the renegade leader repeated, somewhat skeptically. Xena shrugged.
"I've come alone. You can have your scouts verify that if you like. I've got all day." Remembering what Kyana had said about the youngster, she gave the renegades a small smirk and added, "You can't be getting much joy of that kid." A couple of the renegades at the leader's back shifted, apparently agreeing, and one of them lifted a hand gingerly to the back of her head. The leader turned and said something low, and one of the others disappeared back into the forest.
"All right," the leader said, turning back to Xena. "You've got your trade. Take the girl and go straight back the way you came, no hanging around."
"Not to worry," Xena said blandly. "Your ambiance leaves a lot to be desired."
Another tense moment went by, and then two more renegades appeared, prodding the young captive ahead of them. One of them carried her fighting staff, which she handed to the renegade leader. The leader turned to Xena, and behind the mask the warrior could see eyes narrowing.
Xena gave Korain a shove and the woman stumbled forward, closing the distance between herself and her fellow renegades. One of them gave Lirin a similar shove, and the girl also moved forward, passing Korain on her way to Xena. The renegade leader tossed the staff, and Xena caught it neatly.
"Nice doing business with you," Xena said coolly, and swung back up onto Argo, reaching down to pull the teenager up behind her and slapping the staff back into her hand. Lirin put her free arm reflexively around Xena's waist, and the warrior turned the horse around and went at a gallop back in the direction from which she had come. She was tense at first, half expecting to hear arrows whistling past her head, but nothing came. After a while, she allowed Argo to slow to a fast walk.
As the sun climbed toward its zenith and the war party walked on, Gabrielle was pulled out of her awestruck musings by the approach of two familiar faces.
"Galia. Sepha," she said, greeting the bereaved Amazons with some surprise. "I didn't realize you two were with us."
"Yes, m-Gabrielle," Galia said stoutly as she and her late cousin's friend fell into step alongside their Queen. "We didn't really feel like sitting around in the village waiting for something to happen."
"I understand," Gabrielle said with empathy, knowing all too well the desire to fill one's head with immediacy, to stave off unhappy thoughts. "I'm glad to have you along."
"Thank you," Galia replied. Gabrielle looked at her companion.
"Sepha, is something troubling you?"
"Yes, my Queen, I could use some advice," the quiet woman replied, watching the ground roll past beneath her feet. "I had a rather disturbing dream last night."
"Ahh ... well, dreams can often be the gods' way of sending us messages," Gabrielle said, glancing past Sepha to see Galia's look of concern.
"I know," Sepha said, "but I can't see what the message was supposed to be."
"Well, let's hear it," said Gabrielle encouragingly, thinking, Do they come to Ephiny with things like this?
Sepha took a breath. "Well, I dreamt I was back in the village of Gregoria, with Daraia, as we were before the renegades took the village. We were having a sparring match, duelling in hand-to-hand combat, but there was no one else around watching. The entire village was deserted. Daraia bested me, and she held me down on the ground, and there were tears on her face, and I couldn't get up. And then she changed -- you know how sometimes people change, and in the dream it doesn't seem odd at all?"
"Yes, I know what you mean," Gabrielle agreed. "Go on."
"Well, she changed, and she was wearing a renegade mask, but somehow I knew she was Artemis. And suddenly we were in the middle of a battle, there were renegades all around, and Artemis pulled her dagger like she was going to cut my throat. I screamed, and that's when Galia woke me up."
"Hmm," said Gabrielle, pondering. She could clearly see the dream-imagery in her head, imagine the pulse-pounding sensations of the battle ... and as if it weren't easy enough to get from the dream, Sepha's expression showed her pain with aching clarity.
"What do you think it means?" Sepha was asking anxiously. Gabrielle gave her a reassuring smile and searched for gentle words.
"It means that you are still grieving for your friend, Sepha," she said with compassion. "I think the sparring match was her way of telling you that you have to find a way of letting her go. She was crying because she hates to leave you, but she needs to find her peace in Elysia, and for that she needs you to mourn and say goodbye. And it also was telling you to focus your energies on the upcoming battle, to stop worrying about the things in the past that you can't change and start thinking about the things in the future that you can."
"Hmm," said Sepha thoughtfully. Beyond her, Galia looked relieved. "That makes sense." Then her brow wrinkled. "But why would Artemis be dressed as a renegade?"
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "I don't think she was really meant to be Artemis," she said carefully. "I think she just represented the current conflict, the battle we're riding into, and all the turmoil that it's brought into your life. It's been a difficult time for you."
"Yes, it has," the Amazon agreed quietly. They walked in silence for a few moments. "Thank you, Gabrielle," she added at last. "You've given me a lot to think about."
"Yes, thank you," Galia put in as well. Some of the tension had left her face and it was evident that she had been worried about her friend.
"You're both welcome," Gabrielle said with a friendly smile. "I'm glad I could help." She watched them smile back at her as they melted back into their places in the marching order, and her own expression slowly turned pensive again.
Passing through a particularly tangled bit of undergrowth, Argo stumbled and gave a little whuffle of pain. She pulled her hooves free, but continued at a slower pace, walking with some discomfort. "Whoa," Xena called softly, bringing the horse to a halt and jumping down to inspect the damage.
Lirin slid down as well, landing solidly on both feet, holding her staff. She glanced swiftly to each side, then put her chin down and trotted off doggedly toward the northeast.
Looking around, noticing the escaping youth, Xena cursed under her breath and straightened up. "Steady," she cautioned Argo, and leaving the horse standing there, she took off in pursuit.
Lirin was young and fast, but Xena was tall and faster, and soon enough the Warrior Princess caught up with the errant youth, moving to block her path and demanding, "Where do you think you're going?"
"To join the battle," the girl replied defiantly, "and don't try to stop me! You have no right!"
"No right?" Xena repeated. "I told Ephiny and the others that I would bring you back to town in one piece, and by Zeus that's what I'm going to do, if I have to knock you unconscious and hogtie you." The words gave her an ironic stab of déjà vu, but she ignored it and kept any trace of amusement off her face. "So don't talk to me about rights. As far as I'm concerned you're just a stupid kid trying to show off, and likely to get herself killed in the process."
"A stupid kid? That's what you think of everyone, isn't it?" Lirin shot back angrily, glaring daggers. "Even the Queen, who's supposed to be your *friend,* is just some dumb kid to you!"
"You better watch your mouth," Xena said dangerously, narrowing her eyes, but the teenager was too deeply into her own outrage to be cowed.
"Gabrielle is our Queen, and she's the bravest woman that ever lived," she avowed, her voice trembling slightly with emotion, "braver than you, that's for sure! You never should have talked to her that way! It was wrong!"
"That way...." Belatedly, Xena realized that the girl was talking about the all-too-public tongue-lashing she had given Gabrielle yesterday after the bard's ill-advised flight into battle. "Listen, kid, you shouldn't talk about things you don't understand. There was a lot more going on yesterday than you know about."
"I know all I need to know," Lirin retorted. "Gabrielle was only trying to help, riding into battle like the noble Queen that she is, and you treated her like a child who's stolen a biscuit!"
"I spoke harshly to her, that much is true," Xena said. "But she knew she had no business endangering herself in that battle, and we apologized to each other later. We both apologized," she reiterated for emphasis, watching the youth's face. Lirin scowled, but didn't reply.
"Anyway, like I said, you shouldn't make judgments when you don't have all the facts," Xena growled. "Now we're going back to the village. Do you want to walk back to Argo, or shall I throw you over my shoulder like a child having a tantrum?"
Still frowning angrily, the young woman brushed past Xena, stalking back toward Argo, disgruntlement clear in every line of her body. Xena rolled her eyes skyward and turned to follow.
At midday the traveling party paused for lunch. Sitting with Ephiny and Anaira under a tree, looking up at the blue sky, chewing on her dried meat, Gabrielle felt unsettled. Anaira's revelations had lightened her heart, lifted her spirits, but now the spectre of a deadly battle -- without Xena -- loomed and she felt nothing but apprehension. She was unable to relax even in this idyllic moment, constantly scanning the surrounding trees for any sign of the enemy. The enemy, she thought with an inward sigh. Who would ever have predicted....
"Gabrielle, relax," Ephiny urged, handing her a piece of nutbread. "You look about ready to jump out of your skin."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said, rolling her shoulders to loosen the tension. "I know it's illogical, but I feel more like a target when we're not moving."
"Not that illogical," Anaira told her sympathetically. "At least when you're walking, you feel like you're prepared. You're in action."
"Exactly," Gabrielle agreed gratefully. Ephiny shook her head at them.
"Regardless, try to relax, okay? Remember, you're here as much for morale as anything. The others take their cue from you, and if they see that you're nervous...."
"I'm new to this morale thing too," Gabrielle reminded her, but she made a conscious effort to relax her posture and lighten the expression on her face.
"Better," Ephiny told her with a smile. Gabrielle returned it valiantly.
"I'll get the hang of this Queen stuff yet," she joked. The others laughed, but in another moment Anaira's expression seemed to darken as she looked across the gathered Amazons. Gabrielle opened her mouth to question the warrior, but then Ephiny was getting to her feet.
"Might as well get back on the way," she said, stretching. "Balacia's not coming any closer." She looked down at Gabrielle. "Walk in front with me for a bit. I want to run something by you."
"Um ... okay," Gabrielle acquiesced, hauling herself up as well. She moved aside to catch another glimpse of Anaira's face, but by then the dark warrior had pulled on her smooth mask and it was too late. Still wiggling her shoulders uneasily, Gabrielle moved back onto the road.
Xena was fretting. Her errant charge was under control again, riding placidly behind her on Argo, but the damage had been done; Xena had seen the signs. Actually, Lirin was not that different from the Gabrielle of two years ago; the big difference, in Xena's mind, was that the young Amazon was already proficient with the staff (she had been, if memory served, the winner of the first match in yesterday's exhibition), and thus had an exaggerated sense of her own self-sufficiency. Xena had little doubt that, once they returned to the head village, the girl would once again run off unless Xena kept an eye on her every minute. And Xena didn't have that many eyes.
What could she say to make this youngster see sense? What hadn't she said to Gabrielle back then, that might have made the difference? On the other hand, if she had known the words then, would she have spoken them? She sighed irritably. Most likely, there weren't any words. There was only experience, and most of the time it was painful. The kid would just have to learn the hard way.
Xena only hoped that when the time came, Lirin would have someone like Gabrielle around to pick up the pieces of her soul.
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