Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Eleven: No horses were harmed in the production of this fanfic.
Most of the Amazons who had remained at the head village came out to greet Xena and the wayward trainee as they returned, sweaty and tense, on a tiring Argo. Expressions of relief colored the faces of most, but the trainer Kyana kept her own face stern as she approached. No sooner had Xena lowered Lirin to the ground than Kyana had grabbed her by the ear, shouting chastisements. The other trainees watched and listened with wide, anxious eyes.
"What in Tartarus were you thinking?" Kyana yelled. "You gonna ride into battle like some half-assed idiot? That your idea of bravery?"
"I just wanted-" the girl began quaveringly, but was instantly cut off.
"You're a trainee, stupid child! You don't want! You do as you're told!"
"Xena," said Eponin, moving up to the warrior as she again examined Argo's front legs, "we've had word from the scouts."
"Oh?" Xena asked, looking alert.
"Yes," said Eponin as Solari joined them. "After you returned Korain to them, the renegades got their war party together. They're headed almost due east."
"Trying to intercept Gabrielle," Xena said grimly. The other two nodded.
"So it would seem," Solari confirmed. "The scouts are watching carefully for any sign that they sent another group this way, but so far nothing."
"Kyana!" Xena called, pitching her voice to cut through all the other noises. The trainer, whose diatribe had been winding down, stopped and looked at Xena. The errant trainee, her face flushed with shame and impotent anger, stared at the ground, rubbing her pinched ear. The other trainees and the other adults in the area also turned to look at the Warrior Princess.
"Have one of your girls feed my horse and give her a good rubdown," Xena instructed. "I'm taking a half-hour rest and then I'm going after the war party, to join them at Balacia." Her narrowed eyes dared anyone to object, which of course no one did; Solari and Eponin exchanged a glance.
"Very well, Xena," Kyana replied. "I'll have-"
"And," Xena went on as if the trainer hadn't spoken, "I'm taking Lirin with me." The girl's head jerked up in surprise. Xena's dark gaze drilled into her like the sharpest arrow. "It'll be a better punishment than anything you could possibly devise."
"So, what did you want to discuss?" Gabrielle asked as she and Ephiny took the lead of the war party. Two burly Amazons walked point, but otherwise the two Queens were at the head of the group, which followed behind with Anaira taking Gabrielle's place in the middle to provide cohesion.
"Oh, that." Ephiny seemed somewhat abashed. "Gabrielle, I hate to say it, but I think I may have been wrong."
"About me coming to Balacia? I can't turn back now," Gabrielle said. "It would completely confuse the warriors."
"No, no, not about that," Ephiny said hastily. "I meant about leaving Xena behind."
"Oh." The mere mention of her friend's name sent a frisson down Gabrielle's spine, which she shook off doggedly.
"Yes, the more I think about it, the more it seems that this will be the decisive battle -- and a big one. We'll need all the help we can get, and Xena isn't just another warrior, she's like a one-woman army. She could probably take the entire renegade band on her own."
"Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration," Gabrielle said with a small laugh, "but not too far off. But we still have Anaira."
"Yeah, and I don't mean to put her down at all, obviously," Ephiny replied. "But she's not a warlord -- hasn't been for years, and even when she was she couldn't have rivalled Xena."
"Xena's no warlord either," Gabrielle reminded her. Ephiny winced and nodded in apology.
"I'm sorry, bad choice of word. But you know what I mean. Xena may be on the side of good now, but she's still a warrior -- she still fights and conquers her way through life. Right? Whereas Anaira hasn't been doing that since before Mimi was born -- she lived more like a fugitive than a warrior. Anyway, the point is, she's not as experienced as Xena is. I do think that she, and I, and the others we have with us ... together, I think we stand a pretty good chance against these renegades, no matter what they throw at us at Balacia. But I'd feel a lot more confident if Xena were with us."
"Hmm," Gabrielle mused. She herself, of course, would like nothing better than to send a messenger back to the head village entreating Xena to rejoin them. But was it really the right thing to do, or was she just seizing on Ephiny's uncertainty as an excuse to fulfill her own longing? "What about the village? We'd be leaving it nearly unguarded."
"Actually, the village is in better shape than it was when we formulated this plan," Ephiny pointed out. "Getting rid of Korain gave us back ten warriors we hadn't been counting on ... all of whom are still there. And there's Eponin to lead the defense, and Solari to keep things running smoothly, which she can do even if she can't actually fight."
"Hmm," Gabrielle said again. "So what are you suggesting? That we send a messenger back and ask Xena to come join us? Don't you think that would make the others a little nervous?"
"It would," Ephiny agreed unhappily. "I've already been round and round all this in my head a dozen times. That's why I'm asking you for a second opinion."
"Okay. Well, let me think for a moment," Gabrielle told her, and they lapsed into a moody silence.
Xena bent low over Argo's neck, the whipping wind melding with her pulse as she pressed the horse to top speed. Behind, she could heard the other two horses straining to keep up. Her brow wrinkled in an uneasy frown as she pondered the wisdom of her decision.
Eponin, Solari and Kyana had certainly put up a strong resistance to the idea of including the young Lirin in the war party. All their arguments had of course been valid: the girl was untried in real combat, young, reckless, and arrogant. Being chosen for the battle was sure to swell her head and exacerbate her already serious overestimation of her own skills. She would be a liability to the entire effort, necessitating close supervision lest she do something foolhardy that could endanger not only her own life, but the lives of all the others, the outcome of the battle, and hence the future of the Amazon Nation itself. With all these points, Xena had been forced to agree.
"Then why?" Eponin had demanded in exasperation. "What can you possibly have seen in this dumb kid that we're missing?"
"It's not really something I saw," Xena had replied, wincing both then and now at the half-truth. "But if I leave her here, she'll run off again. We all know she will. Short of tying her down, or assigning her a round-the-clock guard, there's no way to keep her still. She needs to have her illusions about battle shattered, the sooner the better. She thinks it's all glory and honor and clean results. She needs to see different." And there are a few people she needs to see in a new light, she added mentally, but kept that to herself.
"I don't like it one bit, obviously," Kyana had said at this point, "but one thing seems clear enough. Xena's right about our being unable to keep the kid here. And I'm guessing the same thing applies in reverse -- short of tying Xena down, there's no way we can stop her."
Eponin had sighed. "I was planning to tell you to go join them anyway," she told Xena reluctantly. "In that, at least, we agree. And Kyana's right. We can't stop you from taking Lirin along. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"So do I," Xena had muttered, and that was the end of the discussion.
So now here they were, pounding through the forest in a desperate bid to overtake the Amazon party before the renegades did; Xena had taken one of the ten who had guarded Korain, as extra insurance in case Lirin decided to strike out on her own again. The youngster had been oddly quiet, almost docile, accepting the horse that was prepared for her, nodding meekly at Kyana and Eponin's long list of instructions and admonishments, then pointing her horse's head at Argo's rear and following obediently behind Xena. The warrior was suspicious. A kid didn't go from the ultimate rebellion to perfect behavior just like that. Lirin would definitely merit close watching.
"Well, if we do it, we better do it soon," Gabrielle mused at last, startling Ephiny out of her own ruminations. Several minutes had gone by as the two Queens pondered the options.
"Yes," Ephiny agreed quickly.
"I mean, even if our messenger rides at top speed, she won't get to the village for a few hours, and then another few before Xena can get here...." Gabrielle went on. Ephiny nodded repeatedly.
"That's true. The sooner the messenger goes, the better."
"Hmm." Gabrielle was still not entirely sure it was a good idea. She didn't relish the thought of what her conscience would say if she called Xena to her side and then the Amazon head village got attacked. But on the other hand, what if the battle at Balacia went poorly? It could be just as painful to her sense of responsibility if they, the gods forbid, lost that battle for lack of Xena.
"Gabrielle...." Ephiny said, looking with concern at the bard as she went over these unpleasant possibilities once more. "If you really don't think...." As she paused, searching for words, a commotion became audible from the back of the group. Gabrielle and Ephiny stopped walking and turned to see what was happening.
"What's going on back there?" Ephiny called.
There was a murmuring, and Gabrielle thought she heard Xena's name. Then Anaira was visible, stretching onto her toes so that she, already taller than most, could see over the intervening heads to meet Ephiny's eyes.
"It's Xena," she called, her words ringing clearly through the air. "Approaching at top speed, with a couple of others."
"Okay, all halt," Ephiny ordered, and the Amazons came to a stop, chattering animatedly.
In moments the three horses were upon them, galloping up and stopping abruptly. Xena dismounted smoothly and joined Gabrielle and Ephiny at the head of the party.
"Should you be up front like this, unprotected?" she asked mildly, her breathing even. Behind her, the other two who had ridden with her were panting.
"Xena," Ephiny began in some surprise, and then, "Lirin?"
"Lirin!" repeated the guard, Surya, rushing forward to embrace her sister as the girl slid shakily down off her mount. "Thank the Gods!"
"No, thank Xena," said Ephiny, not without humor. "Well, let's not let this slow us down. Xena can explain everything while we walk."
"Let the kid lead the horses," Xena said coolly. Ephiny raised her eyebrows, but made no comment as Xena and the other Amazon handed their horses' reins to the girl. Scowling, Lirin fell into step with her sister. The others moved back into position and they resumed their pace.
Gabrielle had been quiet as the others greeted Xena and her companions. The sudden appearance, as if by magic, of her lover had thrown her back into the confusion of emotions; though her earlier talk with Anaira had opened her eyes to a new aspect of Xena's mental workings, the unsettlement of their previous conversations remained. And how could she live up to the role of Xena's ideal, if that truly was how the warrior saw her? After everything they'd been through, everything they'd done to each other, could she really be an example for Xena to strive toward? Did she even want to be that crucial to any person's state of mind?
The sight of Xena, too, awakened a curious craving in her belly. She loved Xena so much it made her throat close up and her breathing labored, and all she wanted to do now was go away somewhere, put her arms around the dark warrior, and never let go. The battle ahead suddenly took on an even more menacing significance, and Gabrielle wished with everything in her that they didn't have to fight it.
When Xena moved alongside them, taking her position in between Gabrielle and Ephiny, Gabrielle felt herself heaving an unexpected shaky sigh of relief. She hadn't realized how tense she was just walking through a forest without Xena; everything had seemed wrong up until now, and now that the warrior was back by her side, everything seemed right. She shook her head and blinked in astonishment at the seeming contradiction of her various emotions.
"So, Xena," Ephiny was saying as they walked, "I suppose you have a good explanation for why you've decided to join us -- and brought Lirin with you, of all things?"
"I do," Xena agreed, looking with a little concern at Gabrielle. "Everything going all right?"
"Fine," Gabrielle murmured distractedly. "I'm glad to see you, Xena."
"Glad to be here," Xena replied, and there was a certain intensity bubbling beneath her bland exterior. She turned to Ephiny. "I got the kid back from the renegades without trouble. Soon as we left them, they turned this way."
"This way?" Ephiny repeated, frowning. "That means they've spotted us and they probably know where we're headed."
"Yes," Xena agreed. "Thought it was best I join you. If we're lucky, they'll hold off attacking us on the road."
"Good thinking." Ephiny opened her mouth to say more, and Xena paused, waiting, but then the Queen-Regent changed her mind and closed her mouth. Giving her a speculative look, Xena remained silent as well.
"You didn't explain why you brought Lirin along," Gabrielle said after a moment. Xena grimaced a little.
"That kid's got a major chip on her shoulder. Tried to escape from me on the way back to the village."
"Escape? From you?" Ephiny repeated, her face mirroring the surprise Gabrielle felt.
"Did the renegades corrupt her while she was among them?" Anaira asked, coming forward to join them.
"No," Xena said, sighing and shaking her head. "Stupid kid thought she was doing the heroic thing, just like her idol here." She indicated Gabrielle with a jerk of her head. Gabrielle blanched.
"Idol?" she repeated uneasily.
"Yeah, apparently you can do no wrong, riding into the battle at Minisis was the bravest thing anyone's ever done in the history of humanity, and yelling at you like I did afterward makes me the meanest Harpie that ever flew," Xena explained sardonically. Ephiny rolled her eyes.
"In other words, she has a crush on you," she filled in. Xena nodded and shrugged.
"So it seems."
Gabrielle was horrified. "What? Me? That's -- You mean, she went riding off looking for a battle because of what I did yesterday?"
"Gabrielle, don't get all worked up about it," Anaira counseled. "She's just a kid, after all. It happens."
"No, no," Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. "Kids refusing to do their chores 'happens.' A kid running away from home and sleeping at a friend's house overnight 'happens.' A kid running off half-trained looking for a fight...."
"But Anaira's right, you can't waste time blaming yourself for it," Ephiny said, craning her neck to see past Xena and meet Gabrielle's eyes. "Regardless of how stupid Lirin's actions were, the end result is she's in one piece and all is well. We can worry about punishing her later." She looked again at Xena. "What I'm interested in now is what you still haven't told us -- why she's here."
Gabrielle was still shaking her head, mentally berating herself yet again for her foolish actions, but she forced her thoughts back to the present and looked at Xena as well. The warrior was grimacing again.
"Thought it would be good for her," she said cryptically. "And if I'm right, you won't have to worry about punishing her later."
"Why, because she'll be dead?" Gabrielle burst out, and instantly regretted it. "I'm sorry. It's been ... a tense day."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, giving her another worried look. "No, I think this battle might be just the thing to knock the kid down a peg or two. Show her what battle is really like, what being a warrior really means. Toughen her up." Her eyes were clouded, her speech enigmatic. It made all three of the others nervous, but they all shrugged it off.
"Well, if you say so," Ephiny said somewhat dubiously. "Anyway, it's too late to send her back now. But someone had better keep an eye on her at all times."
"Leave that to me," Xena said calmly. She glanced again at Gabrielle, then at the other two. "Anything else going on?"
"No, the trip itself has been uneventful," Ephiny replied, while both Gabrielle and Anaira were once again pensive. Xena nodded shortly.
"Good, then I'll ride behind. Gabrielle, you should move back to the center."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed vaguely, still trying to sort out all the feelings of the moment. She turned and followed Xena back through the marching Amazons, missing the look that passed between Ephiny and Anaira as they went.
"I really am glad to have you here," Gabrielle said quietly to Xena's back as they skirted the edge of the traveling party. Xena turned, and they stopped for a moment, letting the others flow on past them.
"Good," the warrior said simply, and her hand rested for a moment on Gabrielle's shoulder, sliding down her arm in an almost-caress before moving away. Xena turned again and strode off toward the rear of the group.
Her insides fluttering dizzyingly, Gabrielle melted back into the group of Amazons and let it carry her into battle.
|Go to next part|
Go to previous part
Top of this page
Back to Xena writings page
Back to EnglishChick.com