By the way, in case it's not obvious, this story does not and will not take into accounts the events of "Maternal Instincts." I may yet write a post-MI story (I've learned not to say "I'll never write _____ kind of story") but this isn't it. Consider this story an alternative to MI, taking place in an alternate Xenaverse.... preferably one without fish jokes or the Sideburns from Tartarus. :)
Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Please also reread my earlier statement about not being an expert on war, strategy or the depiction thereof. The same also goes for anything horse-related.
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Twelve: No amateur oracles were harmed in the production of this fanfic.
They arrived at Balacia as darkness was thickening, drawing its velvet shield over the canopy of the sky. Several torches had been lit during the lingering dusk, carried by Amazons on the edges of the traveling party, providing enough light to prevent tripping over rocks or walking into your neighbor. The strong stone and oak walls of Balacia were a welcome sight, and when the sturdy wooden doors were pushed open, a flood of firelight greeted the travelers.
"Everyone inside, let's get those doors closed," Ephiny called, and the travelers poured eagerly into the courtyard that was the main square of Balacia, ringed on all sides by tents and huts. The general shape of Balacia was an arc, with the mountainside forming the long edge and the outer wall curving around the town like an embracing arm. In the center of the courtyard, a large bonfire was blazing and meat was cooking; the smell wafted through the air and brought a gleam to the eye of every weary member of the war party.
A number of Balacia's citizens were already around, greeting the newcomers, when a regal older woman emerged from the far end, moving swiftly forward to embrace Ephiny with a smile.
"Ephiny. You made it here safely, thank the Gods."
"Cassa. Good to see you again." Ephiny returned the embrace warmly, and then moved back, looking to Gabrielle, who approached from behind. "Gabrielle, this is Cassa, the leader of Balacia. Cassa-"
"My Lady Gabrielle," the leader greeted, inclining her head respectfully. "It's an honor to meet you at last."
"The pleasure is mine," Gabrielle said, coming forward to clasp the other woman's hands. "I'm just glad we made it here in time."
"Yes, things have been very quiet lately -- ominously so," Cassa agreed. Checking herself, she added, "But we can discuss business after dinner. You all look famished. Come this way, we've prepared quite a feast!"
"I can't wait," Gabrielle said truthfully, looking around for Xena. But the Warrior Princess was nowhere to be seen ... nor, in fact, was Anaira. Gabrielle's forehead creased briefly, but she soon forgot the two warriors as Cassa and the others pulled her away toward the bonfire.
As soon as they had entered the walls of Balacia, Xena had turned to make sure the doors were securely shut and fastened. She was unsurprised when Anaira appeared with the same intent. Together, observed by the rather intimidated sentinels, the two dark warriors had pulled the doors shut, barred them, and inspected the area carefully. Satisfied that it was reasonably well fortified, Xena turned to one of the sentinels and asked, "Where can I stable my horse?"
"Um ... the stables are right behind that wall," the woman replied bravely, indicating a wooden structure that jutted out from the outer wall of the town.
"Thanks," Xena said blandly, and moved back into the courtyard to collect Argo, ignoring Anaira, who followed.
"Come on," Xena ordered as she approached Lirin, taking Argo's reins from the girl. Her stern expression brooked no argument. Lirin, sullen but still cowed, followed with the other two horses as Xena headed for the stables. Anaira trailed behind, her arms folded over her chest, making the youngster just that much more nervous.
"I suppose you know how to rub down a horse," Xena said to Lirin as they entered the stables. The girl scowled.
"Good," Xena said, still without expression. Anaira took one of the horses from Lirin, and the three moved into the familiar routine. Silence reigned for a few minutes as the weary horses were wiped off, fed, and fit into stalls with the assistance of the stablemaster.
When they were finished, Xena turned her gaze on Lirin once again. "Go eat," she instructed calmly. "You've got a long night ahead."
"You can't just order me around," the girl said angrily, but her tone lacked conviction and she withered when Xena narrowed her eyes. Still scowling her displeasure, she turned and fled.
"Quite a headstrong kid there, eh?" Anaira observed coolly, leaning against the stall separator as Xena moved to inspect Argo's hooves once again. Xena made a wry face.
"Must be my day for déjà vu," she said dryly, patting Argo lightly.
"You know, you don't have to tell me what you're holding back about her," Anaira said. Xena nodded.
"You're right, I do know that," she said insolently. Anaira merely smiled.
"Because I've already figured it out. History repeating itself, eh? Think it'll come out differently this time?"
"Maybe, maybe not," Xena answered. Finished with her inspection, she threw one long arm over Argo's back and leaned her forehead against the horse's neck for a moment of quiet contemplation. Anaira was silent as well, allowing Xena her peace.
At last Xena lifted her head again and said quietly, "You don't have to worry about it. I'll keep that kid safe, whatever it takes. It's no good me teaching her a lesson if she doesn't live to learn it."
"That's true," Anaira agreed, watching Xena carefully. "And Gabrielle?"
"I'm not giving up on her," Xena snapped, her eyes flashing as if Anaira had made an accusation. "Just don't you worry about that either."
Anaira searched her face for a moment, her brow clearing slightly as she took in whatever she saw there. "Fine," she said at last, lowering her eyes to the ground in a feline gesture of surrender. "All's well, then."
"All's well," Xena repeated. "Just a little matter of a battle to fight."
"Yes, well," Anaira said, laughing lightly. "I'll help you keep an eye on the kid, how's that sound?"
"Deal," Xena agreed, and held out her hand. They clasped each other's forearms for a long moment before turning to rejoin the others.
Gabrielle and Ephiny looked up, but made no comment as the two tall dark warriors rejoined the party. Tables had been set up in the main courtyard, and all around them Amazons were talking, laughing and eating. Xena heard her stomach growl at the smell as she sat down beside Gabrielle, and saw by the small curve of the bard's lips that she had heard it as well.
"Cassa was just telling us about her scouting expeditions," Ephiny explained as plates of meat and chunks of bread were handed to the newcomers. Gabrielle poured Xena a mug of wine.
"Yes," the leader of the village replied. "I was saying that we've had scouts out regularly to monitor the position of the renegades, and we can usually see them hunting and scouting in the area. But in the last day or two, they've been nowhere to be seen."
"Which can't mean anything good," Anaira put in, taking the mug that Gabrielle handed her. "Thanks."
"No, it can't," Ephiny said, "but that's kind of beside the point now anyway. We're here. We're expecting a battle, and we're ready for it. Cassa, tell us about your defenses."
"The wall is five feet thick," said Xena as the older woman opened her mouth, "with sentinel posts every fifty feet and arrow slits at the top level every twenty feet."
"The door itself is oak, with iron strips bracing it," Anaira went on, picking up smoothly as Xena paused to take a bite of bread. "There are two smaller doors at either side, close to where the wall meets the mountain." Now she too paused, looking back at Xena.
"Um, yes," Cassa agreed, looking somewhat taken aback. "The smaller doors are also oak, and strongly locked as well as barred. The juncture of our wall with the mountain is very secure. The biggest danger spot is really our front, although over the years we've learned how best to defend it."
"What about attack from above?" Anaira asked. "They could climb the mountain and fire down on us."
"The rock face above is smooth and difficult to climb -- we make sure of that," Cassa replied. "Our sentinels know the mountain better than anyone, and we're well equipped to defend it."
"Do you think they'll attack tonight?" Gabrielle asked anxiously. The battle looming ever larger made her stomach twist with fear. Under the pretext of reaching for a piece of fruit, she shifted slightly closer to Xena, taking comfort in the warm nearness of her beloved friend. Xena's eyes slid sideways momentarily; she remained still and quiet.
The other leaders at the table looked from one to another, none quite sure who was best suited to speculate. Finally Ephiny said, "My instinct is no. They know we're here, and they know we know, and they know we're prepared for battle. The smart thing would be for them to wait till it's light, and take every advantage."
Everyone was nodding, but Anaira added, "On the other hand, they might be hoping we'd think that way, and planning an attack by night anyway. It's hard to say."
Gabrielle made a face. All the second- and third-guessing made her slightly dizzy, and she couldn't help wondering if she even had the mind, let alone the temperament, to be Queen. Was this kind of complex thinking supposed to come naturally?
Ephiny must have caught her grimace, because she gave Gabrielle a reassuring smile and said, "Naturally Anaira's right, but I still think it's an outside chance. We'll keep a guard up at all times, of course, but let's plan for the battle to take place at dawn." Blinking slowly, she looked from one warrior to another, and all nodded.
"Sounds fine," Xena said shortly. "I'll need a full tour of the outer wall."
"I'll tag along," Anaira added, and Cassa nodded acceptance.
"I'll have one of my sentinels take you around. But please, finish your dinner first. You've had a long journey."
"That much is true," Anaira agreed with forced lightness, reaching for more meat. Xena shrugged and did the same.
Trying to pull her mind away from the upcoming strife, Gabrielle found her inner eye returning again and again to a single image of Artemis. Quietly, as the others fell into a determinedly casual discussion of the latest in arrow-making techniques, she slid off her seat and moved between the tables.
Xena, her senses hyper-alert to the presence and motion of the bard, noticed Gabrielle leaving, and watched her out of the corner of an eye, chewing her inner lip. The subtle change in Gabrielle's demeanor had not escaped the warrior's notice; it signified some revelation or momentous decision whose exact nature was unclear. Xena herself had had an eye-opening of sorts, but whether it was for good or ill -- and whether it would be wise or unendingly foolish to reveal it to Gabrielle -- she couldn't be sure. In some ways, she felt as if a great burden had been lifted from her; she saw Gabrielle more clearly now, as a woman, a bard, a Queen. In other ways....
These wandering thoughts brought Xena sharply back to the issue of her young charge, and with an irritated frown directed mostly at herself, she turned her head to look quickly and piercingly around the area. By Hades, where had that child gotten to now? Had it been as big a mistake to bring her along as Eponin and the others had believed?
"Hsst." The low hiss through Anaira's teeth brought Xena's head back around, and she looked where the other warrior's eyes directed her. Ah, there was the wayward teen, voraciously devouring a chunk of meat and a rousing tale being told by one of the local Amazons. Xena took a moment to integrate Lirin's whereabouts into her subconscious feel of the bonfire area, and then glanced back at Anaira, rolling her eyes. The other warrior smiled slightly, acknowledging, and turned her attention back to Ephiny.
"How are you two doing?" Gabrielle asked, making her way at last to the table where Sepha and Galia sat, surrounded by others. A few started to rise, recognizing their Queen, but the bard quickly gestured them back into their seats. "Please, you don't owe me any of that."
"We've already explained to them that you prefer to be treated ... less royally," Sepha said diplomatically. "It's just a hard habit to break, you know?"
"I understand," Gabrielle assured them all as she sat in the spot they had cleared for her. "But I hope you all understand how uncomfortable I am with being bowed to like that. I just want to be treated like one of you."
"We'll do our best, m-Gabrielle," one of the locals said, and the others nodded and murmured agreement. Gabrielle smiled quietly.
"That's all I ask." She put a lot of meaning into the simple phrase, and they all looked thoughtful, absorbing it.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing," Gabrielle went on, turning to Sepha, "and to ask you, if you don't mind, to let me know if you have that dream again."
"Oh," the other woman replied, somewhat surprised. "I'm sure I won't. I mean, why would I?"
"No reason," Gabrielle said swiftly. "I just meant ... well, in case. The gods ... well, they often work in strange ways," she paused for a moment to think of the many gods she herself had met in her travels, "and if it comes back to trouble you again, I'd like to know about it. That's all."
"Naturally I'll tell you," Sepha agreed, shrugging. On her other side, Galia looked pensive, but said nothing.
"Good." Gabrielle looked around the circle of faces at the table, all of which were looking back at her, bright and trusting, full of interest. She forced everything else back and said with real feeling, "Now, I'd like to hang out with you for a while, get to know some of you. If it's all right."
"Of course," Galia said, and the others quickly assented as well. Gabrielle smiled in gratification.
"Thank you. Now, why don't you all tell me your names and...."
As the evening drew on to night, the bonfire died down and the various Amazons began disappearing, singly and in twos and threes, into the village. The locals had already devised a preliminary plan for housing the newcomers, and as old friendships were rekindled and new ones formed, places were found for everyone. Gabrielle, reluctantly letting Galia and Sepha go yawning off to the cabin they were sharing with a distant kinswoman, found herself collected again by Ephiny and borne off with her and Cassa to the leader's home.
"Now, it's not much, and I know it'll seem a little cramped," the older woman apologized as she led them into her single-room cabin, "but it should do you fine for a few days. I've already made arrangements to bunk with the captain of the guard two doors down."
"Oh, we can't put you out of your home," Gabrielle protested, shifting uncomfortably, unable to shake the feeling that the others were scrutinizing her.
"Tradition dictates that the leader of the village cedes her home to the Queen during a royal visit," Ephiny explained, "and anyway, it's the logical center of operations. Cassa doesn't mind."
"On the contrary, I consider it an honor," the leader said earnestly. Gabrielle took her hands warmly.
"I'm sure you do, and I appreciate it. But ... I guess I'm still not entirely comfortable with the whole thing. Ephiny and Anaira should stay here -- they'll want the privacy." She glanced at the two, who were standing hand-in-hand, expressionless. "I can sleep in the barn."
"The barn?" Cassa repeated, unsure whether it was a joke. Ephiny shook her head tolerantly.
"Gabrielle, I know it's what you're used to, but really...."
"No, it's really what I want," Gabrielle insisted. "Honestly."
"Why not?" Anaira said, her knowing eyes piercing Gabrielle's. "It's certainly the last place anyone would think of trying to ambush her."
"Well..." Ephiny looked torn. "I suppose it can't hurt. And this cabin would certainly be crowded with the three of us."
"Very crowded," Gabrielle said emphatically, and this time all four laughed a little, the meaning clear.
"All right," Cassa said, shrugging expressively. "Can't say I really understand it, but you're the Queens. I'll post a guard on the barn."
"No," Gabrielle said quickly. "It'll -- I mean, it would just draw attention to it."
"The guards know how to be unobtrusive," Ephiny said, giving Gabrielle a firm no-nonsense look. Unwilling to argue, Gabrielle subsided.
"Good night, then, Gabrielle," Anaira said, coming forward to give her a gentle hug. "Sleep well, or at least sleep. Or at least try."
"I'll try," Gabrielle agreed, hugging her back. "And you...." She pulled back, looking into the warrior's eyes. Anaira smiled slightly and nodded.
"See you in the morning."
"Good night," Ephiny said, hugging her as well. Gabrielle turned to the door, where Cassa stood waiting.
"I'll walk you to the barn," the older woman said, putting a friendly hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard smiled and nodded.
"Thank you." She followed the town leader out into the night.
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