Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Spoilers: "Apotheosis," The Furies
Spoilers by Implication Only: Deliverer/Gabrielle's Hope, The Debt
Warning: violence alert. Not too graphic but be prepared.
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Six: Numerous Amazons were harmed during the production of this fanfic. However, thanks in large part to Katrina (see "The Tour"), their time in Tartarus will certainly not be uninteresting. ;-)
Gabrielle leaned low over the neck of the horse she had appropriated from the Amazon stables. Her breath rasped in her throat, which was tight with apprehension. The wind whistling past her ears and the brush crunching under the horse's pounding hooves seemed loud enough to deafen. It wasn't hard to follow the path that the Amazons' second squadron had taken ... and even if it were, she could follow the progress, far ahead, of two similar dark heads, long black hair flowing, sinuous muscled bodies crouched over their horses. Xena and Anaira rode side-by-side, flanked on either side and behind by Amazons.
By the time Gabrielle reached the outskirts of Minisis, the battle had been joined. The renegades were easy to spot by their darkly colored masks, decorated with what looked like the teeth of large predators. The Amazons of Minisis, though weary, were fighting with aplomb, but they willingly gave way to the newly arriving Amazons from the head village.
Barely had Gabrielle swung off her horse and taken in the situation than a renegade was bearing down on her, shrieking in almost inhuman anger as she raised her sword. Adrenaline and instinct took over as Gabrielle raised her staff and blocked, parried, swung, and knocked the sword from the woman's hand. A fierce kick to the stomach brought the bard to her knees, but she managed to keep her grip on the staff and brought it around, felling the other woman as well, who hit the ground, grunted and was still.
Panting with the excitement of battle, Gabrielle leapt back up to her feet and braced for the next attacker ... but there was none. Almost as quickly as they had arrived, the reinforcements had put down the renegades, who must have already been worn out and their numbers diminished by the lengthy battle.
Gabrielle had just regained her feet and assimilated the end of the battle when her vision blurred and her ears rang with sudden motion in front of her. Her staff was ripped violently from her hands and she staggered backwards, off-balance. The motion and the noise that had momentarily stunned her resolved into Xena, who towered over the bard clutching the staff and shouting with fury.
"What in TARTARUS are you doing here?!" the Warrior Princess raged, her face twisted in anger, her hair flowing, her shoulders squared as she deliberately took advantage of her size to intimidate. "I told you to Stay Behind!"
"And I told you I needed to see this for myself!" Gabrielle shouted back, the same fury surging up in her own belly again. She couldn't remember ever having seen Xena look this menacing -- the Amazons nearby looked terrified -- yet Gabrielle was too upset to be scared. "I'm the Queen, by Zeus and Artemis! I have a right to be here! I have a responsibility to be here!"
"You could have gotten us all killed!" Xena yelled, and then Anaira was cutting between them, a hand on Xena's chest strongly shoving her back -- several of the others flinched, expecting Xena to lash out -- as Anaira placed her own face in Xena's line of sight and stared her down.
"Not. Now." Anaira ordered through clenched teeth. "Both of you just shut your Godsdamned mouths!" Blinking with outrage, panting with reaction, Xena fell silent. Anaira looked around.
"Half of the squadron will stay behind with Eponin to assess the damage and care for the wounded." She named several of her team, who immediately began to move among the fallen, helping the wounded get up and move back into the village. "The rest of you," Anaira continued, "round up any renegade survivors. We're taking them as prisoners back to headquarters." She looked grimly behind her. "And I am taking the Queen back personally. Now." Her stern glare, as potent as Xena's, quelled any protest Gabrielle might have made. In an instant Anaira, taking the decision out of Xena's hands, had swung up onto Gabrielle's horse and reached down to pull Gabrielle up behind her.
Gabrielle put her arms around Anaira's waist and held on as the horse swung around and headed back the way they had come. The smell of the warrior's body, sweat and leather and her own scent combining, was strange, but the rippling of her muscles under the bard's arms was all too familiar. Gabrielle could see the way Anaira's temples twitched as she clenched her jaw, and the bard knew that Anaira was nearly as angry as Xena had been. The warrior's arms trembled ever so slightly, a reaction Gabrielle knew well from observing Xena when the flush of battle began to recede.
Too soon, they were galloping into the middle of the Queen's Village, and Ephiny was waiting, hands on hips, surrounded by a small group of others who had stayed behind ... including Gabrielle's would-be bodyguard, whose scowl was nearly as black as Ephiny's.
Anaira brought the horse to a smooth stop before Ephiny, and shook off Gabrielle, who slid lightly to the ground with Anaira right behind. Gabrielle got her feet under her again -- somewhat shakily -- and turned to face the reproving glare of her Regent.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny began severely, but paused as hoofbeats pounded and several more horses arrived -- including Argo, who had barely come to a complete halt before Xena had jumped off her and advanced again on Gabrielle, still glowering.
"You had NO right to put yourself in danger like that," she berated, completely ignoring everyone else gathered, her anger still boiling over. "You deliberately disobeyed me, and put-"
"Disobeyed you?" Gabrielle shot back heatedly. "You don't give me orders, Xena! I'm a grown woman and the Queen of these people!"
"You're an inexperienced killer and a stupid child!" Xena snarled back. Gabrielle gasped, her body jerking as if she had been slapped.
"How dare you!" she admonished lividly. "I-"
"Stop it!" This time it was Ephiny who intervened, pulling Gabrielle roughly aside and glaring Xena back. "You should both know better," she hissed angrily, moving her head to indicate the gathered Amazons who were watching the scene with something like horror. "We'll discuss this later -- in private," Ephiny added, "and you had both better be under control!"
Gabrielle subsided, still panting with exertion. Ephiny looked to Anaira. "How did it go?"
"We put them down without much trouble," Anaira replied, looking at the Queen-Regent, although it was clear her attention was still on Xena. "There were supposed to be prisoners...."
"There," Xena muttered, indicating the horses that had ridden in with her. In addition to several members of Anaira's squadron, there were two masked figures sliding awkwardly off the horses, their hands bound in front of them with rope. The captors pushed the two renegades over to where Gabrielle and the others stood, forced them to their knees, and yanked their masks off.
"Make it easy on yourselves," Ephiny advised them, her voice steely. "Tell us-"
But she broke off as one of the captives lunged forward, her eyes wild. Anaira had stiffened at the sight of her, recoiling the same way Gabrielle had a moment ago. Now the captive renegade surged to her feet, shrieking, "YOU! You brought this upon us! By the blood that burns in my bones, I'll eat your living heart! I-" She got no further as her captors, unable to pull her back with main force, finally struck her over the head and she slumped to the ground.
Anaira was white as a sheet, staggering backward with an expression of horror on her face. Ephiny shot her a concerned glance, and turned back to the others.
"Take them to the prison and post a double guard. We'll come interrogate them soon." She swept her gaze around the clearing and raised her voice to carry. "Everyone back to battle stations! Solari, and you two -" this to Xena and Gabrielle - "in the war room. Now!" She turned and took Anaira's arm, leading her off.
Not looking at each other, Xena and Gabrielle followed. Gabrielle cursed her limbs, which felt heavy and stiff, trembling with post-battle reaction. Xena's barb about her being a child had stung: she almost felt like one now, like a child who, still flushed with the triumph of the illicit deed, is called to account for it by a pair of furious parents. Try as she might, she couldn't shake the feeling, so she cursed under her breath, calling herself six kinds of idiot in a sibilant whisper.
They were approaching the door to Ephiny's cabin now, but before they could enter Xena's hand closed around Gabrielle's shoulder and the warrior spun the bard roughly around to face her. "Will you stop that?" Xena demanded, still angry, but now with a hint of weariness showing around her eyes and in the pallor of her skin. Too late, Gabrielle remembered Xena's preternatural hearing and realized that the warrior had heard her self-deprecatory whispers. But Xena apparently thought they had been directed at her. "Just admit that you were wrong to go skipping into battle like that," she instructed in a growl, "and swear you won't EVER do it again. Just swear!"
"I'm not swearing anything," Gabrielle said. Although an instant previously she had been making just that vow, that same admission, to herself, the same childish impulse to rebel made her obstinate. "I don't regret riding into that battle. I held my own. When are you going to stop treating me like a child?"
"When you stop acting like one!" Xena retorted immediately. Ephiny appeared in the doorway, still scowling.
"You two, get your asses in here right now!"
Glaring at each other, Gabrielle and Xena entered the cabin. Sitting around the table, which constituted the war room, were Solari, Eponin and the messenger from Minisis. Anaira was there as well, pacing to and fro like a caged beast.
"Ephiny, I-" Gabrielle began, trying to form words of conciliation, but Ephiny was having none of it.
"Shut up," she ordered. And to Eponin, "Well?"
"We killed several of them, exact numbers unknown," Eponin reported, "captured two, as you saw, and who knows how many got away?"
"Too many," Ephiny agreed with displeasure.
"If only we had a better sense of how many there were," Solari complained. "I have my scouts working on it, but it's hard. In the middle of battle you rarely look around to count how many are attacking."
"Mm," Gabrielle murmured, only half listening. The question she had posed to Xena in anger moments earlier was niggling at her mind: "when are you going to stop treating me like a child" ... Gabrielle could remember many times she had asked Xena that question, or a similar one, and the answer was almost always the same. With a small shiver of self-disgust, Gabrielle realized that Xena was right. In crisis situations like this one, she did tend to act like a child -- wanting to be in the middle of it, regardless of her own safety or the safety of those around her. And whenever Xena called her on her childishness, she responded with petulant denial -- in other words, more childishness! No wonder Xena was so anxious to be free of her! All the exhilaration and defiance of the battle washed out of her in a single wave, and she felt sick and weary and angry with herself.
Eponin was still talking. "I spoke briefly to Harisa, the leader of Minisis, before coming back here. She doesn't yet know how many of her people were lost, but she promised to send a full report once things calm down. We left a few injured with her as well, but most of them should be able to return here by tomorrow. We lost one," she added, her voice dropping solemnly. "Galia's cousin, Daraia. We brought her body back here for the funeral fire."
There was a momentary silence as all other concerns were set aside and all seven women took pause to honor the dead. At last the messenger spoke, her voice heavy with grief.
"The death of our sister is on my head."
"Oh, no," Gabrielle said quickly, reassuringly. She slid into the chair beside the woman and put an arm around her shoulders. "Her death is on the heads and her blood on the hands of every renegade who stands against the Nation, against Artemis. You can't blame yourself for their actions."
"If I had been faster...." the messenger lamented wearily. Gabrielle gave her a squeeze.
"Don't be silly. You were chosen as a messenger because you are fast. Only Hermes could have gotten the news to us sooner. You have nothing to feel guilty about."
The messenger sighed. "Thank you, my Queen. I ... I will honor her, and the dead of Minisis, in my prayers to Artemis."
"You do that," Gabrielle told her. Her voice took on an unexpected harshness. "And when you speak to the dead, be sure and tell them that the renegades who murdered them will be joining them in Tartarus, very soon."
Solari looked slightly surprised. "Gabrielle-" Ephiny raised her eyebrows slightly.
"You look like you haven't had that rest that was ordered," Gabrielle told the messenger. "Why don't you go lie down before you collapse. Consider it an order."
"Yes, my Queen." Indeed, the woman fairly sagged with fatigue. She climbed laboriously up out of her chair, nodded respectfully to all, and excused herself.
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