Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Small Spoilers: Mortal Beloved, Sins of the Past (pilot)
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Nine: Argo was yet again not harmed in the production of this fanfic, although she did experience a few moments of dizziness.
Minor chaos ensued as several of the gathered Amazons sprang from the breakfast tables to join the young trainees in searching the village. Ephiny was on her feet, shouting over the clamor in an attempt to find out what had happened.
"...few minutes ago," Kyana yelled, coming over to the Queens' table so she could be heard.
"What?" Gabrielle asked loudly. Kyana scowled and raised her voice.
"I said, none of the girls can remember seeing her in bed last night, and she wasn't in her bed when I went to wake them just now. Her nightgown is there, but not her battle leathers ... or her staff."
The other women at the table exchanged grim looks. "Sounds like she's run off," said Solari, stating the obvious.
"But why?" Gabrielle asked, looking from one face to another.
"Who knows?" Kyana replied. "She's always been a bit headstrong, although very disciplined in a fight. One of my best students with the staff." She raised her voice again and yelled, "Surya!"
"Yes!" Gabrielle's erstwhile guardian appeared, looking flushed but alert.
"She's your sister. Any idea where she might have gone, or why?"
"No, I couldn't say," the young sentinel replied earnestly. "I spoke to her just before the funeral last night, and she did say she wished she could go to Balacia with Gabrielle, but I told her she might be needed here in a crisis and she seemed to accept that."
"Hmm," said Ephiny, looking displeased. "I suppose she might have headed toward Balacia. Maybe she figured if we arrived and she was already there, we'd have to accept her and let her fight."
"It's possible," Surya admitted, looking worried. "My Queens, what should we do?"
The other young trainees had begun to reassemble at the edge of the dining area, some still in their bedclothes, all appearing rumpled, with the jumpy energy of people rushed into action before they were fully awake. "No sign of her anywhere, Kyana," one of them announced anxiously. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that they were all upset; a couple of them looked on the verge of tears. Gabrielle stood up.
"Listen, don't worry about her," she told the gathered youths, looking from face to face, meeting each pair of eyes. "You've all reacted admirably to this crisis, so let's just stay calm and not panic. We're going to find Lirin and I'm sure she'll be fine. In the meantime, you all need some breakfast, and some of you need some clothes." She gave them a friendly grin, and some of them shuffled their feet in embarrassment as they noticed their own attire. "Go ahead and take care of your own business. Everything's gonna be all right."
"You heard the Queen!" Kyana barked. "Back to the barracks and get dressed, and then I want all of you here for breakfast! Move!" Order restored, the girls turned and moved swiftly away.
"That was nicely done," Ephiny complimented as Gabrielle sat back down. "The last thing we need on top of this is a whole gaggle of hysterical teenagers."
"Yes, well done," Xena said gruffly, and the others agreed.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, feeling a warm flush in her belly. "Now what are we going to do? Should we delay our departure?"
"Mm ... I think not," Ephiny said judiciously. "If we leave as planned we might even be able to catch up with our little truant and send her back here. But in any case, this can't change our focus. We'll get Lirin back, but we need to push ahead with the defense."
Everyone else seemed to agree, so Gabrielle kept quiet, although it made her somewhat nervous. She was worried for the missing girl, and she realized with sudden rueful insight that this must be how Ephiny and the others had felt yesterday, when Gabrielle herself went running off into battle without warning. She shook her head in dismay, the food in front of her losing its appeal. Anaira gave her a concerned look.
"Something wrong, Gabrielle?"
"Oh ... just a little concerned for Lirin," Gabrielle said, keeping her voice calm. Anaira nodded.
"Well, take your own advice, and try not to worry," she advised. "We've got a lot of traveling ahead."
"Yes -- oh, what are you going to do with Mimi?" Gabrielle asked, noticing the child as if for the first time. Mimi grinned at her and banged her cup on the table again for emphasis.
"Mimi go with Mommy," she announced firmly. Anaira kissed the top of her head and smiled gently.
"No, Mimi's staying here with the girls," she said, giving her daughter a squeeze. Apparently unconcerned, the little girl waved her cup in the air and yelled some cheerful nonsense syllables.
Gabrielle looked away, her chest suddenly constricting painfully as the sight of the happy little girl struck a long-dormant chord. Mimi, like both her parents, was dark of hair and skin, but the similarities between her and Hope were nevertheless apparent. Gabrielle took a shuddering breath and wrestled back tears. Staring determinedly out at the surrounding forest, she missed Xena's look of concern.
"I think we're ready, if you're done eating," said Ephiny tactfully, breaking into Gabrielle's anguished contemplation. Gabrielle shook off the feelings and stood up, trying not to witness the parting as Anaira handed her daughter over to one of the young trainees.
"Yes, let's get this show on the road," Gabrielle said, summoning her good cheer like a mask to cover her pain. Was this how Xena did her famous expressionless look?
Xena -- Another twinge gave Gabrielle pause as she remembered that her friend would not be accompanying them. She turned almost hesitantly to face the warrior, who now stood conferring quietly with Anaira. Xena caught Gabrielle's glance and raised her voice slightly, saying, "Safe trip, Gabrielle." The intensity of her gaze said also that she didn't want to prolong a goodbye. Gabrielle inhaled raggedly and nodded.
"Thanks, Xena. See you soon." She turned before her fragile control could snap, and followed Ephiny to the northern end of the village.
In the small clearing that marked the beginning of the road, the crowd of Amazons going to Balacia was waiting. Gabrielle looked them over and felt her mind ease slightly; they all looked like capable warriors, so at least she wouldn't have to fear for her own safety on the march. They all looked at her as well, some of them fidgeting nervously in their eagerness to get moving.
"All right, form up," Ephiny called as Anaira joined them. "You all have your positions; Gabrielle will walk in the middle. Let's get moving."
"My Queen!" cried a voice as Gabrielle started toward the center of the group. All heads turned as Solari and one of her scouts came rushing up.
"The renegades just attacked our sentinel on the west side of town," Solari said breathlessly. "There were only two of them, but they knocked her out ... and they left this." She held out her hand to Ephiny, and Gabrielle moved back to see what it was.
Cupped in Solari's hand, tied with a piece of leather thong, was a shiny lock of hair.
"Surya!" Ephiny called, and the bodyguard stepped forward to look. Her face turned white.
"That's Lirin's hair!" she exclaimed. "Gods! They have her!"
"All right, stay calm!" Gabrielle ordered. The young sentinel stared at her, eyes wide, her breathing rapid with dismay. Gabrielle turned to Ephiny.
"We can't leave now. Not when they have her!"
Grimly, Ephiny turned to the gathered forces. "All right, stand down." Murmuring with alarm, the Amazons relaxed their travel-ready stances. "We'll have to delay our departure while Gabrielle and I discuss what to do about this. Everyone relax, but don't go far. I still want to get us on the road as soon as possible." She took in Gabrielle, Anaira and Solari with her gaze, and jerked her head toward the dining area from which they had just come.
Xena and Eponin were still there when they returned, surrounded by the breakfasting trainees. All looked up in surprise as the would-be travelers returned.
"The renegades have got Lirin," Ephiny said, lowering her voice so that the other youths wouldn't overhear. Xena and Eponin looked grim. They all sat back down and leaned into the center of the table to confer.
"Most likely they'll want a trade, our cub for Korain," Solari said, and Ephiny nodded.
"Yes, I suspect so, and I'm tempted to give it to them. No," she held up a hand to forestall complaints, "I know, it's not ideal, but I want this resolved. We still have to get to Balacia, and I don't want us getting bogged down in trying to rescue one lone kid, distracting us from the real purpose. Korain's doing nothing for us anyway, except taking away ten of our best people to guard her, and so long as they have one of ours, she's not even any good as a shield against attack."
"I guess it makes sense," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly. "But what if Korain uses the opportunity to turn right back and attack here?"
"I can handle her," Xena said. "I'll take her far enough away from here to make it inconvenient, then I'll find them and make the trade. Get the kid, bring her back here. No problem."
Ephiny gave Xena a considering look, then glanced at Anaira and raised her eyebrows. Anaira nodded.
"I think it's a good idea. Meanwhile we can start off for Balacia as planned, maybe even confuse them enough that they'll hold off and buy us some time."
"Leave without knowing if the cub is safe?" Ephiny asked, looking uneasy. Gabrielle met her eyes.
"She'll be with Xena," Gabrielle said simply. Ephiny glanced at Xena and gave a small grin.
"So she will. All right then, that's the plan." She stood up, and the others followed suit. "Let's get a move on. Xena, how soon can you leave?"
"How soon can you have Korain out of that prison?" Xena replied.
"Well, let's go take care of that," Ephiny said. "Gabrielle...." She looked uneasily at Anaira.
"Anaira and I will go get the troops ready to travel again," Gabrielle said quickly. "I'll need to talk to Surya anyway, make sure she'll be all right to travel."
"Good idea," Ephiny said, giving her a grateful look. "If she doesn't want to leave-"
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded to her, and hurried off, Anaira at her back.
"Thanks, Gabrielle," the warrior said as they approached the northern gate again. Gabrielle smiled over her shoulder.
"It's no problem. Frankly, I have no desire to see her again either."
"My Que -- I mean, Gabrielle," said Surya, coming up to meet them. Her face was ragged with anxiety. "What news?"
"Everything's under control," Gabrielle assured her. "Xena is going to get your sister back, and we're leaving for Balacia as planned. We're leaving momentarily," she repeated, raising her voice for the general hearing. The gathered Amazons looked alert, and began getting to their feet and reassembling. Surya blinked uncertainly.
"We're leaving? But-"
"You can stay behind if you like," Gabrielle told her. "We can find someone else to be my nursemaid. But I've put Xena in charge of rescuing Lirin, so she's as good as rescued. I'm not worried about a thing," she lied blithely. The young sentinel wavered.
"Well -- I can't just leave you-"
"You wouldn't be 'just' leaving me. Like I said, we'd find someone else. And anyway, I'll have Ephiny and Anaira, won't I?" Gabrielle put a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder. "Really, it's all right, if that's what you want."
Surya looked torn for another moment, but then she shook her head. "No, my Queen. I'll stay with you. I trust Xena."
Gabrielle smiled, pleasantly surprised. "Good, I'm glad. You won't regret it."
The sentinel smiled bravely, and led Gabrielle to her place at the center of the marching group. In moments Ephiny had joined them, and moved with Anaira to the head of the group. And then they were off, marching by twos and threes through the forest, the entire company vibrating with anticipation.
Argo trotted confidently through the underbrush, headed to the northwest where Xena and Ephiny had surmised the renegades had their base. Xena sat comfortably at the back of her saddle, with the glowering Korain in front. The renegade's hands were still tied in front of her, making balance difficult, so she had to grip the saddlehorn firmly and concentrate on maintaining her equilibrium. Korain had not been told what was happening, and she was clearly not pleased with the change in plans.
At the first opportunity, when they passed through a relatively clear bit of forest, the renegade threw herself sideways, launching her body out of the saddle, tucking her head and rolling when she hit the ground. Before she could even get her feet back under her, Argo had wheeled and circled back around her, Xena leaning way down to seize Korain by her bound hands and heave her back up. Xena hauled the other woman back onto Argo crosswise, so that she lay on her stomach with her head and legs dangling down either side of the horse, as Argo turned back around and resumed her travel.
"Your respect for me is really quite touching," Xena commented blandly, the first words either woman had spoken. Korain was still trying to heave herself backwards, but Xena's quelling hand on her back held her still.
"Go to Tartarus," Korain spat bitterly. Xena raised her eyebrows.
"Been there, done that," she said mildly. "Still got a few errands to run up here in the land of the living."
"You'd make a great Amazon, Xena," the renegade said, changing tactics. "A true Amazon. Not like these lazy wimps in that village. Just bring me back to my people and I can make you great -- a winner -- the leader of a mighty army. We can finally reclaim the land for Artemis!"
"I don't see Artemis on her knees begging me to reclaim anything," Xena replied darkly, "and in any case, armies don't make one great." She looked pensively off into the forest and added, "Just stupid."
Sensing an opportunity, Korain gave another jerk and this time broke past Xena's hand, flinging herself backward and off Argo again. Rolling her eyes, Xena turned the horse around for the second time and retrieved her captive.
"I could just knock you unconscious and hogtie you," she commented matter-of-factly as she once again settled Korain back in the saddle in front of her. "I prefer not to, though, from one warrior to another. It's so undignified, don't you think?" Unexpectedly, she found herself thinking of Lao Ma. To conquer oneself is to know the Way.... She shook the thought off and concentrated on watching the renegade, alert for any signs of a third escape attempt.
Once the war party had gotten underway and the walking had settled into a rhythm, Anaira came back to the middle of the group and walked with Gabrielle for a while.
"You and Xena seemed a little better this morning," the warrior offered, keeping her voice low so the surrounding Amazon guards wouldn't hear. Gabrielle shrugged uneasily.
"I guess so. We did have a talk."
"But it didn't settle things, apparently," Anaira filled in. "I'm sorry. If you don't want to talk about it-"
"No," Gabrielle replied, "it's not that I don't want to, it's just that ... I don't entirely understand what happened. I mean...." She looked sideways at the tall women by her side, and continued, "I finally told Xena about ... what I did. About Hope. And do you know what she said?"
"She already knew," Anaira guessed. Gabrielle looked at her again in surprise.
"Yes -- How did you know?"
"Gabrielle, Xena isn't stupid. A lot of her relating to you depends on her view of you as an innocent, an idealistic young bard who-"
"She knows I'm no virgin ... and no saint," Gabrielle interjected. "She knows I'm not perfect."
"Yes," Anaira agreed, "but at your core, you're still that same young girl who followed her out of a desire to do good. She doesn't think that's changed -- she doesn't want to think you've changed at all. She needs you to be that person."
"Why? I don't get it," Gabrielle complained, shaking her head. "She's always been telling me I'm too naive, too trusting, not cynical enough, and on and on. Trying to toughen me up."
"No," Anaira denied. "Trying to show you the difference. As long as she can think of you as this perfect symbol of goodness and compassion, she can use you as her example of what to strive for. You become like a talisman, a goal that's always just out of reach."
"That doesn't make any sense at all," Gabrielle said, not entirely truthfully. "Xena looking up to me? You've got it all backwards."
"No, I haven't," Anaira said confidently. "That's why, after she thought about it a little, she realized that you couldn't have sent your own child to her death. It would invalidate everything that Xena believes about you. If she believed that, she'd have to believe that you weren't who she thought you were -- and then she'd have to believe that her entire quest for goodness since she's met you has been a lie."
"I...." Gabrielle began, but then closed her mouth in amazement. She was truly speechless for the moment. The whole thing sounded so unlikely, and yet ... and yet it had the ring of truth. She shook her head slowly.
"Gabrielle, think about it," Anaira said, speaking calmly, but with a note of intensity in her tone. "You walked into the lion's den a few months ago to save Xena from herself -- convinced that being fathered by evil doesn't necessarily make the daughter evil. Would that be consistent with killing Hope? Your own child? Can you see me throwing Mimi off a cliff, even if she turned on me with evil in her eyes?"
"No, of course not," Gabrielle murmured, blinking rapidly as her vision seemed to cloud over with the dazzling insight of the moment. "By the Gods, why didn't I ever see it like that?"
"Oh, well." Anaira looked away, seeming embarrassed. "It's always easy to see things clearly when you're not actually in the middle of the situation."
"No, don't sell yourself short," Gabrielle told her earnestly. "You understand Xena better than I ever could."
"That's not true," Anaira said heatedly, turning her gaze back to Gabrielle. "I understand certain things about her, because I've been the warrior that she is, and our minds work similarly. But I couldn't -- no one could ever see into Xena the way you do. Believe that."
"Okay. I will," Gabrielle said, still speaking softly, marveling, as if to raise her voice would be to scare away the revelations that were making her mind reel. "But I still have you to thank for opening this door to me."
"You and I can spend the rest of our lives saying 'thank you' to each other and never fully express what we've done for each other," Anaira pointed out with a smile, resting a hand briefly on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm going to go see how Ephiny's holding up."
"All right. You do that," Gabrielle said, and watched with ever-swelling wonder as the dark warrior moved away and loped toward the front of the group.
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