Disclaimer: ooh-kay... All those loveable, (and not so loveable), characters from the show Xena: Warrior Princess are property of MCA/Unversal and a few other very lucky people. I didn’t steal them, I’m just borrowing them, and I promise to return them when I’m done. This story and any characters you don’t recognise are all mine.
Content Warning: This is an alternative story. If the idea of two women in love bothers you, do not read this story. And may I recomend that you broaden your horizons. My theory is, if you aren’t gonna get it on the show, then you might as well read about it on the Internet. heh heh. There is also quite a bit of violence. It is a Xena story after all, and the warrior princess tends to get cranky if she doesn’t get in one really bloody fight a week. There is also a scene of sexual violence, so if that really bothers you, my apologies, and please skip over it.
phew!! now that the legal mumbo-jumbo is out of the way... please let me know what you thought of this story. I live for feedback, and this story is only the beginning. I hope this will be the beginning of a three part monster called The Death of A Nation. But that depends on how many emails I get. My email address is email@example.com.
and now... (finally!!)...
To Rescue A Friend (Book One of ‘The Death of A Nation’)
by: Katelin B.
Chapter One: Guilt
In the cool summer evenings, after the sun went down, it was so quiet, the forest people thought they could just hear the ocean, so many days away on foot. The tides coming in, or the birds that lived near the water by habit. Some people would even mistake a gurgling brook, or rushing river for the salt waters. Those that knew better still liked to pretend. Ephiny was one of those people. The Queen of the Amazons sat by the river side and closed her eyes, imagining the beaches that she had once seen with her mother so many years ago. She had only ever been to the ocean once, and that had been when she was a little girl. Even now, as a grown woman with the duties of a Queen, she still missed the peacefulness of the shoreline. Running with her little sister, hearing the surf in seashells... it was long gone.
Still Ephiny longed for that peaceful feeling again, and by sitting at the shore, day dreaming of the ocean, she hoped to capture it again. At this time in her life, it was sorely needed. She sighed heavily, ignoring the slight chill from a gust of wind, and listened to the sounds of nature all around her. Most of the time when she came to this spot, she relaxed and forgot the rigors of her life. But today was different. Today she had planned an attack against a castle.
The blonde Queen knew that with the coming of the dawn, her Amazons, her friends, would head out to do battle with a King and his army. And that thought made her very sad. She knew many of her friends might die, but she had committed them to this. And in doing so had signed dozens of death warrants. All of them fine warriors that would give their lives for her.
Ephiny tossed a pebble into the calm lake and watched the ripples it created. How very much like her life the water seemed. When Gabrielle had given her the mask of Queen, Ephiny thought it to be a great honor. Something she would love doing. But she had long since changed her mind. Oh, she was still honored that Gabrielle had entrusted the rule of the Amazons to her, but a part of her wished she didn’t have to deal with all the responsibility. She was a warrior at heart, and she didn’t like sending others to their deaths.
“What are you thinking about?”
Ephiny jumped at the sound of the voice and was in her battle stance in less than a second. When she saw who it was, she relaxed and sat back down, shooting a glare at the woman who had startled her. “You shouldn’t sneak up people like that Xena,” she said, staring at the water, calm once again.
Xena lowered herself to the grass beside the young Queen slowly, and looked out at the same water. “Sorry,” she said softly, one corner of her mouth turning up slightly in her trademark half grin, “Force of habit.” Xena turned her full attention to the sounds of nature all around them, listening to the peacefulness. Not really one to stop and admire the scenery, Xena was mildly surprised to find that she wanted to stay here all evening. But she had come here to talk to Ephiny, not to daydream.
The dark haired warrior watched Ephiny silently, thinking about how to get her to open up. Not for the first time, she wished Gabrielle was here, instead of visiting her family in Potedeia. Gabrielle was the one who did the sensitive chats, not Xena. The stoic warrior didn’t relate well to people on a personal level, and didn’t really know how to start a conversation with the troubled woman beside her. So she sat quietly, hoping Ephiny would get tired of the silence and start talking.
“Xena,” Ephiny said finally, after a long silence, broken only by the call of birds high overhead, “Was it like this for you when you lead your army? Did you feel guilty sending your men to their deaths?” She didn’t look over at Xena, but threw another pebble into the water and studied the ripples.
The Warrior Princess watched the waves created by the stone and was reminded of her words to Gabrielle about the many years of darkness she had lived through. She wanted to tell Ephiny the she understood how it felt, but it would be a lie. She couldn’t lie to her friend. “No,” she said truthfully, looking up at the sound of a hooting owl, “Because I didn’t care if they lived or died. There were always men who wanted to prove themselves by being in an army, and a battle was just another way for me to filter out the weak ones.” She thought about the truth of her words for a moment and a stab of guilt hit her. Xena ignored it for the moment, to focus on her friend. The self loathing was always with her, and would keep until she was alone.
It was several moments before Xena spoke again. Her soft voice, very quiet, almost as if she were afraid to shatter the peacefulness of their surroundings by speaking too loud. “It was different for me, Ephiny,” she said, looking down at the grass and picking a blade to keep her hands occupied, “I was in a very dark place, and I didn’t care about anything but death. That’s not who you are. You feel guilty because you care about your warriors. If Gabrielle was here, you’d be right there beside them on the battle field, and you wouldn’t feel the responsibility that you do now.” Xena fell silent once again and waited for Ephiny to speak.
“They trust me, Xena,” the Amazon Queen said softly, closing her eyes to hold the tears at bay, “They trust me and I feel like I’m letting them down.” A lone tear escaped. tracing a path down her cheek and Ephiny brushed it away angrily. She felt weak enough inside without letting anyone see it. And she couldn’t let Xena see it.
“You’re not letting them down, Ephiny,” Xena soothed, putting a large hand on her shoulder, and turning on the grass to face her, “You didn’t back down. They expect you to stand up for them, to lead them. And you are doing that. You tried everything you could to settle the disagreement peacefully. Now you have to use force.” She stopped for a moment to consider her next words, thinking about King Metreus and his hatred of the Amazons. He had invaded Amazon land and defied Artemis by killing the animals in her forest. Both actions were punishable by death according to Amazon law, but Ephiny had tried to talk first. Hoping to come to a peace between the two nations, as Melosa had done with the Centaurs.
A part of Xena knew it wouldn’t work. She had heard stories of this King and his bitter ways. He despised Amazons for all that they were, calling them freaks of nature. The talking between him and Ephiny had ended poorly, but she had done nothing about it until a hunting party had been slaughtered but the King’s men. That had been the final straw for the Amazons, and Ephiny had been faced with her last option. War.
“Xena, I’m afraid,” she said, breaking into the Warrior’s thoughts, “I’m afraid we’ll lose.” Finally it was out, and Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief. It felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off her shoulders, now that she had voiced her fear.
“There is always a chance of that,” Xena said realistically, “But Ephiny, you and I both know that if you do nothing, Metreus will continue to force his way in until the battle ground is the Amazon village. I’m not willing to let that happen, and neither are you.”
“Xena,” Ephiny said, looking into her eyes for the first time since Xena sat down, “You’re not an Amazon. This isn’t your fight. You don’t have to go with us.”
“Yes I do Ephiny,” she replied, her expression hardening with resolve, “There aren’t a lot of people I can call friend, and I’m not about to let the ones I do have go into battle without being at their sides. I’m making it my fight.” Her expression was dead serious, and told Ephiny that she wasn’t going to be denied.
Secretly, the Amazon Queen was pleased that Xena had decided to stay. She had hoped the warrior would be there, but didn’t want to ask Xena to risk her life in the battle. Ephiny smiled slightly and was pleased to see it returned. “Thank you,” she said softly, meaning it. Xena had been invaluable in planning the attack, and Ephiny knew it would work much better if she was there to put it into action.
Xena merely nodded and stood up quickly, tossing away the mangled blade of grass. She reached down a hand to Ephiny and hauled her to her feet. “Come on, Your Majesty,” she said with her trademark half grin as she clapped Ephiny on the shoulder, “The feast is well under way, and it wouldn’t look good for morale if the Queen didn’t show up.”
Ephiny stretched her legs a little before looking up at the taller warrior, a dour expression on her face. “I really don’t feel much like partying, Xena,” she stated seriously, watching Xena’s face soften slightly, “But I will go. To make the others happy.”
“It’s more than that, Eph,” Xena said softly, turning the young Queen to face her, “You have to look happy. You have to seem confident about tomorrow. It’s your strength that the warriors draw from. If you don’t appear strong, they won’t either. And you will lose the battle.”
Ephiny looked up at Xena’s tortured expression and guessed the warrior was remembering her own times as a Warlord. The Amazon felt for her friend, though she couldn’t possibly know what it was like to be in Xena’s place. And truth be told, she didn’t want to either. “Well that must be how you mastered the art of that stony expression you wear so well,” Ephiny said jokingly, trying to lighten the mood a little. She knew how hard it had been for Xena to approach her in the first place. They had always had an uneasy alliance, for Gabrielle’s benefit, but they had never been friends.
Xena looked down at Ephiny with a raised eyebrow, looking like she was contemplating on the best way to dispose of the woman’s body, but her eyes were shining humorously. Ephiny smiled back and even laughed a little. That broke Xena’s cold look and she chuckled slightly under her breath. The two warriors, more alike than either realized, turned as one and headed back to the village and the feast, each engrossed with their own thoughts, but comfortable in the silence between them.
Chapter Two: Dancing Before Death
The thunder drums could be heard long before Ephiny and Xena reached the edge of the village. It was a sign that the ceremonial dancing had started. With a quick look to each other, the two women emerged from the trees into the firelight. They watched the dancers for a moment before Solari broke from the ring and approached them, breathing heavily, a huge grin plastered to her face. “Xena!! Ephiny!!” she called out, trying to be heard over the pounding of the drums, “Come join us!!” She gestured with a thumb over her shoulder to the ring of dancers.
Xena shook her head but prodded Ephiny forward a little, with a final reminder loud enough only for her ears, “Look happy.” Then she began walking over to the thunder drums. Ephiny watched her go, and turned back to her friend Solari, a blank expression on her face. She found herself briefly wondering if the fine warrior before her would be one of the dead at the end of the next days battle, but shook the thought away when she heard Solari’s voice.
“Ephiny, are you okay??” she said, placing a hand on the Queen’s shoulder. She noticed the haunted look on the woman’s face that was there for a moment, then gone again. Solari wondered if she was worried about the battle tomorrow.
“Yes, Solari,” Ephiny said, forcing a smile to her face, “I was just thinking.” She looked at the dancing ring around the bonfire and back to the warrior standing before her. “Let’s dance,” she added and took Solari’s hand, tugging her along. Ephiny scolded herself for allowing her friend to see the hurt on her face, and vowed to have fun tonight with her friends. After all, she reasoned as she and Solari found a hole in the ring and filled it, I’ll never have the chance again with some of them. With that final thought, she abandoned her role as Queen and, for the evening, became just another Amazon warrior, dancing with her friends.
Xena took her turn at the thunder drums to give one of the Amazons a chance to dance with her friends one last time before the battle. As her brawny arms beat out the rhythm of the music, she watched Ephiny dance and chant in the circle. A light sweat broke out on her chest and arms from the strain of the fast tempo of the drumming, but even then, she smiled. It was good to see the temporary Queen forgetting her troubles and having fun before the battle.
The music changed suddenly at the end of the chant and Xena took up the new beat, her eyes never leaving Ephiny and Solari, laughing and dancing like children. At such times, Xena was reminded of Gabrielle, and silently thanked the Gods that she was at home. Even if her mother was deathly ill, it was a lesser pain than watching her Amazons die in battle. She couldn’t bear the thought of Ephiny’s guilt being Gabrielle’s if she were with them. Secretly she wondered if Ephiny had known Gabrielle wouldn’t be with Xena when she sent the note asking the warrior princess to come.
Xena’s smile faded as she thought of the bard, and admitted to herself how much she missed her chatty companion. Over the last two years she had grown accustomed to the constant sound of Gabrielle’s voice, and she felt the silence like a lead weight when the little blonde was not with her. She had felt her feelings for the bard changing for a while, but denied them as long as she was able. The warrior’s face darkened as she thought about what Gabrielle would do if she ever discovered the depth of Xena’s true feelings for her, and quickly shook the idea out of her mind. She was torturing herself, but it was well worth the price, Xena realized, as the tempo changed again and she hurried to catch up. She would gladly spend the rest of her life silencing her emotions if it meant keeping Gabrielle with her. Friendship was better than nothing at all.
Xena quickly changed her thoughts, replayed the last meeting between Ephiny and Metreus in her memory trying to find some way that this war could have been avoided, but she couldn’t. She doubted that even the smooth talking bard could have prevented this. Another point why Xena felt justified in not stopping in Potedeia to tell Gabrielle what was happening. A battle ground was no place for the gentle bard. Especially this one, Xena thought grimly as the sound of the thunder drums stopped and she lowered her arms. Something inside told the Warrior Princess that this battle was going to be bloody. Very bloody.
When she focused her thoughts on the present again, Xena realized that Ephiny was addressing her warriors, signaling the end of the feast. It was very early to be ending it, as far as Amazon parties go, but the warriors had a very early day tomorrow and Ephiny wisely directed them to get some sleep. Xena nodded briefly. They were all going to need it. She dropped her sticks on top of the thunder drum and bid good night to the departing women, as she approached Ephiny. She noted that Solari was standing close by, and held back a smile. There’s was a relationship very similar to the one Xena shared with Gabrielle. Maybe even closer than many people knew.
“Ephiny,” she called when most of the Amazons had left the bonfire. A few were mingling about to clean up and help others to their huts, but Ephiny and Solari were alone, both staring silently into the flames. Xena noticed that the Queen seemed calmer now, more at peace with herself, as if she had come to a decision. And Xena was relatively certain she knew what it was.
At the sound of her name, Ephiny turned to see Xena approaching her. She smiled, and closed the distance between them. “Xena,” she said softly, so that of the Amazons still mingling about, only Solari would hear, “I want you to lead the warriors tomorrow. You are a better military leader than I could ever hope to be. And I trust you. We have a much better chance of winning if you are at the head of the Amazons.” She paused to look back at Solari for a moment, gauging her reaction to the news. “I’m going into battle with my people,” she added quietly, “As a warrior. I am not the true Queen. If I fall tomorrow, then Gabrielle will appoint someone else.”
“I see,” Xena answered calmly, her face betraying no emotion, “Do you think that is wise?” She truly wanted to know what Ephiny thought she could accomplish by doing this.
“It is the only thing that will allow me to live with my decision, Xena,” she stated firmly, not backing down from the warrior’s intense gaze, “And the Amazons will fight harder if they know their Queen feels strongly enough to enter the battle beside them.” She saw Xena nod slightly at this, accepting her decision. Without another word, she tipped her head in a silent bid good night and walked away from the fire, to her hut on the other side of the village.
Ephiny and Solari watched Xena go until she was too far for the firelight to reflect off her armor and she was swallowed by the darkness. The dark haired Amazon warrior watched her Queen for any sign of regret as Ephiny resumed staring into the flames. She seemed more at peace now than when she had entered the ring to dance. Solari decided that her friend was right and looked into the flames as well, ready to offer support should her Queen and friend need it.
Finally Ephiny sighed and turned away beginning to walk to her hut. “I guess we’d better sleep too, Solari,” she said softly, “We need to be alert tomorrow.” She noticed Solari nod and vaguely heard her agree verbally before entering her hut. Ephiny stopped for a moment and turned around to find Solari merely a foot away. “Solari,” she added, looking down at the dirt, “If the Fates should decide that one of us doesn’t survive the battle, I just want you to know, you are the finest friend I have ever had.” She looked up and smiled slightly at the silent brunette.
Solari smiled back and pulled Ephiny into a brief but tight hug. “Ephiny,” she responded, brushing a lock of curly hair out of her Queen’s face, “I will always call you my best friend. Even death cannot separate us.” She smiled wider and rested a hand on Ephiny’s shoulder. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but remained silent. After a moment, she removed her hand, and stepped back. “Good night, my Queen,” she added quietly, “Sleep well.” With that, she turned and disappeared into her own hut, leaving Ephiny to be alone with her thoughts of the coming dawn.
Across the village, in a small hut reserved for guests, Xena was troubled by her own demons. As always, she was reluctant to sleep, knowing she would have to face those she had killed or failed to save in time. But her body had been deprived of it for so long, that the warrior didn’t need much sleep to function effectively.
Sitting quietly in one of the chairs beside the small pallet, Xena closed her eyes to the darkness around her and listened to the sounds of the surrounding forest, thinking about the dawn, just as she had caught Ephiny doing earlier. There was something about the battle that bothered her, something on the edge of her mind that begged to be recognized, but the dark haired warrior just couldn’t grasp it. As frustrating as she found it, Xena decided to put the struggle aside until the morning. Instead, she thought about Gabrielle and the relative peacefulness of being in the village with her family. With those visions in her head, Xena soon drifted off, once again at the mercy of Morpheus and all the demons of her past.
Chapter Three: Betrayal
Before the Amazons woke and began preparing for battle, Xena was up, pacing anxiously. The warrior had not slept well, and it showed on her beautiful face. She was worried about the battle, and the feeling she couldn’t shake, that there was something she had overlooked. The usual demons had jolted her out of sleep well before dawn, and knowing she wouldn’t be able to close her eyes again for a while, Xena got up and started her sword drills. When that failed to take the edge off her nerves, she began practicing her back flips. Even that didn’t help. Though she did nail that double back flip she had been working on.
And so she paced, thinking about the upcoming battle, and going over the plan of attack in her head to work out the faults. Because she had planned most of it, she could find very few rough areas, but there was still something that bothered her. Gabrielle would tell her it was feminine intuition. Xena smirked in the darkness at that thought. She didn’t know about that, but her warrior’s instincts were telling her that this battle was doomed. But unless she had a definite idea as to what was wrong with her plan, she couldn’t go to Ephiny and tell her to call it off. It was far too late for that. And the Amazon warriors wouldn’t agree. Some of them might even go without Ephiny’s permission. Xena grimaced at the thought. That would spell disaster for the Amazon nation, and an already weakening society would be crushed by Metreus and his army.
Gabrielle woke long before sunrise, a feeling of dread settling deeply into her gut. Never up at this time, her first thought was that something had happened to her mother, and looked around wildly in the darkness. The only sound that reached her ears, was the gentle snoring of her sister, Lila. Peering through the darkness, she could barely make out her sibling’s form on the other bed, and watched the slow rising and falling of her chest, trying to calm down.
After a short while, Gabrielle decided it wasn’t going to work, and climbed quietly out of the squeaky bed, wincing at the creaks and groans of the floor boards under her weight. She tried to be as silent as possible, using the knowledge that Xena had imparted, but no matter how light on her feet, the old wood just didn’t want to keep quiet. Not for the first time, she thanked Morpheus for making her sister such a sound sleeper.
At the mere thought of Xena, Gabrielle’s feeling of dread increased until it was so strong she thought she would vomit from the churning of her stomach. It wasn’t the first time she had felt like this, she knew, and those other times Xena had been in trouble of some sort. But how much trouble can Xena get into visiting her mother, she thought, shaking her head. When they had separated only two days ago, the warrior had told her she would be staying with Cyrene, helping out at the Tavern in case the bard needed her.
Gabrielle smiled in the darkness, remembering their last conversation at the fork in the road. Xena had, once again, told her to be careful, and as usual Gabrielle brushed her off, telling her not to worry so much. The bard admitted, not for the first time, that she missed her warrior very much. Her warrior?? Where did that come from? she thought, her smile transforming into a frown. “I’ve got to stop that,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head. She knew Xena didn’t feel the same for her, so she had better put even the thought out of her mind, so she wouldn’t torture herself.
“Stop what?” Lila’s voice came out of the darkness, startling Gabrielle, but to her credit, she didn’t squeak in surprise, “Gabby, what are you doing up?” Lila sat up quickly, rubbing her eyes. “Is it mother?” She was suddenly worried that their mother had gotten worse during the night.
“No Lila,” Gabrielle whispered, not wanting to wake their father. He had been looking more haggard than usual lately, and she didn’t want to wake him from his much needed slumber. It had taken too much to get him to close his eyes to begin with. “It’s not mother,” she continued, walking back over to her sister’s bed to sit down, “I couldn’t sleep. I’ve got a terrible feeling that something’s wrong with Xena.”
A quiet huff came through the darkness, and Gabrielle could almost see the tolerant, if not at all pleased expression on her Lila’s face at the mention of the warrior’s name. “Gabrielle,” Lila whispered, quiet anger barely audible in her hushed voice, “She can take care of herself. She is, after all, the warrior princess.” Lila said the last works mockingly, as if daring Xena to burst into their room and slice her up with that chakram she carried. “You should be thinking about mother, not that ex-warlord.” Another quiet huff and Lila laid back in her bed again, tugging the blankets up to her neck. There would be no more talking tonight.
Gabrielle sighed quietly at her younger sister’s stubbornness and moved back to her own bed. She laid down again, her back to Lila’s bed and tucked her hands under her chin with a fistful of blanket. She thought about her mother, praying to the Gods that she would recover quickly from the sickness she had taken her after the snakebite five days ago. Hecuba was still very weak, but she was starting to look better, and for that Gabrielle was thankful.
Her thoughts, once again, turned to Xena, and she wondered if the warrior princess was even sleeping right now. Probably not, she thought grimly, wishing she could be there to tell the dark woman a story or two. It usually helped her nod off for at least a while. Until the nightmares jolted her awake again. Gabrielle just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. Xena was always telling her to trust her instincts, but she was torn. She didn’t know if Xena even needed her, and her mother was so terribly ill right now. Gabrielle tossed the thoughts around in her mind, trying to make a decision. Sleep was a long time coming to the worried young woman.
The warriors rose with the sun and quickly prepared for battle. Armor was buckled, swords were sharpened, good-byes were said. The younger girls were left with the older women, most of them crying at the sight of their mothers or older sisters, or daughters going off into battle. Not knowing who would come home and who would die on the battle field. Xena watched it all impassively, while slowly saddling Argo, not having any good-byes to say. The only person she knew well enough to bid farewell to was far enough away from the battle to be safe. The warrior was glad for that and mentally bid farewell to Gabrielle.
Ephiny came out of her hut, her armor shining brightly in the morning light. All the Amazons stopped what they were doing when she appeared, to pay respect to their Queen. More than a few seemed shocked that she wasn’t dressed in her Queen’s armor, but said nothing. In addition, she had left the mask of Queen behind, opting for her original warrior’s mask, which now sat atop her head. Ephiny recognized the shock around her and addressed her warriors as Queen for the last time before the battle. “Amazons,” she stated, loud enough for everyone to hear her, “Today we fight for our fallen sisters. We seek vengeance for their deaths at the hands of Metreus. I have lived my life beside you in fun and in battle, and I intend to do so today. I am not your leader today. I have asked Xena to lead the Amazon nation to victory, and she has agreed. In my heart I have always been a warrior, and today I fight as one, beside you.” Ephiny paused for a moment to look around at the faces of her sisters. Without warning, she raised her fist high over her head, stretching it to the heavens. “VICTORY!!!”
Xena smiled slightly as the cry of a hundred Amazons echoed in her ears. Ephiny may not have thought she was a leader, but her faith in her people, and their love and loyalty to her, made her more powerful than most Generals. The Amazons would fight to the death for her. Xena mounted Argo quickly and held her hand up after giving them a moment to indulge in their morale boosting war cries. The warriors fell silent and waited for Xena to give the order. “Amazons,” Xena called out in a clear authoritative voice, “Move out!!” She nudged Argo to a trot as the warriors rallied their cries once again. They were eager for battle. A little too eager, Xena surmised, her expression grim. That nagging feeling was back, and it was stronger than ever. She pushed it aside once again, and lead the Amazons through the forest to the edge of Metreus’s land.
* * *
In the throne room of Metreus’s castle, a different attitude was being taken toward the impending battle, and it’s outcome. A large part of Xena’s plan depended on surprise, the Amazon forces being noticeably smaller than their enemy’s. But that wasn’t the case. Not long after the feast had ended, a lone girl, not even a woman, had snuck out of the village, braving the forest in the dark, using the skills taught to her by the Amazons to escape unnoticed through the trees. Her destination was the castle, where she now stood before King Metreus, describing to him in detail, the plan of attack that the Amazons would use.
Young Ipona thought she was doing what was best for her newfound sisters, by telling Metreus Xena’s plan. He had promised her that they would merely be captured and sent back to their village, and sworn to her that few would die. And those only if they fought back. Ipona had decided it was a hopeless cause, a battle that the Amazons would surely lose, no matter how carefully planned, and she wanted to help. Brought to the village less than four summers earlier, an orphan without a place to call home, she had lost everyone but her older sister Urisa, when a Warlord had destroyed her entire village. She could see it happening again, and she didn’t want to lose this new family too. She cared too much for them.
Urisa had passed the tests last summer and become a warrior, recieving her very own mask from Queen Gabrielle herself. Ipona knew her sister would fight in the battle and she wanted, more than anything to protect her. She didn’t want to have to see the last of her blood family die by the sword, just as the rest had. That was why she had decided to do this. Urisa had to be protected. And this was the only way Ipona knew how to do it.
Metreus smiled as she told him the plan of attack, giving vivid detail to Xena’s flanking maneuvers and surprise tactics. The little fool didn’t leave anything out. But the King’s smile faded when she told him that Xena would be riding in that army. He remembered her as being a ruthless Warlord, and had feared her, as every man secretly had. Metreus remembered reassuring the child that her sisters would be safe, that he only needed time to cool off before resuming the talks. He had also told her that the hunting party had been killed by an army passing through and that his men had driven them off.
The self made King sat up a little straighter when Ipona mentioned Xena. He didn’t want to have to face her in battle, but knew that if she wasn’t going for a frontal assault, she was worried about the victory. He smiled again at that, convinced the battle would be his with minimal losses. But what to do with the traitor? That vexed him. Metreus pondered that question carefully. He could kill her, and would of course, but what to do with her carcass. The King smiled briefly at the thought of hanging it outside the castle gate, but decided against it quickly. He didn’t want the Amazon whores to figure out they had been betrayed. And with Xena at the head of the army, they surely would.
It took many moments of careful thought before he decided that he would have her taken to the dungeon. His guards would enjoy her young body for quite a while before she died from their attentions. Metreus was sure the little Amazon would want to die right from the start, and smiled even more at that. Yes, he decided, he would let his guards do as they pleased with this young one before him, and maybe even that bothersome Amazon Queen too, but Xena was all his. The malicious King chuckled a bit at the thought of having Xena against her will, and quickly stored the images away until he was alone. Putting on his warm friendly smile for the benefit of the young one in his throne room, he addressed her again.
“Child,” he said, mentally gagging on the sickening sweet tone of his own voice, “You have saved many lives today. You should be proud.” He watched her smile and returned it, not mentioning that the lives to be saved were those of his own soldiers. No longer able to hold up the charade any longer, he laughed quickly and eyed her with a different look. “And I want to thank you as well,” he added, a dark tone creeping into his deep voice, “You have given me something I have sought after for a very long time.”
Ipona was confused by that. She didn’t understand what the King had meant, but the change in his voice scared her, and she began to think she had made a mistake. “What would that be King Metreus?” she asked, and searched the room with her eyes for an avenue of escape. This was rapidly becoming a dangerous place for the young Amazon and she wanted to get out as quickly as she could. Ipona considered going back to the Amazons and telling the Queen what she had done, but then it dawned on her. Metreus didn’t intend for her to leave, and never had. Mentally she cursed herself for a fool, knowing that she would never get out of the castle alive, and regretting her betrayal. The one thing that hurt her most deeply though, was that she would never get to see her older sister again.
“Why, dear child,” he said, his voice low, and rumbling with evil, “You have given me Xena.” He motioned with a nod for his guards to take her, and they did, catching her off guard from behind. “Take her to the dungeon,” he added, a sickening smile spreading across his face, “Enjoy your stay girl, and rest easy knowing that you caused the death of the warrior princess. You have my deepest thanks.” He laughed maniacally at that as she was shackled, and the last sounds Ipona heard from the throne room as she was hauled away by the guards was the echoing laughter of the King and his Generals.
* * *
At the edge of the forest, the bulk of the Amazon forces waited less than patiently while Xena and a group of their best scouts went ahead to judge exactly what they were up against. Ephiny had wanted to go with them, but Xena had wisely told her to stay. And for good reason. The warrior princess had argued that one of the leaders should be present to stop over anxious warriors from setting the battle plans aside and heading out on their own. The Queen was certain that had she not been there, her amazons would have charged into battle candlemarks ago.
As Ephiny sat by one of the few small campfires, poking at the flames with a stick, she remembered a time when she would have been leading the scouting party. The young Queen wasn’t much for brooding, having seen Xena in one of her moods, but she couldn’t help it. She felt useless. Like she was more an ornament than a warrior. It was necessary, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.
When the scouts returned with Xena, Ephiny was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she wouldn’t have heared them, but for one of the perimeter guards shouting their arrival. She breathed a silent sigh of relief, they were long overdue getting back. The temporary Queen jumped up quickly and turned to greet her warriors with a welcoming smile. A smile that faded to a frown when she saw the state they were in. They were filthy, and covered in blood. Immediately Ephiny registered what had happened. They had been spotted, and a battle had been fought.
“Get the healer,” Xena commanded gruffly as she swung herself gently off Argo, cradling her left arm to her chest. Ephiny watched one of the younger amazons run off in search of the woman, then quickly made her way to the warrior’s side. “It was an ambush,” Xena spat angrily, spinning around and trying unsuccessfully to hide the pain the sudden move caused her.
“Xena, you’re hurt,” the Queen stated, seeing the grimace on Xena’s face. She was not at all surprised that the comment was brushed off by the warrior, who headed directly for Solari, still sitting atop her horse. When Ephiny turned her attention to her friend, and saw how deathly pale she was, her heart leapt into her throat. “Solari?” she said so softly that only Xena heard her.
“Help me with her,” Xena stated, reaching out with her right arm to cradle the amazon when she leaned over. Ephiny didn’t waste a moment moving up beside the warrior, and held her arms out. Solari tried to smile down at her Queen and friend, but the pain from the dagger wound in her hip made it hard to even see straight, and it came out more like a grimace. Ephiny could see more of her friend in the wanning light now that they were closer, and didn’t fail to notice the dark sticky blood covering Solari’s leg.
Xena must have noticed the alarm in Ephiny’s eyes, and reassured her. “She’ll be fine,” the warrior said quietly as the two women aided Solari with the painful dismount, “But she won’t be able to fight in the battle tomorrow.” Xena gave Solari an appolgetic look, and the injured warrior opened her mouth to argue, but seemed to think better of it. They all knew she would be no good to them on the battlefield, and her injures could cause one of her sisters to get killed.
Two amazons came forward to help Solari to a blanket beside the nearest fire so she could lay down, and she went, uttering a thank you to them. Ephiny watched the warrior take their charge away, only looking back to Xena when she saw the healer begin treating her wound. Knowing the warrior princess wouldn’t allow the healer to see to her injuries until the others had been cared for, the Queen didn’t broach the subject again, but focused on a more important topic. “Xena,” she said softly, fixing her with a worried glare, “What happened?”
The raven haired warrior shook her head and pointed to the Queen’s tent, indicating that they should continue in private. Ephiny nodded quickly and they left the group after explaining to the healer that they needed to confer. Ephiny walked slightly behind Xena, noticing the slow gait, wondering what could be wrong with her. There was no blood, but she was most certainly in pain. A broken bone, Ephiny thought grimly, wondering what would happen on the battlefield come sunrise if that was the case.
Inside Ephiny’s tent, the two women sat down silently, both consumed with their own thoughts. The Queen did notice, however, that Xena grimaced slightly again when she lowered herself into the chair. Ignoring it for the moment, Ephiny sat back and steepled her fingers, trying to look calm. “What went wrong, Xena?” she asked, thinking there had been a mistake made.
Xena’s expression darkened as she thought of the brief but intense battle she had just gone through. None of the amazons had been severely hurt, but they had been forced to kill all the soldiers to prevent any one of them from going back to King Metreus. “I don’t know, Ephiny,” she said finally, going over the events in her mind again, “Nothing was wrong. Everything was just as it should have been, and the men came out of no where.” She fixed the Queen with a cold stare, raging at her own blunder that had nearly gotten a group of very good warriors killed, “They were waiting for us. It’s as if they knew we were coming.”
The reality of Xena’s statement hit Ephiny like a slap in the face. The warrior princess was claiming that one of her amazons was a traitor. “No, Xena,” she snapped, “That isn’t possible. Everyone has been accounted for.” She didn’t want to believe that a sister had been responsible for this. None of her amazons would betray her sisters to men.
Xena remained silent, knowing it was a stretch for Ephiny, but the only possibility. She moved slightly, trying to take the pressure off her damaged ribs, and winces slightly. The warrior princess covered it quickly, chastising herself again for letting the soldier’s kick get under her guard. His strong shot had broken at least two of her ribs, and though it didn’t show on her face, Xena felt them every time she moved.
Ephiny had been thinking about the accusation that one of her sisters was a traitor when she saw Xena grimace again. It worried her a little, knowing the warrior barely winced once at the pain of being shot with an arrow, and was convinced that she really was injured. “Xena, you have to let the healer see to you,” she said softly, forgetting her anger. If Xena had been caught by surprise, then it was no accident that those soldiers were there.
“I’ll be all right Ephiny,” Xena responded, leaning back in the chair, “It’s just a broken rib or two. Nothing that will slow me down in a battle” Ephiny didn’t believe the warrior princess when she brushed her off, but let it drop, more worried about how the battle would go, if Metreus knew they were coming.
“Xena,” Ephiny began slowly, resting her elbows on the table in front of her, “How should we deal with the attack?? It seems now that the element of surprise is gone.”
“If there is a traitor, Ephiny,” she said, also leaning forward, “Then Metreus knows everything we have planned. Once he hears that one of his parties didn’t come back, he’ll know that we ran into them and he’ll be expecting us to change the attack. So that’s why don’t change it.” Ephiny smiled a little at that, surprised again at Xena’s military mind. The Queen knew she never would have thought of that, and would have played right into Metreus’s hand, walking right into his forces.
The two leaders stayed in the Queen’s tent for most of the night, going over backup plans and strategies. Neither emerged, but had news of the injured brought to them every candlemark. Xena forbid anyone from entering the tent, and stopped talking often to use that keen hearing of hers to judge if anyone was listening outside. The rest of the amazons wondered what transpired inside, but for the rest of the night, no one dared go up and ask.
The stars were just fading from the night sky when Xena emerged from the Queen’s hut, a look of grim determination on her face. The Amazon sentries at the edge of camp whistled, one after another, the bird call for ‘all clear’ and the warrior nodded slightly, knowing they would see her response. Xena never could get those bird calls down right, and had given up trying long ago. It was much less embarassing just to look mean and nod curtly.
Xena took a moment to stretch her stiff muscles carefully, wincing slightly as she still managed to agrivate her damaged ribs. Thanks to her well used ability to heal quickly, the warrior princess could now breath normally without a flair of pain every time she inhaled, but she knew her fighting would be hampered by them.
Walking over to the blazing fire to warm her hands, Xena caught sight of a moving body and crouched down to take a closer look. She pulled back a corner of the blanket to get a look at the amazon’s face and confirmed her suspicions of who it was. “How are you feeling, Solari?” she asked quietly, not wanting to wake the others.
Solari, still half asleep, jerked and let out a startled little squeak, her eyes flying open. The amazon calmed immediately when she saw Xena’s peircing eyes above her, and let out a breath of relief. “Hades balls!” she cursed softly, grimacing as she shifted around to prop herself up, “You’ve got to learn to make a little noise when you walk, Xena. One more shock like that and I’ll find myself on Charon’s boat!” Her lopsided grin took the sting off the words and found Xena mirroring her expression.
“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” Xena chuckled, kneeling down beside the injured Amazon to check her bandages. A little poking and prodding later, the warrior princess was satisfied that the wound was going to heal properly. There was very little seepage, but Xena decided rewrap the injury in fresh linens to keep it clean. Her work was fast and efficient, her long fingers flying over Solari’s hip as she tied the last knot into the bandages, keeping them in place. “You should be as good as new in no time, Solari,” she said, rocking back on her hanches and pulling up the thick blanket to cover the Amazon once again.
“That’s a relief,” Solari clipped, mentally wincing at the sharp sting that found it’s way into her words. She noticed Xena look over to the fire for the briefest of moments and, feeling terrible, added. “I know you and the healer did your best Xena,” she murmured, making sure her voice was low enough not to wake the stirring Amazons around them, “But I feel so damned useless, knowing I can’t fight in the battle today. I wanted to be there to help Ephiny.” Solari closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to break free, not wanting the warrior princess to see her weakness where the Regent Queen was concerned.
Xena did catch it however, and smiled slightly, knowing that her suspicions had been confirmed. “You love her very much don’t you?” she said softly, tossing a stick into the dying flames and watching it crackle.
Solari frowned for a moment, wondering if Xena could have meant that the way it sounded, but then dismissed it, and answered the way a loyal Amazon would. “Of course,” she responded, propping herself up on her elbows, also gazing into the firepit as the small branch caught and sent a small flame dancing skyward, “She is Queen in Gabrielle’s absence, and my friend. I would die for her, as would any Amazon.”
Solari knew immediately that Xena wasn’t buying it. “No Solari,” Xena shook her head and faced the Amazon with an understanding pain in her blue eyes that caught Solari’s attention, “You love her, don’t you?” Xena fell silent, methodically feeding the fire until it was large enough to warm them, waiting patiently for the answer she already knew.
“Yes,” came the whispered reply, but Xena didn’t bother to look back at her, knowing she needed her emotional space right now, “Gods forgive me. I love her so much it hurts.” The warrior princess closed her eyes at that statment, those very words the ones etched into her heart for her own dear Gabrielle. She understood Solari’s pain, but didn’t know how to fix it, and that cut her to the bone. Xena hated not being able to solve every problem, but how could she help Solari, when she couldn’t even help herself in such matters.
“Why don’t you tell her?” Xena asked quietly, truly wanting to know the reason for her silence. The warrior princess felt she had a valid excuse; her inner darkness. She didn’t want Gabrielle to be hurt by that part of Xena she always kept a tight hold on. But Solari didn’t have that darkness. There should be no reason for her to suffer the way she forced herself to.
Solari opened her mouth, then closed it again, not sure how to answer. Staring into the fire again, she thought hard about her emotions before responding. “I’m afraid, Xena,” she whispered, closing her eyes in shame, “I’m afraid of losing the friendship we already have. I’m afraid of rejection, because I don’t deserve her love.” Solari looked up at Xena and frowned at the tormented expression on her face. She had known for a long time that Xena was in love with Queen Gabrielle, by the looks the warrior gave when the bard wasn’t aware. “I can bear any burden, Xena,” she continued, knowing she was about to hit a raw nerve in the warrior princess, “Except Ephiny’s hatred. That would kill me.”
Xena looked over at the injured Amazon, blinking away unshed tears. Suddenly she felt much closer to Solari, even though they had been uneasy allies in the past. This torment, their shared pain, brought them together as friends. “I understand,” Xena replied truthfully, placing a hand on Solari’s shoulder.
“I know you do, Xena,” Solari stated, her dark brown eyes boring into the warrior’s bright blue ones, “I know what’s in your heart. I can see it on your face every time you look at Queen Gabrielle.” Xena’s expression went from pained to panicked in a matter of seconds, and she tried to draw away from the Amazon, but Solari held her hand fast. “You hide it well,” Solari continued, trying to ease Xena’s mind, “But I see it only because I wear the same look when I gaze at Ephiny.”
Xena relaxed slightly and nodded, an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air. The warrior didn’t speak again, and Solari didn’t press her with questions, already knowing the reasons why Xena didn’t confess her love to Queen Gabrielle. Solari didn’t have the past that Xena did, but she understood how the warrior would want to protect her bard from that past. Even if it tore her heart in two.
Xena looked up at a noise, silently thankful for the interruption, and realized that Ephiny had come out of her tent and was looking around for the warrior princess. Clearing her throat, Xena raised a hand, motioning the Regent Queen over. She tossed a few more sticks onto the fire and finally looked back to Solari, speaking softly. “Today’s battle will be bloody,” she intoned, her expression deadly serious, “Tell Ephiny how you feel. You might not get another chance.”
Seeing the injured Amazon’s stunned look, Xena said nothing more and stood once Ephiny reached them. “How’s my best warrior doing, Xena?” Ephiny asked with a smile, trying to force a little humor into an otherwise serious day. The blonde Queen stood with her hands on her hips, gazing down at Solari, who looked to her, like a deer caught in a crossbows sights.
“She’ll be good as new in a week or two,” Xena answered, her warrior’s mask once again firmly in place, “But I think she wanted to talk to you before we rode into battle.” Looking down at Solari, only to see the Amazon glaring icily back at her, the raven haired warrior raised an eyebrow and turned to leave.
“Xena, where are you off too?” This from Ephiny, who was crouching down by the fire, a mirror of Xena’s movements earlier. The warrior princess mumbled something about checking on Argo and wandered off, swallowed up by the darkness beyond the circle of light the fire was providing. Ephiny turned her attention to Solari, after Xena’s hasty departure and rested a hand on her shoulder. “What did you want to talk about?”
Solari figited for a moment, trying not to look like a child who had been caught stealing sweet cakes. You’re going to die for this, Xena, she thought angrily before looking back up into the blue eyes of the woman she loved more than anything in the world. Her best friend. Her Queen. Swallowing around the lump in her throat, Solari began. “Well...”
* * *
Less than a candlemark later, camp was broken, and two hundred Amazons mounted their horses, or assembled into formation, eager to avenge their fallen sisters. Xena had saddled Argo almost immediately after leaving Solari and Ephiny, wanting to warm up and work out the kinks before riding into battle. Now she paced her golden war horse back and forth in front of the assembling ranks, her look one of grim determination.
She knew the others would draw their resolve from her, and tried to look confident, but inside she was terribly worried. Her many years as a warlord had taught her to mask her feelings, and even though she was learning to open up again with Gabrielle, there were times when those tricks were still of good use. So intent was she on appearing calm, that she didn’t notice Ephiny approaching the troops behind her until she turned to backtrack up the line again.
The Regent Queen was still thinking about what Solari had said when she joined ranks with her sisters, not really paying attention to anything being said. There were the usual rowdy curses, insulting the enemy and their families, calling down Artimis to destroy the threat to the Amazon Nation, and swift prayers that their patron Goddess would protect them and help them to win. Ephiny’s frown of consentration didn’t lift until she noticed one of her sisters quietly praying beside her.
“What troubles you, sister?” she asked, not recognizing the Amazon, as her face was already covered by her mask. Silently she chastised herself for not knowing, but the masks tended to blend into a sea of anonimity after such a long while not seeing them every day.
“Nothing, my Queen,” she answered, and by her voice, Ephiny then knew it was Urisa, one of the younger warriors. The Regent could hear the quiver in her voice, but said nothing, even ignoring the sniffle that followed the words.
“You worry about the battle?” the blonde Amazon asked, a frown creasing her brow at the thought.
“No, my Queen,” was the quick answer, “I have no doubt the Amazon Nation will emerge victorious. Especially with Xena at our front. But...” She cut herself off, as if the thought was too horrid for her to voice.
“But?” Ephiny echoed, placing a hand on her shoulder, wishing she could look into the young woman’s eyes, “Tell me.”
Her soft plea was like a command to Urisa, and she obeyed, forcing the words out. “My little sister,” she said, bowing her head again, “I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her. Ipona’s only thirteen winters old. We came here together 4 winters ago when our village was destroyed. If I die on the battlefield today, she has no one. Who will look after her?” Urisa shut her mouth before the tears fell, not wanting to appear weak in front of the Regent Queen.
“Why didn’t she see us off yesterday? The elders and the children were all there.”
“I looked for her, my Queen, but I didn’t see her. Ipona wasn’t there. I worry about her. She was so quiet the night before we left. She didn’t even go to the party.”
Suddenly a thought crossed Ephiny’s mind and her eyes widened in disbelief. No, it’s not possible, she thought, shaking her head. But she had to make sure. “Urisa,” Ephiny spoke up, remembering the young girl who had been bringing late night meals to her hut during the planning of the attack with Xena, “Ipona isn’t a server in the kitchens is she?”
Urisa cocked her head to the side, the confused look hidden by her warrior’s mask. “Yes, my Queen, she is. And a hard worker too,” she said, fierce pride in her voice, “The only one who stays to help after evening meal. Why do you ask?”
Ephiny didn’t respond, but merely shook her head. “Artimis be with you in today’s battle,” she said quickly and turned quickly, looking for Xena. She finally believed the warrior princess, that one of them was a traitor. But not for malice, as Xena thought, but because she didn’t know what she was doing was the worst thing she could have done. And if Ipona had gone to Metreus to protect her sister, she might be in even more trouble than Urisa could ever have imagined.
With adrenaline pumping, her heart beat echoing in her ears, Ephiny strode away quickly, heading for the warrior princess with her news. The Regent knew Xena wouldn’t be pleased. They’d both hoped they were wrong about the traitor, but at least now they would both know for certain. A heaviness settled in her heart at the thought. There *was* a traitor. And their plans were known to Metreus. For the first time since declaring the war, Ephiny began to wonder if her Amazon’s would get out of it alive.
TO BE CONTINUED...
--you know the rule!! No feedback, no more story! heh heh. I really hope I get email about this one... cause I’ve got some great ideas. Please let me know what you think!! My ego needs stroking. firstname.lastname@example.org