Chapter 1: The Dream
In the silence of the night the guards on shift patrolled the tree top bridges surrounding the town of Edessa in one of the densest forests of Thrace. The number of guards had been doubled within the last moon cycle which meant a punishing daily routine for the warriors of the town. The warriors were all women; strong, fast, agile and trained to be the ultimate efficient killing machines. Despite this training they were a peaceful race, only armed to protect their lifestyle, families and the powerful relic they protected. The relic’s presence had been a secret from the outside world for nearly thirty years but now its location was suspected and by none other than a warlord from the other side of the forest and mountain range.
This warlord was called Tarbus and since discovering the possible location of the precious and powerful relic he had continuously sent small raiding parties to ascertain if the rumour was true. These raiding parties could occur at any time, day or night, and had the town on high alert. However it was clear it would only be so long before he made a move to completely conquer the town to find answers. Warlords never feared needless death unless it was their own.
Every rustle of leaves or the simple snapping of a twig made their hairs stand on end. The area closest to the warriors was lit by a series of torches dug in to the ground. However it was hard to make out in the distant darkness whether the sounds were coming from approaching soldiers or forest animals. It was when the sounds kept creeping closer…that’s when it was time to worry.
The thick forest canopy blocked out most of the pale light from the moon and stars despite the fact it was a clear night. Occasionally where there was a slight break in the cover where slivers of silver would shine through but barely enough to cast any illumination. It meant it was impossible to see where she was going as she ran. So instead of relying on her eyes she relied on her other senses and her memory. This part of the forest was very familiar to her and as a warrior she was always taking in the details of her surroundings. Although her memory gave her a good guide to where the trees were positioned it was impossible to remember every uneven bit of ground, rock or tree route. It meant that Antonia was consistently stumbling or falling to her knees. It was hampering her escape from the group of soldiers following her who seemed to be having no such problem navigating the forest landscape.
She could just about make out the separate footfall of six men only twenty steps or so behind her. In the pitch black she would struggle to fight them off but if she could get to the small clearing just less than a minute away (presuming she was running on the correct route) then at least she would be able to see what attacks she would have to parry. Six to one where not great odds but she’d faced worst. The odds were never going to be great when dealing with a power mad warlord.
She pressed on and managed to reach the clearing just before the soldier’s caught her up. Swinging around, she faced them head on. There had indeed been six of them perusing her and as soon as they reached the clearing they fanned out, clearly planning to all attack her at once. She reached over her shoulders and pulled her two swords from their sheaths, readying herself for what was likely to be her last fight.
As the men started to step forward though there was a loud cry and suddenly a flash of silver streaked across the clearing and struck three of the men in the head, taking them down. Antonia had no time to see who or what had come to her aid as the other three men began to move quickly towards her. Two reached her first and she parried both their swords with her own, pushing through the gap she had made between them and spinning one sword low behind one man’s knees. He fell as she parried the other man but she was very aware that she had lost sight of the third man Suddenly a flash of his sword came towards her head but before she could block it the mystery fourth person blocked the sword with a long decorative metal object. Antonia turned her focus back to the second man and brought her second sword around to cut him down at the waist.
The fourth person had knocked the last soldier out cold with the mysterious object. She pushed the strands of red hair that had fallen out of her braids from in front of her eyes. Now the danger was over Antonia could see that it was a tall and muscular woman with long dark brown hair. She wore leather armour with a patterned breastplate. The strange object in her hand was a Caduceus, the emblem of Hermes, messenger of the old gods. Atop it, between the wings, sat a large gleaming emerald. As Antonia silently observed her the warrior turned and began to walk away across the clearing.
“Wait!” Antonia called out after her, “who are you?”
She sped after the warrior and when she reached out for her shoulder the brunette turned and grabbed the hand that was coming towards her. The grasp was firm but not uncomfortable. As soon as their hands connected Antonia saw flashes of what she presumed was the warriors life through the woman’s eyes.
A younger woman with long strawberry blonde hair, clearly very ill, is lying on a bed. She was beautiful despite how ill she appeared, Antonia could see that but she could also feel how beautiful the warrior found the woman.
“You’re my source Gabrielle. When I reach down inside of myself and do things I am not capable of it’s because of you.”
Gabrielle. The blonde’s name was Gabrielle. Antonia had no time to reflect on the name before the scene in front of her shifted to a happier scene of this Gabrielle, now healthy again and with shorter hair, bathing in a lake in the woods. The scene shifted again to blonde holding a baby…the warrior’s baby if Antonia was reading the emotion she was feeling correctly. Then suddenly all she felt was pain and sorrow. She was on a beach, nailed to a cross, and Gabrielle was on the cross across from her.
“Gabrielle, you were the best thing in my life…”
“I love you Xena.”
To Antonia’s relief the scene changed again but the pain of the crucifixion didn’t fade away it only shifted. Instead she was left with a great sadness and emotional pain that she couldn’t quite understand and she could barely breathe. It was like someone had put a great pressure on her neck and the blood to her brain had been cut off. She was knelt in front of this Gabrielle, looking deeply into the confused and saddened blonde’s eyes.
“Gabrielle, if I only had 30 seconds to live, this is how I’d want to live them…looking in to your eyes.”
The warrior was so sad but it became clear to Antonia why when it shifted to the next memory. The woman had known she was going to die…had even planned to die. Apparently the brunette wasn’t shy in sharing her pain because Antonia was now subjected to the agony of multiple arrows piercing her skin as she fought off soldiers with a remarkably sharp but lightweight sword. Her vision began to blur as a soldier stepped forward and swung his sword toward her head. There was a flash of unimaginable pain before everything went black.
Antonia had presumed this would be the end of the visions but one more invaded her mind. The warrior and her blonde companion…soul mate…Antonia somehow knew she was her soul mate….were sat on a snowy mountaintop overlooking the setting sun. The blonde seemed desperate to save the warrior but Antonia could feel the brunette’s sadness. She wanted to be saved for this Gabrielle’s sake but knew she had to die to save to souls of others.
“I’ll always be with you Gabrielle.”
The memory faded away and Antonia was back again in the dark clearing, clasping the brunette’s hand.
Once the visions had stopped Antonia could finally focus and understand what she had witnessed. Xena and Gabrielle…even in Thrace these were familiar names…Xena the Warrior Princess and her battling bard from the Greek mainland’s. They had been thought dead and then reappeared twenty five years later without having aged only to have Xena die again…or so the stories that reached their town had claimed. She was dreaming about a dead woman. Hermes Caduceus was meant to be able to carry messages from the spiritual world.
Suddenly the clearing seemed to morph from night to day and in the middle of the clearing there was a large cherry tree. Antonia had seen one once whilst on a trading trip in Greece. A rich tradesman had imported one from Japa and wanted everyone to admire its beauty as the centrepiece of his gardens. This cherry tree was much larger than the one she had seen and its pink blossom filled branches stretched out across the clearing and over their heads. Xena released her hand and looked up at the branches. The blossom began to fall from the tree and rain down upon them but instead of flower petals the blossom was made up of elegant pink feathers. Antonia was no romantic but she had to admit that the falling feathers had a strange sort of beauty to them. It was the first time in a long time that she had felt hopeful.
The same hope seemed to be mirrored on the Warrior Princesses face. Antonia knew that all she was witnessing must mean something but wasn’t really sure what. Xena was dead…what use could a dead person be to her.
“I’m not good at spiritual things…I’m more of a fighter” she stated.
“Me neither” the warrior responded with a slight smile.
There was a faint noise in the forest behind them. It was familiar but Antonia couldn’t quite place it yet. Its presence seemed to worry the previously relaxed brunette.
“Find Gabrielle" the warrior insisted as the light faded to night again around them. The feathers were still falling but Antonia could barely see them in the dark.
“What? Why? How?” she blurted in response. She had so many questions but it was obvious she was running out of time. The blaring noise became louder and louder.
“Amphipolis” Xena called out above the sound. Antonia hadn’t heard of the name before but it sounded like a Greek place name.
Finally the noise became loud enough for Antonia to fully process it. It was a warning horn…
Antonia awoke with a start to the sound of the Edessian war horn. Her dream was still clear in her mind but there was no time to reflect on it when the town was under attack. She didn’t even bother putting her armor on. Instead she grasped her swords and charged out of her hut into the night, wearing nothing but her night shift.
Chapter 2: The Homeward Journey
As far as the eye could see there was an endless stretch of blue. Blue sea which met blue sky somewhere in the horizon. The midday sun was so hot that being below deck was becoming stifling and sticky. At least on deck Gabrielle found that the slight sea breeze meant it was bearable to bask in the afternoon sun. She gazed out in to the blue abyss, lost in thought. The water gently lapped against the side of the ship but the sea was relatively still. It meant there was little movement on the deck which was good for Gabrielle's health but not was not aiding the speed of the voyage.
Not that the blonde was in a hurry to return to her homeland. Greece was now ominousness with her lost soul mate. Greece was Xena's homeland and the place they spent years travelling together. Greece was the land in which Gabrielle had returned to after Xena's death so she could spread her ashes with that of her family. The land in which she had escaped from the very next day.
She had spent the best part of two years in Egypt, travelling the length of the Nile and helping people and villages whenever the opportunity had arisen. It had been a distraction but it had also been a shallow life. There had been short term travelling companions over the two years who she had cared for as friends but none had helped fill the gaping hole in her heart. She had hoped that the further she travelled and the more people she helped for the greater good, then the smaller that hole would feel. It hadn't worked. Instead she had spent a great deal of time trying not to think of Xena but thinking of her anyway.
So on her return to the port of Alexandria (after retrieving a stolen family amulet for a wealthy Egyptian diplomat) Gabrielle had decided it was time to face her demons head on. Running had done nothing to ease the pain. The only thing for it now was to return to Greece and more specifically to the place she associated the most with Xena. It was time to return to Amphipolis. Then perhaps she could brave returning home to see her sister and neice in Potedia. Gabrielle hoped that if she could face the hurt head on then rather than the memories haunting her, she could look back upon their time together with the fondness it deserved. After all she had been at her absolute happiest on the road with the Warrior Princess even when times were rough. Happier than she had ever dreamt possible as a young girl in her boring and stifling little home village.
“You’re sea sickness is getting better” a familiar husky voice came from her right. Gabrielle slammed her eyes shut and tried to catch her breath.
Ever since Xena had given up her own life in Japa to save the souls of 40,000 other people she had still appeared and spoken with Gabrielle from time to time. The blonde had long since given up trying to figure out if it was actually her soul mates spirit or just her own imagination torturing her.
“Must be all that time spent going up and down the Nile” the warrior bard replied.
There was a faint chuckle in response and Gabrielle could no longer resist the urge to turn her head and look at the apperition in front of her. She opened her eyes and glanced to the right. Xena was stood mimicking her own pose, hands against the rail of the ship, and gazing out at the ocean. She looked exactly as Gabrielle remembered...which was no surprise considering the blonde was probably imagining her. The metal of her breastplate glinted in the high afternoon sun and her eyes glittered as she smiled at the bard. Gabrielle found her breathtaking, as she always did, and her heart felt like it would beat out of her chest through a wrenching mixture of love and grief.
“I miss you” Gabrielle stated. Her voice came out hoarse and barely more than a whisper.
Xena tilted her head and her facial expression turned from mirth to a rueful smile. Gabrielle had never said those words to the apparition/imaginary Xena. She had thought them daily but somehow saying them out loud had always been too difficult. It had been easier to talk about ordinary day to day things or even battle tactics depending when the vision of the warrior appeared to her. Now the words were finally out she felt a flood of emotion.
“I miss you so much” Gabrielle continued; this time with more conviction. “I thought time was meant to make it hurt less but I have ached every day for you.”
“I’m sorry” Xena apologised.
The warrior sounded sincere but somehow the apology just made Gabrielle feel worse not better. The pain she had carried with her for the past two years wasn't just that of sorrow but also frustration and even anger that the brunette had chosen to leave her.
“No you’re not” Gabrielle stated with a deep sigh; “it was for the greater good after all.”
“I did it because it was for the greater good” Xena tried to explain; “but that doesn’t mean that I don’t regret having to leave you.”
The blonde simply nodded in response. She knew it was illogical to be annoyed by Xena's choice. It had been the code they had both lived by and to put their relationship and Xena's life above 40,000 others would have been a selfish act. It would have been a hell of a burden to carry but part of Gabrielle still felt like it was a burden they could have carried together rather than leaving her to carry the burden of Xena's loss alone.
“You’re my soul mate Gabrielle” the warrior added softly.
This finally drew a small smile from the blonde bard. The fact they were soul mates was one of the few things had kept her sane since Japa. It gave her hope that she would be reunited with Xena again even if it was in the next life. Their bond was the one thing she had never doubted.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to tell the warrior that she loved her; something else she hadn't said out loud for two long years. A shout from her left distracted her though and she turned her head in that direction to see what was going on.
“Land! I can see Greece!” one of the sailor's at the bough of the ship called out again.
After just over two weeks at sea this news caused some excitement on the deck and others rushed forward to look out towards the land. Gabrielle could just make out the faint shape of the coast line on the horizon from where she was stood.
After a few seconds Gabrielle turned back to the warrior only to find that she was gone. Her shoulders dropped instantly. Even though she knew it was probably only her own imagination summoning up the brunette it still hurt every time the conversations ended. It was like losing her all over again. The blonde pushed back from the rail of the ship and headed back to her cabin despite the stifling heat. She needed to be on her own.
Chapter 3: The Mission
It had been dark when the raid had started but as the sun started to come up the Edessian warriors had finally sent the few of the raiders who remained alive running back to Tarbus. It would only be a short reprieve, within a few days another raiding party would return or eventually an entire army. Tarbus had the capacity to raise one should he lose patience with the lack of progress he was making; it was inevitable. The raids the town could deal with but an army would be a near impossible challenge. They were skilled warriors but they would surely be overrun by a large force. Antonia was convinced her dream was a sign and held the only hope they had in defeating Tarbus for good.
“What are our losses?” Meda, the leader of the tribe, called to Antonia as she picked her was through the trees towards a gathering of warriors.
“I've counted six in total but there are others who are wounded” the red haired warrior replied solemnly.
Antonia was Meda's second and one of two deputy leaders. The other deputy was not a warrior but a tradesman and politician called Leo. His role concerned the running of day to day life in the town whereas Antonia organised the guard shifts and trained the warrior's. Her role and relationship with them meant she felt every loss of one of her warriors keenly.
“We seem to be missing seven from our ranks” Meda stated.
Meda was nearly thirty years of age and was tall for a woman, even amongst the warriors. Her light brown hair was braided in an intricate pattern, signalling her rank, and her angular facial features marred by battle scars. Even though she was five years Antonia's senior they had a strong and mutually respectful working relationship. The red head stood in front of the older woman and looked around the gathered warriors. Exhausted and worried faces looked back at her. Other warriors were still slightly further in the tree line but Antonia could pick out one face she hadn't seen amongst them, the dead or the injured.
“Has anyone seen Zia?” the red head asked.
Zia was the same age as Antonia and the two had trained and fought together many times over the years. They were friends; or as far as Antonia would allow herself to become friendly with someone. They sat together often at meals or during festivals and trusted each other implicitly whilst fighting side by side. Zia had been positioned in one of the tree top hide outs to the west were the raid had begun. She was not amongst the fallen and Antonia had just circled that area just minutes before.
“One of the raiders on horseback rode off early in to the battle” one of the warriors spoke up. “I thought it was strange at the time but I could not see him clearly in the dark to say if he had a prisoner or not.”
Antonia felt her stomach sink at what was being implied. If Zia had been captured they could do nothing about it. They did not have the man power to take the fight to the warlord and if they tried they would undoubtedly fail and many warriors would fall in the attempt. For the sake of all of the people in the town they could not take that risk. It did not sit well with Antonia but it was the right decision and one Zia would understand and expect.
“If she is alive you know what this will mean” Meda said, her eyes making contact with the red head.
Antonia did not need it spelling out for her. Tarbus had only used raiders in an attempt to discover if the rumour of the artefact they protected was true. If he had a prisoner he would try to torture the information out of her. Should he succeed the next time they were under attack it would be by an entire army. Zia held out until her death it would frustrate the warlord so much he would return with an army anyway. He was not above burning town's to the ground out of petty spite. There was no time to lose. She had to act upon the vision she had seen in her sleep.
“I have something to tell you” Antonia informed her leader, “but we should find the elders first.”
Two of the town elders, Dazius and Eta, had been busy reassuring and comforting the rest of the town when the warriors returned. The elder Antonia really needed to speak to was called Selene and she had been helping to attend to wounded warriors. The red head had been able to guide her and Meda away from the infirmary and into Selene's quarters. She had then rehashed her dream in as much detail as she could recall. Selene had listened patiently and with a great deal of interest but the town leader seemed flustered by the tale.
“Let me get this right” Meda exclaimed as Antonia finished; “you saw Xena...who is dead...in your dream and now you want to traipse across Thrace and Greece to find her soul mate.”
Antonia understood her leader's hesitancy as it seemed like a fantastical idea. However, they both knew that the dream made sense when the town's own history was taken in to account.
“You know the prophesy as well as I do” Antonia sighed.
It had been prophesied 28 years before, when the tribe moved to settle in Thrace, that someone would rise from the dead to save them. Well Xena was dead and if anyone could lead them to victory against an angry warlord then it was the famous warrior princess. Everyone had heard the story of her standing alone against an entire army. There had been no time frame given for this prophesy and it had become part of the town mythology over those 28 years. Selene herself had been given the prophesy by a powerful God and this was why Antonia had needed to speak to the elder above all others.
“Antonia is right this can not be ignored” Selene agreed.
The elder was physically older than the two warriors and her hair had grey streaks running through long black locks. She was an attractive woman with vibrant green eyes and a kind expression. That kind expression was currently directed at Meda who as town leader had final say on any decisions. The elder's were there to help and advise as well as prevent decisions being made rashly or in haste.
“Send someone else” Meda grumbled irritably; “I need you here.”
Antonia would normally never entertain leaving the town at such a time especially considering her role overseeing the warriors. She was also the best fighter and no leader ever wanted to give up their best fighter before a battle. However Antonia felt that she had to be the person to go and before she could voice this opinion Selene spoke up again.
“It was Antonia's vision” the elder directed her words at Meda. “She alone has been chosen to complete this quest and bridge the gap between the world of the dead and the world of the living.”
The tall leader turned away towards the door and began to walk away, rubbing her hands across her face as she moved. Antonia thought for a moment that Meda had decided to just ignore her and walk away from the conversation in frustration. It would be very unlike the other woman but then she was under immense strain. Meda halted when she reached the door though and turned back towards the redhead and the elder.
“I'll have a horse and supplies ready for you immediately” the leader said begrudgingly.
Antonia made no response as Meda opened the door and walked out. Her eyes met Selene's and the elder gave her an encouraging nod. The red head followed Meda out the door to retrieve her armour, cloak and other weaponry from her own room as she had ran out into battle with nothing but her undergarments and swords.
After dressing correctly for the ride ahead Antonia went straight to the horse that was being prepared for her by one of the other warriors. Meda was not present but then she had families of the dead to visit as well as Zia's husband Thomos to commiserate with.
The horse was a chestnut mare called Calypso who she often rode when the need arose. This was a much longer trip then either of them had ever partaken it though. Antonia untied her from the post and put the reins over her head. The warrior had just finished attaching the saddle bags which Antonia knew would contain bedding and food. The woman nodded respectfully at the red head before backing away and returning to her other duties. The red head tied her spare arrow pouch behind the right saddle bag and gave Calypso a pat. When she returned to the left side of the horse to mount she came face to face with another person. This person was a small and very beautiful golden haired healer called Grace.
Grace was a year older than her but had not grown up in the town of Edessia like Antonia had. The healer had lived in a village to the west of the forest which had been raised to the ground by Tarbus and his blood thirsty men just less than a year ago. There had been few survivors and Grace was alive only because she was in a neighbouring village trading medicines at the time. Her family were all dead and like the other village survivors the Edissian's had taken her in and welcomed her to the tribe. Grace wasn't really like anyone else in the town though. There was something different about her compared to the other women. She was an incredible healer, dedicated and determined but she was softer than the others. There was something special about her. The elders saw it in her and so did Antonia although she really tried hard to ignore the notion.
“Selene told me” Grace broke the awkward silence that had formed when Antonia had slammed to a stop.
The red head merely nodded in response. Of course Selene had gone straight to Grace and told the blonde that she was leaving. The elder seemed to see fit to try and push them together at every turn despite the fact it obviously made Antonia uncomfortable. She was a warrior and always had be...she had no idea what to do with feelings other than to push them aside and ignore them. So that is what she did. It never seemed to put the blonde off though and she persisted in talking to her and trying to take care of her at every given opportunity.
“It is a dangerous journey to undertake alone...” Grace began to gently protest but Antonia cut her off.
“No one else can be spared” the red head said flatly.
The petit blonde sighed but didn't try to argue the point. Antonia could see that Grace was worried and feared for her life. It was true that there would be great potential danger travelling into Greece especially when alone. It was a known fact that mercenaries would target travellers and although Antonia carried no money her weapons and horse were of value. Nothing could stop her mission to find the warrior bard Gabrielle of Potedia though. It was too important to the future of her people.
“I will be back” Antonia stated. It wasn't a promise but a fact.
She put her foot in the stirrup and Grace stepped back to give her room to mount. The red head swung up fluidly onto the horse and put her other foot in the stirrup. She was about to kick the horse on into a walk when a warm, soft palm landed on her knee.
“Antonia” Grace said her name almost reverently.
The red head took a deep steadying breath before looking down at the healer. The blonde was looking up at her with an adoring expression. Antonia had seen Grace look at her that way from a distance before but usually the healer had tried to school her expression at least a little when up close. It was much harder to ignore from such a short distance away. Antonia cut in before the blonde dared say whatever she was building up to professing to her.
“It is nearly a full two days ride Grace” she pointed out; “If I am to return soon enough to save the town then there isn't a moment to lose.”
Grace nodded her head sharply and removed her hand from Antonia's leg. The red head immediately missed the sensation and silently berated herself for letting the blonde get under her skin so easily.
“I wish you a safe journey” Grace said; her voice hitching with emotion.
Antonia managed a small smile before kicking the horse on. Only ten or so strides took her to the archway leading out of the town into the surrounding woodland to the south. She dared a quick glance back at her home and at Grace before riding through the archway and out of sight. The healer had been stood rigidly still watching her go.
Chapter 4: The Grave
Gabrielle removed the last of the tack from the horse she had purchased at the port and placed it on the old rickety fencing. The post and rail wasn't in great condition but it was good enough to hold the horse for now especially as the grass in the small paddock behind the old inn was lush. She had watered the horse in a river just an hour before but she would have to look for a bucket to fill from the well later.
She left her tack and belongings by the fence for now, only picking up the wild flowers she had picked by the river, and headed around the side of the building. The inn was still dilapidated and empty even though the village just a few hundred yards away had slowly been brought back to life after the horrible haunting it had suffered prior to a couple of years before. It was sad to still see it empty and lifeless but she was also relieved that no one had moved in and tampered with Cyrene's home and the surrounding land.
Even after such a long period of not being cared for it looked in relatively good shape structurally because it was a strong and solidly built building. Ivy was growing up the walls though and the grass and plant life around it had grown high and unruly. The area at the front were the entrance to the underworld had opened up was still rough and disturbed but that was the only real evidence that something terrible had occurred there. If you didn't know that the disturbed land had been Lucifer's route to hell then it would simply look like someone had tried to dig down through the hard ground and gave up.
The unruly plant life hid what Gabrielle was looking for but she didn't need to see it to locate it. It was impossible for her to forget the place were she had buried Xena's ashes and she found the pile of stones and wooden cross she had erected immediately. The cross had been constructed from the wood of a walnut tree and its dark colouring reminded her of the warriors raven hair. She had not marked the grave as she didn't want any aggrieved warlord to find it and desecrate it. It was one of the reason's that she had placed it around the side of the building were it was less obvious to look. She had chosen the side facing due east so that the sun would now always rise on her soul mate and never set.
Seeing the grave again after two years brought an instant lump to her throat. All the emotion she had tried to contain and lockaway whilst in Eygypt felt like it was pouring out of her and she dropped to her knees. A strangled sob escaped the bard as she reached out and pressed her free hand against the cool rocks surrounding the cross. There still lay the remenants of the wild flowers she had placed there after building it, now just wispy dry strands that resembled hay. She had placed the same type of flowers then that she had with her now. When Gabrielle had seen them growing by the river it had felt right to bring them to the grave again.
The blonde brushed the old stalks out the way with the tips of her fingers and gently placed the red poppies and chamomile flowers down in their place. Apart from the fact the grass surrounding it was much higher than that day two years ago it now looked the same as she had left it. Silent tears ran down her face as painful memories rushed to the forefront of her mind.
There was a slight breeze in the air which had cooled Gabrielle enough to allow her to make the cross, dig the small grave, collect the rocks and fill it in again all in one afternoon despite the blazing hot sun. Her skin was red hot and sticky from sweat and she felt exhausted but it was done. She had promised to take Xena's remains home and she had succeeded in doing so, burying her as near to her mother and brother as she dared without making the grave's location obvious.
Standing alone she stared at the dark wooden cross. As a bard she was usually excellent with words but in this moment they seemed to be failing her. Instead she focused on her handiwork. It was a good sturdy cross but it looked dull and sad with only the green grass surrounding it. It was then that she remembered the wild flowers she had seen growing down the edge of the dirt lane that led past the inn. Normally she would have appreciated their natural beauty as she passed but she felt too hollow to truly appreciate anything right now. Even the long voyage back from Japa had done little to relieve the numbness she felt inside. The flowers would make the grave less solemn, at least for a short while.
The blonde walked back around the inn and to the lane. There were several types of flowers there but some of them seemed to garish for the blonde's sad mood. Gabrielle had seen other's place red poppies on the graves of loved ones in remembrance to them so she picked several of them. The other flower she chose to pick was Chamomile because it reminded her of their travels together. They had often made chamomile tea in the evenings especially when they were camping out in the cold. Xena had been excellent brewing the tea and it had taken Gabrielle at least two years to get the technique right to make an equal quality of drink.
She walked back to the grave with the flowers in hand and placed them in a crevice of the stones she had used to help stabilize the cross. She had been tempted to make the marker another shape as the cross reminded her of crucifixions. They had found a way to cheat death the two times Xena had died on a cross but there seemed to be no way back to the world of the living this time. That chance had gone when the sun had set in Japa.
“You were the best thing in my world” Gabrielle began. “Leaving Potedia to travel with you was the best decision I have ever made and even now that you have left me alone I wouldn't change that decision for anything.”
It was true. Gabrielle wouldn't trade the memories they had made together for all the jewels in the known world. She only wished that she didn't have to carry on without her.
“I barely feel like I can go on but I know I must. I know you would want me too. I know that one day we will meet again whether that is in the afterlife or our next life. Our souls will always fine one another. I lo... I love you Xena.”
The blonde only just managed to get out her final sentence before her voice broke and tears sprung from her eyes. Her legs felt weak and buckled beneath her so she fell to her knees. All those tears she had held in for weeks finally poured out in a wave of raw emotion. In the end she curled up beside the grave and stayed there until morning.
Gabrielle could feel a presence next to her and she glanced to find the vision of Xena crouching down alongside her. The brunette was smiling softly at Gabrielle and placed her hand on the bards elbow. Gabrielle could swear she could actually feel the warrior's palm against her own skin even though she wasn't really there.
“They're very beautiful” the apparition of Xena commented.
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sensation of warm breath on her ear. It wasn't real but god it always felt like Xena was right there. The blonde had never dared to reach out for the warrior though for fear that when she tried to initiate contact there would be nothing forthcoming except the air.
“I didn't think you particularly appreciated beauty?” she finally responded after she had got a tiny bit of grip on her own emotions.
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked to the other woman again. The brunette was still staring at her with her soft smile. It was an expression Gabrielle had seen time and time again from the other woman. In the early days when they traveled together Gabrielle had lived for the few moments when Xena would direct that affectionate look her way but as time went on the warrior had become a little more open, especially in times of hardship.
“I always appreciated you didn't I?” Xena replied with a wink.
“I'm not sure about the always part” the blonde quipped.
She knew that the warrior was referring to a physical appreciation and had certainly 'appreciated' Gabrielle many a time once they had transcended friendship to become lovers. There had been times when the two had disagreed and even clashed during their time together and she was sure the brunette hadn't appreciated those moments as much. The apparition of Xena just shook her head at the remark though and didn't dwell on it.
“You are the most beautiful thing I have ever clapped eyes on Gabrielle” the brunette said lovingly.
“Now I know this is my imagination” the blonde commented; “either that or the spirit world has made you soft.”
The warrior squeezed Gabrielle's elbow, encouraging her to make eye contact. Blue eyes sparkled at the bard in a manner she had seen a thousand times or more when Xena was alive. She felt the same familiar fluttering of her heart in her chest that the look had enticed each and every time.
“Perhaps I just regret all those times I could have expressed how I felt but didn't because I just hoped you knew anyway” countered Xena.
Words had never been Xena's strong suit. Gabrielle had been the one who could express herself with words at any given opportunity. Most of the time Xena had expressed emotion through looks or actions but the bard had known that the warrior had cared from the start, even though it had taken a long time to finally know for sure how much.
“I did know” Gabrielle promised.
“Not always” Xena pointed out; mirroring Gabrielle's earlier response.
There had been times when they had felt so far apart it looked like they could never come back to one another...but they had always found a way. Perhaps there had even been moments were they doubted each others devotion but it had never been for long and usually the resolution had just strengthened their bond further. When Gabrielle had been at her lowest points Xena had always been there to pick her back up again and those were often the times the warrior had found the words to express herself with.
“But always when it really mattered” the bard clarified.
Her words drew a warm smile from the brunette who leaned in closer and placed a lingering kiss on her temple. Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused on the sensation until it began to fade. When she opened her eyes Xena was gone again.
The blonde climbed to her feet and went to retrieve her things. Her original plan had been to visit the grave and then move on to Potedia but she found that now she was here she didn't want to leave just yet. Somehow she felt closer to Xena just being at the former home of the warriors mother. It was closer than she had felt to her since leaving the shores of Japa. So instead she decided to stay in the old inn for at least a night.
Chapter 5: The Warlord
Music filled the hall as Tarbus began to tuck in to the feast laid out in front of him. The long table he sat at the head of was filled with meats, bread, vegetables and fruits. Often he would have his finest commanders dine with him but this evening it was just his women present. The warlord was tall, strong and tanned with brown eyes and hair. His natural good looks and power attracted beautiful women to him; women who wanted to live in the luxury of his palacial home in Thrace, just a days ride away from the Greek border.
He was a man who believed in having fine things and lots of them. He had no desire for a wife and certainly had no desire for monogamy. Instead his tastes were best serviced in the arms or multiple women, often many women at a time. Currently he had twelve women living in his home; all willing to bend to his every desire and whim in return for pretty clothes, hearty meals and plenty of wine.
Tonight there was a band of musicians from one of the local town's he controlled there to entertain him. The music was lively and later there would be dancing. Not that Tarbus would partake in the dancing. Instead he would recline and admire the women dancing for him and pick his bed partners from the night.
The warlord had heard nothing from his commander, Rhesus, whom he had sent to raid a town in the forest. It was a day's ride away and he expected them back this evening. Unlike other local towns the town of Edessa was naturally well fortified as it sat within a forest which ran to the edge of a cliff face dropping down to a river. It was also the home of a settling tribe of warrior women who were extremely handy at protecting their home. The town did have good trade with other local towns and villages but was also capable of being very self contained.
Until recently Tarbus had thought Edessa had little strategic or financial value to him so had left it untouched. However, rumour had reached him that a great artifact from time of the Olympian Gods was hidden there. This artifact would make anyone who chose to wield it more powerful than every other warlord. With it he could depose the Thracian King and even conquer large areas of Greece and Dacia.
On queue the door to the large hall swung open and Commander Rhesus strode in. Rhesus was his youngest commander and an excellent fighter. He was trying to project an air of confidence but Tarbus was no fool, he could see a slight hesitancy in the mans step. There was still blood on his armour from the fight but Rhesus himself looked unscathed. Tarbus raised his hand to silence the musicians and the women in the hall. Instantly silence descended.
“That is not the face of a commander who has succeeded at what he has been asked to do” Tarbus sneered at the commander.
The Commander halted at the far end of the table but continued to stand tall and proud. He had obviously rode hard and without a break as his eyes were drawn to the feast laid out in front of him. Tarbus wondered why the younger man had rushed or even dared return at all if he bore bad news.
“We did not retrieve the artifact or discover its location but...” Rhesus began to explain.
“You told me that YOU were the man to get it and I told YOU that if you failed I would remove your head from your shoulders” Tarbus cut in irritably.
The warlord was disappointed. He had believed that Rhesus was the man for the role despite his young age. It seemed a waste to kill such a promising fighter but Tarbus was a man of his word. A threat must be carried through or others may think him weak.
“...But I did bring something else back with me” the Commander continued to explain.
Tarbus stood from his seat and glared at Rhesus. He couldn't imagine what the younger man could have brought back with him from the town that could appease him but his interest was piqued. Edessa had an air of mystery around it that meant there could be something else of value there.
“Is a weapon more powerful than any made by the hands of man?” the warlord asked.
“No” Rhesus admitted.
Tarbus sighed and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. The women around him all looked from one man to another, all aware that the Commander was on dangerous ground.
“Is it jewels worth half the Roman Empire?” Tarbus gave the man a final chance to keep his head.
“No but...” Rhesus started to try and explain again.
When the younger man saw the ire on the warlords face he changed his approach and gestured back towards another of the men who was lingering in the doorway.
“Bring in the prisoner” Rhesus called as he waved to the soldier.
The warlord relaxed his hand on the hilt of his weapon and took a few steps around the table in the Commanders direction. The door of the hall opened further again and two soldiers entered dragging a bound woman between them. Despite the fact her arms were tied behind her back the woman was still making it hard for them to move her. She kept twisting out of their grip and throwing her weight of her own legs so they had to virtually carry her.
“An Edessian warrior” Tarbus sneered. “Its not a diamond as big as my hand but it is enough to keep you breathing...for now.”
Rhesus instantly looked relived and relaxed his tense pose. The warlord had to give the young Commander is due. He had more guile that other's Tarbus has sent to raid the town before him. They had either died trying or returned with only apologies.
The woman was short but had powerful muscles. She wore leather garments that covered only the essential areas and leather gauntlets. It was obvious she was a warrior not only from her physique but from two impressive scars she boasted; one on her upper arm and the other across the left side of her defined stomach. Had she not been of such great value he would desire her in his bed especially as she would not come willingly. Other women fell at his feet but there was something very desirable about a woman he had to break. Instead it was likely he would have to see her physically and emotionally broken to spill her secrets.
“What is your name woman?” he demanded.
The woman ignored him and even dared raise her chin and glance to the right in defiance. He smiled darkly at her even though her lack of fear irked him. Unlike Rhesus who had tried to project an air of bravery on entrance to the hall this woman truly was unmoved by his presence.
“I'm not the most patient of men so I suggest you answer my questions” he threatened; making his way closer to her so he was stood directly in front of her. Now he could easily tower over her and he wondered if she would feel quite as confident with him looming over her.
“What is your name?” he repeated his earlier question.
If she was threatened by him then it didn't show in her body language. Instead she turned her head to face him and stared directly into his eyes. That would have annoyed him on its own but when she smiled in his face it made him livid.
Tarbus snatched his hand out and grabbed a huge chunk of her raven hair, pulling her head back roughly. There was a flash of pain in her eyes but still no sign of fear. It was no wonder they were such fierce warriors if they were this brave in battle. He almost admired her. Almost.
“I...will...make...you...hurt” Tarbus growled in her face. He enunciated every single world menacingly, his spit spraying her face.
He didn't wait for a reaction, partly as he didn't expect one, and partly because he didn't want her to see how annoyed he really was. Instead he pushed her away roughly into the arms of the two lingering soldiers.
“Make her talk” he ordered the Commander who stood silently to his right still. “I don't care how or how much damage you do...just get me answers.”
Rhesus nodded in accent and nodded to the soldiers. They began to drag the Edessian out of the hall again, still kicking, with the Commander following on wearily behind. The man probably hadn't slept in 48 hours but Tarbus couldn't care less. If Rhesus wanted to impress him then he'd battle through his exhaustion and torture the woman until she spilled all.
As soon as the hall doors slammed shut behind them Tarbus turned his attention back to his own evenings entertainment.
“Well?” he directed at the terrified looking musicians. “Carry on!”
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Chapter 6: The Request
Gabrielle's intention to stay one night in the inn and then move on to Potedia had somehow changed over night. She had started tidying the inside of the building that evening and it had inspired her to stay on longer and try to fix the building up. It wasn't like she intended on staying there long term but the idea of the place wasting away and falling down wasn't acceptable to her. So in Xena and her families memory the blonde had spend the next day shoring up the structure of the building and fixing the front door.
She spent the next morning thatching a few damaged parts of roof. By late afternoon the job was complete and she had set about hunting some rabbits to make a stew for her evening meal. The meadow behind the inn was full of them so it had been an easy task and after watering the horse she had made the stew and settled down or the evening.
By the time it was dark the bard was settled down in the old wooden chair next to the fire. She had found some old scrolls of Cyrene's containing old stories about the town and was half way through the second one when she heard a noise outside. It sounded like the clip clop of horse hooves on the road out front. If the sound had continued on past she would have been unconcerned but the horse stopped just outside. That probably signaled trouble so the blonde grabbed her sias and her chakram and headed to the front door.
She quietly made her way on to the porch and scanned the dark for any signs of movement. There was a torch burning on the porch but it only lit up the area around the doorway. It was a clear night so there was still some light from the stars but the trees outside provided plenty of pitch black areas to hide in. The shape of a saddled horse was discernible, grazing at the side of the road, but the rider was no where in site. Gabrielle could sense they were close by though in the tree line. She was about to ask them to show themselves when she saw a shadow begin to move into the starlit path leading to the house.
They hadn't announced themselves so Gabrielle presumed she was about to be under attack and released the chakram in their direction. A woman stepped into the light just as the weapon began to fly. This woman was obviously a very agile and capable warrior because she managed to dodge the chakram although only by a hair's whisker. As it rebounded of a tree and back the woman threw herself to the ground to avoid it.
The chakram returned to Gabrielle's hand but the blonde did not feel the need to throw it again as the woman had drawn no weapon of her own. Instead she merely clambered to her feet and taken a couple of careful steps closer to the entrance of inn. It meant that Gabrielle could see her clearer. It was not someone she had met before but the woman's figure and appearance was similar to that of an Amazon warrior.
“Hi” the intruder greeted her. “You must be Gabrielle?”
“Who is asking?” the bard asked wearily.
The woman took another couple of steps so she was now stood on the first step, just out of arms reach of Gabrielle. Now the intruder was in the direct light of the torch the bard could see her clearly. She was taller than Gabrielle but didn't tower over her and was a similar age. Her hair was long, with a slight curl and red in colour. Her skin was tanned so she was obviously from a warm climate but her accent was unfamiliar to the bard. Gabrielle suspected she wasn't Greek but perhaps Thracian or Dacian. She definitely had the physique of a warrior; that was clear even through the thin brown cloak she wore.
“My name is Antonia” the woman introduced herself; “I've been sent to find you.”
“By who?” Gabrielle asked.
The blonde had no idea who would know she was in Amphipolis or even back on Greek soil. She had done nothing to announce her presence since stepping of the ship and had avoided any trouble on her ride to the Inn. Aphrodite or Ares could have clocked her arrival but she would have expected them to bug her themselves rather than sending a mortal. The woman seemed hesitant to tell her but after a steadying breath divulged her source.
“By Xena” Antonia informed her.
Gabrielle had not expected that answer and she instantly felt her heckles instantly rise in response. She had returned to Greece to try and finally come to terms with her soulmates death. How dare this woman turn up and claim she had been sent by the very woman Gabrielle couldn't get out of her head.
“Xena is dead” the bard said flatly.
Antonia didn't seem surprised by the slight hostility in her voice. In the fact the red haired woman merely nodded in understanding.
“I know” Antonia gently replied.
Gabrielle stared at the woman in an attempt to figure out her motives. Antonia seemed in earnest though and held the eye contact. She looked a little sorry for the blonde too and it was that compassion that persuaded Gabrielle to hear her out and not send her packing.
“Explain” the bard demanded.
Gabrielle had led Antonia and her horse to the field in which her own horse securely grazed. As the red head un-tacked horse Gabrielle refilled the water bucket. She then showed Antonia into the Inn and sat herself by the fire again. The other woman had moved a chair from across the room and sat opposite her by the fire.
Antonia had set about explaining what she had seen in her dream in great detail. She briefly explained the raids from the warlord when it became relevant to the story but she avoided too many details about the town and its origins. Yes she had heard many stories about Xena and Gabrielle and people they had helped. She had heard of how the young bard had helped Xena on the lengthy path to redemption. They were just stories though and she was reluctant to trust completely immediately.
Once she got to the end of the story she observed the blonde's reaction. The bard had been captivated whilst Antonia was telling her story but now the warrior had finished the blonde looked confused and unsure. An uncomfortable silence fell between them so Antonia decided to take the initiative.
“You look doubtful” the red head pressed.
Gabrielle merely nodded and looked down at the circular weapon she still held in her lap. Antonia had noticed how the blonde had almost been stroking it whilst listening to her words. She had heard of the weapon in the stories of Xena. It was the warrior's chakram but Antonia had thought that no other could wield it. Yet Gabrielle had very nearly taken her head of with it less than an hour before.
“You are asking me to believe that after two years you can bring Xena back from the dead” the bard finally answered after another short and awkward silence.
Antonia could understand her hesitancy as it did all sound fantastical. Returning a soul back into a body not long after death was one thing but to be able to completely reform a body without any kind of remains...that was a much more magical and otherworldly suggestion. It would be impossible without the help of the gods so Antonia decided to divulge a little of her tribes link to the old Olympians.
“Its a long story but in short the god Zeus gave one of our elder's immortality as a gift alongside a prophesy that one day she would have to trade this power to bring a hero back from the dead. This hero would in turn save save our people in a time of great need.”
The blonde's head shot up immediately at the mention of Zeus's name. Considering Xena's role in destroying the Olympians it would be ironic if one of them had created a power that would bring her back from the dead. It was the first time Antonia had seen real hope in the bards eyes though even though there was still a little doubt.
“I want to believe you” Gabrielle admitted. “I just don't understand why Xena couldn't give me a message to go find you.”
Antonia had no logical answer for her. In truth she didn't understand why Xena had chosen her either. There were more logical and far more receptive members of her town to appear to. Selene, the tribe elder, who held the power to return her from the dead being the most obvious candidate.
“I'm not a spiritual person Gabrielle...I'm ALL warrior. I don't know why Xena chose to give this message to me.”
It occurred to Gabrielle that she may not have been able to define between a real spiritual message from her soulmate and just another one of her dreams about the brunette. If this really was all true perhaps that's why Xena had decided to send someone to her and not the other way around.
“Will you come with me?” the red head asked.
Gabrielle was starting to feel more and more hopeful by the minute that Xena could be returned to her. She didn't want desperate hope to be the basis of her decision though and knew it would be best if she gave herself a little time to think it through. She didn't have long. It was clear from the way Antonia had told the story that she was desperate to get back to her home as soon as possible.
“Let me sleep on it” Gabrielle requested. “I promise you an answer at first light.”
The red head nodded in agreement. It would be unwise to press the other woman any further tonight especially as the bard was probably mentally and emotionally exhausted already after returning to Xena's family home. Without warning Antonia's stomach audibly growled. Probably due to the fading smell of food wafting around the building.
“When did you last eat?” the blonde asked.
“First thing this morning” Antonia admitted.
She had rode all day so she could arrive at Amphipolis that night. All she had ate was some bread and dried berries at first light.
“There is stew still left in the pot in the kitchen” Gabrielle informed her; “you may sleep in here.”
The bard stood up and started to walk out of the room. Gabrielle didn't have to allow her to sleep within the Inn. It was a kind and trusting act to allow someone you didn't know to stay in a building with you whilst you were sleeping.
“Good night” Antonia called after her host.
The red head stripped down to her underclothes and retrieved her blankets from her bag. There was a comfy rug by the flower so she bedded down there. Sleep was quick to claim her after two nights of very little rest.
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Chapter 7: The Decision
Wind was howling around her as Gabrielle stumbled around the side of the Inn and towards Xena's grave. She wasn't sure why she was going to the grave, it was like someone was calling to her. As she turned the corner she was bombarded by light coloured flecks of something solid. It couldn't be snow...it never snowed in Greece this time of the year...it barely ever snowed at all. She caught some of the flecks in her hand; the wind was blowing pale pink blossom but there was no cherry tree in the old garden. In fact it was totally the wrong time of year for tree's to be blossoming.
All of a sudden the wind stopped and Gabrielle could finally see ahead of her. Instead of a grave there stood a beautiful cherry tree, its foliage thick with blossom. Under the cover the tree a tall, lean figure wearing a red komodo leaned against the trunk. Gabrielle would recognize the outline and the long brown hair anywhere...it was Xena.
As soon as there eyes met the warrior grinned broadly and stood straighter. Gabrielle mind felt frozen but her body seemed to have a life of its own and she ran the last few paces between them; falling into the brunette's waiting arms. She nuzzled deep into the crook of Xena's neck.
It had been so long since Japa that she had forgotten how it felt to be held by Xena. She was physically so strong yet capable of such tenderness. It had always made the bard feel so safe. She had missed that feeling as much as she had missed her soul mate's company. Yet it couldn't really be happening could it? Xena was dead...had been dead for two years.
“This can't be real?” the blonde half stated and half asked.
“Not yet” Xena replied softly.
The brunette pulled back so they were face to face and used her fingertips to brush a few loose strands of hair which had fell down over Gabrielle's eyes. The warrior's eyes glittered with emotion before she closed the gap between them, leaned down and pressed her lips softly against the bards.
Gabrielle buried her hands in brunette locks and pulled Xena's body against her, deepening the kiss. It may have been two years but it was a dance that the bards body could never forget. Their lips moved against each other naturally after years of practice in slow but deep open mouthed kisses. It was a kiss full of love and the bard was completely lost in it. All good things have to end though and after a while Xena pulled back and gazed down at her.
“I've been searching for a way back to you and I found one” the warrior said. “Trust in me...trust in us.”
Gabrielle had so many questions but she didn't know where to begin. Why was it now okay for Xena to return from the dead? What happened to the 40,000 souls? How had she been searching if she was dead? What was with the cherry tree? Could the blonde really dare to hope that this was all real?
“Come here” Xena clasped the bards hand in her own.
The brunette warrior sat down with her back against the bough of the tree, tugging Gabrielle's hand to encourage her to join her. Gabrielle sat down between Xena's legs and the brunette pulled her to a 90 degree angle so Gabrielle's left side was against Xena's front. The bards legs rested under Xena's left leg and she tucked her head into the crook of the brunette's neck. They had cuddled up like this many an evening in front of the fire.
Xena wrapped her strong arms around the bards body and kissed her temple. Gabrielle felt so warm and safe that she could instantly feel herself drifting off to sleep. She tried to keep her eyes open for as long as possible because she knew as soon as the dream ended then she would wake up without Xena there with her.
It had taken Antonia a long time to get to sleep. She had been comfortable and warm enough on the rug by the fire but her mind had refused to shut itself off. She had thought about her home and the people there. Where they safe? Had they been raided again? If not, would they be raided again before she returned?
She had thought of Gabrielle and her soul mate, Xena. Would the bard come with her? Would it be terrible of her to force the other woman if she didn't come willingly? Would Xena still help them if she had to resort to that? What would it be like to have a love like theirs that transcended death?
Images of Grace had popped, rather uninvited, into her mind at this point. There was no great love story between them. Antonia wasn't even sure she knew what love really was. There was something comforting about knowing that someone cared for her though, even though she had no idea how to respond to it.
Finally, deep into the night, she had managed to drift of to sleep. It meant that when a noise roused her at first light her eyes were still bleary and sore as she opened them. As she became more aware of her surrounding she identified the noises as someone moving around the kitchen. There was also the easily recognizable aroma of chamomile tea wafting around the Inn. If Gabrielle was up and about already then surely it was a good sign.
Antonia stood up, wrapping her blanket around her body to cover the fact she was in her undergarment, and headed to the source of the sounds. She stood in the doorway and watched as Gabrielle, who was fully dressed, tipping berries onto two old plates. As a warrior she was used to moving silently and the blonde didn't initially notice her presence until finally looking up from her task. When the bard did notice her she smiled warmly and gestured to the plates in front of her.
“I have some salted meat and berries we can eat now before we leave” Gabrielle stated. “It should keep us going for the best part of the day until we stop this evening.”
“Great” Antonia replied.
She was so relieved that Gabrielle was coming by choice. Antonia had expected deep down that the bard would come but there was always that niggling fear that Gabrielle would not believe her story. Now at least they could get moving quickly.
“I'll fill the water skins from the well whilst you get dressed” Gabrielle offered.
Antonia had forgotten the fact she was wrapped in a blanket. She had been so eager to hear the blonde's answer that it had seemed unimportant when she had rushed to the kitchen but now she was stood half dressed in front of a virtual stranger it made her feel awfully self conscious.
“Right yeah...good idea” the red head replied; glancing down awkwardly as she spoke.
Gabrielle eased passed her in the doorway with two large water skins in hand and a smirk on her face. The blonde seemed more hopeful this morning rather than the sad shell of a woman Antonia had been witness to the night before.
The red head went back into the living room and dressed herself. Once fitted out in her armour and weapons she packed up her blankets in her saddle bags and went back into the kitchen. Gabrielle was already sat on one side of the rickety old wooden table with the two plates laid out in front of her. Antonia sat opposite her and pulled the plate on her side nearer to her. The meat was venison, which wasn't something she would eat in the morning, but it certainly would fill her belly in preparation for a long ride.
Gabrielle was already tucking in so Antonia started to eat too. The berries were sweet but not too tart and the red head was enjoying them immensely. For a while she focused on her food and was unconcerned by the silence. It was common in her town for the warriors to be quiet around meal times so it didn't feel unusual. They were either silent and contemplative or extremely rowdy...it rarely fell anywhere in between and often depended if there was alcohol involved with the meal or not. However when Antonia finally glanced up at the blonde she realized Gabrielle was lost deep in thought. The bard must have felt her stare and looked up to meet her eyes. The Thracian couldn't read her expression.
“Xena came to me in my dream last night” the blonde spoke up. “She was under the same cherry tree you described.”
If Xena had appeared to Gabrielle in the same way that she had to Antonia then it was no wonder the bard had decided to come to Edessa. Hopefully it had eradicated the last of her doubt. It certainly explained her better mood this morning. There was still a sad look in Gabrielle's eyes though. It was the look of someone who had lost someone important to them. Antonia supposed that look would remain until the Warrior Princess was flesh and blood again and stood in front of her soul mate.
“Are you okay?” she asked the blonde. Gabrielle was about to put a piece of salted meat in her mouth but paused.
“Yes, why?” the bard inquired.
“I know my dream felt very real...” Antonia explained.
If it was like her own vision of Xena then Gabrielle would have known she was dreaming but it still must have been horrible to wake up without Xena there again. The red head only hoped that the Warrior Princess had been able to give some comfort to her soul mate during her sleeping hours.
“Yes” Gabrielle simply replied.
Antonia didn't press any further. She wasn't good at deep conversation at the best of times and the two of them barely knew each other. Gabrielle had no reason to open up to her nor would Antonia know how to react if she did. Instead the two quietly went about finishing their breakfast without another word passing their lips.
Commander Rhesus had been up all night with two of his men trying to draw an answer out of the Edessian Warrior. After twelve grueling hours of torture the most he had gotten out of the feisty woman was her name. Other than that all that had left her mouth was mockery, abuse and spit. He'd admire her if it wasn't for the fact she was making his life a misery.
Her name was Zia and she was currently hanging from the ceiling from her wrists. The knot was tight and it had dug in, causing droplets of blood to run down her arms. She was covered in bruises and cuts and he was sure they had broken a few ribs and her cheek bone. It didn't seem to be having much effect on her willpower though. If she didn't give him something right now he would have to start getting creative and even more brutal with his methods.
“Zia” he tried again, “we are just warming up...this will get a whole lot worse if you don't talk to me.”
The warrior looked up at him defiantly and simply shook her head. Rhesus sighed; he took no pleasure whatsoever from this but it was his head or hers.
“Get me a large pale of water” he growled at one of the guards.
They had rode in silence all morning, only stopping once to rest and water the horses for a matter of minutes. Antonia had felt Gabrielle's eyes on her the entire time though and she could tell the bard was building up to ask her something. It was early afternoon when Gabrielle finally came out with it.
“Have your people always lived in Thracia?” she asked as she trotted up alongside the red head. “Its just that you have a look of the Amazon's about you.”
Antonia was impressed by the blonde's observation skills especially as thoughts of her soul mate were probably taking up a large portion of her mind.
“We were once part of the Amazon tribe” Antonia admitted.
Gabrielle looked more intrigued than ever. Antonia had no idea how much the bard knew about the fate of the Amazon's after her and Xena's disappearance for twenty five years. Rumour had reached their village that on their return the two women had helped unite the Amazon clans again. That didn't necessarily mean the blonde knew about the mess in the years between. Antonia glanced across at her travel companion to find that Gabrielle was still looking at her and patiently waiting for her to continue.
“Twenty four years ago a large group of Amazon's moved North into Thracia to build a new life for themselves. I was only a very small child at the time. I don't remember living in Greece but apparently I sort of met you once; Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons.”
The blonde did a double take at the use of the title. Antonia wondered quite how strange it must feel to have aged so little since her time as the Amazon Queen yet for others it was a lifetime ago. What would it be like to wake up and find that most of the people you had known and cared for had grown old or passed away?
“My mother handed you a Violet to represent my clans loyalty” Antonia explained; “she was eight months pregnant with me at the time.”
A faint smile flashed across the blondes features, like she might even remember Antonia's mother. The red head dare not ask if she did. Her mother, Lyvia, had died in a battle to protect the newly formed settlement. Antonia had only been four at the time and only had faint memories to hold on to. Her mother's friend, Helena, had helped to raise her along with Selene the town elder. Meda, the current leader and Helena's daughter, was eight years older than her and had looked out for her like an older sister would. She still did.
“Why did they move?” Gabrielle inquired.
It was a story that the red head could probably flesh out for hours. They had hours of riding before evening but she wasn't one for that much chatter. Instead she gave Gabrielle the simple account of why her tribe moved hundreds of miles from their original home.
“The Amazon's lost direction and the links between the tribes began to break. Some of them believed that the way of life prevented love and happiness if your tastes swayed towards men. A relationship with a man that lasted longer than a one night stand was no longer just frowned upon but made punishable. In Edessa there are both women and men residing there. We have retained the warrior women but the men have important roles as tradesmen and politicians.”
The red head could feel the bards eyes on her again as she talked. Gabrielle was listening intently and despite the fact they were discussing what was effectively the break up of the Amazon's the former Queen still seemed impressed by the stance Antonia's tribe had taken.
“An inclusive society” Gabrielle mused.
“We try” the red head agreed. They didn't always succeed but Antonia believed strongly that they had done the right thing when breaking from the Amazon's and some of their traditions.
They slipped into silence again, leaving Antonia to her own thoughts. Although they barely knew each other the red head could see that Gabrielle had a pleasant and gentle manner about her that made her easy to like. She a kind person and hadn't been warped by all the hardships she had faced. Antonia imagined that a young Gabrielle was probably much bubblier and excitable. The blonde reminded her a lot of Grace, both physically and in character. They had both seen terrible loss and managed to rise above the grief and do something positive with their lives. They were both far better and more balanced people than Antonia and she found she admired them for it.
“Is that why the Warlord is attacking your town?” Gabrielle broke the silence again.
That was another long story and not one that Antonia was willing to tell until they had returned Xena to life. She had also not asked and therefore not been given permission to discuss such sensitive matters with the other woman. It was more Meda or Selene's place to pass on that information.
“No” the red head responded. She hoped that Gabrielle would not push the matter any further.
Antonia received a sideways glance from the bard but no further questions were asked. A slightly awkward silence descended upon them for at least an hour until Gabrielle began to describe some of her experiences in Egypt. Antonia found it was much easier to listen to the bard than be the focus of her attention.
They had stopped to make camp just before the sun went down beside a small river. Gabrielle set up the bed rolls on either side of the fire she had built whilst Antonia sorted the horses and set about catching them some fish for dinner.
Gabrielle had finished her task and was stood in the camp watching the red head fish in a shallow part of the water. She didn't quite have Xena's level of skill but she fished better than Gabrielle and had already grabbed one large trout by hand and tossed it onto the bank.
“Remind you of anyone?” a familiar voice filtered over Gabrielle's right shoulder. Warm breaths tickled the back of her neck causing her hair to stand on end.
She glanced back at her beautiful brunette soulmate. It was true that Gabrielle had silently noticed many similarities between the Thracian warrior and Xena over the course of the day. Antonia was quiet, preferring a comfortable silence to conversation. The red head had been happy to listen to Gabrielle chatter away especially if it kept Gabrielle from pressing her with awkward questions. Xena had been like that in their first few months together until the bard had been able to draw her out of her shell and open up. Gabrielle felt like she could trust the red head but her lack of desire to answer questions was disconcerting.
“She's secretive” the bard stated.
“She's a warrior” Xena pointed out. “You and I have kept plenty of secrets too over the years.”
Xena had a very valid point. Gabrielle had followed Xena for weeks across nations into a land she had never traveled to before all because the warrior had left her to protect her from a secret from the other woman's past. Secrets had kept them safe from others many a time and secrets had nearly torn them apart once or twice. Sometimes people didn't keep you in the dark to be malicious but to protect you or others.
“That's true” Gabrielle agreed.
Antonia threw a second fish onto the bank and began to climb out of the river. The bard felt Xena's warm, strong hand on her shoulder and then it and the soft breaths were gone. Antonia climbed up the bank with the two fish in hand and put them down on a large rock by the fire Gabrielle had made.
“Everything okay?” the red head inquired.
The bard nodded in response. She hadn't considered how odd it must have looked to Antonia if she had been seen talking to herself whilst watching the other woman. The bard considered telling the Thracian about the fact she kept seeing her soul mate even when awake. Even though Antonia had seen Xena in a dream the blonde didn't know what the other woman would make of her claims. Antonia had admitted that she was not a spiritual person but a warrior through and through.
“I have some oil in my saddlebag” Antonia mumbled; already on the move towards her things.
The Thracian didn't really know what to say to the blonde. Gabrielle had looked deep in thought as she approached so she had felt the need to check she was alright but she was sure the blonde was hiding something from her. It wasn't like Antonia could comment though. She was hiding plenty from the bard either by omitting information of directly not answering questions.
Gabrielle followed her over to the saddles and waited patiently as Antonia felt around her saddlebag for the olive oil container. After pushing her spare underclothing and hunting knife aside she finally grasped the small round vase with a cork in the top.
When she pulled it out she was surprised to find something else attached to the vase. A thin cord with something dangling from it was caught around the cork. She unhooked the item and held it in her right hand, the vase still held up in her left. It was a necklace with a pendant depicting a rod with a snake wrapped around it; symbol of healing and medicine. Antonia recognized it instantly as the necklace Grace wore day in and day out. The healer had told her the story behind it once; it had been given to her by her mother as a lucky talisman.
Antonia hadn't noticed at the time but in hindsight the blonde healer hadn't been wearing the necklace when seeing her off. She wondered if that was what Grace had wanted to talk to her about; if the blonde had wanted to give her the necklace for good luck on her travels. Instead Grace had snuck the necklace into the saddlebag when Antonia had cut her off. The warrior wasn't sure how to feel about such a gift.
“Here let me do the cooking” Gabrielle offered. The blonde reached out and took the vase from Antonia's outstretched hand.
She was curious who the necklace belonged too because its presence seemed to have completely thrown the warrior. It was a secret Gabrielle knew she would have to let the other woman keep for now though as Antonia certainly hadn't opened her heart up to love yet.
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Tarbus was used to getting quick results. When he wanted something he got it; when he wanted to dominate a local down or village they fell at his feet and when he wanted answers they spilled from his enemies mouths. He was not used to some stupid prideful warrior woman holding out for days on him.
The young Commander Rhesus may not enjoy torturing people but he had proven himself more than adequate at it in the past. Rhesus was utilizing soldiers and guards who were experts in torture and had few morals. This woman, Zia, should have broken by now. Instead all they had to show for their brutality was the woman's name and some ramblings about Amazon's. He had no interest in a history lesson on the Edessians; he wanted to know about the here and now.
Tarbus had instructed Rhesus to keep the woman awake all through the night in the hope that after two days without sleep the woman would finally break. However it was now the morning of following day and he had heard no updates. So rather than waiting for news he decided to go to the isolation cell and find out what was going on for himself.
As a younger man Tarbus had a taste for torture. In some instances he even enjoyed the process. It was like a game with each player trying to outmaneuver the other. Unlike most games though torture was weighted heavily in one person's favour...usually. As he had grown older the warlord had found the process less satisfying and was more interested in results. Others could do the work; he had plans to make, trade routes to run, towns to conquer and women to pleasure.
The holding cells were dreary places; that was the point. They were meant to make those captured feel helpless and filled with fear. The isolation cell was the one commonly use for torture. It was completely dark unless foreign light was introduced with grey stone walls and a stone floor. It was cold and damp and thoroughly unpleasant. Isolation, alone in that room, was a form of torture in itself.
As Tarbus made his way past the holding cells down the long faintly lit corridor he could hear the faint sounds of someone being beaten from the far end. There was not many shouts or screams of pain though and that was disappointing. When the warlord reached the door he banged three times to get the attention of those inside.
After a few seconds the door opened and Rhesus stepped into the lighter corridor. Tarbus could see the woman inside the room hanging from the rafter by her hands. Even in the very faint light from the torch he could see she was bleeding from her nose and mouth. The woman was also black and blue and very exhausted. Her hair and clothing were dripping wet so they had obviously tried to drown the information out of her too.
“Any news?” he asked the weary looking younger man.
Rhesus looked back into the dark room at the female warrior and shook his head.
“She is still holding out” he admitted.
Tarbus was officially running out of patience with the soft approach he had chosen to take so far. If he couldn't get answers from this woman then he would find another way. There was always another way.
“Then up the intensity” the warlord demanded.
“I don't think she can take it” Rhesus protested; “It will kill her before we ever get any answers.”
Tarbus was now unconcerned with her fate as he had his mind set on another plan. Anything they could draw out of the woman before she expired would be a bonus.
“So be it” the warlord growled.
Rhesus didn't have the opportunity to respond before the older man turned and stormed away down the corridor. Tarbus had arrangements he needed to make and contingency plans to put into action.
Tarbus stormed back into his large dining hall were he held court. The many women living in his home were all still lounging in the room eating fruit after breakfast. They were joined by his closest adviser who was sat enjoying the company of the young attractive women. He was a man who had seen many years and many battles; too long in the tooth now to command soldiers in battle but a very handy and well respected commander and organizer of men.
“Tobias!” the warlord shouted across the room.
The grey haired man clambered to his feet and made his way quickly towards Tarbus. He could obviously tell that the warlord was in a poor mood and didn't want to antagonize him further. Tarbus was in no mood to wait though and began hollering out instructions.
“Send riders to the local towns and villages” he demanded. “I want as many fit men as they can round up to boost the army. Tell them each man and his family will be paid two gold coins if they volunteer.”
Tarbus didn't have to explain what he wanted his army increasing for. Everyone knew his eyes were currently set firmly on Edessa. Not everyone knew why but Tobias like Rhesus was one of the few who understood his true intentions.
“Yes sir” the elderly commander agreed.
Sheva turned away to put the warlords orders into immediate action but Tarbus reached out and grasped his shoulder. The old commander turned his body back towards the warlord.
“Let the armory know they will need to clad at least one hundred more men” Tarbus demanded.
He released the other man and turned away, signalling the end of the conversation. The warlord sat down on one of the plush lounging area's and took a deep breath. The truth was that he was really rather irritated by his current lack of success on the Edessa front. He was not about to let that show though and with a larger army it wouldn't be an issue for long.
Some of the women came to lounge with him but he was too distracted to notice which ones. Or to notice one slip away out of the dining room.
Sheva had been living in Tarbus' palacial home for nearly three months. They had been the three most boring and dire months of her life. Even the good food and wine couldn't improve the experience for her. Her purpose at the palace was different to the other women. They were there to bask in a life of ease and luxury whereas she was there under orders.
When her tribe, the Edessian's, had feared Tarbus was taking an interest in them their leader had decided to place a spy in the warlords camp. Sheva was tall, strong and beautiful; her blonde flowing hair and green eyes made her the ideal candidate. It was a warriors job to follow orders and so she had rather reluctantly agreed. She had kept herself sane by meditating and partaking in yoga. It got her in the right head space to go and flirt and flutter for hours on end.
Sheva crept out of the palace and to the stables. One of the stable hands was also an implanted spy and he was used to pass messages between the warrior and her leader. He was currently mucking out one of the straw beds.
“I need you to take a message to Meda” Sheva instructed him after insuring no one was around. The stable hand, Alexis, placed the pitch fork against the wall and turned to face her.
“Right now?” he asked.
Sheva usually sent him out after dark as there was less chance of him being caught or anyone noticing he was gone. She had never felt the need to send him on an errand in the day prior to this. However, it was imperative that the town have as much warning as possible. Alexis didn't have to return if he was scared of being caught. There would only be one more message to carry after this one...a warning that the army was marching on the town. Sheva herself would return to the village carrying that news.
“Yes” Sheva clarified. “Tell her Tarbus is rounding up volunteers to increase his army.”
The young man's face fell at the news. He nodded solomnly and glanced around the stable yard. The other stable hands were either out exercising horses or taking a break. Now was as ideal a time as any for him to saddle up a horse and go.
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Gabrielle and Antonia had been riding hard for a large chunk of the second day. Normally Gabrielle would be uncomfortable with the pace but every step closer to Edessa was a step closer to Xena. It also meant that they had to ride in silence which the bard knew was more comfortable for her travel companion.
She had dreamed of Xena the night before. Not in the same way as the previous night...it wasn't a vision. It was more of an accumulation of memories from their time together. They had mainly been good memories although there had been the odd bad one thrown in. If she had stirred in her sleep then Antonia hadn't mentioned it. In fact Gabrielle wasn't sure how much sleep the other woman got; if any. The red head had been wide awake and sat up by the fire as Gabrielle was falling asleep and had been up and cooking breakfast when the blonde awoke.
They had been riding along a road cutting through the forest for quite some time when Gabrielle began to feel eyes on her. If she hadn't been so involved with the Amazon's in the past she'd have brushed the notion off but instead she knew to look up. There in the trees she spotted platforms built into the branches which were obviously look out points.
The blonde knew they were getting closer to the village when these look out points began to be linked together by high rope bridges. The system looked impressive but not half as impressive as the wall built around the town, some of it using the natural topography and rock. Antonia rode alongside in silence as they approached the wall. It was Gabrielle who finally broke the silence when she laid eyes on the town's entrance. It was a large and skillfully carved archway in part of the wall formed by a natural rock face. There was also an ornate pattern carved into the rock.
“That is quite beautiful” Gabrielle stated.
She glanced across at her riding companion. The red head looked up at the arch and inspected it in a way that suggested that she hadn't really paid it much attention before. Again the warrior reminded Gabrielle of Xena. Before Gabrielle had met the former warlord Xena had gone through life not seeing the beauty in anything but war. Antonia was all about duty, honour and violence but Gabrielle could see an underlying softness in her too.
“Yes I suppose it is” the red head agreed.
They rode on until they reached the archway. It was tall enough that they didn't have to duck but only wide enough for a horse and cart so Antonia took the lead and rode through first. Gabrielle followed on and as she emerged from the archway and into the town she gasped. It was a spectacular array of wooden houses and buildings at ground level as well as large huts which were built up in the trees with rope bridge walk ways connecting everything. It was a very creative use of the space they had available to them.
In front of them was an open market area in a large horse shoe shape. The surrounding buildings seemed to be traders like farriers, metal workers, potters, bakers and butchers. In the open space there were small carts stands with fruit, linens and other supplies.There were several people milling about including a couple of women in the same type of garb as Antonia. They were obviously other warriors. They instantly turned to see who the riders where.
“Antonia!” one of the two women called out exuberantly.
This woman began to make her way over to them at a steady walk; the other warrior following behind. Antonia jumped of her horse and grasped it by the reins so Gabrielle followed suite. The leading woman appeared to be important as she bore a necklace with a leather pendant like that of an Amazon queen and had ornately braided hair. She was exceptionally tall and athletic looking with light brown hair. She was not an attractive woman but not unpleasant either. It was obvious she had seen battle as the woman was marred by several old scars.
“Gabrielle this is Meda” Antonia introduced the two of them as the light haired woman reached them; “She's the commander of this town.”
“Nice to meet you” the bard greeted the tall woman.
Meda stopped directly in front of them and nodded her head politely at the blonde. The other warrior took the reins of their horses and began to lead them away.
“You too” the leader responded before turning her attention to Antonia.
Meda clasped the red haired warrior's hand firmly and smiled at her. Gabrielle recognized the smile as one of a fond respect; Antonia was apparently rather important to the slightly older woman. The bard briefly wondered if the necklace in the saddle bag belonged to Meda but then decided that if it had then the red head would be more awkward around her. Gabrielle had no idea were the necklace was now as Antonia was not wearing it. The red head had probably stuffed it back in the saddle bag.
“News from Sheva arrived just before you. Tarbus is sending out riders to the local villages. He's building up his army;” Meda informed her second.
“Then we need to move fast” Antonia stated.
The leader seemed to be in agreement and placed a hand on each of their lower backs, guiding them further into the village. Gabrielle had no idea where she was going so she allowed herself to be led. She could feel the gazes of the people around the town on them; mostly curious glances in her direction. She wondered how much the other locals new about her purpose here or if their curiosity merely stemmed from the fact she was a new face.
“Selene has been preparing for days” Meda informed them; “She's asked that you both be cleansed before the ceremony.”
Gabrielle recognized the name from Antonia's story. It was the town elder with the gift of immortality. The woman who was about to sacrifice that immortality to bring Xena back to Gabrielle.
“Cleansed?” the bard inquired.
Meda halted them in a street surrounded by wooden huts. At the end of the street and facing them was a large stone building with smoke billowing out several chimneys. Gabrielle thought it seemed reminiscent of a small Roman style bath house.
“Washed in some herbal mix of hers” Meda shrugged.
Antonia froze to the spot, squared her shoulders and looked thoroughly unimpressed by the notion. Apparently the idea of public bathing didn't appeal to her very much. The sheer level of terror in the warrior's eyes at a few herbs and water made Gabrielle want to laugh but she held it down.
“Is that really necessary?” the red head protested. Her leader cut her off instantly.
“Yes” Meda replied sternly, “so off you go.”
The tall woman gestured dismissively with her hand towards the stone bath house. Antonia emitted what sounded very much like a growl before skulking off like a child down the street. Gabrielle had to really stride out to keep up with her, even breaking into a jog a few times. The blonde was actually quite looking forward to the cleansing. It had been months since she had been in a decent bath house rather than bathing in river's, streams or sea water.
The changing area was simple with stone benches and hooks to hang clothing up. There were hooks for around ten people so it wasn't a large bath house by any standard. Gabrielle had never been shy about her body. She knew she had little to be shy about especially after muscling up when traveling with Xena and the Amazon's didn't view nudity as something out of the ordinary. So the blonde was comfortable undressing in the public changing room and began stripping her layers off.
It wasn't until she was naked that she realised that Antonia was stood facing the opposite direction to her still wearing everything except her boots and weapons. The red haired warrior seemed to be toying with taking of her top but hadn't yet found the courage.
“If you live in barracks shouldn't you be used to seeing other woman undressing?”the bard asked kindly.
Antonia glanced towards her before quickly turning away again with flushed cheeks. The red head lifted her top off finally and placed it on the hook before reaching for her skirt and hesitating again.
Her back was tanned but there was a lighter patch where her clothing usually covered. There was also a scar on the paler skin which was usually hidden below the top. It looked like she had been struck by a broad sword there at some point in the distant past. It must have been a nasty wound when it occurred.
“I have my own hut” Antonia finally replied after a long silence.
The other woman finally stripped down out of her last articles of clothing and made a bee line for the door, avoiding looking at the blonde as she went. Gabrielle followed her out in silence and into a steaming hot room with a small pool in the centre. There were steps down into the pool on one of the short sides but on the other three sides there was a bench submerged in the water to sit on.
Antonia didn't either bother with the steps and sat at the edge of the nearest side of the pool, before sliding into the water. Gabrielle was sure the red head had done so to avoid being at angle where she could see the bard completely naked again. Gabrielle saved the other woman's blushes by doing the same so she was sat a respectful distance away from the other woman but on the same side.
As soon as they were settled a heavy second door to the left of them creaked open and a girl entered. She was a pretty brown haired thing who could have been no older than sixteen and was certainly no warrior. In one hand she held a bowl and a cloth and in the other hand she held a vial of golden coloured liquid.
“My name's Lucy” the girl introduced herself. “I'm a trainee healer and I'm going to do the cleansing ritual for you.”
The young woman seemed to be directing her introduction purely at Gabrielle so the bard smiled and nodded at her.
“Thank you” she responded.
As Lucy got closer Gabrielle could see that the bowl contained a green herbal mixture that looked like it was designed to exfoliate the skin. Gabrielle had something similar used on her before Amazon rituals. If it followed the same pattern as those cleansing's then the vial contained a liquid soap. The young woman took a seat on the edge of the pool by Gabrielle's right shoulder.
As she sat down a second woman emerged through the open doorway carrying matching items. She was older than Lucy; closer to Gabrielle's own age and not dissimilar in appearance. This woman was slighter than Gabrielle though as she did not have the physique of a warrior. The healer stopped at the edge of the pool and gazed at Antonia. The bard glanced at her travel companion to find that the red head was staring back at this woman with a look of what could only be described as fear on her face.
“Antonia” the blonde healer greeted coyly.
“Grace” the warrior choked out; her cheeks blushing the same shade as her hair.
Gabrielle knew instantly that this petite blonde woman was the owner of the necklace that had been slipped into Antonia's saddle bag. The way this Grace looked at the warrior in earnest; like she was more precious than gold or water in the desert. The healer looked very much like a woman in love. Antonia looked very much like a woman who didn't have a clue what to do with that kind of emotion.
Gabrielle knew how awkward it felt to have someone you had feelings for but couldn't express them to have to bathe you. She remembered how it had felt having Xena bathe with her and scrub her back before they had confessed their feelings for one another. The bard hadn't known if her feelings were returned and she remembered how her heart hammered in her chest as the brunette warrior had ran the cloth over her back.
“Is this okay?” Grace asked as she approached the red head and sat down at the edge of the pool.
Antonia kept her eyes locked straight ahead at the wall in front of them. She looked so excruciatingly unnerved by the whole thing that Gabrielle was beginning to feel more than a little sorry for her. The warrior was determined to pretend she wasn't affected though and straightened her shoulders in defiance.
“Of course” the red head tried to say coolly.
Gabrielle didn't fail to notice the hitch in her voice but the blonde healer noticed she didn't comment or visually react. Instead Grace began to rub the exfoliating herbs into the increasingly tense muscles of Antonia's upper back with a look of reverence. Gabrielle chuckled to herself and settled back against the pool, far more relaxed by the cleansing ministrations of Lucy than the other woman sat next to her.
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Chapter 11: The Hurry Up
Tarbus had retired away from his women to his quarters. It was a large space split into four rooms. There was his sleeping quarters, a bathroom, an area for him to relax and dine in without others present and a room in which he did his day to day business administering his growing land and trade routes.
He was sat at his desk in the administrative area double checking some levy figures he had been given by one of the local town leaders when there was a knock at the nearest door. There were two doors into his private quarters,the first led into his private quarters and the second into the room he was currently sat.
He wasn't expecting one of his commanders or a visitor but if someone was disturbing him unannounced it had to be important.
“Enter” he called out.
The door creaked open and the young Commander Rhesus entered, quietly closing the door behind him. It was hard to assess what news the Commander was bringing as he looked drained and indifferent. The warlord knew he had pushed the younger man hard over the last few days but he was quietly impressed how Rhesus had stuck to his task.
“What news?” he asked the Commander.
“The bad news is that the Edessian passed away a few minutes ago” Rhesus informed him flatly; “It was sudden, like her body just gave up.”
Tarbus put the scroll he was reading down on the desk and leaned back in his chair. He slowly observed the man in front of him. Rhesus looked a little unnerved by his calm reaction to the news but didn't falter.
“And the good news?” the warlord inquired.
Rhesus shifted a little closer and pressed his hands against the end of the desk.
“When I asked her if it existed she always remained silent but towards the end when she was at her weakest I changed my question and asked if it was hidden in the town...” Rhesus began to explain.
Tarbus wasn't a patient man but he held his tongue and allowed the younger man to carry on his narrative.
“She replied with the words: outside....it had to be hidden in the cliffs outside the town” Rhesus finished.
This was the kind of news that could brighten up Tarbus day. This Edessian warrior had indirectly confirmed the existence of the artifact. At least he wouldn't go to all the trouble and expense to raise an army only to find it was a myth. The only problem was the cliff's covered a vast area and were not readily accessible.
“The town and its surrounding outposts in the forest block the way to the cliffs from the South and the river from the North” he stated.
“It will be much easier to punch a hole through their defenses in the forest than it would have been to fully invade the village” the young Commander eagerly countered.
Tarbus observed the other man. He looked worn down which was unsurprising considered the little sleep the Commander must have had over the last few days. Tarbus had one last task for him that night.
“Take a message to the armoury...tell them to employ local blacksmith's. I wan't the army ready to march by tomorrow afternoon.”
Rhesus nodded his head affirmatively and turned to leave. The younger man had reached the door before Tarbus called him back.
“Rhesus” he adressed the man. “Then go get some rest...I expect you to be fit and ready to be my right hand man.”
Rhesus turned back and nodded again, his expression one of relief. The young man was clearly glad to be back in the Warlords good graces. Once Rhesus had left Tarbus retired to his private chambers. He needed to rest up for the march of Edessia too.
Meda pushed the doorway of Selene's hut open and entered without knocking. The town's elder was crushing some kind of scented powder and herbs together in a stone bowl. She ignored Meda's presence as she completed her task. The tall leader waited patiently; she knew better than to interrupt Selene whilst she was doing something spiritual. When the slender woman finished she placed the bowl back on her table with a number of other objects.
“Is the cleansing nearly complete?” Selene addressed her when finished.
“Very nearly” Meda informed her. “Are you ready to start?”
Selene nodded before turning away and carrying on her preparations. Meda watched as the elder pulled some plain brown robes over her clothing. The town leader wasn't sure if she was finished with so she lingered.
“Can you ask Gabrielle to bring something of Xena's to the ceremony?” Selene asked once she was dressed for the ceremony. “The stronger the link to Xena the better.”
Meda wondered if the blonde bard still had any of Xena's possession's after two years of travel. If she didn't would it affect the ritual? It felt an awful lot like Xena was their last real hope so they couldn't afford it to go wrong. The leader shook of her sudden wave of negativity and looked to the town elder again.
“I'll go collect them now” Meda declared. As she left the hut she could hear the sound of Selene sparking a light with two pieces of flint.
Gabrielle felt more exposed walking from the bath's to the elders hut in a robe held on by a chord around the waist than she had whilst being 'cleansed' for the ceremony. She clutched Xena's chakram in her right hand, after being instructed to bring something of the warrior's to the ritual. Her companion, Antonia, looked as awkward as the blonde felt. She had her arms wrapped tightly around her robed upper body and her whole countenance screamed discomfort as they passed the many curious faces watching them. It was nice to get away from prying eyes and into the elders hut.
The light in the hut was dim apart from a few candles but it was light enough for Gabrielle to see a large cloth laid out in the middle of the room. It had a number of patterns and symbols drawn upon it within the shape of a triangle. Some of the drawings the blonde recognized, others she did not. The most obvious ones she could pick out where spirals, symbolizing life as well as depictions of Theta and Tau which symbolized death and rebirth. The triangle pointed away from the two women and towards the rear of the room.
Across the room, stood beyond the cloth, was an elderly woman with her back to them. Gabrielle presumed that this was the town elder they had referred to as Selene. The woman had her back to them and was mixing something in a bowl at a large wooden table across the back of the room. Whatever she was mixing had a strong but pleasant smell of the forest, like it contained wood sap of some kind, as well as faint smell of a mixture of herbs. Although it smelt pleasant Gabrielle hoped she didn't have to have it smeared on her as part of the ritual. The Amazon's had always like smearing oil and other things on people during rituals and festivals.
She and Antonia stood in silence as they waited for the elder to be ready. After a short while Selene turned and smiled at them kindly.
“Please kneel by the points of the triangle” the elder instructed.
Antonia did so without question, kneeling to the right of Gabrielle, just behind and to the side of the point. The bard followed suite and knelt on the left side of the triangle. As they moved into position Selene lit more candles around the hut, giving them a little more illumination. Once they were still Selene stretched her hand out to Gabrielle.
“Please place your friends weapon on the largest spiral on the centre of the triangle” the elder woman instructed.
Gabrielle did as she was asked and carefully placed the sharp metal ring down as centrally as possible.
“This will act as a beacon to your companion's lost soul” Selene explained.
The elder moved back to the oak table briefly before returning with a knife made of what looked to be stone. Despite the unsophisticated material it was made from Gabrielle could see the plane was well honed and sharp.
Selene lifted Antonia's left hand first, the hand nearest the inside of the triangle. The red haired warrior didn't even flinch when the blade was drawn across her palm without warning. The knife was indeed sharp because with the most minimal pressure it opened up a gash on Antonia's hand and drew blood. Selene guided the bleeding hand to the Chakram and placed it palm down on the metal.
“You must hold your hand in against the weapon and not move it until the ritual is over” Selene instructed.
As she spoke she lifted Gabrielle's right hand and repeated the action, drawing blood from the bard. Gabrielle did wince at the sharp stinging pain but said nothing as her hand was guided to press against the Chakram too.
“Your blood is an offering from one who loves and one who has carried the message from lover to lover” Selene explained.
The elder then pulled a thin scarf from around her neck, over her head and face like a vale. She stood a little back from the point of the triangle but between the point and the table and began to chant. As she spoke Selene held the bowl she had previously been mixing in one hand and with the other she held a burning candle under the bowl. It made the contents steam and the aroma became stronger. So strong that Gabrielle felt a little dizzy.
The woman's words seemed to blur together so Gabrielle just focused on keeping her bleeding hand still and against the cool metal of the Chakram. Except the metal was starting to feel far from cool...in fact it was becoming hotter and hotter. At first she thought she was being silly but a quick glance in Antonia's direction was met with an equally puzzled look from the red haired warrior. The metal felt red hot yet it did not burn. In fact the pain in Gabrielle's hand felt like it was fading despite the deep cut.
“Close your eyes” Selene instructed. “Antonia you must focus on the dream and try to recall it, Gabrielle, you must think of a strong memory of Xena and try to remember every detail.”
The elder continued to chant again as soon as she had finished the instruction so Gabrielle slammed her eyes closed. She willed herself to ignore the strange sensation in her right hand and tried to pick out a strong memory. There were so many to chose from and for a second she began to panic because she couldn't focus. Then, suddenly, one stand out moment came to mind.
It was one of her later memories of Xena and stood out due to its timing. It was one of the last few weeks they were in Greece together before they had left for Chin and Xena's destruction. It had been the blonde's birthday and they had been on their way to see Sappho when an adventure had slowed them down. Gabrielle had been sad to have missed the opportunity to see the famous poet but Xena had surprised her with a scroll. The warrior had gotten Sappho to write a beautiful poem for her. The blonde still carried it with her and could recite every word. She had known it was meant to portray Xena's own feelings for Gabrielle in a a way that the warrior would never be able to verbalize herself.
'There is a moment when I look at you, and no speech is left in me. My tongue breaks and fire races under my skin, and I tremble, and I grow pale. For I am dying of such love, or so it seems to me.'
As the bard finished recited the words in her own mind she recalled Xena's nervous face as she waited for Gabrielle's reaction to the gift. It had made the blonde melt at the time and even the memory of it made her heart race. Then suddenly, even with her eyes closed, Gabrielle could sense and see the bright light that flashed in the hut. She opened her eyes immediately and the first thing she saw was the fact that there were now three hands on the Chakram and not just hers and Antonia's.
She looked up slowly, following the hand and then the arm until she could see its owner kneeling in front of her at the far point of the triangle....completely naked but completely there with them.
“Xena” the blonde gasped.
I know it's taken a while but we finally have Xena back. Please give feedback. It makes me happy!
Chapter 13: The Reunion
Then suddenly, even with her eyes closed, Gabrielle could sense and see the bright light that flashed in the hut. She opened her eyes immediately and the first thing she saw was the fact that there were now three hands on the Chakram and not just hers and Antonia's.
She looked up slowly, following the hand and then the arm until she could see its owner kneeling in front of her at the far point of the triangle....completely naked but completely there with them.
“Xena” the blonde gasped.
The ritual was meant to bring Xena back. I was the whole reason Gabrielle had rode for two days solid with a stranger to a town of strangers. It was the reason she had allowed herself to be bathed and cleansed by said strangers. Yet now Xena was there in the flesh right in front of her the blonde found herself frozen to the spot. Part of her had doubted it was possible. It had been a hope and a prayer.
It wasn't until Xena's blue eyes met her own that Gabrielle took a deep breath and finally reacted to the situation. She didn't dare move straight away though as the elder's earlier words still rang in her ears.
“Can I remove my hand now” she begged Selene; “Is the ritual finished.”
“Yes you...” the robed woman began to reply.
Gabrielle didn't need her to finish the sentence though. As soon as the word 'yes' was spoken she released the chakram and scrabbled across the cloth on her hands and knees and into Xena's awaiting arms. Everything else in the room fell away as she straddled the brunette's lap and grasped her face between with both hands. As soon as their lips met she felt the fire that had once been a regular and familiar occurance between them but this time it was heightened by a desperation. Gabrielle had never expected to be able to kiss her warrior again yet here she was, with strong arms wrapped around her back, drowning in the sensation.
The blonde had only intended to kiss her briefly but Xena had opened her mouth to her straight away and the kiss became deep immediately. Gabrielle was totally lost in the sensation as they crashed together again and again. She only pulled back when she heard Antonia grumbling behind her.
“You couldn't have brought her back clothed” the red head complained, “why must your rituals always contain so much nakedness.”
Gabrielle pulled out of the kiss and threw an apologetic look over her shoulder at her travelling companion. Antonia was trying to look anywhere but the two embracing women and Gabrielle doubted she even saw the look. When she turned her attention back to Xena she felt her emotions suddenly shift and tears began to uncontrollably fall. The two years of longing and grief turned to joy and utter relief. They were tears of joy but they wracked at her body as hard as any of those she had ever cried before.
Xena wrapped her arms around her tighter and held her against her, pressing kisses against her neck and shoulder exposed by the robe. All Gabrielle could do was hold on and let the tears fall as she buried her face in Xena's neck.
“I'm here” the brunette assured her over and over again.
Finally the tears subsided and Gabrielle sat up straighter again, still in Xena's lap. Antonia had shifted at some point during her tears and handed Xena a robe similar to the one Gabrielle was wearing. The red head placed a comforting hand on the bards shoulder before moving away again to give them space.
“Thank you” Xena said meaningfully to the other warrior.
The brunette pulled the robe on and fastened it without displacing Gabrielle. Her arms instantly returned to the bard and she stroked Gabrielle's lower back through the robe. Every stroke offered comfort and was filled with the deep affection they had shared from the moment they met.
“Both of you, thank you” Xena adressed Antonia and Selene. “I spent so long trying to reach out to someone to get a message across but it never worked. You were the first person who was receptive. Thank you.”
Antonia shifted awkwardly under the attention but she was smiling. Gabrielle could tell she was really happy for them even if she was embarrased to have witnessed their reunion.
“I'm glad your haunting of me could be of assistance” the red head quipped.
The joke drew a deep chuckle from Xena. Gabrielle knew the two of them would get along famously. They really where quite similar.
She knew she couldn't stay sat in Xena's lap forever so she rose to her feet and helped pull the brunette to hers. Xena seemed a little shaky on her legs for a moment but quickly regained her balance. The warrior did not release her hand though so they remained clasped together as they stood there.
“I believe this is yours” Antonia stated as she picked up the chakram and passed it to Xena.
The brunette grasped it with her free hand and lifed it in front of her. There was a faint smile on her face as she inspected the weapon. Gabrielle had looked after it meticulously just as Xena used to and she knew it wouldn't escape the warrior's notice.
“Meda has organised your property and food and drink to be taken to a hut for you. You will both need to rest” Selene informed them.
Gabrielle had barely looked at the woman since Xena had returned but now she turned her focus to Selene she noticed how exhausted the elder looked. She had bags under her eyes, was pale and looked unsteady on her feet. The ritual had taken a lot out of her and she clearly needed rest too.
“I'll show you the way” Antonia piped up, having obviously made the same observation.
The red head gestured with her hand for them to follow her and it was only then that Gabrielle realised that there should be a gash on that hand but it was gone. She glanced down at her right hand to see that her palm too was healed apart from a very faint scar line. Selene had performe some serious magic during the ritual even though she had appeared to do little other than say incantations.
Xena noticed her puzzled and raised an quizical eyebrow as they followed Antonia out of the hut and back into the daylight. Many of the other warriors were waiting around outside and parted the way to let them through when they appeared. They all looked at them in silent wonderment and parted the way so they could pass. As they passed each warrior nodded their head in a show of respect to the three women. Antonia looked a little uncomfortable with the attention and marched on a bit quicker ahead of them.
They walked around the edge of the town for a minute before Antonia stopped by a large tree with a rope ladder hanging down and pointed upwards.
“Here it is” the red head said.
Gabrielle looked up to see a large hut built in to the tree. It was part of a system of huts joined together by rope and wood bridges. It was far enough away from the other huts to be quite private which the bard was glad of.
“Enjoy...I don't expect to see either of you again until morning” Antonia instructed them.
Gabrielle caught the hind of amusement in the warrior's tone. The red head seemed prudish but she obviously was wise to what was likely to occur between the two women as soon as they were alone. Antonia began to walk away but Gabrielle called her back. She was still puzzled about the result of the ritual.
“Antonia...” she caught the other woman's attention “...our hands are healed.
“I noticed that too” the red head admitted, smirking as she spoke. “I'm quite glad though...It's my sword hand.”
The red head swung around again and walked away. Xena reached for her right hand and stroked over the scar on the skin before bringing it up to her mouth and kissing it gently. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat at the affectionate and intimate act. It felt like a bsalm after so long without the other woman and it made every nerve ending in her body tingle in a pleasant way.
“After you” the brunette said with a smirk.
Gabrielle couldn't get up and into the hut quick enough.
Chapter 14: The First Night
Gabrielle opened the door of the hut and looked inside. The Thracians had lit candles in preparation for them so there was some light. There was a tray of food on a small table in the corner of the room which contained meats, bread and fruit. There was also a jug of something and two glasses laid out for them. On the floor in the other corner was a large fur with pillows and a blanket.
Xena reached the top of the ladder and placed her hand on the blonde's back, guiding her inside the hut and closing the door firmly behind them. Gabrielle turned to face the brunette so they were stood nose to nose. Or as close to nose to nose as they could be considering the large difference in height. The warrior didn't appear to be interested in their surroundings and purely focused in on Gabrielle instead.
"I've been waiting so long to hold you again" Xena admitted. "I was starting to think I would never get the chance again."
The bard could feel her heart racing at both Xena's words and her proximity. There was a lot for them to talk about. Gabrielle wanted to know what had happened to the brunette and in truth they needed to discuss what had happened in Chin because the bard still held a lot of anger about what had happened. However, now didn't feel like the right moment. Now felt like the time for them to just reconnect.
"Then lets not talk for now..." Gabrielle said, her voice barely above a whisper, "...hold me."
Xena stepped into the space between them and firmly wrapped her arms around the blonde, pulling her as close as possible. Gabrielle buried her face between the warrior's collar bone and the curve of her neck. Xena smelt exactly like the younger woman remembered...like leather and earth. She didn't understand how the brunette could be here in what looked and felt like her own body but she also didn't care to question it too much.
She felt Xena's lips brush against her temple and sighed contentedly. This kind of affection had been common place for them for a long time and Gabrielle had missed it. It had only been in their last year together that their relationship had developed into a sexual one. They had always been on the cusp of it without either daring to cross that line. Losing twenty five years had given them a chance to re-access their relationship and once they resumed their travels without Eve it had evolved very quickly and very passionately.
Xena had obviously been following a similar train of thought as her lips started to trail lower and lower, kissing down to Gabrielle's cheek before moving to the corner of her lips. The blonde tilted her head the last little amount so that their lips met in quick closed mouth kiss. Xena moaned in response before hooking her arms under Gabrielle's rear and lifting her so they were the same height. The bard squeaked in surprise and instantly wrapped her legs around Xena's hips but the sound was quickly cut out by the warriors lips pressing more firmly against her own.
Gabrielle opened her lips to the brunette and Xena instantly responded by hungrily exploring the bards mouth with her tongue. There was a desperation and desire in the contact that made Gabrielle melt and she tangled her fingers firmly in the brunette's long hair, scraping her nails against Xena's scalp in an attempt to pull her in as close as humanly possible.
The warrior walked them a couple of steps further into the hut and knelt down so Gabrielle was now straddling her again on the fur that was laid out for them. They broke apart briefly so Xena could untie the bards robe and pull it from her. It was discarded over Xena's shoulder hard enough for it to hit the inside of the door. Before the blonde could respond in kind Xena's hands were all over her, running from Gabrielle's shoulders and down over her chest, splaying across her abs before returning up to her breasts again.
"Oh gods" the bard moaned, her eyes slamming shut involuntarily.
Xena lowered her backwards on to the fur and swiftly removed her own robe. She pressed forward and covered Gabrielle's body with her own. Xena's hands may have felt wonderful but it couldn't compare to the feel of being pressed skin to skin with the taller woman. Gabrielle grasped at strong shoulders, nails digging in, and arched into the other woman's body. Xena rolled her hips against the bards in response.
Their mouths met again in another desperate kiss and Xena ran her hand down Gabrielle's side, coming to stop briefly at the blonde's hip. The warrior pulled out of the kiss and looked deep into Gabrielle's eyes as she slid her hand between them and began to circle the bards aching centre with her forefinger. Gabrielle fought the urge to close her eyes again and kept staring back into Xena's eyes. There was so much emotion held in those blue eyes. There was desire yes but there was so much love held in her expression.
Xena moved her hand slow and pressed a single finger inside the bard. It felt like an age since Gabrielle had been touched like this but she was so full of desire that it slipped in easily and Xena instantly added another. It felt wonderful but the blonde didn't just want to lie there and be pleasured by her lover, she wanted to pleasure her too.
Gabrielle rolled the two of them, catching Xena by surprise, so that she was now lying above Xena. She mimicked the brunette's earlier actions and pressed her hand between their bodies, penetrating Xena with two fingers straight away. The warrior laid her head back against the fur and moaned loudly.
Gabrielle used her new position to arch her hips and ride Xena's fingers. She used her own movements to act as leverage for her own ministrations to the brunette's body. They moved together, rolling hips and sliding their bodies against each other, building the heat between them steadily as they gazed into each others eyes.
It felt incredible to be with the older woman like this again. She felt whole again in a way she hadn't done since that fateful journey to Chin. Gabrielle could feel Xena begin to twitch and shake underneath her and her own body reacted accordingly. She could barely keep up the rhythm as they both got closer to the edge and their movements became ragged. Gabrielle was desperately trying to hold her own body back until the warrior was ready.
Then, Xena cried her name and arched her back violently, her inner muscles clamping down on the bards fingers. Gabrielle followed her quickly, muting her own cry against the brunette's shoulder as she collapsed down on top of her.
The two lay like that, fingers still buried inside the other, as they gasped for breath. Once Gabrielle felt like she had control of her limbs again she pushed herself up on her elbow and slid her fingers from the warrior. Xena looked up at her lovingly but it quickly turned to a sexy but devilish smirk. Gabrielle had no time to react before she found herself on her back again with Xena's mouth descending down her neck with obvious intent.
"Selene said you needed rest" Gabrielle moaned.
It was a half hearted protest as the way the brunette tasted her skin, kissing, sucking and biting, was quickly relighting the fire in the bard. Xena didn't bother to look up and continued to kiss down the bards chest until she reached her breasts. There the brunette hovered, her warm breast ghosting over Gabrielle's nipple but not actually touching her.
"There is plenty of time for rest" the older woman assured her; "Its not even dark outside yet."
The blonde had no argument for this especially as Antonia had told them not to re-emerge until morning. They had hours left. So when Xena's mouth finally latched around her nipple Gabrielle moaned her approval and arched up into the contact. They had two years to catch up on after all.
Chapter 15: The Healer
The sun was nearly set as Antonia looked out into the forest surrounding the town. She was sat on the top of the stone archway, legs dangling over the front of the large entrance to the Southern end of the habitat. As a child she had enjoyed climbing things, a skill that was highly useful in a town surrounded and protected by forest. The archway had been a favourite place to play in her early years and had become a place of refuge as she had grown.
It wasn't exactly private. At this time of the evening the occasional warrior would pass under to return to or from an outer guard post. Everyone knew she was sat there but no one usually disturbed her or her thoughts. Sometimes those thoughts were bleak. Antonia would never admit it to another living soul but she often felt lonely. She had grown up without a mother and although she had been well cared for it was a hole that had never been filled. It had left her with the fear that in loving someone you left yourself open to great hurt. It was a fear that had formed a safety barrier between herself and others.
The last few days had been an experience and had pushed her outside of her comfort zone. She had felt Xena's deep emotion for Gabrielle in her vision and had witnessed the blonde's devotion to her companion. Only a deep love could convince someone to travel across country with a stranger in the distant hope of bringing someone back from the dead. Antonia had also witnessed that hope become a reality. She had felt uncomfortable witnessing their reunion and passionate kiss but she had also found it surprisingly touching. She had felt more genuinely happy than she could ever recall feeling before.
No doubt the two women were now making the most of their time alone together. Antonia understood sex. There had been women who she had taken to bed after festivals both in this town and in surrounding villages, but it had strictly been a one night tryst. She had never felt, or never allowed herself to feel anything real or deep for anyone she had been with in that way. For many years she had thought herself incapable of feeling that kind of attraction. Nearly a year ago she had learnt that someone could indeed get under her skin, but Antonia had just made the walls that encircled herself higher. She had protected her heart harder.
Now was not the time to be distracted with anything other than protecting the town. Antonia felt like they had taken a step closer to that now they had Xena and Gabrielle there. She had heard stories of the great warrior protecting a village almost single handily from a warlord and that she had taken on an entire Roman Legion. Even with Xena at their side she still couldn't fathom how they could succeed in defeating Tarbus. It felt hopeless, but Antonia wouldn't give up until she had spent every drop of her own blood trying.
Antonia was distracted from her thoughts when she heard someone scrabbling up the archway to join her. The only person who had ever interrupted her before was Meda but she knew it was no warrior who was trying to make the climb. Only one other person would dare disturb her when she was so obviously seeking to be alone. Sure enough, the town's young blonde healer carefully lowered herself to sit next to Antonia.
Grace copied the red head's pose and dangled her own legs over the arch. Unlike Antonia she appeared nervous of the drop and kept a firm grip of the stone with both of her hands. Antonia could see all of this out of the corner of her eye but gave no indication that she had noticed Grace's arrival. She knew it was rude to ignore her, but she often found that she had no other coping mechanism of dealing with the healer's presence. This was especially true when Grace was in close proximity and this evening the blonde had sat close enough so that their shoulders were brushing.
"I've just walked past our guest's accommodation" Grace smirked; "they seem to be making the most of Xena's new lease of life."
Antonia could feel heat rising to her cheeks at the topic Grace had struck up with her. Earlier in the day she had endured being ritually bathed by the healer and now they were discussing human relations. It was Antonia's idea of torture. She found herself gazing down at her own lap so the other woman couldn't see her blush. Her body wanted to squirm away from the pretty blonde but she managed to control herself and stay rigidly still.
"They spent two years apart without ever knowing if they would see each other again" the warrior stated.
As Antonia spoke she could feel Grace's stare on her. She glanced in the blonde's direction and quickly looked away again. The look of adoration on the other woman's face was too much for her to handle. There was a complete openness in the healers expression and body language and Antonia couldn't help but wonder what about the last few days had prompted this change around her. Grace had always previously made some attempts to mask those feelings when they were in close quarters.
"You brought them back together" the healer said with an awed tone.
Antonia's body finally won out and she shuffled slightly so they were no longer pressed shoulder to shoulder. They were still close but the tiny bit of space between them gave her some sort of barrier.
"Xena's persistence brought them back together" the warrior dismissed.
She hadn't ridden solidly for two days to find Gabrielle purely to reunite the two lovers. She was no romantic hero like Grace's tone had implied. Antonia had acted on an old prophecy to bring them a solution to their dire predicament like any loyal warrior would. The happiness it had created for her new acquaintance was an added bonus. One which probably wouldn't have touched her if she hadn't found something of a friend in the warrior bard, Gabrielle.
"I've always wished that there could be someone who loved me so deeply" Grace interrupted her thoughts; "someone who would defy death to be with me."
Antonia didn't dare look at the healer now. She could read between the lines perfectly well. Grace wanted her to be that person and the red head had no idea how to reply. It wasn't that she never wanted to feel that connection with someone...she just wouldn't know where to start...wouldn't know how to give herself like that. With the biggest battle of her life impending it certainly wasn't the time to start.
"I suppose we would all love someone like that" the healer continued, less confident now in her words.
Did Grace really think that somehow the warrior would be inspired enough by Xena and Gabrielle to suddenly change and throw caution to the wind? Granted it would be so easy to take Grace to bed now knowing that in the next couple of days one or both of them was likely to be dead. The healer was beautiful, good and kind...that Antonia couldn't deny. It was likely that the warrior would fall on the front lines trying to save her town though and although that would hurt Grace regardless, it would hurt more if Antonia allowed something to happen between them.
"I'm more concerned with war not love at the moment" Antonia tried to quash the conversation.
For a few moments the blonde healer was silent and thoughtful. Antonia allowed herself to look at the other woman now, whilst Grace was staring off into the darkening sky and not directing her pretty piercing blue eyes at the warrior.
"A warrior is always stronger when they are fighting for their home and their loved ones" the healer finally replied.
Graze continued to gaze of into the distance as Antonia regarded her harder. She'd heard sentiment like that before, that one person fighting for their home was equal to ten soldiers trying to attack it. It had been a favourite rally cry of Meda's mother, Helena, the woman who raised her. Antonia couldn't help but wonder if Grace thought she was lacking in some way because she didn't have those kind of relationships and ties.
"I'm not weak" Antonia stated. She was aware that it was probably her own fears she was rallying against and not what the blonde had implied.
Grace turned her face back in the red heads direction and this time Antonia held her stare. She felt defiant because whether she liked it or not it mattered to her if the other woman found her so.
"I know" the healer said softly.
Antonia didn't have time to even formulate a reply before the blonde was scrambling into a crouched position. Grace pressed a gentle kiss against the side of her temple, completely catching the warrior of guard, before starting a careful descent down the archway.
Antonia sat rigidly still again, her body and mind completely unable to function after the tiniest bit of affection. The last person to treat her so tenderly was her mother and that was many years ago. Rather than annoy her the action held some comfort before what lay ahead.
Grace was persistent and for the first time Antonia was glad of it.
Chapter 16: The Catch Up
Light was starting to creep under the door when Xena awoke the next morning. Once she had finally tried to sleep she had found the furs very comfortable and had slept well. Gabrielle was draped, naked, over Xena. The bards head was tucked into Xena's neck, head on the warrior's neck and her arm and leg slung across her stomach and thighs.
Xena was warm and comfortable, something she hadn't felt in a long time. It was tempting to just close her eyes and enjoy holding the blonde for a little while longer. However, the warrior felt she owed the Thracians her life. They had brought her back to Gabrielle when she had started to believe it was impossible. There would be time to wrap herself in the bard after they had saved the town.
"Gabrielle" she said as she gently rubbed the blonde's arm.
The bard stirred and mumbled something unrecognisable before finally opening her eyes. As soon the blonde saw Xena she smiled broadly and nestled in closer to her with a contented sigh.
"I was scared for a moment that it had all been a dream" Gabrielle mumbled, still sleepy.
"You have sex dreams about me that go on for that long?!" the warrior quipped.
Gabrielle lifted her head and quirked an eye at the brunette before laying her head back down on Xena's shoulder.
"Maybe not for that long" the bard joked back.
"Must have been all that Egyptian heat inspiring you" Xena commented.
Her words seemed to have a sobering effect on the blonde. Gabrielle pushed herself up on her elbow so she was hovering over Xena and gazed down at her. The front of the blondes hair fell down in front of her face and Xena reached up to tuck the loose strands behind the bards ears. Gabrielle's eyes fluttered shut at the light contact but when she reopened them the warrior could see the confusion the bards expression held.
"You know I was in Egypt?" Gabrielle asked.
The brunette knew they would have to discuss this at some point. She had originally planned on spending some more time together before they broached the subject. It wouldn't be pleasant for Gabrielle to hear about and it was quite harrowing for the warrior to think about.
"It's hard to explain" Xena sighed. "I could see glimpses of what was happening and as the dead were passing through I sometimes heard talk of you and your exploits."
The bard looked at her with a quizzical expression but it was laced with fear. Xena could tell that her lover was scared about what the brunette was about to reveal. The warrior reached up again and caressed the bards cheek with the back of her fingers.
"Passing through..." Gabrielle asked nervously; "I thought you were meant to be at rest. I don't really understand what happened to you?"
Xena shifted her weight and rolled them so Gabrielle was now on her back with the warrior hovering over her. She dipped her head and kissed the blonde's collar bone tenderly before regaining eye contact with the bard. She took a deep breath before explaining in brief what she had experienced.
"It was a lie to ensure I willingly stayed dead. Instead I was left in some sort of limbo, dead but somehow conscious. Other souls would wait there and then be allowed to pass through to wherever their final resting place would be yet I was never allowed to pass. So I started trying to reach out to the living using those passing through as a link."
The bard firmly gripped Xena's bicep on her supporting arm and listened with rapt attention as the brunette spoke.
"Xena that sounds terrible" Gabrielle gasped as soon as the older woman finished speaking.
The warrior watched a single tear trail down the bards face. She reached down and brushed the salty water trail away with the pad of her thumb. Xena didn't want to cause the bard any more pain that her death had already caused the younger woman. She hated being the cause of Gabrielle's tears.
"It wasn't pleasant" the warrior tried to reassure the blonde; "but I found my way back to you and that makes it worth it."
It was true. It had been horrible but in dying Xena really had freed all those souls from Chin and although it had taken time she had returned to her lover without compromising those souls. It was a good outcome even if it had been a long and horrible journey home.
"If I'd have known..." Gabrielle began to say but Xena cut her off.
"You couldn't have known and you have suffered too" the brunette pointed out, before adding; "I'm sorry I left you."
She really was sorry. It had been a terrible decision to make at the time and it had felt even more terrible asking the bard to willingly not act and to let her go. The brunette had hoped her bard would meet another travelling companion, a friend, and would move on to some extent. Gabrielle had been unable to do so though and Xena felt like she had left the blonde in a kind of limbo too...living but not able to truly enjoy or appreciate life.
"I missed you so much" Gabrielle said with a deep sigh. "I thought that I would be able to distract myself but nothing ever worked. I could never do enough good to take the hurt away. I know its not exactly the same but I think it was how you always felt when you were doing so much good yet you never truly felt redeemed. There was always something missing. In my case it was you, in yours it was the ghosts of your past in the East."
The warrior knew that Gabrielle had been travelling around like a lost soul from the stories she had heard in her limbo state. Knowing it and hearing it from the bards own mouth were two very different things though and the words felt like a hard punch to the gut.
"I never wanted you to feel pain and regret like I had" Xena grimaced; "It was my greatest fear when letting you travel with me."
It's why she had tried to refuse the young blonde at first and why she had been willing to loose her travelling companion to Perdicus when he had asked for the bard to marry him. By that time she was already head over heels for the younger woman and it had hurt to let her go. She had felt that it was for the best though and wanted Gabrielle to have a chance at happiness and not the inevitable sadness and loss that travelling with an ex-warlord desperate to redeem her past would eventually bring. Then he had died and despite her better judgement Xena had allowed the blonde to continue travelling with her.
There had been so much loss and sadness even before Xena's own death. They had hurt each other with some of their decisions and nearly lost each other only to find their way back to each other stronger than ever. After Hope, after Eli, after Eve, after being in status for twenty five years only to awaken to find most of the people they had cared about dead or dying....
"But you have given me so much more Xena" Gabrielle cut in to her thoughts. "If time rolled back to that moment in Potedaea then I would make that the same decision to follow you again...and again...and again. I love you."
Every time that Gabrielle had ever said those three words to her it was said with so much honesty and feeling that Xena knew it to be absolutely true regardless of all the negative things. Even now, having woken up together for the first time in two years, the bard meant it with absolute certainty.
"I love you too" the warrior echoed with as much certainty.
Gabrielle had been her beacon in the dark. The hope that she could return to her lover had kept her strong and determined no matter how bleak her situation seemed. In many ways the words 'I love you' no longer seemed to be enough. Yet she had no other suitable words to express how much the bard meant to her so they would have to do.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warriors shoulders and tugged her down so they were pressed together again. Their lips met immediately in a searing kiss, their mouths painting a picture that what their words could not quite express.
When they broke apart again Xena smiled down and the blonde. She was reluctant to ruin the moment but they really couldn't stay holed up in their hut for much longer. Duty and honour beckoned them outside to the Thracians.
"We should get up and see how we can help our hosts" Xena admitted with a sad sigh.
"The sun still hasn't fully risen yet" Gabrielle stated, gazing at the orange hued light creeping under the door. "I'm sure they wouldn't begrudge us a little longer before we emerge."
The bard was of course correct, Xena had taught her well. There was a little while longer until the sun would fully rise in the sky and morning would be heralded.
"Oh?" Xena asked, "and what do you have in mind?"
The blonde merely smirked in response before tugging Xena closer again and kissing her with more passion than before. The warrior was pretty sure she knew what the bard had planned and she had no intentions of denying her.
Antonia was eating breakfast when their guests emerged from their hut. Both women were tinged pink and smiling from ear to ear so the red head could take an educated guess at what they had been doing just minutes prior. Gabrielle was wearing her own brown hide clothing but Xena, having returned from the dead completely naked, was wearing the Thracian clothing that had been left for her in the hut. It wasn't dissimilar to what the bard wore except made of black with circular metal plated inlayed in to the leather and small black tassels. They had left several sizes of matching black knee high boots for her to try and one pair had obviously fitted. The brunette warrior suited the outfit although considering her height and long legs it left a lot of skin on show.
"Good morning" she greeted the two of them.
There must have been something suggestive in her tone because Xena glanced away and Gabrielle blushed furiously.
"Morning Antonia" the blonde giggled.
Gabrielle looked deliriously happy and so much more animated and alive than she had appeared to be just a couple of days before when they met. Grace's words from the night before played through her mind; 'you brought them back together'. Antonia wasn't sure she had ever been involved with something that had brought someone so much joy.
One of the cooks from the barracks came over and offered the two women something from the two trays he held. On one tray was cuts of different breads and on the other tray was a selection of fruit from the orchard. Xena and Gabrielle both took a chuck of bread each and a rosy red apple before thanking the cook.
"Once you've ate Meda and I would like to show you something" Antonia informed them, motioning them to sit with her hand. She expected them to want to sit down and eat but instead Xena shook her head.
"We can eat on the go" the brunette warrior stated, "I'd like to know more about what we are facing and what we are defending."
The four women; Antonia, Gabrielle, Xena and Meda; made their way through the dense forest to the West of the town. The town leader was yet to tell their guests where they were going but was filling them in about the Warlord and his threat. Xena and Meda walked ahead, discussing the estimated size of Tarbus' army and the types of soldiers he was likely to have recruited. Gabrielle had been walking alongside them for a while but towards the end of the walk she dropped back to walk in step with Antonia.
"Where are we going?" the blonde asked.
Antonia smiled tightly and didn't answer immediately. As Meda was there it was the leaders role to tell the story and not hers. In many ways it was more of Antonia's story to tell and Selene could actually give a first hand account. Still the red head was happier to defer to her leader. Luckily, the blonde had asked her question at a good time as they were emerging from the tree line and into their destination.
"We are here" Antonia stated, gesturing with her head towards the landscape in front of them.
The land was small open bit of grass in front of a large cliff face. It was a ravine with a small white water river flowing through it. There was another large sheer cliff on the land at the other side. There was a thin wood and rope bride that crossed the divide, only wide enough to be crossed in single file. They would not be required to cross the bridge now. Meda merely needed to show their guests the location.
"It's beautiful" Gabrielle declared.
They came to halt near the edge of the cliff, looking out at the wooded land opposite them. Antonia hadn't really thought of the area aesthetically before but after hearing the bards awed tone she considered it again. It was a dramatic landscape with a mixture of lush green's and dangerous rugged grey rocks. The two extremes were indeed rather impressive.
"Yes I suppose it is" the red head agreed.
Xena took a step closer to the edge and glanced down into the ravine and the raging water it held. Her eyes scanned the opposite cliff face and Antonia was sure that the warrior had already spotted the small entrance to the cave their explanation would centre around. Most would miss it but Xena had good eyes and a sharp, observant mind.
"Antonia told you that we guard a relic," Meda began to explain why they had walked to this location. "Across that bridge, in a cave in the opposite cliff face, is hidden one of the powerful objects in this world."
The Thracian leader stepped forward and joined the brunette at the cliff edge. Despite Gabrielle's visible curiosity she remained a step back with Antonia. They could still hear just fine from where they stood.
"At the time of the fall of Mount Olympus Zeus had a mortal lover, an Amazon leader by the name of Lyvia" Meda continued. Antonia's leader paused there, allowing the two women to process each bit of information.
"We knew Lyvia" Xena stated.
Antonia was aware of that, she knew that they had met and she knew that Lyvia had thought with them. It was one of the few stories Antonia remembered the Amazon telling her before she died. Still, it brought the woman's loss to the forefront of the red heads mind again and she took a deep breath to push down her emotions. It had not been fast enough for Gabrielle to miss the flash of pain on her features though.
"Lyvia was your mother?" the bard guessed. "Lyvia was pregnant when she presented me with a flower."
Antonia nodded once in acknowledgement at the blonde. Gabrielle tilted her head and looked at her sympathetically, reaching out to rub the red heads arm with the flat of her hand. It wasn't like when Grace had touched at her. There was no feeling of fire in her nerve endings or awkwardness. It felt like a friendly act of comfort just like it was meant. Behind the bards look of sympathy there was also curiosity which was no surprise considering Meda had just declared her mother to be Zeus' lover.
"He's not my father" the red haired warrior assured the two women.
If he had been then she'd have been a demi god and in a far better position to defend the town. Instead her father was apparently a blacksmith from a local town who had partaken in one of the Amazon mating ceremonies.
Meda cleared her throat to recapture everyone's attention. Antonia was glad of it because Xena and Gabrielle's stares were a little two penetrating for someone who was used to guarding her own feelings and history. When the Thracian leader had their attention she continued with the story.
"When Zeus realised that he was likely to lose he took his lightening bolt to Lyvia and the Amazon elder Selene and asked them to hide it so no one could find it and use it. He wished to grant Lyvia the gift of immortality, linked to the lightening bolt, but Lyvia refused the gift and it was instead forced upon Selene. He told the elder that for as long as the bolt was safe then she would not age but that one day she would give this immortality as a gift to bring another back from the dead. This person would prevent the bolt falling in to the wrong hands for all eternity."
Immortality to some may sound appealing but Antonia knew it had weighed heavily on the town elder. Selene hadn't chosen to be immortal and had to endure many of her friends grow old and die around her during the last twenty eight years. It had become hard for the elder to form strong relationships with those around her and she was spending more and more time in isolation. Now at least the older woman could have a normal life again if they survived the next couple of days.
"Eternity...I'm not immortal now am I?" Xena objected.
In the stories of Xena that had reached them it was said that she had turned down the chance to be immortal from both Ares and the Northern god Odin.
"No" Antonia cut in. "I think it refers to one of two things. We will win and knowledge of the bolt will gradually be lost by the outside world making it safe. Or we will lose and you will be forced to somehow destroy the bolt so it can never fall into the wrong hands."
Now that Selene's life was no longer linked to the lightening bolt Antonia was of the mind that they should just destroy the damn thing anyway. It wouldn't prevent the war with Tarbus as he was unlikely to believe them and even if he did he would probably order the attack in retaliation for them destroying what he wanted. It would however remove the risk of it ever falling into the wrong hands again. That hadn't been the decision of the elders though and in truth they had no idea how to destroy it. She only hoped that is Xena could destroy gods then she could destroy a weapon of the gods too.
"Let's aim for the first option" Meda commented.
Remember, comments mean the world to fanfic writers...
Chapter 18: The Defences
Xena had spent a good chunk of the day helping to organise and set up defences around the town. Most of the town was surrounded by natural rock and dense forest which made it difficult to penetrate. The soldiers would be scattered if they attacked here and would make very slow progress. The most open area to attack was the main entrance on the south side as it had a good road cutting through the forest leading to it. Soldiers could move on the arched entrance in large numbers.
The first thing she had set up was outer defences to try and keep the soldiers bottle necked on the road as they came into the range of the archers. This had to be something sudden, that wouldn't be obvious to the approaching soldiers until they were on top of it. In a forest it wasn't the easiest thing to set up but she had managed to set up some localised fire points by digging pits and filling the m with burnable materials, then covering them with fallen logs, dry leaves and oil. The best archers could set them alight from the tree tops using lanolin covered burning arrows.
The idea was that some warriors would lay low in the trees as the soldiers passed until the flames were lit. Then the arrows would fly down from every direction, causing confusion and maximum devastation. For the three positions directly above the fire pits Xena had another form of missile...ones that would be more devastating from that kind of shorter range.
"It feels wrong to be creating a weapon like this"� Antonia muttered as she watched Xena work.
The brunette was back in the town now, and with the help of the blacksmith she was setting up her missiles. The warrior had acquired rounded vases from one of the other stalls and had filled them with a layer of oil covered fleece and waste from the blacksmith's works. A mixture of nails and broken bits of metal with sharp edges that would spray out when the vases smashed. The missiles may not kill many soldiers but they would injure and remove plenty from the fight.
!You can't fight fair against a warlord"� Xena reassured the red haired warrior; "he won't show you the same respect or fight with any honour code."�
The red head conceded the point with a sharp nod of her head. It was a gesture Xena had seen several times that day from the younger warrior. Antonia had been active all day, checking that all the archers had a full supply of arrows, that the people of the town who offered to stay and fight had suitable, sharpened weapons to match their skill set and she had set up basic training for those who had no experience.
Most of those drafted would stay in a second wave of fighters in case the town was breached although some who were good hunters had joined the archers on the rock boundary to the town.
Gabrielle joined them for the first time in hours. The beautiful bard had spent a large chunk of the day helping to organise getting those who couldn't fight to safety. There was around sixty full time female warriors who usually acted as escorts for traders and hunters. Another forty women trained once a day as fighters but worked in other roles. About a hundred men who usually worked as traders were staying to fight. The rest, approximately two hundred people were either too old or young to fight or had young children.
"How is the evacuation going?"� Antonia enquired as Gabrielle came to a halt by her.
"The last wave of those who needed or chose to be evacuated are leaving now"� Gabrielle replied. "There is a cave system about two miles away that they are going to stay in until they hear word whether to flee through the forest to other villages or to return."�
The blonde had a sheen of sweat on her skin having been out in the sun for most of the day. At least Xena had spent a lot of the time under the cover of the forest. Gabrielle stepped around the table Xena was working at so she was behind the warrior and rested her chin on the brunette's shoulder, placing a sweet and affectionate kiss on the exposed skin there.
"Do they have enough supplies?" Xena asked.
"They have a blanket each and enough water and food to last for four days"� the blonde said.
It didn't sound like much but the warrior knew it was a logistical nightmare to organise easily transportable supplies for that many people. Some of the women who were being evacuated were capable of hunting food in the forest if they began to run short but Xena suspected it would all be over either way with a day. That would give them plenty of time to reach other villages or come back to the town before the food ran out.
Xena was about to ask if Gabrielle was okay when they were approached by another blonde, not dissimilar looking to the bard although not as toned. She wasn't dressed like or have the appearance of a warrior. The brunette was yet to meet this woman but Gabrielle had obviously met her already because she stood up tall again and greeted the other blonde with a kind smile. Whoever she was, Antonia looked surprised to see her.
"Grace...what are you still doing here?"� the red haired warrior demanded.
"Hello to you too"� the blonde woman replied with a smirk.
Xena instantly warmed to the woman and wondered why Antonia's initial reaction seemed so harsh. The red head was a typical warrior and didn't have amazing people skills but had not been so abrupt to anyone else in Xena's presence that day.
"I'm not leaving"� this Grace said firmly; "I'm a healer...I am going to stay here and help the wounded during the battle."�
The Thracian warrior went to protest but when Grace held her glare and her ground the red head closed her mouth again and scowled instead. It wasn't unusual to have healers or cooks present at a battle, they were the only non fighters you wanted about as they had a role in keeping an army fit.
"Having a healer or healers close by will save lives" Xena pointed out. "We need to find anyone acting as stretcher bearers or healers a safe location behind the primary and secondary lines to take the injured back to."�
Antonia nodded her head once again but didn't look happy at all to have to concede this point. In fact she looked angry that Xena was right.
"Nowhere will be safe if we are overrun�" the red haired woman practically hissed.
Antonia turned on her heels as soon as the words left her mouth and stormed off. All three remaining women watched her go. Xena felt like she was missing something as she was confused by the woman's actions but the two other women looked on with understanding expressions.
"She's just trying to protect you"� Gabrielle assured the healer as soon as Antonia was out of ear shot.
"She's always trying to protect me"� Grace sighed; "usually it's from herself."�
The healer walked away too, shoulders slumped, in the opposite direction to the red head. Xena suspected she now knew what was going on. In the early days of Gabrielle travelling with her the warrior had tried to keep some sort of emotional distance. She had been afraid to give her heart to the bard but was even more terrified of her getting hurt. Xena suddenly saw a lot of her earlier self in the Thracian warrior.
Chapter 19: The Last Supper
Tarbus and his army had marched steadily all day. As they reached the edge of the Thracian forest the early evening air was becoming cool and the light was starting to fade. Although he and his officers had rode from the meet up point most of the army was on foot. Despite their superior numbers he wanted his men to be well rested and at their most efficient when they attacked the town. There was too much at stake to mess this up. The lightning bolt must be his by this time tomorrow.
According to his raiding party the town was less than an hour's journey into the forest. At first light they would eat breakfast and then march that short distance and into battle. For tonight they would rest.
"Set up camp here" he called out.
The men around him halted and those behind followed suite. The area in front of the forest was flat meadow and the perfect place to set up their tents. They had a clear view around them from the edge of the forest to the mountainous pass they had marched through. The soldiers seemed relieved that they would not be fighting this night and began to steadily disperse in to the meadow, followed by the supply carts that had travelled at the rear of the army.
"Shall I organise the guards?" Commander Rhesus asked.
The young commander and his main advisor Tobias halted on their horses alongside him. Tarbus looked at the forest and contemplated his enemy. They would not want to travel so far away from their town to attack nor where they so accustomed to fighting in open ground.
"They won't break the cover of the forest so only a small watch is needed" he instructed Rhesus.
He was sure his men were safe for the night. He wouldn't waste too much of their energy on unnecessary patrols.
"Yes sir" the Commander replied.
The younger man turned his horse away and rode into the centre of the camp that was quickly beginning to take shape. The warlord next turned his attention to his advisor. Tobias had organised most of the logistical side of the battle. He had organised the carts, the blankets, the tents, the supply of fresh water which had been topped up during the march at streams and rivers, and finally the food and cooking instruments. These were perhaps the most crucial factors when entering a battle. You needed the men to be upbeat, suitably rested and well fed so they were still motivated to fight for you.
"Get that soup on the boil as a priority" Tarbus demanded; "after all...an army marches on its stomach."
The barracks by the Southern entrance of the town were alive with activity. Extra seating had been carried to the area to accommodate many of those who were staying to fight, and a large fire burnt for warmth against the cool evening air. The sweet smell of the burning wood was more prevalent where Xena, Gabrielle and Antonia sat on the outskirts of the crowd. At the other end of the seating the main aroma came from two large stewing pots which were located over smaller fires.
"I don't remember having such a hearty meal before a battle before" Xena quipped as she tucked in to her second helping of the lamb stew.
"Hey!" Gabrielle protested.
She elbowed her warrior playfully, nearly splashing the hot stew on Xena's hand if it wasn't for the older woman's amazing reactions. Antonia raised her eyebrow questioningly at their jovial interaction.
"I usually do the cooking" the bard explained.
Antonia smiled, for the first time in hours but the moment was fleeting. The red-haired warrior returned to stirring her half eaten first portion of the food. Gabrielle could tell the Thracian warrior felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.
"Actually, she can make a mean stew" Xena added seriously.
It was true, over the years the bard had learnt to put together many different types of stews, sometimes with very few ingredients to work with. When they had been camping out in the wilderness in Greece she had learnt to make a great rabbit stew or a fish stew if they were near a river or lake. It had taken time and practice though and a good deal of patience from the warrior.
"I couldn't at first" Gabrielle admitted. "Do you remember how terrible I was at first?"
Everything had been an adventure during those early days. Just trying to catch the rabbits or the fish had been a life lesson. A village girl from Potidaea hadn't exactly required to hunt...she'd barely been required to think!
"No..." Xena replied casually, like she didn't have a clue what Gabrielle was talking about. However, the warrior's eyes glittered and told an entirely different story.
"Liar!" the blonde laughed.
Xena glanced over her bowl at Gabrielle and smirked, the smile reaching her eyes, lighting up her features. They were close enough to the fire for the light from the flames to dance across her features. Gabrielle had always loved looking at the warrior in the firelight when they camped especially if Xena was busy sharpening her sword. It had always given the bard time to unabashedly stare at the older woman. This evening, with the lick of the flames highlighting Xena's strong cheek bones, it made Gabrielle feel like she was falling in love all over again.
Just as the laughter between them died down a fourth person joined them. It was the healer, Grace, holding a bowl of stew. The blonde took a seat on the large log Antonia was perched on. Other's had sensed the red head's mood and kept away but it was no surprise to Gabrielle that the healer would not be so easily put off. She did observe though that Grace was careful to sit as far away as the log would allow, giving Antonia a little breathing space between them. Not that it was much space, only a hands width between the two at most.
"Evening" the healer greeted.
Xena and Gabrielle smiled at Grace and for a moment the bard though Antonia wasn't going to even acknowledge her. She was seriously contemplating stamping on the red head's foot which was only a small distance from her own but then Antonia looked up from her food and nodded to the healer. The bard realised that Antonia had been so deep in thought that it had taken her a while to even notice someone had sat next to her.
"We have just finished turning the bath house into a field hospital" Grace informed them.
Earlier in the afternoon Xena had left the blacksmith finishing the packing of her rather evil looking missiles and they had gone to find a suitable location for the healers and those that had volunteered to stay behind to help the wounded. Grace was one of two healers willing to stay behind, as were Selene and Eta, town elders with some medical knowledge. Then there was four men who had disabilities that made it difficult for them to effectively fight but had volunteered to venture into the battlefield to stretcher the wounded to treatment. There were also three cooks who would keep everyone fed before and hopefully after the battle. They had also volunteered to use their cooking skills to make poultices for the wounded warriors.
Xena had decided that their base should be the bath house as there was plenty of space, it was warm and had an ample supply of water. It was also a solid stone building just a little behind the barracks and the market by the South gate. This would be the location of the battle once the soldiers broke through the archway entrance and into the town.
"Will you be okay?" Xena asked the healer, "War...it's brutal and unpleasant and messy and..."
"I've seen the kind of destruction Tarbus rains down first hand" Grace cut in.
The blonde's tone was sharp for someone who otherwise spoke so softly. Gabrielle knew nothing of the healer's history having not dared to ask Antonia anything about Grace. It was now clear though that there was darkness in her past.
"My village..." Grace explained, her tone softening again, "...it doesn't exist anymore."
Gabrielle should have guessed that the healer was not from the town. She held herself in a different way to the others, like she had been raised somewhere else. There was a gentle grace and open warmth to Grace that wasn't commonplace amongst Amazon tribes. The healer must have suffered a deep sadness at the loss of her village and the fact the bard suspected from the woman's tone that she had also lost her family too. It said a lot about Grace's own personal strength that she remained so warm. Loss like that turned many people bitter.
"I'm sorry" Gabrielle offered.
The words always felt so hollow, but the bard didn't know what else to say. Grace thanked her regardless before turning her attention to her stew. Antonia had been sat quietly throughout the conversation, staring into her bowl of stew like it could give her all the answers to whatever questions plagued her mind. Suddenly, after the other three fell silent, the red-haired warrior sat up straighter and turned to stare directly at Grace.
"This is your home now" Antonia said firmly, "and by the gods let it still exist by nightfall tomorrow."
The other three women looked at her in surprise. It was the most animated Antonia had been for hours and Gabrielle had to stifle a giggle at Grace's reaction. The woman opened her mouth to speak not once, not twice but three times. On none of these occasions did any sound come out.
"I need to sleep" Antonia declared just as suddenly.
Just like that the warrior stood up and walked away, taking her remaining stew with her. Grace watched her go until the red head was out of view. When the healer finally turned back to face Xena and Gabrielle she smiled awkwardly at them.
"I think she may just have lit a fuse under our brooding Thracian warrior" Xena leant in and whispered in Gabrielle's ear. The bard had been thinking exactly the same thing.
Chapter 20: The Beginning
Xena had been doing some last-minute checks with the second line of fighters who were positioned in the market place. This was the group made up completely of volunteers and they were unsurprisingly nervous about what lay ahead. They were also fired up and well-armed for a rag tag army of traders, wood turners, blacksmith's and farmers.
Her and Gabrielle would be stood in the first line of fighters. This group was made up of the part time warrior women and half of the full-time warriors. The others were positioned on the rocks surrounding the town and in the trees. Most had been in place since first light. The cooks had been up early and prepared bread, fruit and oat porridge which the fighters had collected and taken to their post to eat.
When Xena returned to her post she found Gabrielle handing out cups of water around the women. Antonia was also meant to be at this post but Xena could immediately locate the red-haired warrior as she was stood on the archway talking to the town leader, Meda.
Once Gabrielle had finished handing the water out to the women she brought Xena a cup over. The brunette warrior took it gratefully and drank it down in two big gulps.
"You okay?" Xena asked the blonde.
Xena knew exactly how the blonde felt. They had both fought many battles whilst together and apart but this one felt different. It wasn't like Chin, when there had been an ominous feeling hanging in the air throughout, even on the journey over. This battle felt significant too, but the warrior couldn't put her finger on why.
There was the faint sound of a cantering horse and through the archway Xena could see one of the outlying scouts approaching on a bay horse. They came to a halt in front of the archway, engaging in conversation with Meda and Antonia. Every woman stood with them went silent as they waited for news.
After a brief conversation the rider dismounted and began to lead her horse into the town. Meda stood tall on the archway and held her hand up in a fist. She opened it fully, spreading all five fingers, and waved it so those at
"Yes" the bard replied steadily. "I just wish we weren't going into battle straight away again after I only just got you back."
the nearest post in the trees and the women in the market could see.
"Five minutes" Gabrielle stated.
Xena glanced around at the warriors they were stood with. They had all been at ease and stood in groups conversing, but they now began to spread out and begin stretching in preparation. The warrior gestured for Gabrielle to follow her by flicking her eyes in the direction of the town leader.
They walked the short distance to the South entrance next to each other, arms brushing as they went. When they reached the archway Xena grasped the blonde's hand to halt her. Gabrielle turned and looked up into the brunette's eyes.
"I love you" Xena said with a smile.
"And I you" Gabrielle responded.
The bard reached up with her right hand and cupped Xena's face, tugging her forward into a soft closed mouth kiss. They both smiled when they parted before turning their attention back to the situation at hand.
The two of them climbed up the rocks at the side of the arch. Xena stood at the top next to Antonia and Meda but Gabrielle remained lower down on the next highest step of the rocks just to the side of the warriors.
"Do we have a clearer idea of numbers?" Xena asked the leader of the town.
There previous estimates had been guessing work from rumours emanating from surrounding villages. Tarbus had been conscripting men from villages and towns he controlled in greater numbers than he had ever done before.
"From their camp site last night our scouts estimate between 900 and 1000 men" Meda informed the brunette warrior.
It was the upper end of what they had estimated but Xena wasn't surprised. Other places the warlord had targeted didn't have a standing army of highly trained warriors. The Thracians would not be overpowered or surrender easily. This Tarbus would know he had to come with a great enough force to annihilate them.
The faint sound of the army marching began to echo through the trees. Xena glanced along the line of the archers. The women stood rock tall, waiting for the warlordâ€™s men to come into sight, showing no signs of fear. The two best aims, women called Liara and Dianne, were stood on either side of the archway next to the torches. They would be the ones to shoot first and set off the fire pits.
Xena estimated from the sound that the army was marching under the outer defensive positions now but before she could say anything Meda turned towards Antonia and fixed her stare upon her.
"Remember what we discussed?" the leader of the town asked the red head.
Antonia looked frustrated by the question but nodded her head in agreement. Meda seemed satisfied with the minimal response. Xena watched the two with curiosity but remained as silent as the red-haired warrior.
"You should go" Meda instructed.
Xena, Gabrielle and Antonia climbed down from the arch together. All the while they could hear the army getting ever closer. Xena was sure they would be in sight within the minute and glanced back through the arch as they walked towards the women they would fight with.
"You look annoyed" Gabrielle stated towards the red head; "what has Meda asked you to do?"
Xena smiled at the bard's directness. When they had first met the warrior had found her curiosity and directness charming although at times it could be a little alarming. Antonia halted them just out of ear shot of the other warrior's, turning her back on them so no one could lip read her either.
"Should the battle be going badly I am to abandon defending the town and take the two of you to the ravine" the red head growled.
Xena had suspected that this was the topic the two women had discussed. Antonia was the town leaders second and her most trusted warrior, she was the obvious choice to carry out the task. Yet the red-haired woman was also the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect her home and Meda was asking her to go against that nature for the greater good.
They continued walking back to the other women and took their position in the centre and slightly in front of them. It gave them a clear view through the arch at the road and the army that now came in to view.
Seconds passed by as the front of the army got closer and closer to the wall. Then, finally, there was the sound of arrows in flight, followed by a roar of flames and the shouts of the startled men. The archers on the rocks began to fire as rapidly as possible and the familiar screams of battle rang out.
"And so it begins" Antonia muttered.
Chapter 21: The Army
There was a moment at the beginning of a battle when everything seemed to stand still. For Gabrielle, in this battle, it was waiting for the first of the soldiers to break through the hail of arrow fire and into the town. It seemed to take longer than she expected which was good because it meant the 'death tunnel' that Xena had hoped to create was effective but it also meant that the warriors waiting were pumped high on adrenaline for a long time without putting it to use. In the end, when men finally started to burst through the archway, the blonde was relieved that she had something to do.
The warriors stood with them all held spears and as soon as enough men were inside the town they let them fly. Most of those men fell and others burst through behind them to take their place. Xena, Gabrielle and Antonia burst forward, the other women following them, smashing in to battle.
Most of the men were armed with heavy flat swords which made them slower and more cumbersome than Gabrielle. Xena had trained Gabrielle to use her speed and agility with the sais to her advantage. Only a few men at a time could pour through the arch leaving the blonde plenty of space to use that manoeuvrability.
As the bodies started to pile up though it left less and left space and slowed their ability to immediately launch an attack on those pouring through. Those now inside the town were also trying to attack the archers on the wall so some of them were having to turn their attention inwards to protect the defensive position. This meant the 'death tunnel' was becoming less effective so more of the warlord's army were breaking through to the archway.
The bottle neck system was beginning to break down which meant that all the women in the market square were now actively in combat with the army. At the moment it felt manageable, but Gabrielle knew that soon they would start to be overrun by the soldiers and their secondary line would have to come in to play. That didn't signal doom and gloom for the town, but it made their position perilous.
Gabrielle managed to glance in Xena's direction to see the brunette warrior in full and spectacular flow. The lack of space around them made for Xena to be as effective normal though and it was currently impossible for the warrior to use her chakram in the battle as it would risk hitting those on their side too.
The bard took down another man with a simple block and gutter punch manoeuvre, using his momentum to magnify the force of her blow. She dodged another oncoming man and caught him across the lower back, trusting him towards Antonia awaiting blade. The red haired Thracian warrior was utterly focused on the oncoming army, but Gabrielle could see the concern in her eyes.
The blonde took another three men down, dodging one who then accidently swung his blade into a fellow member of the warlord's army, and then taking him down. There seemed to be a lot of men pouring in around them that were not trying to fight the women but break further into the town. Some were getting through and would be coming face to face with the voluntary second line to the rear of the market.
She also spotted Meda frantically waving at Antonia and the red head flung herself forward rather dangerously towards the arch to see what the leader of the town was trying to signal. Gabrielle wasn't in a position to follow her, but she tried to keep an eye on her progress. However, in the intense fighting she lost track of the Thracian for a few moments but then suddenly Antonia was back and forcing her way to the bard's location. The red-haired woman had a painful looking gash on her non sword wielding arm but it didn't seem to be troubling her.
Antonia grasped the bards arm and tugged Gabrielle through a gap that had formed behind a few of the woman fighting as a unit towards Xena. The brunette warrior noticed their approach and stepped towards them.
"Some of the men trying to go around us are not going deeper into town but looking for the West exit" Antonia shouted over the din of battle. "They must have broken Zia...they know where its located."
Gabrielle understood what that meant. They would have to break away from the battle and leave the Thracian's fighting alone. They had to try and destroy the lightning bolt before the Warlords men found it.
Antonia broke off at a run, smashing through a few soldiers in the process and Gabrielle and Xena gave chase. They were at an advantage as the red-haired woman knew the most direct way to the exit and the ravine, the men would only know the vague direction.
As they ran they took a few of the men searching for the exit down but only if they got in the way. This was currently more of a race than a fight and the bard's lungs burnt as she tried to keep up with the two taller women. They burst out of the small west exit, a gap in the natural rock, and into the forest. Antonia weaved through the trees ahead of them, leaping over smaller rocks and fallen logs that were in her way. Gabrielle followed as best she could but there were several times she had to scramble over the debris rather than leap it.
Xena and Antonia burst into the open area on the cliff face in front of her and once her feet hit flat meadow grass she was able to kick on and catch them a little. They were the first ones to the clearing, but there would be soldiers hot on their heels. All three came to a stop at the beginning of the rope bridge.
Antonia hung back, letting Xena and Gabrielle go first; or so the blonde thought. Her initial focus was finding her balance on the thin bridge. After a few paces she became accustomed to the slight movement underneath her feet and looked back to check on the red head. Antonia wasn't behind them. The warrior had stepped back into the middle of the clearing to defend the structure whilst they crossed it.
Undoubtedly tens of men would soon pour into the clearing. Antonia wouldn't be able to fight them alone and survive. She was laying down her life so that they could destroy the bolt. THEY didn't need to destroy the bolt though...Xena could do that alone.
"Xena" she shouted.
The brunette had continued walking so was several yards ahead of her. The warrior turned and looked at her questioningly but then Gabrielle saw the look of realisation on her face.
"I have to go back" Gabrielle said apologetically.
It only slightly improved the odds of them all surviving If she went back but it drastically increased the risk of her dying. The bard could see how scared that made her lover but there was also a look of defeat. It was the right thing to do and Xena knew it. Antonia had been instrumental to them being reunited and they couldn't be so selfish as to walk away and let her die.
"Go" Xena said firmly.
They held eye contact briefly, a lingering look that said more than a thousand words. I love you, take care, try to stay alive for me...
Gabrielle finally turned and quickly made her way back across the bridge and onto the cliff's edge. She looked back at Xena one more time. The brunette had reached the other side and was about to start scaling down the cliff. Gabrielle pulled out her sias again and marched towards Antonia, ready for whatever came next.
Chapter 22: The Defence of the Bridge
It had been with a heavy heart that Antonia had made the decision to remove herself, Xena and Gabrielle from the raging battle. They were comfortable the three best warriors and without them the town risked being overrun quickly. Antonia had lived most of her life in Edessa and had seen it grow from a settlement of temporary tents to a thriving trading town. It was her home, the home her mother had died to protect. Grace was there, unable to protect herself, with a swarm of the warlord army who would not think twice about killing her or defiling her.
That hurt as much as the possible destruction of the town. She had tried to tell herself she didn't care that much about the blonde healer but as she had sprinted away from the battle and towards the ravine she finally acknowledged to herself that she cared very deeply about what happened to Grace.
No matter what Antonia felt she knew that the fate of the lightning bolt was bigger and more important than her. It was bigger and more important than the fate of the town. If anyone chose to wield it, then they would be the most powerful person in the world and be virtually undefeatable. If that person was Tarbus then he would not stop until he controlled Thracia, Greece, the Roman Empire and perhaps his power lust would even spread North and East. It was unthinkable.
So Antonia had ran like the wind with Xena and Gabrielle hot on her heels. Yet she knew it was not her destiny to destroy Zeus' weapon; it was Xena's. The Greek warrior had been brought back from the dead to complete this destiny and complete the destruction she had rained down on the Olympian Gods nearly thirty years before.
So, Antonia had sent them onto the bridge and turned back. Her duty was to stand her ground and give Xena and Gabrielle the time to complete the task of destroying the bolt. It was likely this would be her last stand and by the gods she would make it a glorious one.
Two soldiers who had been chasing them came rushing into the clearing. They both came at her, one slightly ahead of the other. She parried his blow first and spun out of his reach, so she could parry the next soldier. He mistimed his swing in panic, allowing her to slice her sword into his chest, killing him outright. Then a clever side stack and false lunge gave her the space to force her sword into the stomach of the first soldier. She sensed another person behind her and spun, about to swing her sword. She recognised the figure instantly though and stopped the movement.
"Gabrielle are you mad?!" she exclaimed.
Antonia hadn't considered that the blonde would turn back and stand with her. She knew Gabrielle was brave enough, but the bard had only just got her lover back. Now Gabrielle and Xena risked being parted through death again but this time it could very well be the blonde's.
"No one should fight alone" Gabrielle said kindly.
They held eye contact briefly; Gabrielle trying to push the message across that she was staying. Antonia was grateful but also a little sad that she had probably brought her new friend to Edessa to die in a war that was not hers.
"You don't have to do this" the red-haired warrior pleaded.
There was no longer time for Gabrielle to change her mind though. There limited conversation was broken by the sound of soldiers approaching the tree line. The voices were loud, and they were calling out to others to alert them of the correct direction.
They both turned to face the tree line in sync and positioned themselves for battle. Around eight men burst out of the tree line, stopping at the edge of the open grass space, many still carrying their spears. Antonia saw the immediate danger of being stood so exposed whilst their enemies had projectile weapons, especially as neither carried shields.
"Get to cover!" she shouted to the blonde.
Just a few yards back stood two large boulders that supported the bridge. The thick rope of the bridge was tied around them, tethering the structure firmly to the town's side of the ravine. Both of them bolted back towards them and threw themselves behind them as the spears came flying by. Antonia felt the displaced air from one whip past her thigh as she dived. Other smashed into the rock face making a terrible din.
"Are you okay?" she yelled across the gap between the rocks.
Gabrielle didn't have a spear sticking out of her, but Antonia could see blood on the side of the blonde's exposed lower ribs. It didn't seem to be excessively pouring from the bard, but Antonia was still concerned.
"It's just a scratch" Gabrielle assured her.
Having been assuaged that her concern was unnecessary the red-haired warrior nodded to her friend to see if she was ready to fight. The blonde firmly nodded back, and they swung around the rocks and to their feet at the same time. The men had broken cover and were running in their direction. The two women strode forward and faced the attack head on.
Swords and Sias clattered together, steel sparking off steel as they fought. It dawned on Antonia that Tarbus had been quite crafty. He had put the conscripted men at the front of the army, knowing many would be mowed down early on, and held his own men back. Most of the men pouring into the town now or following them to the ravine were trained warlord soldiers. They were still a poor match for Antonia and Gabrielle but even as they took the group of men in front of them down they could hear others coming. It sounded substantially more than the eight men they just faced.
"There are too many of them!" Antonia called out to Gabrielle as they both stopped to catch their breath between attacks.
The red-haired warrior knew they needed to buy Xena more time. Destroying the lightning bolt would not be as simple as striking it with a sword.
Antonia glanced back at the bridge and the blonde followed her eyeline. There was no other way across to the small land mass on the other side of the ravine. It would buy Xena days as the army would have to march miles back to enter the ravine, march down a thin strip of land by the river and then make an impossible climb up a hundred feet of sheer rock face. The problem was that Xena would have the same issue in getting back, if there was anything or anyone left to get back to.
"Destroy it!" Gabrielle called to her as more men started to emerge from the edge of the forest; "Xena will find another way back."
Antonia knew she had to do it quickly or all those men would be upon the blonde before Antonia could return to help her. The red-haired warrior set of at a run in the direction of the boulders again. She stopped between them and swung her sword at the taught rope leading to the boulder to her right. It took two swings to cut through both ropes on that side, the supporting rope and the hand rail rope. She then turned her attention to the rope on her left. The higher rope snapped away and she hacked at the lower rope but when she sheered it the rope snapped towards her and whipped her hard in the shin.
It was hard enough to knock her off her feet and send her skidding towards the edge of the cliff face. She let go of her sword and scrabbled with her hands for some purchase to prevent herself going too far. The land was mainly grassed until right at the very edge so there was nothing she could do to stop her body sliding over the side of the cliff. She could hear Gabrielle scream out her name.
Grace had thought she knew what to expect from this battle. Not much more than a year before she had fled, like many others, into the forest as her village was raided and burnt. She still remembered the cries and the screams of pain and fear as the people were slaughtered. Yet it had just been a small village with few fighters. Destruction had befallen them easily and with great speed. It had taken but fifty or so of the Tarbus' men to complete their terrible task.
Edessa was a large town with many warriors. Hundreds of the warlord's soldiers had marched upon the town. Instead of helpless screams the marketplace and streets echoed with the clashing of swords and the shouts of the injured. The attack on her village had felt like it had been drawn out for a long time but in reality it had been minutes. The Edessan's had already been fighting for five times that length of time.
Grace had seen none of the fighting from inside the bath house, but she could hear it raging outside. Instead she just saw the wounded, being dragged in numbers that they couldn't possibly deal with. Those who could were binding or putting pressure on their own wounds, many in an attempt to patch themselves up so they could return to the fight. Many were in need of far more assistance if any could be given at all.
The blonde had been the only known survivor when her village was destroyed. Many had fled towards the forest, but they had been caught and slayed or some of the women had been captured and taken as playthings for the army. Those women were undoubtedly now dead too. Grace had made it into the forest and stumbled blindly around for two days until accidently reaching Edessa. The town had been horrified by her story and several warriors had rode back with her to look for survivors. One of those women had been Antonia. The red-haired woman had stood at the edge of the town and overlooked the destruction with a mournful countenance. They she had ordered that the others dismounted so they could gather the dead and give them a proper send off.
It had taken hours and Antonia had worked tirelessly to create the funeral pyre. When it was done she had handed the healer the torch so she could light the fire. Grace had been paralysed with sadness, so Antonia had helped guide her arm to the pyre. It had been in that moment that Grace had fell for the quiet and solemn warrior. That fondness had only grown stronger and deeper as time had passed.
Grace excused herself from the main room of the bath house and made her way up a tight flight of steps which led to the top of the building. From there she would be able to see the progress of the battle and perhaps catch a glimpse of Antonia. She knew she could not be gone for long as she was needed to tend the wounded with the other two remaining healers.
Once on the roof she hunkered down below the palisade like structure that edged the flat surface. She peered over and was even more horrified by what she saw. Most of the warlord's army was now inside the town and engaged in combat with the Edessan's. Some of their warriors were still in tree top structures high above the ground using their bows to take down the invading soldiers but most were now at ground level. Edessa's position looked hopeless. Grace felt like she was about to be sick at the prospect of the second place she had ever called home being ravaged like the first.
The healer could not see Antonia, nor Xena or Gabrielle but it was hard to pick out singular warriors from the dense crowd of fighters. Then she spotted a figure she did recognise. Meda, the town leader, was in the heat of the battle in the market place. The warlordâ€™s army around her seemed to part as a male figure strode towards her. Grace had never seen him in the flesh before, but she was sure from the man's countenance and appearance that it was the warlord himself. He was tall and imposing and built like an ox. She could barely bring herself to watch as Meda fearlessly rushed towards him, ready to engage him in battle.
Xena had made the climb down to the mouth of the cage quickly despite its sheer rock face. There had been vines and places to grip on to enough for an experienced climber like herself. She had fashioned herself a poor torch out of a vine branch and crashed through the cave as quickly as possible looking for the lightning bolt. Luckily there was only one passageway.
The gap in the rock had been tight at times but had finally opened into a small cavern, barely as large as the hut she and Gabrielle had been sharing. The walls were bare rock and there seemed to be no ceremony surrounding the powerful item the Edessian's guarded. In the centre of that space was a plain stone pedestal that rose out of the rock shelf to Xena's waist height. On this pedestal sat the lightning bolt, with a simple purple cloth cushioning it from the hard surface below.
Xena stepped up to the bolt and shone the faint light over it. At first nothing happened and Xena worried that they were fighting a battle over a fake. The artefact was a cloudy white colour but other than its elaborate shape it didn't look like anything special. It certainly didn't look glorious enough to be the weapon of the former king of the Greek Gods.
The warrior reached out and ran her fingertips across it cold surface. It wasn't made out of any material she recognised and was surprisingly cold to the touch. As her hand moved it the weapon suddenly began to glow, a faint yellow light emanating through its once cloudy colouring. Suddenly it looked a lot more impressive than first glance had suggested. It was still cold to the touch despite its warm glow.
Xena placed her crude torch down next to the bolt and removed her sword from its sheath. She swung it over her head, bringing it down heavily across the bolt. The object sparked, and the sword was forced back in the direction from whence it had came, nearly knocking Xena backwards off her feet. She stumbled backwards but regained her balance before she fell completely.
Xena stepped forward to see if the sword had any effect on the bolt. The answer was that it had zero effect, in fact the damn thing wasn't even scratched. Xena lifted her sword into the faint light, relieved to see it too was unharmed. A less well-crafted blade would have surely shattered against the artefact. She re-sheathed her sword, certain it would be of no use to her.
Next, she unhooked her Chakram and stepped back to the wall of the cave. She let it fly at the bolt, but it had the same lack of effect, merely glancing off the other weapon before hitting the far wall and coming back to her at a greater speed then it had left her hand. She caught it easily still and dropped it back onto her belt. It had been unlikely that the Chakram would work when the sword would not, but she had to exhaust the possibility.
Xena stepped close to the bolt again and lent her hands on the pedestal. There was a lot of mythology surrounding Zeus' weapon, so it was impossible to know what was fact and what was fiction. One story she had heard again and again though was that the bolt was at its weakest after use as it was drained of energy. It seemed like her only viable option...but she couldn't try to wield it a hundred feet or more inside a rock face. It would be suicide.
Xena grabbed the bolt and vine that was rapidly burning down and began to retrace her footsteps back out of the cave.
Comments are the spice of a writers life...
Chapter 24: The Lightning Bolt
Gabrielle had watched in horror as Antonia was dragged over the edge of the cliff by the bridge. It felt like it happened in slow motion, but she was too far away to be able to a damn thing about it. With soldiers starting to advance out of the forest in front of her she had no time to really process what had happened. Her only option was to step away from the fallen soldiers around her and give her some space to try and tackle the next wave alone.
Luckily only a couple of soldier’s broke cover at first and two men she could deal with easily. She dived to the left, avoiding the swing of one man, bringing her Sias around to smash him across the back of the head. At the same time, she used her second weapon to block the second man. A swift kick to his groin incapacitated him enough for her to bring the Sias down against his head too. Many more soldiers were emerging out of the forest though. Too many for her to fend off alone.
Then, like some sort of miracle she heard groaning from behind her. A quick glance to the cliff face confirmed that Antonia had somehow managed to get a hold of something just over the edge that had stopped her fall. The Edessian warrior was hauling herself back up and to safety. Perhaps luck was going to be on their side after all.
Antonia stumbled quickly in Gabrielle's direction, grabbing her sword and two of the spears that had been flung at them on route. The red-haired woman was scraped, scratched and bloodied but they were all just superficial wounds. A warrior like Antonia would barely feel them in the adrenaline rush of the heat of battle.
Antonia reached Gabrielle just before the large group of soldiers did and the warrior threw one spear and then the other at the men. Both hit their mark, felling two soldiers instantly. They both stepped forward into the oncoming men and launched their own attacks. Gabrielle registered the fact that Antonia somehow launched another two small daggers towards soldiers with her spare hand as she swung her sword with the other. The bard had no idea where they had been stashed on the warrior, but she hoped Antonia had more tricks tucked into her scant clothing.
The red head's throwing skills had brought this particular fight back in their favour as it left them with only three men each to tackle. Even as they took those men down though there was little time to draw breath before more men appeared from the forest. Gabrielle stepped next to Antonia in the brief gap between attacks.
“How much time did that buy Xena” the blonde asked.
She had been told the previous day that there was no other way across the ravine from this land. The bard had no idea how quickly the men could march through the forest and down into the ravine though, hemming Xena in and preventing an easy escape for the brunette.
“Ages” Antonia assured her whilst gasping to regain her breath; “at least a day”
The red-haired warrior really did look battered on closer inspection but there was no time for care or triage before they were forced to fight again. More men were running out of the tree line at them. They would not be able to carry on like this indefinitely, but Gabrielle had no intention of giving in just yet. Whilst they stood their ground it looked like they had something to defend and that would keep a lot of the attention firmly focussed on them. Otherwise the soldiers would be heading back in numbers to an already swarmed town.
“They keep coming” Gabrielle sighed.
“But this know well, that never in one day perished so great a multitude of men” Antonia responded.
The bard hadn't expected any kind of answer and certainly didn't expect the warrior to quote the Greek poetry of Aeschylus to her. Antonia smirked at her shocked expression before turning her focus back on the oncoming soldiers.
Xena had to blink several times to refocus her eyes when she reached the entrance of the cave. It had been virtually pitch-black inside, but the sun light was still bright and high in the sky outside. There was a thin ledge, perhaps wide enough for three people to stand shoulder to shoulder on at the entrance. From there she could not see what was happening on the opposite cliff face as it was at least twenty feet higher than she was positioned. The warrior's well attuned hearing could pick up the sound of fighting though which surely meant Gabrielle and Antonia were still alive.
Xena also immediately noticed that the bridge which should have been above her and reaching back across the ravine was now hanging limply down her side of the cliff. It was a worrying sign that the red-haired warrior and bard had felt the need to cut it loose, but it did mean her climb back to the top would be far easier as she now had something akin to a ladder to use.
Xena tossed the last bit of the burning vine into the ravine and held the lightning bolt in both hands. She had seen it wielded before by Zeus himself, but she had no idea if it would work quite so easily with a mortal. There was only one way to find out.
The warrior raised the bolt towards the sky, gripping it but the thickest part at the base of the artefact. She could feel the power surging inside it and it tingled in her hand. Nothing happened other than that, so she closed her eyes and focused on what outcome she wanted.
The tingling in her hand increased significantly and she had to force herself to ignore the uncomfortable sensation and keep her grip of the bolt. Then there was a huge surge of enemy from the base of the bolt, up the artefact and out of the tip. A yellow shot of light flew out of the end and up into the sky. It seemed to disappear into the blue abyss above her without any effect.
Xena lowered the bolt and glared at it in frustration. However, before she could raise it to try again dark clouds started to race across the sky from all directions, covering the bright sun and greying the sky above her. The light dimmed as the clouds formed together to create a single cloud which then began to spread out quickly over a great distance. Loud angry thunder rolled from directly above her causing even her to jump slightly. Then the heavens opened and heavy, freezing cold rain began to fall.
Chapter 25: The Last Stand
Antonia was aware of the weather suddenly changing as she fought but was paying it little mind until the loudest thunder she had ever heard roared out above them. The soldiers that were fighting and approaching them seemed equally as surprised and backed off slightly. Everyone in the clearing looked up at the sky. The warrior could see it dawning on everyone that such an extreme change could only be caused by one thing, the lightning bolt. It seemed to unnerve the men slightly and they backed of yet another step, all looking at each other for guidance.
“Xena” Gabrielle stated.
“The bolt can only be used once before needing time to recharge” Antonia explained, “without the power of a god to recharge it quickly it will be at its weakest now.”
In truth she had forgotten the old children's tales about the bolt until Xena's use of it had reminded her. It was a good job the brunette's memory was a little better.
The men began to edge around the clearing and Antonia realised what was happening. They had decided to stop running head on into Antonia and Gabrielle's blades and were instead forming a large circle and surrounding them. There was little they could do to prevent the formation now, so Antonia used the opportunity to catch her breath as she kept an eye on the soldiers movements. Gabrielle seemed to be of the same mind as they stood shoulder to shoulder.
The rain was falling so heavy now and the sky was so grey that visibility was poor. Antonia had to keep blinking out cold water from her eyes and she was becoming more aware of her wounds with the rain beating down hard upon them. The perilous weather only got worse though when purple bolts of lightning began to rain down. Every ten or so seconds one would crash to earth.
The first hit the cliff face behind them, causing everyone to jump slightly as rock was smashed away and crashed down into the ravine. Then one hit a tree ahead of them, splitting it straight down the middle. Conveniently one half of the tree fell on top of a few men who were about to add to the numbers already surrounding them. It did rather highlight the dangerous battle ground they now stood in. It was not only soldiers they would be fighting but rapidly forming mud and killer bolts of pure energy.
The men began to slowly edge towards them and Antonia looked to her fighting partner. It was now really important they worked as a team even though they had barely thought together. Working in tandem was something Edessian warriors trained for and Antonia only hoped it was still close enough to Amazonian training for the two of them to be effective. The two turned back to back, Antonia still facing the tree line and Gabrielle the cliff face.
“You could run now” Antonia mumbled to her companion, “I wouldn't blame you.”
The warrior wasn't lying. This was not Gabrielle's battle and if she escaped now her and Xena could make a life together again. If the bard stayed the result was likely to be very different.
“I'm staying with you” the blonde promised.
Lightening crashed around Xena, causing a rock slide on the cliff face opposite her. She hadn't realised pointing it at the sky would cause quite such a dramatic weather anomaly she had merely been aiming for a bit of rain and thunder.
Once the surge of energy finished the lightning bolt went from having a faint yellow glow to its initial colour when Xena had discovered it. It was cloudy white again and no longer tingled in Xena's tight grip.
The warrior tossed the lightning bolt a few feet into the cave so she could still see it clearly and unclipped her Chakram again. She took aim and threw it as hard as she could, aiming for one of the sharp turns in the bolt as those points looked like they would be the weakest parts. The Chakram released from her hand and smashed into the bolt. Xena heard the sound of the artefact sheering in two but its destruction caused a flare in the residual energy contained. The cliff trembled violently as the mouth of the cave lit up like an explosion.
Xena felt the ledge below her start to creak and crack like it was about to give way. The warrior launched herself to her left, leaping of the ledge as it gave away and grabbing hold of the rail rope from the bridge. The force of her jump swung her away from the cave and then back towards it just in time for her to reach out with one hand and catch her returning Chakram.
She could just about see the obliterated rod on the cave floor which was now shattered in many pieces. It was job done.
Rain continued to pour upon Gabrielle and Antonia and the blonde was completely soaked. The mud made moving quickly difficult but being back to back with the red-haired warrior meant they could balance of each other. The incoming soldiers had only themselves for balance and as they were the once doing most of the moving they were also doing most of the slipping and sliding.
Antonia had firmly parried away an attack as three men emerged on Gabrielle together. The blonde braced herself back against the other woman and Antonia immediately bent forward. This allowed Gabrielle to fling herself back onto the warrior so that she could twist into a double scissor kick, catching two of the men totally by surprised so the fell backwards in the mud. Antonia straightened immediately allowing Gabrielle to push of her and use her Sias against the third man.
Despite their good technique together Gabrielle didn't think they could carry on much longer. She was exhausted, and no doubt Antonia was too. That made it both physically and mentally had to continue taking on multiple combatants.
There was a loud, shrill whistle and suddenly the men were all backing off again to a safe distance. For a moment Gabrielle felt relief but then she turned to look in the direction of the whistle. There stood a tall and muscular man wearing much finer leather clothing and armour than the soldiers they had faced today. It was clear this was the warlord Tarbus of whom Antonia had told her about. He was bound to be very pissed as their plan to destroy the bolt was now obvious. He may have stopped his men for now, but Gabrielle suspected it would only be a very short reprieve.
Xena climbed the remains of the bridge quickly. As soon as she reached the top she wiped the rain water from her eyes that had built up during her upward trajectory. The brunette looked out across the ravine to see a very troubling sight.
Gabrielle and Antonia were still there but they were surrounded by soldiers and fighting for their lives. She needed to get back to them and fast but with the bridge gone a hundred feet or more of ravine stood between them. She turned away from the cliff edge and looked at what raw materials were available.
She had two large stone boulders close by and a lot of rope available to her. It would provide good leverage for a catapult if there was a suitable tree. To her relief, stood only a few feet away was a reasonable sized ash tree just perfect for the job. She'd used this technique before but never over such a sheer drop.
It meant the warrior would have to move the heavy boulder into place. This meant pushing it several feet away. First, she severed the rest of the bridge away from the boulder with her sword, leaving only the rail rope attached. Then she put her back to the boulder and began to force it in the direction she needed it. It was by no means easy but slowly and surely it started to slide across the wet ground.
Once she got it into place she heard a loud whistle from across the ravine. There she saw a figure emerging from the trees. He was too far away to see clearly but from the way the soldiers instantly reacted to his whistle she knew it had to be the warlord. It spurred Xena on even quicker than before if that was even possible.
Chapter 26: The Face Off
Antonia watched Tarbus like a hawk as he steadily strode in their direction. She had seen him in the flesh before when she had been escorting traders. In those instances, he had been visiting the villages or towns for payment or drinking in the Inn's there. Today he was very much dressed for war, head to toe in metal studded black leather with steel gauntlets. He carried his broad sword in his right hand, his other was crossed behind his back out of view. The red-haired woman was concerned about what he could possibly be concealing.
The warlord halted when he reached the formation of soldiers around them. He observed the two women closely in silence for what felt to Antonia like minutes. She was totally tuned into her surroundings, awaiting whatever the next attack would bring. She could hear her own deep strained breaths as her lungs tried to regain full capacity after over an hour of continuous fighting. She could hear Gabrielle huffing and puffing alongside her. The men around them shuffled on their feet as they awaited their next order. All the while thunder rolled, lightening crashed against nearby trees and there was the constant pitter patter of rain.
“Which one of you wielded the lightning bolt” Tarbus finally broke the silence to ask.
Antonia stared defiantly at the warlord but remained silent. She had no intention of revealing anything to him especially as she didn't know if Xena had succeeded in her task yet. The bard beside her remained equally as silent and utterly still. This wall of silence clearly irked Tarbus and his upper lip curled in an unpleasant snarl.
“I have ways of making you tell me” the warlord said slowly and dangerously. “I'd say you could ask your compatriot Zia but I'm afraid we parted company...permanently.”
Antonia had known in her heart that her captured friend was dead but to have the murdered brag his crime to her was more than she could stand. Red head wanted to rip his head off with her bare hands and took a step forward to attempt to do just that. A strong arm whipped out across her chest, gripping the shoulder strap of her clothing and forcing her to halt with a jolt.
“Don't be a fool” Gabrielle hissed at her.
Antonia knew she could break free of the grasp if she wanted too but the blonde was right. She wouldn't even reach Tarbus before the other soldiers moved to block her path. If she wanted his head she would have to be patient and a bit clever. Gabrielle obviously felt the lack of resistance and released her grip on the warrior.
Then from behind them there was a strange swishing sound, like a long whip being cracked. It was followed by a loud female war cry that echoed around the ravine that Antonia realised must be Xena.
The brunette warrior seemed to just fall out of the sky in front of them, somersaulting elegantly and landing on her feet just in front of Antonia and Gabrielle. It was a hell of an entrance and the bard had certainly been right when she had claimed Xena would find another way back across the ravine. The warrior had somehow catapulted herself across the huge gap.
“Sorry to disappoint but I'm afraid your precious lightning bolt is laying in pieces” Xena taunted the warlord.
Tarbus had looked taken aback by Xena's circus style entrance but he looked livid at her words. Antonia readied herself for whatever attack was about to come but then he seemed to take a deep breath and calm himself. He started to draw round the hand that had been hidden behind his back.
“Isn't it sad your leader died for no reason then” he sneered directly at Antonia.
As he spoke he brought the hand round to reveal Meda's necklace, the emblem of the Edessian leader, hanging from his tight grasp. Antonia's heart felt like it was sinking in her chest as she reeled from the shock of his words. Meda had been like an older sister to her for as long as she could remember. They had played together, trained together, fought together and ran certain aspects of the town together.
“Sound the horn for retreat” Tarbus ordered his men; “We are finished here.”
His words took a few moments to sink in through her grief and the warlord had already turned away by the time she processed what was happening. After all the death and destruction, he was just going to turn away like it was simply just a case of nothing ventured nothing gained. Antonia could not let that happen. For all those that had fallen, for Zia, for Meda...they must be avenged. For the honour of her people she could not let him walk away with the emblem of their leadership.
“STAND YOUR GROUND TARBUS” she yelled as she pushed past Xena towards the retreating warlord.
The tall man stopped in his tracks but did not immediately turn around. Antonia knew it would show better common sense if he just walked away but warlords had their own honour code and pride; she could easily play on that.
“I'm told you are no coward so STAND...YOUR...GROUND” she growled at him, emphasising every word.
As she expected Tarbus turned back to face her and sneered. He could not be called a coward in front of his men and not respond to the claim or he risked losing their respect and fear. The warlord stuffed the necklace in the left side pocket of his leather jacket and unsheathed his sword. The soldiers who were walking away with him stood still, watching the events unfold.
“Antonia...” the bard protested from behind her.
“Gabrielle she must” Xena cut in over the blonde.
The red-haired warrior stepped forward towards the warlord and he began to stride towards her. The rain continued to beat down although the lightening seemed to have finally stopped. There was a loud roll of thunder above them as they calmly approached each other. Both broke into a run over the last couple of steps and swung their swords, crossing and clashing violently against the other.
Antonia used the momentum to turn sideways and throw her body weight against him, using her shoulder and hip to force him backwards. The steel of the swords sparked as they scraped against each other. The warlord swung his blade towards her at chest height and she parried it, pushing his blade back and bringing her own weapon down towards his thighs. Tarbus leapt backwards, barely avoiding the blade, and taking a swipe at her head with his own. She leant back from the waist and the tip of his blade swept just past her chin, scratching her skin with the tip.
The warlord had pushed his upper body forward to make the swing, so the red-haired warrior tried to bring her sword down upon his dipped head. He parried it and pushed up, causing her to slip in the mud so her body started turning away from him. Antonia could see him swinging his weapon at her shoulder, so she brought her sword down over the back of the head to block it, jamming her heel down in the ground to stabilise her. The swords clashed against each other and she twisted her shoulders around them and elbowed him in the side of the head.
Tarbus stumbled away from her before righting himself. They stood facing each other again, both breathing heavily. Antonia blinked the freezing cold stinging rain out of her eyes and glared at her opponent. Tarbus launched forward first, clearly angry at her landing a blow on him. It was a bold lunge, but Antonia saw it coming and side stepped to his right, one handily parrying the blow with her sword whist landing another firm punch to the side of his jaw.
Tarbus turned and launched at her again but this time she stood her ground. She blocked down with her sword, holding the hilt with two hands to provide the force she needed to hold the blow. Instead of parrying him away she jammed the hilt up and into his nose. It erupted with a splatter of blood, some of it hitting her in the face. As he stumbled back in pain she took advantage of the situation and twisted the sword through her fingers, completely changing her grip into just her right hand and forcing the tip of the blade into his stomach. It pierced the leather and into his flesh by a small ingredient but it was enough to cause severe pain. The shock of which gave her time to step into him and firmly jam the sword in further. It was hard enough for the tip and a hands width of blade to exit his lower back with a terrible tearing sound. She looked up into his wide, agonised eyes, glad he would be the last thing she saw.
Tarbus convulsed, making a gargling sound as he began to choke on his own blood which was running down from his shattered nose and up through his throat. His sword dropped from his hand and his body began to slacken. She pulled the sword out just as firmly as she had forced it in and he dropped to the ground. He was dead before his body even splashed face down in the mud.
She could feel the eyes of his soldiers on her; shocked and a little awed. Then they began to run.
Antonia paid them no attention. The fight on the cliff face was over. It was time to make sure the fight in the town was over too.
Antonia reached down and rolled the warlords body over onto its back. She reached down and removed the necklace from his pocket, grasping it by the leather throng and lifting it up to inspect it. She had done her duty by reclaiming the emblem but by the gods she didn't want the responsibility it would now bring her. She had the opportunity to claim the necklace once before but had not desired it. Now she would be taking leadership of a town at the lowest moment in its history and decimated by war.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked from behind her.
The red-haired warrior rose to her feet and turned to face her two allies. They were both stood a little back and looked at her with understanding and compassion. As an Amazon Queen Gabrielle would fully understand the rights of leadership won through battle.
“We must get back to Edessa” Antonia avoided answering the question. She wasn't sure if she was okay. She just felt numb all over; to the point she barely registered any pain from her various scrapes, cuts and bruises.
Chapter 27: The Carnage of Battle
Antonia had jogged back to the town despite the fact she must have been exhausted and Gabrielle had pushed through her own pain barrier to keep up with her. Still the rain poured down upon them although there was finally some cover for them in the forest. Gabrielle was so cold now it barely mattered. As they got nearer it was clear the remnants of the warlord’s army had pulled out and the battle no longer raged. There was no sounds of clashing swords or hand to hand combat, just some faint cries of pain from the wounded.
Antonia did not say a word throughout the journey and Gabrielle thought it best not to try and force her into any kind of conversation. The loss and sorrow the red-haired woman must be feeling was horrendous and she was the kind of person who needed space not a listening ear. Xena was obviously of the same mind as she also remained silent.
As they reached the rocks boundary to the town they slowed to a walk and Xena grasped the blonde's hand in her own. Gabrielle glanced at her loved and squeezed her hand; happy to receive some physical comfort. They had seen death and destruction many times but this one felt a little more personal. These people had brought them back together and Gabrielle had become quite attached to Antonia in the short time she had known her. She also knew how it felt to be a leader when having to deal with a substantial number of losses. One of her worst experiences prior to losing Xena in Chin was the death of so many Amazon's that she had led in a raid against another warlord.
A few bodies littered the entrance of the Western entrance, but they became denser as they moved into town. The market place was littered with the dead and there was barely and room to stand between the bodies. Some of the Edessian warriors were stood with their back to them, looking down at one of the fallen. Gabrielle knew exactly who's body it would be from their hung shoulders.
Antonia, still carrying the necklace in her hand, pushed through the warriors. They all looked shocked to see her alive but then there was a collective gasp as they realised what she held and had reclaimed. The red-haired warrior didn't even seem to hear their whispers as she dropped to her knees in front of her slain friend and former leader.
Gabrielle stood to the side of the Edessian's, with Xena directly behind her. Meda was sprawled out on her back with one deep gash across the side of her ribs and the other across her chest. The bard was relieved that Tarbus hadn't done anything too despicable like removing her head. The sight would have been far more gruesome then.
Antonia tucked the necklace in the pouch on her belt and reached down, scooping Meda up in her arms. Despite the exhaustion she must be feeling the red-haired woman lifted the limp body up easily and rose to her feet. Gabrielle, Xena and the warriors quietly followed her as she began to carry the body in the direction of the bath house.
It was like a sombre funeral procession until they rounded the corner and the bath house came into view. It the open space in front of the building the Edessian survivors were gathering, many injured. It was a flurry of activity with those that were uninjured, barely wounded, part of the stretcher team or healers trying to tend to those that were hurt and get them inside away from the rain. The cooks who had stayed behind were handing out bread and cups of water.
The warriors who were with them scurried on ahead of them and Gabrielle could hear them telling anyone who would and could listen that Antonia had defeated the warlord and reclaimed the Edessian emblem. Antonia again ignored the whispers and the looks of adulation and placed Meda's body gently down next to a carved rock in the centre of the square.
“Wrap her body and place it in Selene's hut so she can prepare her for the funeral pyre” Antonia instructed one of the uninjured warriors who stood closest to them.
Gabrielle knew it was Amazon tradition that the leader would be prepared and burnt on a different pyre to the rest of the dead. Considering the amount of bodies that lined the market place and the rest of the town it would take many pyres to dispose of the bodies in the traditional manner.
As soon as Antonia was satisfied that the warrior was doing her bidding she moved on towards Selene. Gabrielle and Xena followed her, surveying the injured as they went. Most in the square looked as though they would be fine given time to heal but there were some that looked hopeless cases. The Edessian's were still trying to save them though and Gabrielle spotted Grace hovering over one such person with a needle and thread trying to stem the bleeding.
Antonia seemed to notice the blonde healer at the same Gabrielle did and came to a brief stop. For the first time since she had defeated Tarbus Gabrielle saw a flash of emotion across the red-haired woman's features. It was relief. It was only for a couple of seconds though before the new leader of the town carried on walking to Selene, the town elder. This meant that Antonia didn't see Grace look up and see her. Gabrielle did though. The blonde healer paused mid stitch and smiled. It was the kind of smile that expressed great joy and relief and Gabrielle suspected there were tears, but she couldn't see her clearly enough to be sure.
“Antonia you are a sight for sore eyes” Selene greeted, her voice hoarse from emotion. “I knew you had succeeded but I didn't dare hope that you had survived.”
The older woman placed her hand on the warrior’s bicep and received a customary sharp nod from the red-haired woman. Antonia gently moved her arm away from the contact and reached inside her pouch, pulling the town emblem out and holding it up for Selene to see. Undoubtedly the town elder had heard the whispers being passed around the survivors and there was no surprise in her eyes only a look of acknowledgement and pride.
“It's wet and it will start going dark soon” Antonia finally spoke up; “We need to get all the wounded inside so commandeer any buildings you need.”
The older woman lowered her head respectfully. It was clear Selene had a deep affection for Antonia and obviously respected her new leadership. There was no doubt in Selene's eyes even though Gabrielle sensed doubt in Antonia herself.
“Then those who have fought should rest” Selene suggested. “We can move the dead and make the pyre's tomorrow once everyone has slept.”
Antonia nodded her head again and walked away towards the military cooks, undoubtedly off to give out more orders. Gabrielle was about to follow her again but then realised that Xena was not moving and was instead turning to talk to the town elder.
“She makes a reluctant leader” Xena commented, “but she will be a strong one and that is what you will need now.”
Selene smiled before turning away slightly to carry on rubbing ointment on the wounded shoulder of the blacksmith who had helped Xena forge her weapons the day before. Their conversation was not over though, and Selene began to tell them a story as she worked.
“Once there was an Amazon leader named Lyvia who brought her people hundreds of miles across Greece and Thracia to a new and prosperous home. When she died her daughter was too young to claim her birth rite, so it fell to Lyvia's trusted second, Helena. Then when Helana died that daughter could have claimed her rite, but she had been bought up like a sister to Helena's daughter. This daughter was older, a little wiser at the time perhaps and a lot less impetuous. Lyvia's daughter stood aside, more comfortable with a role leading just the warriors. Despite that decision Antonia was always born to lead...It has been her destiny.”
Gabrielle listened intently to Selene's words. The town elder was a good story teller and used excellent intonation in her voice to push across the meaning of her words. The bard had known from the start that she was talking about Antonia as it had already been revealed to them who the red-haired warrior's mother was. It was still interesting to hear how Antonia had previously turned away from leadership and it seemed very in character. It didn't surprise Gabrielle at all that Antonia would not want the adulation of a leader.
The blacksmith stood up after his treatment was finished and hobbled away towards a group of huts many were now being sent towards. It meant that the three women were now out of earshot of other people.
"I don't believe for a second that her father was some unknown farmer" Xena pressed, catching Gabrielle by surprise. She had taken Antonia at her word that Zeus was not her father but Xena's tone suggested that the warrior thought Antonia didn't actually know the truth.
"No" Selene admitted with a strained sigh.
"Why not tell her?" Gabrielle asked. Why keep something like that a secret?
Selene looked over towards Antonia who was now walking towards a group of the uninjured women. All of them instantly snapped to attention when they saw her approach, looking at her with reverence despite her dishevelled appearance. The red head was sodden wet and despite the rainfall still covered in a considerable amount of blood. Her own blood and that of others. Gabrielle knew the warrior was probably in need of medical attention too but was sure Antonia would not seek it.
"The attention of now being the outright leader is quite enough for her to manage" Selene pointed out; "do you think she really wants others to look upon her as a Demi God too?"
Chapter 28: The Request
Xena and Gabrielle returned to their hut as darkness began to fall. They had helped the wounded into the huts on the ground around the bath house first. Then made the short journey around the back of the market to their accommodation in the trees. Xena had desired the privacy the location would bring them.
As soon as they were inside the dark hut Gabrielle fell into her arms and clung to her. Xena could feel her bard’s exhaustion and she wrapped her arms around the blonde's shoulders. Gabrielle's head nestled into the top of Xena's chest, just above her breast plate. The smaller woman was freezing cold and wet. Xena was cold too but nowhere near as cold as the bard. The two stood in silence for a little while before the warrior extracted herself from her lovers hold determined to check her wounds and then warm her up.
“Sit” Xena ordered.
Gabrielle complied and sat down on the wood floor whilst Xena used her sword and Chakram to spark a candle to life. She placed the weapons down and then used the candle to light a few more on the table, giving the hut a soft glow of light for her to work in. She grasped the wash basin which was still half full of water from the previous evening and a cloth, and then knelt next to Gabrielle who was shivering and shaking lightly. Despite the lengthy battle the blonde was relatively unscathed with just a shallow gash on her thigh and her upper arm. Xena had received no wounds as she had spent a great deal of the time not fighting but instead dealing with the lightning bolt.
"How did you know that Antonia was Zeus' daughter?" Gabrielle asked as Xena dabbed the wound on her thigh.
"It occurred to me as I watched her fight that the only way it made sense for such a warrior to have been receptive to my attempts to contact her was if she also part of Zeus' prophesy" Xena explained. "Who better to see it fulfilled than his own kin."
Gabrielle seemed satisfied with her explanation but grimaced slightly as Xena dabbed at the wound a bit more. It was superficial but had mud in it, so the brunette took her time making sure all the dirt was washed away. They would have to go to bed covered in sweat tonight and hopefully they could use the bath house or find another source of water to wash in tomorrow. Xena did the best she could to wipe of the worst of the dirt though from Gabrielle's legs before turning her attention to the bard’s arms and midriff.
Once she was satisfied Gabrielle was not in any danger from her wounds and clean enough to be comfortable she used two dry pieces of cloth to wrap the blonde's cuts to prevent anything else getting in them. Then she removed the blonde's wet boots which luckily the rain had washed most of the mud from.
“Take those wet clothes off and get under the blankets” she instructed.
“Don't you want me to wash you?” Gabrielle asked.
“No its okay” the warrior assured her lover, “you get warm and I will be with you soon.”
The blonde did not have to be told twice and she began to tug her clothes of, throwing them haphazardly to the furthest corner of the room away from the bed. As the bard stripped Xena removed her own boots and bean to wipe the dirt of her own limbs.
She was nearly finished by the time Gabrielle had got under the fleece blankets as the blonde had struggled to pull the tight wet clothes from her damp body with freezing cold hands. Xena removed her own clothing and placed it by the bards before crawling under the covers to join the smaller woman.
Gabrielle's skin was still freezing to the touch so Xena pulled her closer and wrapped her arms around her. The blonde lay her head on Xena's shoulder, a position they had slept in often over the years. At first, she could feel Gabrielle still shivering against her but after a couple of minutes the bard stilled and her skin began to slowly regain some warmth.
The bard was silent but Xena could tell she wasn't asleep. She was merely reflecting on the day and the carnage it had laid upon Edessa and its people. It was playing on Xena's mind too. The two of them had seen so much war over the years and so much death. Now that they had a second chance together was it really the life that Xena wanted to give her loving companion? Surely there had to be something more for them?
“Gabrielle?” the brunette used the other woman's name to catch her attention.
“Mhmm” the bard mumbled in response.
Xena shifted position, rolling the bard so that the smaller woman was on her back with Xena hovering over her. The warrior supported herself on her right elbow, so she didn't put too much weight on the bard and gazed down at her. It was still quite dark in this corner of the hut as they were away from the few candles Xena had lit but there was enough light to see the blonde's soft features.
Gabrielle looked up at her with a sleepy sort of interest and reached up to stroke the brunette's cheek with the back of her fingers. Xena smiled at the affectionate contact but did not return it yet. There was something she needed to say first.
“I want this to be our last battle” she told the bard.
Gabrielle looked surprised and confused; it was clear it wasn't the topic she expected. Perhaps she had thought Xena was just going to tell her she loved her after such a terrible and perilous day where they could have been parted again so soon.
“I don't want to travel around in search of adventure” Xena explained. “We spent years doing that and look where it led us.”
That life had literally led them into hell, it had lost them children and friends, nearly tore their friendship and then their relationship apart...had led them to Chin. Xena didn't want to keep going through events like that anymore if they could help it.
“I want to settle down with you somewhere peaceful and enjoy the rest of our lives together” she continued. “I know I can't guarantee that trouble won't occasionally find us but let’s stop seeking it and just be happy.”
Gabrielle had been staring up at her in awe as she spoke and as soon as Xena stopped talking the blonde pushed herself up using her palms and kissed the brunette firmly on the lips.
“Yes” the bard replied as she sunk back down onto the bed.
“I'm not asking you to marry me” Xena chuckled at the blonde's simple response. “Although we could if that is what you want...I mean I want to be with you forever, so I don't mind I just meant that...”
Gabrielle cut off her rambling thoughts with another kiss, this one deeper and more passionate than the first. The blonde pulled Xena down with her, so the taller woman was lying right on top of her with her legs between Gabrielle's own.
The full contact between their bodies drew a moan from the back of Xena's throat and she rolled her hips against the bards. Gabrielle encouraged the movement by rolling her own hips back into Xena's, creating a build-up of friction and delicious tension between the two of them. Xena had expected that the blonde would be too tired to partake in any more exercise this day but apparently Gabrielle had a little energy left to burn.
“I want that too” Gabrielle said as they broke apart for air.
Xena wasn't sure if her bard was just talking about the change of lifestyle or both that and a possible wedding. It didn't really need clarifying though because if Gabrielle wanted a wedding then Xena would happily oblige. If the blonde wanted to farm goats in some remote mountains she would agree. As long as it didn't involve warlords and battles she couldn't care less how they spent the rest of their days.
Suddenly the blonde pushed up and twisted her body, rolling them both so that she was now on top. Despite the limited light Xena could see the smug look on Gabrielle's face because she managed to catch the warrior of guard. Ex-warrior. She would be an ex-warrior after tonight.
The bard began to trace patterns with the tips of her fingers along Xena's collar bones and then down her sternum to her breasts. The blonde lingered at that level for a little while, drawing gasps from Xena when she palmed her breasts and flicked her thumb across hardening nipples. All the while Gabrielle kept eye contact with her, watching every reaction and matching every look of adoration with her own. When they had first made love, it had been Xena who had led the actions, but the blonde had soon gained confidence enough to initiate and sometimes even dominate proceedings. Xena loved that side of her and found the blonde's eagerness and assurance whilst making love incredibly attractive.
Gabrielle's hands soon wandered lower, tracing the definition of Xena's abdominal muscles and then her strong hip bones. Finally, the bard's hand dipped between Xena's legs and into the wet heat that was pooling there. Xena nearly closed her eyes at the first couple of strokes of the blonde's fingers at her most sensitive and intimate parts but forced them open so she could continue to hold eye contact. Then Gabrielle slowly stroked through her folds and pressed two fingers inside her, barely giving Xena a chance to adjust before starting a firm and steady rhythm of thrusts. The brunette grasped at the bards back, enjoying the way Gabrielle's muscles flexed and strained under her palms as the blonde pleasured her.
It didn't take long for Xena to find release at the hands of her lover. It didn't take long for her to kiss down the blonde's body and return the favour with her mouth. This was exactly what they needed to chase the horrors of the day away. Tomorrow they would rise to help burn the dead and help get some semblance of order back in the town. Tonight, they could get lost in one another and the new future they planned together.
Antonia had barely been able to contain her own grief at the site of so many bodies strewn throughout the streets of Edessa. There was so much needless destruction all for one man's greed. The ground in the marketplace was churned up and there were so many dead bodies there that the mud and surface water ran red. It was like something from her worst nightmares except she didn't think her mind could make up such a sight. It would certainly replay this sight over and over again when she slept now though...if she could ever sleep again.
Then there had been the discovery of Meda's body. Antonia had known Meda was dead before entering the town, but it had still hadn't prepared her for seeing her friend's lifeless form sprawled out amongst the hundreds of dead. In life Meda had always been special and stood out from the crowd. It was one of the reasons the red-haired warrior had chosen not to challenge her leadership. It was terrible to find her like so many others, just another limp body laying where it had fallen.
Antonia knew most believed her to be emotionless, but they were wrong. Emotion was swirling inside her like a hurricane trapped in a drinking goblet. She had known everyone would look to her now to lead them forward, so she had been strong and pushed on through the pain. It was all she knew how to do...it was all she could do.
After witnessing the catastrophic numbers of dead in the marketplace she had faced the sight of the wounded. So many warriors and other fighters from the town had been injured and many were hanging on to their lives by a thread. Those who were in better shape would have a long night caring for them overnight. In the morning they would send for those who had fled the town to return in time to honour the dead.
Antonia was not a healer, nor was she a good care giver, so had left that role to others. As soon as she was satisfied all survivors were safely inside and undercover the red-haired warrior had excused herself. Firstly, to find some solitude and time to think away from others and secondly so she could light the night torches in the vicinity of the bath house, market place and South entrance. They had posted no guard that night and although Antonia doubted one would be needed she had decided it was her duty to stand watch whilst the others rested.
She had eventually found herself sat in her normal thinking place; on the top of the South entrance archway. However, the location gave her no comfort on this night as in the soft light of the burning torches she could see the shadows of dead bodies. They were packed so close together that many had fallen on top of another. The rain still fell although it was no longer as heavy as when the battle raged. It meant that Antonia was very cold and very unsettled. Her body felt tired and sore, yet she was also filled with a restless energy. The warrior wanted to hit something, scream or just do something to get all the emotion she was bottling up out. She would not be able to just sit and keep watch.
So, Antonia climbed down from the wall and stepped over the bodies, most of which were enemy soldiers at this point. A short distance away she found one of her own dead, a young warrior called Alise. Antonia grasped the body under the back lifted it up and over her shoulder, before carrying her over the rest of the dead towards the back of the marketplace. She found an area there that was less dense with the dead and placed the body next to two other Edessian warriors who had fell there. There were men from the warlord’s army fallen nearby and one by one she began to pull those bodies further away to make room to start piling up the Edessian's dead in one place.
Once Antonia had made some room for her own dead she went back in the direction of the gate and found another of her compatriot’s bodies. She lifted this one in the same way and moved her to the pile she was creating. It wasn't a pleasant job, but it was a practical one. There was a risk that wild animals would be attracted to the smell of all the blood and she did not want their bodies to be defiled any more than they already were. It was her role now as town leader to look after them in both life and death.
The bath house was finally quiet. The injured housed there were now asleep, in many cases the sleep was fitful and not peaceful but at least there were no longer screams of agony. Grace had heard far too many of those types of cries today. Most of those who had fought were now also asleep or at least resting. Only the three healers and two of the stretcher bearers remained awake and were constantly checking on the wounded. One of the healers, the town elder Selene, had excused herself a little while before to get some fresh air.
The blonde was exhausted after spending hours and hours treating the wounded. Some of that feeling was physical but most of it was just a mental and emotional exhaustion. She had never seen such bloodshed, even when her own village was destroyed. She also been unlucky enough to witness their leader being slain by Tarbus. It had felt like the end of all things but then a short while later the battle had stopped raging and Antonia, Xena and Garielle had returned victorious. Grace had been focused on her work, but it had not stopped her hearing the whispers of the warriors. Antonia had reclaimed Meda's necklace from Tarbus and was now the rightful leader of the Edessian's.
Grace knew as well as anyone that the necklace will have been reclaimed in a fight to the death between the red-haired warrior and the warlord. The healer had seen him fight and the idea of Antonia taking him on terrified her even though she knew the other woman had won. It had taken seeing the warrior across the bath house square to finally reassure her that Antonia really was alright. She was battered and bloodied, but she was alright.
Selene returned as Grace was replacing some of the burnt down candles with fresh ones. The blonde healer approached the town elder quietly, careful not to wake any of the sleeping wounded.
“Have you seen Antonia?” she asked.
The older woman did not seem surprised by the question. Grace doubted her affection for the red-haired warrior was much of a secret anymore especially not from someone as wise and observant as Selene.
“Only from a distance” Selene sighed, “she is in the market place collecting the dead.”
The town elder looked worried which didn't help the immediate concern Grace felt. Antonia had to be exhausted, but she was the kind of person who wouldn't be able to just stop and rest. The blonde feared Antonia wouldn't stop until she collapsed. She certainly wouldn't stop for a moment to take care of herself. All Grace wanted to do was go to the red head, but she had a responsibility in the bath house. She was torn between duty and her heart. Antonia would pick duty every time, but Grace had always been led by her emotions.
“Go” Selene encouraged.
The town elder had obviously seen her dilemma or perhaps the older woman had told her because she wanted her to go to Antonia. Grace didn't stop to find out and quickly tip toed out the main room of the bath house, grabbing one of the water filled animal skins as she went.
It was dark outside apart from the faint light of the night torches. There was still a light splattering of rain, but the thunder and the worst of the weather had stopped before night fall. Although Grace had seen the battle in the market place as it raged from the safety of the bath house roof it didn't prepare her for amount of death and brutality she found out on the streets.
She turned the corner into the market place and came to a halt. Here the bodies seemed so dense that they lay on top of the other. Grace reached out and grasped the wall of the shop building next to her to steady herself. She was very nearly sick and the only thing that prevented her vomiting was the sight of Antonia stumbling into view.
The red-haired warrior had a body slung over her shoulder but she was struggling to pick her feet up enough to step over the many bodies that where in the way. The other woman didn't notice Grace who was now stood in the shadows. Antonia finally manged to reach the pile of Edessian dead she was making and placed the woman down. The healer watched as Antonia struggled to straighten up, cracking the tense muscles of her back to achieve what should be a simple task.
The warrior walked back into the darkness, so Grace could barely see her and tried to pick up another corpse. She tried three times before giving up on that method, hooking her arms under the body's shoulders and dragging it instead. The healer didn't know whether to admire her determination or fear for the warrior's mental state.
Grace waited for Antonia to place the body on the pile before finally stepping out of the shadows. As soon as she moved the warrior noticed and reached for the hilt of her sword. Antonia's hand stilled when she realised it was the healer. Even still Grace approached slowly, aware that the warrior was still on edge. When she reached the other woman the blonde silently handed over the animal skin. Antonia accepted it without protest.
The blonde observed the warrior as she uncorked the skin and brought it up to her lips. Antonia drank greedily, clearly very thirsty. Grace had only seen her from a distance earlier and had been able to see blood and mud on her then but now she was utterly covered in both. Most of it was probably from the Edessian dead and not her own but Grace could make out some abrasions and wounds.
As Antonia lifted the skin to her mouth for a second time the healer spotted a long gash on the back of the warrior's forearm. It wasn't a bad injury, but it would be painful for a while. Although she doubted the red-haired woman was even feeling the pain from her wounds yet because there was too much adrenaline still pumping through her system.
Without thinking Grace lifted her right hand and tenderly traced the gash from wrist to elbow. Usually Antonia would move away from such contact but instead she halted her drinking and looked at the blonde. Although the warrior was rigidly still her eyes communicated a great deal of hurt. It was the most open Grace had ever seen Antonia's expression and it made her breath catch in her lungs.
Then, completely unexpectedly, Antonia stepped forward into the healer and wrapped her arms around the blonde's waist. It caught Grace totally by surprise and for a moment she just stood totally still. Then what was happening finally sunk in and she wrapped her own arms around the warrior’s shoulders. She didn't want to break the moment by speaking or even moving too much. Part of her wanted to sink into the contact as it was all she had wanted from the other woman since they had met. This hug wasn’t about Grace's feelings though...it was about Antonia and her grief. The healer just felt privileged to be the person the warrior allowed herself to seek comfort in.
The hug seemed to go on for a long time before Antonia released her and took a step back. The red head looked puzzled by her own actions so turned away to carry on her task. Grace watched the warrior walk to a body that lay a few feet away and grasp it under the shoulders again. The blonde followed her and grabbed the corpse's legs, so they could move it together. If Antonia was determined to spend the night organising the dead, then Grace would not leave her alone despite how exhausted she felt.
The warrior looked up at the healer as they lifted the body. Rather than her usual nod of the head when acknowledging someone or their actions Antonia smiled slightly instead. It was a sad smile but a smile non-the less.
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Chapter 30: The Morning After
When Gabrielle awoke the next morning Xena was already awake and getting dressed. It was still quite early, but they needed to get up and help the survivors bring some sort of order back to the town. Gabrielle also badly needed to bathe as she was still dirty and sweaty from the day before. She also ached from head to toe after a prolonged period of battling the day before. Her thighs and calves were particularly sore after sliding around and trying to keep her balance in the mud.
“Are you okay?” Xena asked as the blonde sat up and stretched.
“I ache” Gabrielle grumbled.
The brunette sat down on the furs behind the bard and gently grasped her shoulders. Xena began to work out some of the knots in Gabrielle's muscles with her thumbs. It felt blissful and the blonde closed her eyes and just let herself enjoy the sensation for a couple of minutes. Once Gabrielle's upper back felt a little suppler again the brunette halted her attention.
“We should get moving” Xena sighed; “I can hear people moving around already.”
Gabrielle struggled to her feet and began to put on some of the clean clothing the Edessian's had left in the hut for them a couple of nights prior. She only had one pair of boots though and although they had dried a little over night they were still damp.
The two women left the hut and climbed down the rope ladder. There were still bodies in the street by their accommodation, but Gabrielle noticed the number had decreased. Only the dead from the Warlords army seemed to remain here which meant the Edessian's were already up and hard at work.
They walked a little further around the wall and into the market place. It was a short distance but all along the route it followed the same pattern; soldiers remained but Edessians did not. At the corner of the market place two Edessian warriors stood, looking across the main battle ground area. Gabrielle and Xena stopped next to them and the blonde's jaw nearly hit the ground when she saw what they were staring at.
One side of the market place had two neat piles of Edessian bodies already and most of the soldiers had been moved to one side. There was still a lot of work to be done but a lot of progress had already been made compared to what the bard was expecting. Xena looked initially surprised but it faded quickly into a look Gabrielle usually associated as understanding.
“Some of you must have started early” she commented to the warriors they had halted next too.
The two women turned towards her and shook their heads.
“We have all just awoken” the taller of the two women informed her.
Gabrielle was completely dumbfounded. A lot of work had been done and it was utterly unimaginable that it wasn't a team effort. Everyone had been tired and drained after the battle. As far as Gabrielle had been aware the Edessian's had all gone to rest over night when her and Xena had left for their hut.
“Then who...” she began to ask.
Gabrielle stopped mid-sentence when two figures appeared from behind a building carrying a dead warrior between them. She recognised them both instantly, it was Antonia and Grace. The blonde wasn't surprised to see the red-haired warrior as it should have been obvious straight away who had stayed up all night. Antonia had the burden of leadership thrust upon her now and it was no surprise she was restless. Grace on the other hand was a healer, there was no reason for her to be lugging bodies around other. Well that wasn't exactly true. There was only one reason for her to exhaust herself like that and it was her obvious affection for Antonia.
They both clearly had exhausted themselves because they could barely carry the body between them. When they set it down aside the second pile they were making Grace toppled onto her rear end, her legs giving way under her. Antonia picked up an animal skin of water that was lying on the floor near them and handed it to the blonde healer. Grace finished the contents of the animal skin in one large gulp before allowing the red head to pull her to her feet. It was clear the healer could barely stand though.
Xena started walking towards them so Gabrielle and the two women followed behind. As they began to approach others who were watching from the edge of the market bean to approach too. One of these people was the town elder Selene who came from the direction of the bath house. Obviously, the others had been hovering, unsure whether to approach or not.
“Sit for a while” Xena suggested as she reached the two women, “there are plenty of people here to help now.”
Antonia looked like she was going to protest despite the number of people now gathering in the marketplace. The words died in her mouth when Grace wavered dangerously on her feet again and both Antonia and Gabrielle had to grasp an arm to keep her upright. The healer now looked like she had taken part in the battle too. There was blood and dirt smeared on her clothing, arms and hands. There was also a smear of blood on her cheek. Gabrielle imagined that the blonde healer was probably very uncomfortable to be covered in so much death when her life was dedicated to helping and saving others.
Antonia seemed to come to the same realisation and was now finally looking at Grace after purely focusing on the task at hand before. Her expression softened, and she nodded her head in Xena's direction. Gabrielle could see a look of relief flash across Grace's features, but the healer was desperately trying to hide it from the red-haired woman.
“Could you take Grace to the bath house?” Antonia turned and asked Gabrielle. “I'm going to go wash in the barracks.”
There wasn't a bit of the warrior that didn't have a layer of blood or mud covering it. Gabrielle was relieved that she was now going to bathe because she had wounds that risked infection if not treated soon. The blonde doubted Antonia would bother resting yet but clean would be a good start.
“Of course,” she assured the new town leader.
Antonia nodded at the bard but rather than instantly walk away she turned her focus to Grace. No words passed between the two women, but it was telling that the warrior chose to hold eye contact with the blonde healer. Antonia affectionately squeezed Grace's elbow, something only Gabrielle could see because she was right next to them. Then the warrior released her support of the healer and slowly walked away. Grace probably would have watched her walk away until she was out of sight, but Gabrielle managed to steer her away by her elbow.
Gabrielle had stayed with Grace whilst she bathed and then left the healer to sleep for a couple of hours on one of the furs laid out in the bath house. She had then gone back to help Xena and the remaining Edessian's in the market place.
Antonia had reappeared not long after Gabrielle. She was now clean and changed but still looked physically drained and pale. The warrior didn't look like she had any of her wounds treated but the bard would settle with clean for now. The cooks had made a broth for everyone and bowls were being handed around to the workers. The red-haired warrior had tried to prioritise others first, but Selene had thrust a bowl into her hands and made her eat. The food had brought a little colour back to her features.
By late morning they had moved all the warlord’s soldiers just outside the south gate to deal with later. Some of the survivors had started to build the pyres for the Edessian dead. They numbered so many that they were having to be split across three large pyres plus the smaller one being built for Meda. Gabrielle was aching even more after spending the morning lifting and dragging dead weight. She suspected everyone felt the same, yet they continued to push on and turned their attention to finishing preparing the pyres. One of the injured tradesmen had found some papyrus and logged who had died.
Just before midday the first of the evacuated Edessian's returned to town. Each and every group that returned had the same reaction to the number of dead, the number of injured fighters and the general destruction in the town. It was an initial reaction of grief and horror followed by a sort of numb shock. No one could quite believe what they could see in front of them.
They finished their task in the early afternoon and Antonia had instructed those who had spent the morning working to quickly wash and eat before returning to the market place. Many had gone to the barracks but Gabrielle and Xena had gone to the bath house with some of the volunteer fighters. The blonde hadn't said a word since the evacuated Edessian's had returned as she was deeply affected by their grief. As Xena scrubbed her back with some olive oil soap the brunette had asked if she was okay.
“It never ceases to disgust me how cheap some people view life in comparison to power” Gabrielle responded. “How can there be so much death and suffering all just for one weapon?”
“It's a question as old as time and one I suspect they will still be trying to answer in a thousand years” Xena had replied.
Gabrielle hoped the brunette was wrong and that over time people would learn that conflict was never a solution. It was a fools hope and deep down she knew it.
Chapter 31: The Funeral
The aftermaths of battles were never easy. Xena had seen plenty over the years; some of which had been more vast and bloody that this one. Some had cut right to the bone because they had resulted in the loss of a person or people that Xena or Gabrielle had cared about. This was the first time she had stood on the remains of a battlefield and swore she would do everything in her power to avoid seeing one again.
They had worked solidly all morning to prepare the Edessian dead for an afternoon ceremony and clear the market of the other army's dead. It had been physically tiring and emotionally taxing. Her and Gabrielle had been working side by side with people who had lost lovers, friends and family members. Then, after a short break when they had been able to wash and eat a little lunch, the evacuated Edessian's had begun to arrive back in the town. The process of mourning had begun all over again.
It was now mid-afternoon, and everyone had gathered in the market square. In the end they had divided the dead across five pyres. Meda's body was alone on the central pyre with a sprig of fig tree resting on top of it, a cultural tradition in the area. Antonia stood alone, and directly in front of Meda's pyre. Xena and Gabrielle stood to the right of central pyre with the three town elders; Selene, Dazius and Eta. Those who were injured but able to attend where stood behind and slightly more to the right than Xena and Gabrielle with the healers. The warriors stood to Antonia's left and then the other members of the town formed the rest of the circle around the pyres.
Considering there was a crowd of well over one hundred people stood in the square, Antonia cut a lonely figure. Everyone else was stood in groups, talking to one another, whilst she stood completely still and alone. Yet when the new town leader raised her right hand the entire market square fell silent. All eyes were now upon the red-haired warrior including Xena's.
She had no idea what their funeral rites would entail as it was likely to be some sort of blend of Amazon custom and more local cultural traits. Considering this Xena should not have been surprised when Antonia began to sing a lamentation. The red head warrior had a surprisingly tuneful and soulful singing voice. As the red head sang Gabrielle pressed closer into Xena's side. The brunette heard her lover quietly sob so Xena wrapped her arm around the bard’s waist to comfort her.
'Thy hand, Persephone, darkness shades me, On thy bosom let me rest, More I would, but Death invades me; Death is now a welcome guest.
When I am gone, and air and ash, May my wrongs create No trouble, no trouble in thy breast; Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.'
The crowd of mourners remained absolutely silent once the red head had finished. One of the warrior's handed Antonia a flaming torch and the warrior approached Meda's pyre. Antonia stopped just in front of the pyre and began to speak again.
“Oh mountain hyacinth,
What shepherds trod upon you,
With clumsy, rustic foot?
Now you are a broken seal:
A scarlet stain upon the earth.”
Xena's knowledge of poetry was poor but she had picked up the odd thing or two on her travels from Gabrielle. It was part of a Sappho poem, who happened to be Gabrielle's favourite of the Greek poets. The lament had been for all the Edessian dead, the ode was for Meda alone. Xena had no idea how long the two had known each other but considering the trust Meda had placed in the red head during the battle it must have been a long friendship.
Once Antonia had finished the poem she reached out with the torch and pressed it against the smallest of the pyre's. They had been doused in an animal fat which made it easier for them light and spread the flames. Once Meda's pyre caught fire Antonia moved down the line to the right two of the larger piles before walking left in front of Xena and Gabrielle and lighting those pyre's too. The red head then returned to her place directly in front of the centre pyre and handed the torch back to the Edessian warrior who had handed it to her in the first place.
Funeral pyres were the most affective and hygienic way to dispose of the dead rather than digging large mass graves for bodies to rot and decompose in. The smell of burning flesh was unpleasant though and it lingered in the air for a long time as did the ash. Regardless, Xena had always preferred the idea of being burnt rather than buried.
The pyres had taken a little while to truly get going but after a short while they were fully ablaze. The heat being given off from them was so immense that Gabrielle had to edge back a pace because the heat was that uncomfortable. By the early evening the pyres were nearly fully burnt down, and the square began to empty as people went to help make an evening meal. A few warriors remained, as did the town elders, Grace, Xena and Gabrielle.
Everyone in the square had looked mournful and devastated but all had stood in groups except Antonia. Somehow, she had seemed very alone in her grief compared to the other Edessian's. Gabrielle knew it was part of the red heads role to stand apart from the crowds now that she was the town leader. That fact didn't make her lonely stance any more palatable to the bard.
As the square became more and more empty Gabrielle started to edge towards the red head but Xena grasped her hand and tugged her back.
“Tonight…I would give her space” Xena leant in and whispered in the blonde's ear.
Gabrielle nodded and leant back into her lover’s side. The brunette was probably right; Antonia was the kind of person who needed space to deal with her emotions. Any open display of grief would probably feel like a weakness to the warrior. Gabrielle had never understood how people could prefer to mourn on their own, always preferring the comfort of others to help her cope. When she lost Xena it had been very different; she had needed space to come to terms with the loss of the most important person in her world. It had felt like she would crumble if anyone tried to comfort her, so it was easier to distance herself.
After a few more minutes even the last of the warriors and the elders started to leave the square. Antonia stood firm and Gabrielle suspected she would stay until the last ember was burnt. Grace had moved to stand to the side and just behind the red head. The bard wasn't sure if Antonia had even noticed as she was so focused on the pyres in front of her. Gabrielle was hungry and tired after all the physical labour that morning and as reluctant as she was to leave Antonia to her vigil it was probably for the best. The blonde was pretty sure that in leaving they would not be leaving their new friend alone as Grace would surely stay.
“We should go find ourselves a decent meal” Xena suggested quietly, mirroring the bard’s own thoughts.
Gabrielle smiled at her lover in acknowledgement and let Xena lead her away by their joined hands. As she suspected, the blonde healer remained by Antonia's side, leaving the two alone in the square.
Chapter 32: The Confession
Antonia had been stood rigidly for hours watching as a horrifying number of her people engulfed in flames until they were no more than memories and ashes. There was an old belief that the spirits of the dead would blow away with the smoke to a better place. Antonia had never believed in anything so frivolous, but she wished she could as it would probably provide a little comfort. Instead she stood in the strange contrast of the cooling late evening breeze and the furious heat still being emitted by the embers of the pyres.
The bulk of the flames had passed but the last of the material would still slowly burn on for hours yet. It would be well into the early hours of the morning before it finally burnt out. The red head knew she couldn't physically stay up for another night without collapsing or she would wait until all but ashes were left.
Antonia had been aware of the crowd quietly emptying from the market place throughout the late afternoon and early evening. She had thought herself to be stood alone for a while but then, as the crackling of the flames died down, she had become aware of a presence behind her. Someone had stayed with her and new in an instant who that someone would be. Only the blonde healer would linger with her when all others had gone. Antonia was glad of her presence but had not been ready to turn around and face her at first. Yet after another hour or so of staring out at the smouldering pyres the red head had known it was time.
“Aren't you hungry?” Antonia broke the hours of silence.
As the warrior spoke she turned her body towards Grace. It was going dark but there was still enough light to see the healer's features and expressions. The blonde seemed surprised that Antonia even knew she was there but quickly recovered and shook her head in response.
“I'm not sure I’ll have an appetite for a while after the smell of all that burning flesh” Grace admitted.
Antonia understood exactly how the blonde healer felt. The smell of what was essentially a human barbeque was overpowering and hung in the smoke in the air and on your clothing. There was no other way of effectively disposing of so many bodies. The warrior had no appetite either although she hadn't really noticed before talking to Grace.
“No” the red haired agreed, “me neither.”
Grace stepped towards her, stopping just within arm’s reach. Antonia was half expecting the blonde to reach out for her, but she didn't. They stood quietly observing each other. Antonia could see the glow of the embers faintly reflecting on the left side of Grace's face in the growing dark. It highlighted her features and made her look quite stunning. It was just a pity the light was being emanated due to such sad circumstances
“You must be exhausted” the healer stated softly.
Antonia looked down at herself. She had been stood close by the pyres for that long that a thin layer of soot and ash was now stuck to her heated and sweaty skin. she looked a mess again after only cleaning up post battle before lunch. It wasn't just the way she looked though; she physically and mentally felt exhausted. Her body felt numb. It was likely Grace, who had stayed up with her the night before moving the bodies, felt exactly the same.
“Come with me” the blonde instructed.
Grace held out her hand towards the warrior and Antonia looked down at it questioningly. She was about to ask the healer where she wanted to take her but realised that she actually didn't care. As long as they went away from the pyres together than that was more than okay. The red head carefully reached out and grasped the smaller woman's hand, surprised by how soft and warm it felt clasped in her own.
Grace smiled but said nothing as she began to lead Antonia out of the market place. Their hands remained clasped the whole time as the warrior diligently followed her.
Antonia allowed the healer to lead her to the bath house and into one of the smaller side rooms. The main pool was still part of the temporary medical centre and they would have no privacy there. There was a small hexagonal pool in the side room full of warm water, heated from the complex under floor system. It was only large enough for five people to sit in.
Grace released her hand and turned away to face the wall. Antonia watched as the blonde bent over and unlaced her boots, tugging them off one by one and discarding them in front of the stone bench that ran along the back wall. The healer then pulled her top over her head, uncovering the expanse of smooth looking naked skin on her back.
The red head felt a little dazed, like she was in a dream. She was sure she should be doing something other than just staring at Grace, but nothing was forthcoming. The healer seemed to sense her hesitancy and the blonde glanced back over her shoulder at Antonia.
“Is this okay?” Grace asked.
The warrior realised that her inactivity had made Grace worry that her actions had made Antonia uncomfortable but that wasn't the case.
“Yes” the red head said with certainty.
She was still wearing her sheath and sword, so she removed that first and stepped alongside the healer, placing the weapon on the bench next to Grace's top. She removed the two daggers from her boots and then the footwear itself. Antonia was aware that the blonde had removed her skirt during this period and was now naked. The warrior finally braved turning to face the other woman, so she could take her in. Grace stood still and let her look.
The red head wanted to tell her how she felt and why this situation was okay now when she'd have run just a day or so before. The words seemed to be alluding her, so she fell back on an analogy that sat in her comfort zone.
“I'm sick of fighting Grace” Antonia admitted.
The healer looked confused, obviously not following the warrior's train of thought. It was no surprise really; Grace was stood looking stunning in front of her and Antonia seemed to be talking about fighting. She needed to try and explain herself and her actions to the blonde and then perhaps she would be brave enough to tell her how beautiful she looked.
“For days...well for much longer really...I’ve been fighting two battles when only one needed to be fought” the warrior continued.
Antonia thought she still hadn't said enough but Grace smiled and nodded, seemingly understanding the point the warrior was trying to get across. The red head reached for the hem of her own top, ready to divest herself of her own clothing, but Grace batted her hands away and replaced them with her own. The blonde tugged Antonia's top over her head and dropped it onto the bench. Grace smoothed her hands down the warrior's sides, before resting them on the belt of her clothed hips. Antonia's head felt like it was spinning as Grace unfastened the buckle, loosening the skirt.
The warrior reached out and cupped Grace's face between both hands, revelling in how soft the blonde's skin felt against her palms. The healer paused, distracted from her task, and their eyes met. Antonia had never been good at reading other people, but she thought she could see surprise in the Grace's eyes and perhaps a look of hopefulness. Antonia leant forward and pressed her lips against the blonde's.
It was only a short soft kiss, but the red head felt like she had gotten her point across. Neither of them had the energy for anything more and Antonia wasn't sure if she was quite ready for anything too intimate yet anyway. Grace was smiling broadly, clearly happy with the progress they had made. The blonde grasped the top of her skirt more firmly and pushed it down. Antonia stepped out of the garment and let the healer lead her towards the water.
Grace slipped into the small pool first and whilst she did, so Antonia divested herself of her undergarment before climbing into the water after the blonde. As soon as she was sat on the edge of the stone bench that ran around the inside of the pool Grace began to wash her shoulder with a cloth, paying particular attention to the gash on her upper arm.
“I was so scared during the battle when I realised that you were defending the cliff alone” the healer said softly; “I thought I would never see you again.”
Antonia had thought about the danger Grace was in and that it would undeniably sadden the blonde if Antonia had died. She had not considered that the healer would spend the battle worrying about her safety. It was a warrior's instinct to worry about others in danger and not whatever peril you were in yourself. You had an element of control over your own situation.
“I wasn't alone” the red-haired warrior corrected; “Gabrielle stayed and fought with me.”
Antonia hadn't spoken to anyone about the events on the cliff. She supposed that there would be whispers amongst the survivors about what must have happened. It hadn't occurred to her that they would presume she had taken on an army on her own.
“She's an amazing woman” Grace commented; “I think much of Xena's mental strength comes from Gabrielle and their bond.”
They had all heard the legends of Xena taking on a Roman legion. Antonia had never imagined having the mental and emotional strength to even try before the battle, but she had planned to stand alone before the bard came back for her. Grace had been one of the most pressing things on her mind as she had square up to whatever attack she may face.
“She reminds me of you” Antonia admitted.
The healer's hands paused over her shoulders.
“You give me strength” Antonia explained.
Xena was awoken to the feel of fingertips grazing across her collar bone and down her shoulder. She opened her eyes to find Gabrielle lying on her side, propped up on her elbow and gazing down at her. For all the years they had been together Xena couldn't remember being asleep longer than the younger woman unless she had been injured or very sick.
“You never used to wake up before me” the brunette mused.
“I've been travelling on my own for while” Gabrielle replied softly, “I suppose I got used to getting up earlier to pack up the camp all by myself.”
It broke Xena's heart to think of Gabrielle spending most of the two years alone. She had travelled alone for a time before she had met the bard and it had seemed okay at the time. It was only when Gabrielle had joined her that she realised how lonely she had actually been. From that point on she couldn't picture her life without the blonde even on the occasions she had tried to be unselfish and let the blonde go.
“I still can't believe I have you back” Gabrielle admitted. “I woke up and I could feel you, but I still had to open my eyes to be sure. It might take a while for me to get used to it.”
Xena could understand this; she could barely believe she was back either. It was impossible to explain what 'death' had been like for her. The closest description was that most of the time it was like floating, alone and drunk in the dark. Waking up each morning had felt like a gift even when they had a battle ahead of them. Now that fight was behind them Xena felt lighter and happier than she had in many years.
“You look so peaceful when you are sleeping” Gabrielle murmured affectionately.
The blonde was still tracing patterns with her fingertips across Xena's broad shoulders. There was a contented and adoring smile on her face that warmed Xena's heart. She had never been good at taking compliments, but she could cope with being described as peaceful. Once Gabrielle had described her as cute; that one she wasn't best pleased with. She had pushed the blonde bard back into the lake they had just been bathing in for that 'compliment'.
“Do I now?” the brunette chuckled.
“Mhmmm” Gabrielle confirmed with a grin.
Xena tugged the blonde down upon her and wrapped her arms around the bard, kissing her softly. Gabrielle returned the kiss with vigour. The warrior couldn't think of anything better than waking up like this every morning, skin to skin with the most beautiful and wonderful woman she had ever met. They had never had that luxury when camping out in the wild, having to remain relatively clothed in case they were disturbed by unwanted guests.
“I love you” Xena said once they had broken apart. “I never used to tell you that enough and I regretted that so much when I was ...gone.”
She'd had plenty of time to mull over her mistakes and regrets when in whatever limbo she had been stuck in. All those lives taken needlessly as a warlord, the time wasted fighting her feelings for Gabrielle before finally giving in and not always treating and cherishing her like the blonde deserved. She had spent years trying to atone for the first regret and now hopefully she could spend years making up for the last two.
“I won't complain if you want to say it a bit more” Gabrielle smiled.
Xena rolled them so it was now Gabrielle lying on her back with Xena hovering over her. The brunette reached out with her free hand and tenderly traced the line of the bard’s jaw with the pad of her thumb. Gabrielle's smile grew a little bit more at the affection so Xena replaced her thumb with her lips and gently traced the same route again with many feather light kisses.
“I love you” she repeated.
Gabrielle could smell the porridge cooking as they walked towards the barracks. She had not been hungry the day before and had picked at her meals. She was less exhausted today and her appetite had apparently returned. Her stomach growled rather loudly as they walked which drew a laugh from Xena.
As they rounded the corner they found that most of the surviving warriors were already up and eating breakfast. Antonia was amongst the women, bowl in hand, and chatting more freely than Gabrielle had seen before. Something had shifted within the red head and Gabrielle had a sneaky suspicion she knew exactly what. This was confirmed when she spotted Grace, also looking chipper, checking some of the women's bandages and wounds.
“Gabrielle, Xena” Antonia greeted them as they approached her.
“Morning” Gabrielle replied.
The blonde couldn't resist smiling at the red head and then glancing over at Grace so that Antonia was aware that she had a good idea what was going on. The new leader blushed slightly but couldn't hide her own smile.
“I'm not sure what your plans are but I was wondering if you would like to stay until my leadership ceremony?” Antonia asked.
Gabrielle was thrilled to be asked even though she had expected it. It was clear in the earnest way that Antonia asked that it wasn't just out of duty but a real desire for them to be with her and support her at such a significant event. The bard felt like the two of them had struck a real friendship and kinship in the short time they had known each other. It was one of the reason's she felt at home in Edessa, that and the similarity to her other spiritual home; the Amazons.
“It will be five days from now” the red-haired warrior continued. “That should give us enough time to deal with the warlord’s dead and make most of the repairs needed within the town.”
“We wouldn't miss it” Xena replied sincerely.
Antonia smiled warmly in response. Now seemed like as good a time as any to tell the red-haired woman their own news so Gabrielle grasped Xena's hand in her own. The brunette glanced down in surprise at their joined hands, not accustomed to many public displays of affection purely for the sake of it. Xena made no attempt to move though and squeezed the bards hand back.
“Actually, Antonia now that we are together again, Xena and I are planning to settle down and try to have a bit more of a normal life” Gabrielle explained.
It would probably come as a surprise to no one. The only sticking point would be a need to travel at some point in the near future to find Eve and let her know her mother was alive again. Gabrielle had been shamefully poor at keeping in touch with the young brunette especially as she was basically her step daughter. Eve had been settled in Greece preaching the word of Eli though and Gabrielle had needed to be anywhere but Greece.
“I think you both deserve it” Antonia encouraged, cutting into the blonde's thoughts.
“We were thinking about settling down near the town, perhaps build a small farm on the edge of the forest or in one of the larger clearings.”
It was Xena who carried on the conversation. The brunette sounded really eager to have that life. It shouldn't surprise the bard especially as it had been Xena's suggestion in the first place. There was still something odd and wonderful hearing the warrior so keen to settle down to a simple life with her in a farm house with a few goats, pigs and chickens.
“I think I know just the place” the red-haired warrior grinned. “There is a fantastic glade about a mile away that would make a great farm. I'm sure there will be plenty of people here who would be honoured to help you build there.”
Just the epilogue to go now. Thank you to all who have read the fic and commented.