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My thanks to the Creators and actors in the Xenaverse for such wonderful Characters and for letting me borrow them for a bit. I returned them none the worse for wear.
Thanks also to the positive feedback I received on "Progeny". Keep it coming!
Flames. Reaching toward the heavens like outstretched hands. A thick, black smoke wafted through the air. It carried with it the smell of death and destruction. Weak, scattered cries of pain and pleading rose above the stomping of the horses. Various soldiers barked out orders in a further attempt to wash out the death knell.
The armor clad soldiers once so eager for battle stood nearby. They watched as the wildfire claimed the village instead of them. No one was sure what started the fire only that in the arid village it quickly consumed everything. Most of the towns people were too frightened to come out of their huts when they were attacked. The she-demons army was well known and feared and because of that fear, most of the towns population perished in the hellfire. Those that escaped the burning buildings now cowered in shock. The screams of the injured and dying echoing in their ears over the crackle of flames.
Slowly, as if in a dream, a young girl of no more that ten winters opened her eyes. Glancing around her she was assaulted by the sight of what was once her home. Everything was burning. The hut of an old woman who baked treats for the children was now scorched ashes as was the woman herself. With great effort the girl turned her head a bit and looked at her own hut. It was little more than a pile of smoldering wood and mud. The cries of her mother as their home burned down around them still rang in her ears. Her younger sister had made it out and safely into the surrounding woods. She had been right behind her when her mothers cry for help stopped her.
A section of the ceiling beam had collapsed on her mother and the flames engulfed her. The young girl tried to help her mother, pulling at her and the burning wood on top of her. At one point her own clothes caught fire but she scarcely noticed and continued trying to save her mother. Even after her mother's screams stopped, the child continued pulling on her in an effort to free her. The girl had been badly burned on her back and arms and was overcome with the smoke filling the tiny hut. Consciousness was beginning to fade when suddenly she felt arms about her, pulling her out of the smoke and flames.
A short time later she found herself lying on the dusty, sun-baked earth. The pain of her burns were quickly encasing her and threatened to carry her into darkness. She fought against it, wanting to see one thing before she was carried away to Tartarus. She had to see the face of the leader of this soulless army that had claimed her family and life. Her friends and neighbors had repeatedly screamed out the Warrior's name and at last she got a clear glimpse of the woman as she rode through the burning wreckage. The Warrior stopped a few yards away surveying the remains of the once peaceful village and shouted orders at the soldiers.
The Warrior was riding a blond mare and scanned the destruction she had wrought. She was tall, muscular woman dressed in black leather and shiny armor. Her hair, black as the night, was flowing down her shoulders. Her eyes, so brightly blue their intensity threatened to blind anyone brave enough to meet them. The broad sword she had wielded so effortlessly and mercilessly was now by her side as one of her soldiers rushed forward and began rapidly talking.
The injured girl couldn't make out any of the conversation but it was apparent that the Warrior was angry and upset. She glared at her man as his motions became more frantic. The Warrior again scanned the burnt remains of the village and this time her eyes locked on the injured girls for a moment. The Warrior saw hatred and pain. Although she couldn't be sure, the girl thought she saw a flicker of regret in the ice blue eyes of the Warrior.
It was the last thing the child saw as the battle against pain was decided and she fell into darkness.
She sat up suddenly. The dull ache in her arm and hand were the only waking reminder of the nightmare she had just relived. The night was silent except for the whispering of the wind through the nearby trees. Quickly she stood up, pulling her sword from its sheath and then quietly walking to the edge of the forest surrounding their camp.
A few deep breaths helped ease the tension that had mounted with the dream. Looking at the faces of her charges put her even more at ease. They were so young and innocent and had lost everything, just as she had years ago. Their lives would be much different though. She had sworn an oath to herself and the memory of her lost family that no innocent would suffer as long as she could prevent it.
A guard situated near the camp border nodded as she passed and vanished into the forest. The majority of her soldiers had been with her long enough to know of her nightmares. It was what kept her from sleeping more than a few hours a night. They were also the cause of her nightly walks. Those closest knew that it helped ease the painful memories and they knew her well enough to know that she should handle any trouble that might arise.
Casually, she walked into the dark forest and after awhile settled on a suitable spot of isolation. She didn't fear the night or the woods, she had seen things far worse. The area was a small clearing surrounded by tall oak trees and she kneeled down on the cool dew soaked grass. Glancing up she spotted the highest tree top and spoke in a low firm voice, "Is it time?"
The wind picked up slightly, carrying a whispered reply. "Soon."
Licking her lips, she looked down at the ground. She shivered as her emotions churned. There was a slight hesitation before she spoke again this time her voice not as firm, "I'm scared my Huntress. I trust you as always but this time--."
The soft voice interrupted her, its tone like a reassuring mother, "My child, after all you have seen and done this should not frighten you. I have always been with you and will guide you from harm. Your mission is important and must not fail. There must be Guardians and I was very careful when I chose you as mine. Before you can continue your mission you must face your past and its time is coming."
The woman smiled warmly, "As you wish Artemis." With that she stood up and took a few steps then stopped. Turning, she looked back at the tree top, "If you're certain there is no other way." When she received no response she nodded and continued her walk back to camp.
Several minutes later when she had disappeared into the thick woods, a brilliant light drifted down from the tree tops and settled where the young woman had kneeled. Artemis the Huntress watched as if she could still see the girl in the overgrowth a look of motherly love on her face. "You will do well my daughter." She whispered after her, "You are stronger and have a braver heart than even you suspect."
The light was beaming brightly now and without warning it shot skyward toward Olympus.
The sun had only been up for a few hours and already the heat was radiating off the nearby rocks and ground. Most of the animals were already seeking a cool place to nap away the days' heat. The songs of the birds had dwindled to a mere chirp off and on. The last few days had been rain free and incredibly hot, leading many to believe that the Gods were angry about something and punishing the earth with a drought.
Xena rode Argo gently, not wanting to over stress her this early in the day. They still had a good distance to cover before sundown and she wanted to make Vesperous before the sun rose to it's highest. She planned to be in Barbus within the next few days to help a friend with a problem of a band of trouble makers. After that she hoped to take a rest and visit her mother in Amphipolis.
Gabrielle strolled along beside her casually, still sleepy and feeling the effects of the sun.
"It's going to be another scorcher today." She stated, breaking their comfortable silence.
As usual Xena gave the shortest possible response, "Yep."
They continued for several minutes in silence but as Gabrielle became more alert her tongue also awoke, "How far did you say it was to Vesperous?"
Xena glanced up at the sun and then at the horizon, "We should be there in an hour or so."
Gabrielle nodded and kicked at the piles of dirt in the road, "I hope they have a decent marketplace." She said more to herself than her companion.
Xena smiled slightly, amazed at how the most trivial thing could be turned into a major disaster by her aspiring Bard friend. "Don't worry Gabrielle. They have a small but well stocked marketplace."
"Oh, I'm not worried," She admitted, "it's just that we're getting really low on supplies. The thoughts of another tree bark soup make me nervous."
They continued in silence, Xena keeping a constant eye out for trouble and Gabrielle talking softly to herself as she worked on a new tale.
As Xena predicted, they hit town just before noon, and true to her word the marketplace was well stocked and well populated.
As Gabrielle went from stall to stall looking for the best deals, Xena became aware of the town's people watching her closely. She stopped and looked around inconspicuously, and got the distinct feeling of walking into a hostile war zone. Her sixth sense told her not to linger in the open for much longer and she always listened, it had saved her life countless times.
"Let's go." She said softly but firmly to Gabrielle and began walking way from the marketplace.
Gabrielle knew her friend very well and immediately followed. Once they were in a less populated part of the village, Xena relaxed, but never let her guard down completely.
"What, may I ask was that about?"
They had reached a section of town where most of the people made their homes. Xena quickly scanned the nearby huts, spotted the one she was looking for and led the way, "I didn't like the welcoming stares we were getting."
Before she could say more, she saw an old man come out of the hut she was advancing on. He looked up and saw her, smiled briefly, then glanced around to see if any of his neighbors had seen the welcome. He shook his head slightly and nodded toward a nearby grove.
Before she could change her path, they were stopped by two large burly guards, who seemed anything but welcoming.
"You new in town?" The largest one, obviously the leader asked.
"Just passing through." She answered, watching them for trouble.
Trouble happened almost instantly as the men raised their swords and swung at the two women. Xena had her sword out in the blink of an eye. After a few well-placed swings and bottom of her boots to the men's faces they were on the ground, unconscious. She looked around to make sure no others were coming and then corrected her path. Within minutes she and Gabrielle were in the center of an orange grove. The air seemed cooled and smelled of citrus as they settled in the shade and waited.
"Who was that man?" Gabrielle questioned as she pocketed a few of the oranges.
"Krosis, an old acquaintance. Maybe he can tell us what's going on around here."
Xena was up, and her sword drawn before Gabrielle heard the first leaf rustle, but she followed suit and held her staff ready.
The old man appeared and gasped when he saw them waiting. He quickly made sure they were alone, and then greeted them with a smile. "Xena, pardon my hesitant attitude but what are you doing here?"
She relaxed the sword but kept it unsheathed, "I came to get supplies and I thought I'd look in on you. I felt like the prize pig at a feast in town, what is going on here?"
The old man sat under the nearest tree and sighed, "There was an attack on a nearby village. It's not the first and the survivors all seem to vanish without a trace. They started about three weeks ago, there is no pattern and they seem very skilled. Strangers are not very welcome around here, and unfortunately memories are long where you're concerned."
"Who's responsible?" She asked simply.
He shrugged, "That's the worst part, no one knows. The Army attacks, kills, scavenges, and disappears. They leave no clues behind, not even wounded or dead. Of course when you showed up in town, the fires were lit."
Now Gabrielle jumped into the conversation, "What do you mean, the fires were lit?"
Xena and the old man looked at each other for a second before she received an answer, "They think I'm responsible."
They had left town shortly after the meeting with Krosis, without supplies and with very little information. After a couple of hours of riding, the heat of the day became unbearable and Xena spotted a shaded area near a brook a few yards from the road.
She took care of Argo first, making sure the horse had water and was sufficiently shaded, then joined Gabrielle at the brooks' edge rinsing the road dirt and sweat off their arms and faces.
They finally settled under the large Oak tree by the water and Gabrielle pulled out her orange stash, which was a welcome change from their usual fare.
Xena had already devoured one orange as Gabrielle finished skinning her first, "I can't believe that they think you're responsible." She replied as she handed Xena another.
This time she took her time with her snack, "My army was very active in this area a few years ago."
Gabrielle turned to face her friend, "That was a long time ago. You're not like that anymore. How long before these people start accepting that?"
"Bad memories fade slowly."
She was silent for a moment, eating her orange and thinking, something obviously bothering her. Xena watched her but didn't pry, she knew when Gabrielle was ready to continue she would.
"Krosis" she began anew, "he's your friend, right? He didn't act like much of a friend."
She knew what the statement meant but only answered, "He's an old man."
"But he's supposed to be your friend," She continued, "He was afraid and ashamed that someone would see him with us."
"With me." She corrected.
"Some friend." Gabrielle finished flatly.
Xena spoke hesitantly, "As I said he's an old man. He's lived there most of his life, his neighbors only know my reputation not me. He has to look out for himself and I understand that.
I'm used too not getting a warm reception."
Gabrielle couldn't let it go, "But he's your friend and that Xena is in the past. Friends are supposed to help each other out. I'd never turn my back on you, no matter what."
She stopped eating and looked at her friend warmly, "One day you may have to, if it means saving your life."
Now Gabrielle stopped eating and stared at her friend, "There is nothing that could make me
be ashamed to admit knowing you. You're my best friend, and I'm proud to say it."
Argo stomped at the ground causing Gabrielle to look away and miss the slight blush that rose in Xenas face. By the time she turned back around Xenas face had returned to its stoic demeanor.
"Thanks. That means a lot," She answered softly, "but the fact still remains that the old Xena was not a very nice person and still has a lot of enemies. Some of those good honest people. Do you not remember the reception I got at your village?"
Gabrielle nodded and reflected on her first meeting with Xena Warrior Princess. It seemed longer than three years since that first encounter, but she could clearly remember the reaction of her family and friends. Even after she had saved their lives from Draco's men, being wounded in the process.
Her father had been one of the first ones to thank her for saving their wives and daughters. Then the whispers of her identity surfaced and the entire village turned cool. The Elders asked her to move on as quickly as possible.
She remembered coming to the defense of the Warrior. Reminding her father and the others that Xena was hurt and had just saved them. Could her wounds not be tended before she left?
Before an argument broke out Xena had quietly grabbed her things and said she was just passing through anyway.
Gabrielle was fascinated by the meeting. She had heard all the horrible stories of The Warrior Princess and her army, but the woman she met didn't seem like the same bloodthirsty animal of the stories. Because she followed her heart and head, she had begun the adventure of a lifetime, leaving behind a boring life in a small village.
Then she thought of Perticus, her betrothed by family arrangement. She had left him behind as well not anxious to marry. Though he had been sweet and handsome, she wanted more than a farmer and to be more than some farmer's wife.
When they met again, he was a soldier. No longer the innocent farm boy and she was no longer a little village girl and this time their love was mutual.
They had sealed their love in marriage a few months later, but their lives together had been cut painfully short by the murderous Callisto.
Her appetite suddenly gone she threw the half-eaten orange across the clearing and stood up, "I'm going for a walk." She stood up and ventured away from their shaded resting area.
Xena watched her walking beside the brook, her head down in deep thought and instantly recognized the mood that had come over her friend. She silently scolded herself for mentioning Gabrielle's home village.
Outwardly Gabrielle had seemed to recover fairly quickly from her husbands' murder, but inwardly she was never quite the same innocent she had been. A piece of her had died with Perticus that day and the change was only noticeable to those who knew her best. Most of the time she maintained her usual facade but on occasion she slipped into a quiet, reflective posture.
For several months after his death Xena had been awakened late at night by her soft crying.
She had tried to comfort her friend, her heart aching at the guilt of being partly responsible for Perticus's death.
Had she killed Callisto when she had the chance at their first meeting, Gabrielle would have been happily married and starting her family by now. Although Gabrielle assured that she never blamed her friend, Xena felt a heavy burden of guilt. Gabrielle had even reminded her that had she not arrived when she did, she would have been dead as well. Xena knew it was true but that didn't help ease her conscience.
"Stop that." A firm voice broke the revelry.
Looking up she saw Gabrielle standing beside Argo, her usual demeanor and smile back in place, "We'd better get moving."
Xena popped the last bit of orange in her mouth and stood up, gear in hand, "Yep, it'll be dark in a few hours and I want to reach Emola before then."
She saddled Argo while Gabrielle refilled their water flasks, and in a matter of moments the gear was loaded and she climbed into place in the saddle. Once settled she reached down a hand to Gabrielle, "Come on."
Gabrielle was a bit caught of guard by the gesture. The only time both rode Argo was when there was trouble and they needed to move fast. She quickly glanced around looking for the trouble that Xena had spotted.
"It's too hot to walk and we need to make up some time." Xena explained, her hand still outstretched.
Gabrielle grasped her hand and was pulled up. She settled behind Xena, "I'm glad you came into my life when you did, and I'm glad you're my friend."
Xena glanced over her shoulder and smiled, "Me too." She nudged Argo and they began down the dusty road at a slow pace.
Emola was a small village located in a fertile valley whose main businesses were horses and grain. Xena and her army had allowed the place to survive because the villagers eagerly supplied her troops with all the hay and grain they needed. Although she would have never admitted it back then, she also found the valley beautiful and peaceful. High grass green and lush, wild flowers covering the tops of the hills, a thick strip of trees surrounding two sides of the town and a large clear lake to supply the water for the town's people.
They reached Emola long before dark and discovered two things. The town had been the obvious victim of a recent attack and it was currently under siege again. The attacker this time was the lowest of scum Zeus had ever allowed breath.
As they topped the hill above town, they saw a large force of Slavers battling a small band of soldiers. The soldiers fought fiercely but were badly outnumbered and were being worn down. The battle seemed centered around one of the few still standing buildings. When Xenia caught a glimpse of what was in the building, she knew why the soldiers fought so hard.
"One thing hasn't changed since the old days," She growled as Gabrielle slid off Argo, "I hate Slavers." A familiar war cry sounded from the hill and Xena charged down into the valley. The fighting stopped for a brief instant when both sides heard the war cry. The soldiers used it to their advantage to take out a few more of the slavers.
Argo came to a stop a few yards from the fight and Xena flipped off the horse and landed in front of a slaver. He was a tall, muscular man with greasy hair and bad teeth. He looked surprised by the woman in front of him but wasted no time bringing up his sword.
Xena brought up her sword, meeting his in mid air. Their steel met with a clashing roar, adding another chorus to the metal song that filled the air.
The force of the clash caused him to take a step back. He quickly recovered and raised his sword again but never used it as Xenas fist firmly connected with his face. His eyes crossed and he fell to the ground, unmoving.
She glanced to her right and saw one of the soldiers, a short, slender helmeted fighter, taking on two slavers at once fighting like a lion but losing ground. She moved to help him when
Gabrielle arrived on the scene.
She tapped one of the slavers on the shoulder with her staff and when he turned to face her she promptly took him down with a sweep to his legs. The final punch of the staff into his stunned face ended the confrontation.
He was quickly joined on the ground by his friend as the young soldier nodded to Gabrielle and moved to intercept the next attacker.
Across the compound two men suddenly appeared in front of Xena leering, "This one will bring a good price at the slave pit."
"Hi boys," She smiled, "Wanna play?"
They grinned at one another and reached toward her, gripping only air as she leaped into the air and delivered a well-placed boot into each mans chest on the way down. They flew backwards landing on their backs, momentarily stunned.
She somersaulted in the air and landed at their feet, sword in hand, "Are you tired of playing already?"
Slavers relied on bullying the weak and taking advantage of the down trodden. Usually when faced with a real fight they ran like frightened rabbits. Scrambling in the dirt one of the men didn't disappoint, the other was more stubborn. He jumped to his feet, his sword ready and snarling like a mad dog complete with foaming at the mouth.
She shook her head, kicked the sword out of his hand and put him back in the dirt with a flying kick.
A commotion to her left caught her attention and she saw two of the soldiers fighting off five slavers as they neared the door of the main building. She had the Chakram in action in a flash. The spinning disk ricocheted off a building, a wagon and an unconscious slavers head. Next, it clinked against the five slavers helmets dropping them one by one like dominoes before returning to her waiting hand.
The two soldiers waved their thanks and prepared for the next onslaught. More of the slavers were beginning to flee from the fight but a few stubborn men remained.
Xena started after some of the rabbits when she heard a familiar voice yell her name.
Spinning around she was just in time to see a slaver knock Gabrielle off her feet into a pile of debris. Gabrielle tried to regain her footing but fell, her head firmly connecting with an old wagon wheel as she went down.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called out as the young woman hit the ground with a loud thud.
She lay still as the slaver smiled, moving into position over her. With a sneer in her direction, his sword raised to strike.
The helmeted shoulder heard Gabrielle cry and glanced at Xena and then back to Gabrielle. In the blink of an eye the soldier went into action.
Xena moved toward her friend but knew she would never make the distance. Then she realized that the young soldier had left his sword in the belly of the slaver he was fighting and was unarmed as he ran to Gabrielle's assistance. She grasped her Chakram and took aim.
The soldier hit the attacking slaver running full force and knocked him backwards a few steps. Then promptly took a protective stance between the unconscious Gabrielle and persistent slaver.
Xena held the Chakram and continued toward them. Stopping again when she saw the helmeted soldier reach behind his back and pull a pair of chobos from his belt.
She had assumed that it was a young boy under the helmet but now realized it was a woman. Watching in surprise as the soldier twirled the Amazon fighting sticks with skilled precision and grace. The woman brought the sticks across his chin and then delivered a crushing blow to each shoulder. A few more strikes and he was on the ground, permanently. The Amazon stayed in her protective stance by Gabrielle as another thug advanced.
Xena was on her way to help when her path was blocked by a large tree of a man wielding a battle axe. He tossed the axe back and forth in his large calloused hands, challenging her.
She looked at his battle scared face and sighed. Worry and exhaustion were beginning to settle in, "Let's get this over with, Tiny." She replied taking a fighting position.
He was off balanced by her flippancy, but quickly leaped into battle, swinging the axe full force, aiming for Xena's head. In return she simply ducked and let his momentum carry him around. Then flipped over him, landed and kicked him with such force that there was a loud smacking sound as he ran head first into the wall of a nearby building.
Axe man bounced off the wall and staggered back trying to shake off the effects of the blow. When he turned back to face the Warrior Princess, he met a one-two kick that stopped him cold. He stood upright for a second. Then his eyes rolled back into his head and he fell to the ground like an old tree.
That was enough for the other attackers. They began scattering and running toward the hills, leaving wounded and prospective slaves behind. The soldiers held fast, not pursing them. When the slavers were almost at the top of the hill, then the soldiers began checking their injured comrades and moving into the building they had fought so bravely to defend.
Xena rushed over to Gabrielle and found the Amazon kneeling beside her, examining her wounded head.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked weakly as Xena knelt beside her and took hold of her hand.
The Amazon finished her check, "A nasty bump, but you'll be okay. Probably have a headache the size of Olympus though."
Xena began her own check as the Amazon removed her masked helmet. She stopped long enough to get a look at the soldier and was immediately struck by her youth. She was perhaps a few years older than Gabrielle, with shoulder length brown curly hair, fair complexion and hypnotic green eyes. The familiar earring of Melosas tribe dangled from her left ear, and a brightly colored blue headband signifying a warrior adorned her head.
She had already applied a pressure bandage to Gabrielle head, so there was nothing left to do but make her comfortable. "Thank you." Xena replied as the Amazon stood up.
The Amazon looked back at the building and then met Xenas eyes, "Thank You." She replied simply.
One of the soldiers called out, "Captain." And the woman turned to acknowledge.
"I'll be back." She assured and disappeared into the building.
Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle, "How are you feeling?"
She took a breath, lightly touched her head and closed her eyes, "Like I was hit with one of Zeus thunderbolts."
Xenas tone was filled with relief, "Thank Zeus you have a hard head. Just lie still and rest. The slavers are gone."
The Amazon and her soldier came out of the building and summoned the others. As each soldier approached they began reporting to the Captain. None of the villagers had been hurt, two of their soldiers were badly injured and four were dead. As the dead were named the Amazon dropped her head in silent prayer for their brave efforts. The reports continued and after a moment she took a deep cleansing breath and resumed command attitude. She scanned the compound and then looked up at the rapidly fading sun as the last of the reports were heard.
"We'll camp here tonight," She began, "Fabius, see to the injured. Hernam, Basty check these vermin lying around and take the bodies into one of the old buildings."
"The injured?" Hernam, the tall, muscular red head questioned.
"No survivors." Was the answer. "Beldon, Giles Benedictus and Delia secure the area and set up watches. Leonis, Xanthus and Otes you get camp set up."
A young woman came out of the building timidly, "Captain?"
Amazon turned and her features immediately softened, "Yes Chloe."
A few of the other villagers joined her in the doorway. All of them were dressed in farming clothes and bore the bruises and demeanor of survivors of a raid. "Let us help." She spoke for all of them.
They had lost everything family, friends and homes. Despite that they weren't ready to lie down and die and she admired them even more, "Of course. We could use some help." She turned to Leonis, a tall slender older man, "Will you assign duties to our friends?"
Leonis nodded and motioned them out of the building, assuming his roll as second in command.
The camp was becoming a flurry of activity when the Amazon ventured back to Xena and Gabrielle. She handed Xena a flask of water and kneeled beside them. "How is she?"
Xena had just used a pressure point to help ease her friend's headache and now she was dozing. "A bad headache but she'll be fine."
"Without your help," the Amazon began, "These people would be the property of slavers. My name is Bethany and I am in your debt."
Xena looked at the villagers, recognizing the look that they wore. She had left countless people like this behind in her earlier days, it seemed only right that she help them for a change.
"I'm Xena." She looked down at her sleeping companion, "My friend Gabrielle. Your debt is paid in full."
The woman seemed stunned for only a second when she heard Xena's name then her face regained its normal setting. Most would not have caught that look of surprise it had been so quick but Xena did. She said nothing as Bethany began speaking, "We are from Havenous. We ride patrols in this area and try to help when a village has been attacked and before the slavers move in. These people were in a village that was destroyed about a days ride from here. We're escorting them to Havenous to start anew. Your friend was hurt helping us. We don't have much but I can offer you a hot meal, warm fire and thankful company. We'd be honored if you'd stay with us at least for the night."
It was a heartfelt offer and although Xena was anxious to reach Barbus this offer was tempting. Gabrielle needed a safe place to rest and with only eleven soldiers to protect thirty villagers, mostly children, these people could use an extra sword for a day or so.
"I accept your offer, thank you."
Bethany smiled, "Good. Now let's find a more comfortable place for your friend to get some rest."
Leonis, Fabius and Xena got the wounded settled and because of her medical ability Xena took over the care of the injured so Fabius could help elsewhere. As she checked and changed bandages on some of the villagers she could tell that they had been tended to with care and skill.
In no time with the help of an older village woman named Mara and her teenage son they had cleaned, sewed and bandaged the two soldiers and had everyone else resting comfortably. As she finished the last bandage, she noticed the older woman watching her with an odd look on her face.
When the woman realized that Xena was aware of her stare she blushed, "I'm sorry. It just amazes me that warriors so fierce can have the gentle touch of a healer."
The woman nodded, "Yes. The Captain has been tending to our wounded personally. To watch her with the wounded and see her with the children, you would never suspect that she can be as fierce as Aries when there's trouble."
"Killing is easy," Xena responded, "To save and preserve life, that's the hard job."
Mara grabbed a water flask and stood up her bones creaking in protest, "Bethany said almost the same thing." And she moved off to offer water to the wounded.
Xena scanned the activity around her. The soldiers moved quickly and efficiently. With the help of some of the villagers they had already cleared the bodies of the slavers and were almost done setting up camp.
A large fire was built in the center of camp and the smell of stew was beginning to float on the evening air. Two of the village women and one soldier worked at fixing the meal, cutting vegetables and slicing bread. She spotted the soldiers in the dimming light guarding the perimeter of the camp about thirty yards out.
On the far side of the camp were the children, and where she found Bethany. The children ranged in age from infants to just shy of teen age. A middle-aged woman and one of the younger woman cared for the infants and toddlers changing diapers and feeding them.
Bethany kneeled in the dirt surrounded by six children playing a game that involved drawing in the dirt. One of the little girls had her leg in splints that kept getting in her way, but Bethany took her time with them allowing the girl to keep up with the rest of the children. Earlier the children had been quiet and sedate. Many of them now orphans had seen their parents and siblings murdered for no reason.
Bethany sat with them, talking to them instead of at them. Played their games and lost convincingly and when a tear appeared she comforted them like a parent. Watching her with the children and the adults of the village helped Xena understand why Bethany had fought so fearlessly even in the face of defeat.
Again her old memories bubbled to the surface as she looked around the camp. She found herself wondering how many people, innocent people like this had she been responsible for. Had they had someone like Bethany and her soldiers to help them? Before she could fall to deeply into her own dark place, she felt a tap on her arm. She turned and saw Mara's young son standing few feet away. He was only about thirteen summers, with long black hair and deep sad brown eyes. He seemed to flinch and cower when she acknowledged him.
"I'm sorry Warrior." He slowly spoke, his voice barely above a whisper, "Mother wanted me to tell you your friends awake."
Xena mustered her friendliest face and gently patted his arm, "Thank you."
The boy relaxed slightly, said nothing and went back to help his mother. Xena let him get a small distance ahead and then followed him.
Bethany too had spent some time observing their guest. She had been so uncertain of her reaction when the two of them finally met, but she was surprised at the calm and peace that had settled over her. Watching Xena treat the wounded had convinced her even more that the stories of her turn to fight for good were true. Because of her own past she had recognized someone who had things to atone for and couldn't help but admire the fighting and healing skills of the Warrior Princess. Her residual fear and uncertainty were rapidly giving way to curiosity. Especially at how she came to be traveling with an Amazon.
She hopped to convince Xena and her friend to accompany them to Havenous. Not only to get some answers to old questions but because they desperately needed someone with Xenas fighting skill and strength. One of the women tending the evening meal called out and made a motion in the air, and the others began making their way to the pot over the fire.
The children immediately lost interest in the game and ran to get in line. As she stood up from the dust Leonis moved up beside her, both of them watching the crowd gather for dinner.
He was about ten years older than her and a full foot taller. He had the muscular build of a career soldier, his head topped off with short curly brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His face was weathered and slightly scarred but still handsome and he had blue eyes that twinkled with wisdom and compassion. "You okay?" he questioned, his voice firm but twinged with weariness.
"Same." He followed her gaze and landed on Xena helping her friend sit up and eat. "So that's the infamous Xena Warrior Princess. She is awesome in battle." He committed thinking of her earlier fight with the slavers.
"Without their help I don't think we could have held them off much longer. I'd like to ask them to accompany us to Havenous. We could use an extra sword, especially one as skilled as hers."
As if one, both glanced to the farthest edge of camp where two soldiers stood guard. One tall and slender carrying a long scar down the side of his face. The other a short, heavyset man with a face that bore a strong resemblance to a weasel.
Leonis and Bethany had been friends and fighting together for five years and they knew one another well enough that their communication was almost telepathic. "That might not go over well with some." He spoke first, "Her reputation of late has changed toward a force of good but her past is still fresh in many memories."
"Could I be mistaken?"
He detected a slight hint of uneasiness in her voice, something that only recently had begun showing up in her. For the last few weeks her nightmares had begun getting worse and she seemed more on edge. Considering her past and some of what was happening now he could be more objective and more sympathetic.
"No." He finally answered, "We've fought together too long, and I've learned to trust your instincts. They haven't been wrong yet."
Her smile warmed him and he gave her a wink, "You need to eat and rest. You pull guard duty in a few hours."
Obediently she replied, "Yes Sir." And made her way to the dinner line.
He watched her blend into the group of villagers waiting their turn, admiration flaring its head in his heart.
Xena had managed to get Gabrielle to eat and drink a little and now she was dozing peacefully. She too had eaten and then made a final check on the wounded before she decided to stretch her legs. The sun had been down for over an hour and feeling safe and with full stomachs the villagers settled down to sleep, the camp encased in quiet.
She strolled slowly and quietly through the villagers, some nodding or smiling as she passed and she returned the greetings.
The night air was cooling and she took a few deep breaths, savoring the smells and sounds of the coming night. One of the many gifts that Gabrielle had given her was the ability to notice the simple things. Things most people took for granted or never noticed, including her until Gabrielle pointed them out.
The smell of freshly cut hay or Lotus blossoms. A chorus of tree frogs and crickets making evening music. The splendor of a sunset or rainbow after a storm. These were not the type of things a Warrior paid particular interest to, but then Xena was not the same warrior she had been a few years ago. The symphony was interrupted as she neared the edge of camp and heard voices whose tone had nothing to do with nature.
Benedictus had pulled her aside as she finished her dinner and urged her toward the old building at the edge of town where they had kept the horses secured. Bethany let him lead her into the woods behind the building, knowing that he would be a problem and that his voice could carry his ranting back to camp.
He paced in front of her, the scar down his face twitching in step. "What were you thinking, asking her to stay in our camp? Do you know who she is? What she is?"
Bethany remained calm. In the year since he had joined her patrol he had managed to throw a fit at least twice a mission. She was used to his tirades and quickly becoming tired of them, "Yes, I know who she is. I also know that she helped us and without that help these people and some of us would probably be on the way to a slave market or dead."
He stopped pacing and faced her, "Part of her plan no doubt. Get us to trust her, invite her to join us all the while her army is surrounding us just waiting on her signal. You've let a viper into our midst."
"There is no army, Benedictus. Have you not heard the stories of her helping people? She has changed. Even Hercules calls her friend now. "
"Stories." He replied, anger causing the tone of his voice to rise, "Do you believe everything you hear? She's a demon who uses and destroys on a whim. I've seen the aftermath of her attacks and that you of all people defend her. You know better than any of us what she's capable of."
Anger colored Bethanys features as she held up her gloved hand to stop him, "That is the past and you'd be wise not to bring it up again." She inhaled deeply trying to soothe the anger, "That Xena no longer exists. She risked her life to help us today and her friend was injured. We owe her our gratitude and the very least I can do is offer them a meal and a place to sleep."
"And wake up with your throat cut! I thought you were smarter than this. I will not stand by and let you lead these people to the slaughter. I'm sure the others will have something...." He stopped, looking over her shoulder, hand reaching for his sword.
Bethany turned and saw Xena emerging from the bushes a few feet away. She faced Benedictus and reached to stay his sword. "That's enough!" She almost yelled, wondering how much of the argument Xena had heard.
Xena stood her ground, raising her hands slightly to show that she was unarmed, but her eyes reflected readiness to defend herself if need be. "I don't want to cause a problem. I'll get my friend and we'll ride out now."
"Good. The sooner the better." Benedictus growled, keeping his hand on his sword hilt.
Bethany's eyes flashed as she gave him a look that would cause Aries to cower. Slowly she turned and walked over to Xena.
Never saying a word, she met Xenas eyes and held them. Before Xena could speak, she felt a bit disoriented then relaxed. Bethany's green eyes seemed to glow and swirl like pools of water. Xena couldn't pull her gaze away and really didn't want too. There was a calm reflected in those eyes. A calm that settled into Xenas soul. As quickly as it had begun, the connection was gone and she took a slight step back unsure of what had just happened.
Bethany's face radiated calm and confidence, "That won't be necessary. You are my guest and are welcome to stay for as long as you like. I apologize that you had to overhear this petty disagreement. Please stay."
"You've lost your mind." Benedictus interrupted.
She whirled around her anger resurfacing, "You have insulted our guest, who's only crime here is helping us when we needed it. I am used to your behavior and have been too tolerant but you will not show such disrespect to a friend."
His face and voice oozed contempt, "She is not my friend. She is a butcher and I will not be led to slaughter like an Ox."
Bethany nodded, "Very well. Get on your horse and ride out. The last thing these people need is to hear the rantings of your paranoid mind."
His disbelief was evident as he took a step forward, hand still on his sword, "What?"
Xena could only watch the proceedings uncomfortably. There was more here than her appearance and had gone too far to stop it from playing out.
Leonis appeared behind Benedictus, "She said mount up and leave. Go back to Havenous, if you can find your way and don't plan on ever riding as a part of this troop again."
Knowing that he was outnumbered by better fighters he simply sneered, "Fine. When you don't show up in a few days at least there will be one who knows why." He spun around, pushing past Leonis and untethered his horse. He quickly climbed into the saddle and with a final hateful look rode away from camp.
They all let out a soft sigh and kept staring into the darkness that had swallowed him.
"I'm sorry." Xena apologized after a moment.
"This has been brewing for a while. Long before you ever entered the picture." Leonis assured her.
"Still it might be a good idea to leave. There might be others who share his feelings. I don't want to cause you any problems after the kindness you've shown us."
"The problem just rode away." Bethany answered, "You and Gabrielle are welcome here. I would like you to stay but I don't want to push the matter." She started back to camp then stopped turning back to Xena, "For purely selfish reasons I wish you would stay. We could use a sword like yours to help us get these people home. My troopers are good but we could use the extra help."
Her honesty was a refreshing and welcome change. In truth she enjoyed their company and knew that they did need help. The deciding factor was the woman standing before her. She was as curious about that as the Amazon was about her. "What direction is Havenous?" she asked.
"South. About two days from here." She answered.
Xena looked at Leonis and then back to Bethany, "It just so happens we're heading south to meet with a friend. I think it might be a good idea to travel together, especially since we know there are slavers in the area."
"Safety in numbers." Leonis added.
Bethany's face lit up with a smile, "Good idea. Let's get back to camp. I've got guard duty and we have an early day tomorrow."
The three of them walked to camp discussing travel plans, each of them scanning the camp area for any signs of trouble. As they reached the center of camp Xena took her leave heading for Gabrielle and the wounded. Leonis and Bethany split up and headed into the darkness to assume guard duty.
Xena had spread out her blanket next to Gabrielle and tried to be as quiet as possible as she laid her sword and Chakram beside her bed. She sat on the blanket and slowly began unlacing her boot, weariness creeping up on her.
"Busy day, huh." A soft drowsy voice stated.
Xena glanced to her side, "I didn't mean to wake you. How's the headache?"
Gabrielle rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand, "Better. Those nerve pinches really helped."
With a soft grunt Xena pulled off one boot, tossed it to the side and began unlacing the other, "Good. You still need to take it easy for a day or two. We'll be traveling with this group for the next couple of days."
She looked around at the sleeping figures and watching guards, "Xena, what did we stumble into here?"
Xena pulled the other boot off and scooted around to face Gabrielle, "These people are survivors from one of the raids Krosis told us about. The soldiers are escorting them to Havenous to start new lives."
"Havenous?" Gabrielle repeated coming more awake and sitting up a little more, "I thought it was just a story."
Xena frowned, "What?"
"Havenous, " Gabrielle began explaining, "was a large Kingdom that was destroyed by a vicious Warlord. The ruins of the city remained empty for years then a group of pilgrims came upon it. Their homes had been destroyed months before and they were looking for a new place to start their lives again. They were overwhelmed by the size of the once great kingdom and loved the peaceful valley that surrounded it so they began rebuilding. As time went by other raid survivors from all over the land heard about the city and came to help rebuild. It took many years and a lot of hard work but it's supposed to have been completely restored and it's entire population a mixture of survivors from different raids."
Gabrielle's gift a gab and listening made her a wealth of information that even Xena had come to respect. "They welcome any people who are in search of a safe haven. They say that there is a Guardian watching over the city and it's people and protects all within its walls."
Xena interrupted, "Guardian? Refresh my memory."
"Chosen of the Gods." Gabrielle supplied. When that didn't seem to help, she continued, "Some of the Gods, the ones who appreciate and like mortals saw that they couldn't be every where to help us and decided to choose certain mortals. Bestow on them a special gift to help in their mission, like super strength or great speed, invisibility, all kind of things. Course all of this is only a myth. Part of the deal is that they can't advertise who they are so no one can really say they've ever met a Guardian."
Xena thought of the way Bethany had looked at her, her eyes glowing and the feeling she had of complete safety in that hypnotic look.
"Was I seeing things or was there an Amazon here earlier?" Gabrielle asked changing subjects and stifling a yawn.
"Yes and you can meet her in the morning. Right now we both need some rest." Xena answered as she lay down and settled into a comfortable position.
"Goodnight." Gabrielle lay down and was asleep in seconds.
Xena watched her friend for a few minutes thinking about the story of Havenous and it's Guardian. Before she could consider too much of the information exhaustion overtook her and she too, was asleep.
Like all Warriors, even when Xena was asleep, she was aware of all around her. As she awoke, she kept her eyes closed, straining her hearing to find what had caused her to wake. She suppressed a smile as she heard Gabrielle's soft snoring beside her. The young woman swore that she never snored but on many nights Xena had been awakened by snorting that could shake the ground.
Further away she heard other snores, groans and mumbling of the sleeping camp. In the far distance she heard a stomp and soft whinny of a horse. Then she picked up the sound of a child crying and thrashing in the throws of a nightmare. It was a several feet away and what had awakened her.
She was about to move when she heard soft rapidly approaching footsteps. Lying on her side she opened her eyes slightly and saw Bethany kneeling beside the child. It was a little girl of about eight, with long blond hair and brown eyes. Xena recognized her as the little girl who had her leg broken when her village was attacked. Mara had told her that the girl's entire family had died that day and that it was only by Zeus that she had lived.
Bethany gently touched the girl's shoulder, her voice soothing, "It's all right Neysa." The little girl woke up, her eyes confused and frightened. When she focused and saw Bethany she relaxed slightly and began crying, "The Monsters."
Bethany picked her up and cradled her, rocking gently, "There all gone now little one. It was only a nightmare. You're safe here."
Her tears subsided but she still shivered, "When I close my eyes I see them. I see what they did to my Mother and Father. I'm afraid they'll come for me too."
Bethany held her tighter and the little girl snuggled closer, feeling safe. "They won't come for you Neysa. I won't ever let them hurt you again."
"Promise." She answered firmly.
The girl calmed even more, her shivering ending and her eyes began to droop as the rocking continued, "Will you stay here in case they try to come back?"
Bethany smiled, "Yes. I'll always be close to watch over you."
Now the girl smiled and closed her eyes. Bethany continued rocking, humming softly and watching the child as she drifted off to sleep. A single tear ran down her cheek and she closed her eyes tightly to stop more from following.
Xena watched for a few more seconds, then closed her eyes, more curious now than ever.
They were up and moving by dawn. The night had been quiet except for the disappearance of one of the guards. Worry was not paramount considering it was Otes, the weasley friend of Benedictus. After discussion with the other soldiers the conclusion was desertion.
The soldiers moved quickly and with skilled precision packing up the camp. Wounded, small children and the elderly rode in the three wagons they had salvaged at the previous village. The able bodied walked and the soldiers rode their horses evenly dispersed throughout the Caravan. Gabrielle, except for a nice bump on her head, was fully recovered and walked with the wounded wagon. That freed Xena so she could concentrate on what she did best, defense. She, Leonis and Xanthus alternated taking point and moving up and down the caravan.
"Glad to see you're feeling better." Bethany greeted as she walked up beside Gabrielle, her horse trailing behind her.
"Much better." She replied as she got her first clear look at her fellow Amazon. She looked like a typical Amazon except for the chain mail and cloth sleeve covering her left arm and the black leather glove on her left hand. "Thank you for yesterday." Gabrielle continued as they began moving at a more steady pace.
"No thanks necessary," Bethany shrugged her shoulders slightly embarrassed, "We're sisters. We look out for one another. I would have done the same even if we weren't. I am curious why an Amazon is traveling with Xena."
Gabrielle chuckled, "I wasn't when we met. I was only a farm girl."
Bethany nodded, "Adopted by the Nation, another thing we have in common."
"You weren't born an Amazon? " Gabrielle questioned in surprise.
"No. They took me in when I was about ten, after my village had been attacked and my family killed. They're the only family I've had since then. How did you meet them?"
Gabrielle quickly launched into her tale of joining the Amazon Nation. Of meeting Terreis and receiving her right of caste and her training with Ephiny. The death of Melosa and rise of Velasca then her downfall and Godhood. Ephiny wearing the mask of Queen until she could return to assume the role. Her story telling skills were at full and after almost an hour she finished the tale.
Bethany had soaked in every detail in silence, a look of profound sadness covering her features. She bowed her head slightly and paid her respects, "My Queen. Forgive me. I've been away from home too long."
Gabrielle blushed and patted Bethany's arm. "No need for all that. Like I said, Ephiny is Queen now. I'm just Gabrielle."
"Queen." She added, her voice still tinged with respect, "However I will respect your request."
Suddenly Gabrielle realized that she had spouted out facts including the deaths of people that Bethany was probably hearing for the first time, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to just blurt all of that out."
"I've been away from the Nation too long. These are things a good and true Amazon would know. Melosa took me in, saved my life. Terreis trained me, and Ephiny was a good friend, stubborn as a mule but a friend. What about Solari?"
Gabrielle smiled gladly able to deliver some good news, "She's fine and Ephiny's right hand."
Bethanys smile returned, "As it should be."
"Why don't you go back for a visit? They'd understand why you've been gone for so long after once they find out the reason. I do and I think that what you're doing to help these people proves more than ever that you are a true Amazon."
Bethany stared at her, her eyes threatening to tear and relief covering her face as if a great sin had been lifted from her shoulders, "Terreis chose well. You may not have been born an Amazon but you are all the things that make them great. I appreciate your understanding."
"So after we reach Havenous and get everyone settled, you're going back for a visit?"
"No." Bethany answered. "I've planned to return several times and something always comes up. I can't leave Havenous and the surrounding villages unprotected. Besides when I left I was a very angry young woman and I'm not sure I'd be welcome there anymore."
Gabrielle thought for a moment, "Okay problem one solution. I'm sure that your second in command could handle things for a few weeks and your soldiers look capable to me." Bethany remained silent so she continued, "Second solution. Xena and I were going to get some rest and relaxation after we got done in Barbus. She's going to Amphipolis and I can come with you to the Nation. That would give us a real chance to talk and me to visit my friends. Besides I have a feeling your life story is as interesting as Xenas."
"Captain?" A voice called from the front of the caravan.
Bethany waved an acknowledgment and pulled at her horses' reins. He moved up beside her and she climbed into the saddle, "I'll think about that and one day I may tell you my life story."
Gabrielle watched her ride away, hopeful and curious.
The sun had risen to its highest point and the heat wave continued. The caravan moved at a strong steady pace but as the heat engulfed them the time for a rest stop was approaching. Leonis had suggested a Persimmon grove about a mile ahead. It was a large shaded area with a lake to offer cool water to cut the dust of the road. After a moment of discussion they quickly agreed to rest there for a couple of hours until some of the heat died down.
Gabrielle was in the wagon with the wounded changing bandages and offering any needed treatment. Xena rode up beside the wagon, quiet and on edge.
Bethany casually urged the horse to trot up along side her, "You feel it too?"
Xena only nodded affirmatively.
Gabrielle finished her bandaging and leaned over the edge of the wagon, "What's going on?"
Bethany acted non-chalant but her voice was tight and agitated, "Don't look around or stare but we're being watched."
"For about the last two hours." Xena added.
"Any idea who it is? What are we going to do?" Gabrielle questioned, looking down at one of the injured.
"Slavers are never this persistent. The ones we met in Emola weren't your typical slavers either." Xena replied and cast a look toward the back of the caravan.
"Unless these are the Raiders." Bethany concluded and reached down to scratch her horses shoulder, "They could be working with the slavers. We'll be stopping shortly for the afternoon rest, that's where they'll try again."
"What's the plan?" Gabrielle piped in.
"Circle?" Bethany offered.
"Meet in the middle." Xena added.
Gabrielle sat back and watched the two of them using Warrior verbal shorthand. She had never met anyone so much like Xena and yet so different. Watching them together was like watching two halves of a whole.
"Idea?" Xena continued.
"Scout ahead." Bethany smiled.
Xena nodded, "Hunt for food?"
"Ten minutes." They agreed.
"Let me guess," Gabrielle interrupted, "I stay here and keep the wounded safe."
"Yes." They said firmly and in unison.
Bethany rode up to the front of the caravan, exchanged a few words with Leonis and then galloped into the distance.
"I'll see you at the clearing." Xena said as she prepared to ride off in the opposite direction.
"Be careful." Gabrielle said as she watched her friend ride away.
The caravan had reached the grove and still there had been no sign of Xena, Bethany or the Raiders. The wounded were left in the wagons but everyone else quickly took advantage of the shade and lake. Some stretched their legs strolling around the lake bank while others laid down under the shade trees napping.
Leonis and the other soldiers spread out and encircled the resting group, none of them resting or socializing as usual.
Some of the older children and adults moved into the cool water splashing and taking advantage of the refreshing change. Hernam casually made his way to the lake and took his position nearby.
Gabrielle passed water around to the wounded and after everyone was taken care of, she sat beside the wagon and took a long cool drink. She leaned against the wagon wheel and closed her eyes, a mild headache beginning. A clash of swords brought her to her feet and she found herself face to face with a large grim-covered man.
He was over six feet tall, as thick as an oak tree and looked as if he had never heard of water and soap. He held a large broad sword and grinned revealing five semi rotted teeth. "I may buy you for myself."
Gabrielle gripped her staff firmly and smiled sweetly, "Not for sale." She replied as she brought the staff up between his legs.
His smile faded, eyes widened and dropped to his knees. The only response he could make was a high-pitched groan. She mustered all her strength and brought the staff down on his shoulder. With a slight twirl, the end of the staff was delivered across his chin as her final comment on the conversation. He crashed to the ground, no longer a threat to the caravan.
She whirled around and saw the soldiers fighting off another attack by the slavers. This time
the odds were a little better but they were still outnumbered. She heard children screaming near the lake and caught sight of Hernam fighting off the slavers heading for the children. Like a flash she was running to help him when she heard the familiar and welcome war cry in the grove behind her.
Just as she reached Hernam she saw a figure rising from the lake, sword drawn and face etched in anger. Bethany leaped out of the water, did a flip in mid air and landed between the slavers and a small group of children.
Hernam could tell by the fearful reaction on the slavers he was fighting that help had arrived. He began fighting with a new intensity, taking down one of the attackers with one swing of his sword.
Bethany swung her sword in a wide but controlled arc. The blow so fierce the two slavers in her way were cut almost in half as they hit the ground. Gabrielle watched in awe as the young woman brought down men twice her size with the skill and precision she had only seen Xena use. When she heard yells back toward camp she turned and ran back to see if she could help Xena and the others.
A man ran to intercept her and she stopped in mid stride bringing the staff into a ready position. He apparently didn't feel she was much of a threat as he reached to grab her arm and was stopped by the staff connecting with his wrist. A loud crunching sound filled the air as the bones in his wrist turned to powder. He cried out, grabbing his limp arm. She lowered the staff sweeping his legs out from under him and ended with the staff connecting with the crown of his head. She continued to camp not bothering to look back at his inanimate form.
Xena was in full stride by the time she reached the grove to help. Three of the thugs were circling her, daring her to do her worst. Most learned that it was not wise to dare Xena and as she began spinning around arms extended, fist clenched with every blow that landed on their noses and chins, they too learned that lesson. Once they were weaving off balance, she jumped into the air, kicked out her legs and brought two of the men to the ground. The third saw his comrades face down in the dust and Xena smiling at him. He left tracks as he turned and ran for the woods.
Gabrielle ran up to join her and together they watched the few still standing slavers make a bee line for the safety of the woods, scurrying like mice.
"Where did you come from?" She asked trying to catch her breath.
"The trees." Xena answered as if was an ordinary happening.
Their conversation was cut short when they heard screams again coming from the lake. Both were off and running, reaching the lake in only a few seconds and found a standoff.
Bethany and Hernam had dispatched all but one of the slavers. He was now holding two small children in front of him as a shield, his sword held steady at their throats. "Get back or I'll take their heads off." He growled at the four of them.
The other soldiers stood their ground protecting the camp but watching with concern and ready to act if needed.
"Hernam." Bethany called calmly, waters still dripping down her face, "Get the other children back to camp."
The children were cowering by the nearby rocks and he quickly moved over to them. His voice was soft and gentle as he spoke to them and quickly hustled them to safety.
Once they were safely away Xena began inching closer, Chakram in hand. Gabrielle moved in on the other side, staff at the ready.
"Don't move any closer." He threatened as he realized that they were trying to flank him. To emphasize his point he pulled the children even closer so that the blade of the sword was against the soft flesh of the little boys throats.
The children were crying and shaking with fear and this seemed to antagonize him even more, "Be quiet and quit your squirming."
Bethany motioned for Xena and Gabrielle to hold their ground and slowly kneeled on the ground. She moved her head slightly until she got the children attention and then held their gaze, "It's all right Festus and Johnus. Just do as the man says and keep still. He won't hurt you."
Xena saw the children relax instantly, their eyes slightly glazed and she wondered again about her own experience with Bethany hypnotic stare.
The struggling of the children ceased and the thug felt more confident, "I want a fast horse. When I get down the road and feel safe I'll drop the kids off."
Bethany said nothing as she rose to her feet standing straight and shoulders back. She met his eyes and held them. Nothing happened for a few seconds but then his grip on the children loosened and the sword dropped to his side.
Gabrielle watched unsure of what was happening and then caught sight of Bethany's hand motioning her forward. "Go to Gabrielle children, now." Her voice little more than a whisper and she never lost eye contact with the thug.
The children quickly obeyed sliding from his grip and running to Gabrielle, who scooped them up in her arms and moved quickly out of range.
Once they were clear the spell was broken. The slaver, realizing he no longer had his human shield charged at her like a bull. Bethany seemed sluggish as she tried to stand but fell back to her knees.
Xena released the Chakram and it caught the advancing man across the throat. He grabbed his throat and stumbled to the ground. After a minute or so he was no longer a threat to anyone. The Chakram returned to her hand and she quickly rehooked it to her belt. She rushed to Bethany who was trying to rise with little success. Firmly she grabbed Bethanys arms and pulled her to her feet helping her stay steady once there. "You all right?"
Bethany took a deep shaky breath, "I'm fine. The children?"
"Don't worry, they're safe. Right now I'm more worried about you. Let's get you back to camp."
Bethany nodded and accepted her assistance.
Despite her protests Bethany found herself in a wagon and was asleep by the time they were under way again. Luckily this time there had been no serious injuries or deaths among the soldiers, but their concern for their leader was etched in their faces and posture.
Giles took point with Beldon a few yards behind. Delia protected the rear and Fabius, Hernam and Basty were scattered along the caravan. Xanthus had ridden ahead to scout out a place to make camp for the night. Leonis rode beside the wagon that carried Bethany, a protector as she slept.
Mara and her son took over treating the wounded while Xena and Gabrielle walked together near the back of the caravan, Argo following closely.
"But I thought the two of you were circling behind those guys to get them before we got to the grove."
"That was the plan." Xena explained, "But once I got into the woods behind them they were scattered and moving so fast that I decided the safest thing to do was get to the clearing. Then ambush them when they ambushed you. I guess Bethany had the same idea."
Gabrielle slowed her pace, raising her eyebrows, "You mean you two didn't plan that?"
"No. I never even knew she was there. I thought she was still tracking the slavers and would follow them into camp or come when she heard the fight."
Gabrielle remained silent for the next few minutes then asked the question that had been on both of their minds, "What happened back there? What did she do to that guy to make him release those kids?"
Xena began telling her about the previous nights confrontation with Benedictus and watching Bethany with little Neysa. Gabrielle listened, the mystery only growing, "What happened when she looked into your eyes?"
"It's hard to explain." The Warrior answered and took a deep breath, "It only lasted for a few seconds but it was a calm, peaceful feeling. Then it was gone."
"Can we trust her? I mean, are we in danger?"
Xena took her time before she answered, reflecting on all the incidents, "I don't think we're in any danger from her. In fact I think she feels like she has to protect us like she does the villagers. When we make camp though I am going to talk to her and get a few answers."
While Gabrielle filled Xena in on the details of her conversation with Bethany, Leonis watched his sleeping Captain with worry. She moaned slightly and tossed, obviously in the throws of a nightmare. He thought about reaching out to touch her shoulder when she suddenly fell silent, her face becoming peaceful.
The nightmare of her burning village and mothers screams ended abruptly. She instead found herself in a vast meadow. A cooling breeze caressing her face and the ground soft like a cushion beneath her knees. Trees surrounded the meadow and wild flowers blazed the landscape with color. A deer came jumping out of the wood and leaped across the meadow, stopping just short of her. There was a blinding flash and the deer was replaced by a young woman.
The woman was short with an athletic frame. Brown hair cascaded over her shoulders and she was dressed elegantly but simply in a soft brown one piece toga, a bow and quiver of arrows across her back.
Bethany, awestruck, stared for only a second and then lowered her head, "Huntress." She replied her voice full of respect. She had often spoken to the Huntress but had never been honored by a vision of her.
Artemis glided over, her sandaled feet not even leaving an impression on the grass and kneeled in front of her. She clasped Bethany's chin in her hands and urged her head up, "You don't need to bow to me my daughter. I sensed your turmoil and came to you hoping to help."
Bethany hesitantly brought her eyes up and met the Goddess's. The huntress was surrounded by a warm welcoming glow and her eyes so brown they were almost black, were gentle like a deer. "I don't understand what happened with that slaver." Her voice tinged with fear.
Artemis smiled, "Don't be afraid child. Your powers are growing and today you discovered that. Normally they wouldn't leave you this drained but you have been so consumed with worry the last few weeks that it simply used up everything you had, even your reserves."
Bethany took a deep cleansing breath, relaxing slightly, "I guess I have been worried."
Diana leaned back reclining on her arms, "The question is, was the worry realized? Was it as bad as you expected?"
Bethany considered her meeting with Xena before speaking, "No. For so many years I was consumed with hate, fear and anger. I thought I would want to tear her heart out when we finally met but all of that was missing. There was only calm and peace."
"You've grown. Both of you have walked a similar path and now I think you have some understanding of what it is that causes those rages. Did you use your gift to read her?"
Bethany nodded affirmatively.
"What did you see within her?"
"A warrior atoning for her sins by helping the innocent and those who need protection."
"Like looking in a mirror wasn't it?"
"It was a bit unnerving."
"Do you still consider her an enemy?" Artemis questioned innocently.
Bethany shook her head, "No. Surprisingly enough I can call her friend now," Then a look of uncertainty crossed her face, "A friend that will have a lot of questions."
The Goddess's face grew serious and dark, "There are forces working against you my daughter. Forces that I have no control over, so you must guard yourself well and never forget who you are and what you represent." Then she took Bethanys hands in her own, "I am proud of you and what you did today, don't ever forget that."
"This trouble that's coming, I'll be facing it on my own, won't I?"
Artemis frowned and said nothing.
"This is the test you warned me about isn't it. To deal with my past and future."
"Perceptive. Your skills have grown and so have you, beyond my expectations."
She arose, pulling Bethany up with her, "You're strong and you have faithful allies. That is a gift not from me or the other Gods but from within you." There was a flash and she had become a brilliant ball of light.
"Thank you Huntress." Bethany replied as the light began moving away, "I won't disappoint you."
Her ghostly voice buzzed in Bethany's ears, "You never have and won't as long as you don't give up on yourself." Then the light disappeared and Bethany found herself surrounded by darkness.
She awoke with a start. Disoriented until she remembered where she was and saw the friendly face of Leonis hovering above her. "How do you feel? Are you all right?" He asked with concern.
Bethany grabbed the side of the wagon and pulled herself into a sitting position, "I'm fine just embarrassed. How long have I been asleep?"
"A few hours but you needed the rest. This has been a rough trip and you've pushed yourself harder than usual."
"No harder than any of you." She argued.
He cocked his eyebrows and stared at her. "All right." She conceded, "Could I at least have a progress report?"
His friendly features returned, "We didn't sustain any losses in this last attack but the slavers did. They'd be fools to try again."
Bethany looked around spotting familiar landmarks, "Are we near Titans Point?"
"Yes. We'll be camping there in a few hours and if all goes well will be in Havenous by noon tomorrow."
"We've made good time despite all the trouble." A hint of despair in her tone.
She stood up in the wagon and accepted Leonis strong shoulder as a brace as she leaped to the ground. "Do me a favor?" she asked while she untied her horse's reins from the back of the wagon.
She climbed into the saddle and glanced along the caravan until she spotted Xena and Gabrielle, "I'll need to speak with them privately once we get camp set up and everything calms down. Can you cover for me for a while?"
He followed her gaze and nodded. "You're covered." He promised, "You want me to let them know?"
"Please. I"m going to ride point for a while." She started to ride off but Leonis reached for her arm.
"You sure you're okay?"
She put her hand on his and squeezed reassuringly, "Yes, my friend. I just need some time alone, to think."
He returned the hand squeeze and released her so she could ride away. Once she reached the front of the caravan, he turned his horse in the opposite direction and went to deliver the message.
By sundown, camp had been set up, villagers fed, wounded treated and people were settling in for the night.
Titans Point was a stone out cropping at the very top of Mount Helios. A treacherous rock formation that only the Gods could ascend and did whenever they wanted to escape the worries of the mortals. It offered complete protection on one side and it was at the base they made their camp. A small spring supplied plenty of fresh water and a thick lush grassy meadow offered soft bedding for the night.
Because of the stone arc of the Mountain, only three soldiers were needed to guard the outer perimeter. That allowed more rest time for the other troopers and less ground to cover in case of trouble.
When Bethany was certain everything was settled in camp for the evening she went in search of Xena and Gabrielle, finding them lounging beside the spring, relaxing and talking quietly.
She approached cautiously unsure of their welcome. Her fears were quickly laid to rest when Gabrielle smiled, "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thanks."
Xena sat quietly sharpening her sword, content to let Gabrielle get the conversation rolling.
"We were really worried about you for a while."
"Just over did it back there." Her gaze moved to Xena, "My thanks to you Xena. You saved my life."
Xena put the sword in its sheath and set it on the rock beside her, "No thanks necessary."
"But an explanation is." She finished with a sigh and sat down on the grassy hill in front of them.
Xena had never been one to mince words, "Last night during the argument with Benedictus, what did you do to me or was I imagining things?"
"The eyes are mirrors to the soul," She began nervously twisting a blade of grass, "My gift allows me to look into that mirror and see a persons true feelings. Their true essence."
Gabrielle scooted closer fascinated. Xena however seemed uncomfortable, "I heard you defending me before that."
"I had heard stories of your good deeds and I was willing to keep an open mind, but for my charges' safety I had to know the truth. I apologize for intruding."
"So you saw the Xena I know," Gabrielle chimed in, "You know that the stories are true and that the old Xena no longer exists."
"Yes," she admitted, "I'm proud to call both of you friend."
"So what happened at the grove?" Xena asked bluntly.
"Something that has never happened before. Usually when I look into peoples eyes and concentrate, I see the essence. This time I saw more. I was able to control his thoughts and make him release the children."
A light went on in Gabrielle's head, "You're a Guardian."
Bethany dropped her head, obviously uncomfortable, "Yes."
"Wow." Was all Gabrielle could manage.
Xena sensed the apprehension in Bethany and knew it came from having someone pry into her business. It was doubtful that even her own soldiers knew her secret and she wanted it that way. She nudged Gabrielle, "There's no need to say any more."
"But there is," She answered, "I'm proud of my gift but ashamed of why I was chosen."
She took a few moments to compose herself. Only Leonis knew of her pledge and mission and she felt it was time to confide in others particularly Xena. "I serve Artemis the Huntress. I have pledged my life to help the innocent, the children and keep them from harm. It's my way of atoning for my sins."
Her attention captured, Xena sat up straighter.
"Sins?" Gabrielle repeated.
"I told you I was a very angry young woman when I left the nation." She stopped considering her words carefully, "I told you how I came to be with the Amazons." When Gabrielle nodded, she continued. "What I didn't tell you was how badly I was hurt in the attack on my village. Slavers loaded all the survivors into wagons and headed for market. When they realized how severe my injuries were, they threw me out of the wagon into the woods."
Gabrielle was aghast, "They left a ten-year-old girl to die in the woods, alone?"
"Slavers are not known for their compassion." Xena supplied coolly.
"I don't remember much after that except what Melosa and the others told me. Terries and some of the older girls found me and brought me to the tribe. They were sure I wouldn't make it, even the healer, but Melosa said she saw a spark in my eyes that told her differently.'
'Survive I did and was adopted by the nation. They cared for me, taught me and gave me a new family. A family I love as if they were my own blood. But there was also a hatred growing inside me. A hatred born when my village was attacked and my family killed. The older I got the more it consumed me. Melosa saw it and recognized it. She tried to help but the fire continued to grow and I was certain that no one could understand how I felt." She stopped and cupped some water in her hand from the spring.
Xena watched her drink, knowing exactly the kind of rage she described. She too had felt the consuming hatred when her home had been attacked and her brother Lyceus had been killed. It was an emotion so strong that even now just thinking about it made her feel uneasy.
Gabrielle too had experienced some of that feeling when Perticus had been murdered. Yet she had not given into it, possibly because her foundation had been more stable. Growing up she had led an almost idyllic life. A life of close family ties and love that was constant, making her a more giving and understanding person. The kind of person that brought out the best in others.
Xena focused her attention back on Bethany as she continued.
"I .... felt overwhelmed, controlled by my anger. At times it even scared me and I longed to release it. That feeling became so strong that I became fearful for my sisters in the nation. I had a long talk with Melosa and she tried to reason with me, ease my fears but nothing she said helped. I left the nation when I was seventeen, eager to find an army and seek revenge on the attackers, for my family."
"Did you ever find them?" Gabrielle asked hanging on every word.
Bethany sighed and laughed sadly, "No, but I did find others to release my fury on."
A look of confusion appeared on Gabrielle's face but Xena met her eyes knowing what she meant
"We walked the same path." She said directly to Xena, "Now you see why I was willing to believe your change more easily than others might."
Gabrielle recoiled slightly, understanding now "You mean you were a raider? Attacking villages like yours was?"
Her silence was her answer. She bowed her head, the memories and shame still fresh and uncomfortable.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, "Everyone has a dark side. Sometimes circumstances cause that darkness to become dominant in a person. Even you succumbed to that for a short time after Perticus death."
"I know." She agreed grudgingly, "It just seems so surprising that going through something like that as a child could turn you into the very thing you seek to destroy."
Bethany looked up at Gabrielle with watery eyes, "Sometimes the dead are the lucky ones. We just want to be with them, no matter what the cost."
Xena was shaken by the response. In all her years she had never heard someone speak the thought that had crossed her own mind. Callisto was the only one who had ever come close to echoing that idea during the finale of their ladder battle. After she met Hercules she saw another way and left her past life and those thoughts behind. But to hear it now so bluntly and aloud, to know that there was someone else who felt the same, shook her to the very core.
"You changed." Gabrielle started again, "Both of you did. You beat the darkness and left it behind."
"Yes, but darkness has a price." Bethany sighed, "It stays with you forever, never letting you forget or forgive your sins."
"Artemis forgave you. She even chose you as a protector of the innocent." Gabrielle smiled trying to lighten the mood.
"And Xena found you." Bethany grinned.
Gabrielle blushed and giggled but Xena knew that Bethany was right. She had appeared when Xena was at a crossroads. Despite how resistant she had been to the young woman, Gabrielle had stayed with her, becoming a friend, confidant, teacher and even savior on occasion. "You're right." Xena admitted.
"How did you become a Guardian or is that a secret?" Was Gabrielle's next question.
Bethany continued her tale with a lighter tone to her voice and manner, "I rode with an army for a few years. I did a lot of terrible things and one day during a raid I realized that my rage was turning into something else. An excuse to keep from dealing with what had happened to my family and me. As those soldiers terrorized that innocent village, I saw a child standing amid the chaos. She just stood there watching her home be destroyed and neighbors killed. Suddenly it came to me that I had been that child years ago, but now I was an adult and I could fight back. So I did."
Gabrielle's eyes widened with amazement, "You turned on you own army?"
Bethany nodded affirmatively. Refusing to go no further in discussing what had happened that day only that the little girl was still alive and the village still standing in one piece.
The camp was getting quieter now as the sun went down and darkness covered the land. The sounds of children playing mixed with the tree frogs and was carried on the air like a symphony.
"A few nights after that I was alone in a spot not much different from this. I was numb except for the confusion that racked my brain. I couldn't understand why or what was happening to me. I just wanted to be a little girl again and this time not survive the attack on my village. I heard a voice so soft and warm that I thought I was losing my mind. Then I saw a bright light descend from the sky and I thought the Gods had come to answer my prayer until the voice spoke again." Bethany stopped and remained quiet for several minutes.
The suspense was more than Gabrielle could stand, "So what happened? What did she say?"
Bethany smiled reflectively, "She enveloped me in the light and the old Bethany died and a new one was reborn with a purpose, a mission. I pledged that no child or innocent would ever suffer from my actions or lack of as long as there's breath in my body. She has been with me as a teacher, mentor and confessor ever since."
"And she gave you the power to see a person's essence." Gabrielle pushed on.
"That didn't come till after my training and I had proved myself worthy."
The conversation ended when the heard a man clearing his throat and Leonis appeared from the darkness, "Excuse the intrusion but the children are asking for you Captain. They won't settle down."
"Story time." Bethany remembered and rolled her eyes. "I promised I'd tell them the legend of Havenous the night before we arrived."
"The history of how it began?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. Do you know it?"
"She told me last night." Xena supplied, "It's fascinating."
Bethany looked at Gabrielle, "Would you like to tell them the story? I've got guard duty shortly and I could never do it justice in just a few minutes."
The aspiring bard quickly stood up, "I'd love to, that is if you don't mind."
"You'd be doing me a big favor and I have a feeling you could do much more for the story than I could." Bethany responded also rising to her feet.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who nodded and nudged her toward the main camp.
Before she took a step Bethany apprehensively touched her arm, "Thank you Gabrielle for everything. Both of you. For listening and not passing judgement."
Gabrielle reassuringly patted her arm, "We're sisters, right? Always."
Bethany bowed her head and repeated, "Always."
With that Gabrielle headed for camp, mumbling to herself the details of Havenous. Leonis followed a few steps behind her, ever watchful.
"That took a lot of courage." Xena spoke up a few minutes later, "Not only confiding your story to us but your surviving the trials that the Gods threw at you. I think the huntress chose very wisely."
Bethany extended her hand to help Xena to her feet. Xena accepted the offered hand and rose up. She stretched, feeling stiff from sitting for so long.
"She is wise." Bethany stated as they began the walk back to camp. "She convinced me that there was someone out there who could understand how I felt. Why I did what I did, because they too had experienced it and that when the time was right we would meet."
Xena cocked her head sideways, "When was this?"
"About four years ago."
Xena's step slowed, "That can't be. That's before I met Hercules so it couldn't be me." She didn't like that her life was being observed that closely by the Gods. She knew that Aries had kept a close eye on her. He had gloated over that during their many encounters but now she was curious who else might be watching and why.
"Spooky, isn't it?" Bethany smiled echoing Xenas thoughts, "I like to think that they only watch us when they need us for something."
They were walking side by side by as they reached the edge of camp. Gabrielle was surrounded by children and some adults who were enthralled as she moved around, her arms making sweeping gestures from time to time for emphasis.
"Does it help?" Xena questioned after thinking about Bethany's statement.
"Nope." She snickered, her tone becoming lighter, "I've got to relieve Delia on duty. I'll see you in the morning."
Gabrielle smiled at them as they approached, never missing a beat from her storytelling. Xena leaned close to Bethany, "No, you'll see me in four hours when I relieve you. You asked me to help and that includes guard duty."
Bethany offered no argument, "All right. I think your Patron chose wisely as well." She waved to Gabrielle and ventured into the darkness surrounding the camp, leaving Xena wandering about her own life change.
The caravan was underway just after sunrise. Although the heat was still present, a promising batch of clouds was moving across the blue sky.
Their mood seemed almost festive as they neared the outskirts of the city. Xena, Gabrielle and Bethany walked together bringing up the rear of the caravan talking about various things. They had already discussed the decision that Xena would not be going any further than the outskirts of Havenous. Gabrielle had protested, wanting to see the mythical city and to finally get some decent supplies at their market but Bethany had understood Xenas reasoning.
Havenous had been in existence for almost twenty years. Its inhabitants all survivors of village attacks, some of those possibly by Xenas army. Their reactions would be the same as Benedictus and could cause an outbreak of violence. Bethany reluctantly agreed but Gabrielle persisted.
Finally Xena relented. She would ride on to meet with an old friend at Barbus and Gabrielle would accompany the caravan into Havenous for supplies. They would meet the day after tomorrow at high noon a safe distance outside the city.
"How far?" Xena asked after they had been moving for a few hours.
Bethany scanned the local landmarks, "Almost two hours out."
"I guess I better get going. It'll be late this evening before I reach Bradus." She tugged Argos reins and the horse moved up beside her.
"You sure you don't need my help?" Gabrielle was feeling a little guilty after putting up such a fuss over visiting Havenous. When Xena had admitted the real reason she couldn't go into the city with her, the young woman had blushed and said no more.
"I'm sure. Alturn said it was just a small band of warlord wannabes. I think I can handle this one. You enjoy your visit and get plenty of supplies." Xena replied as she began checking Argos saddle and her saddle bags.
"Xena?" Bethany called. When Xena turned and met her eyes, the young warrior found her emotions were a jumble, "I can never repay you for your help. Meeting you has . . . meant more than you'll know."
Xena sensed her uncertainty. Snatching a quick look at Gabrielle, she saw that she was aware of it also. She placed her hand on Bethany's shoulder, "All of us have sins to atone for and we do what we can. I'm glad I was there and could be of help. To meet a Guardian has been a privilege, to call her friend is an honor."
Xena extended her other hand and Bethany firmly grasped her wrist, a warrior and friends handshake. They held it for a second longer and then parted.
"I'll see you day after tomorrow." Gabrielle replied stepping up to Xena and giving her a brief hug, "You be careful."
Xena pulled away and gave her a wink, "Always." Then she climbed into the saddle, " You too."
"She's under my protection." Bethany assured her.
With those word Xena knew that she could leave Gabrielle without any worry. She pulled the reins to the left and galloped north east, throwing up her hand as the villagers and soldiers wished her a safe journey.
Gabrielle and Bethany watched her until she disappeared into the distant tree line then they began discussing Havenous.
The excitement began to build as they saw the speck on the distant hill that was Havenous. As they drew closer, the city grew larger and more spectacular.
Gabrielle and the villagers were awed by the size of it and the wall that surrounded it. Only the tops of the tallest buildings rose above the walls and the walls seemed to reach up trying to touch the sky. The barrier was made of stones so thick and sturdy that it would take weeks just to crack it. Various colored banners flew at fifteen foot intervals across the very top of the wall. As they neared the wall Bethany explained that each banner represented a village destroyed and its survivors that had come to Havenous.
Guards were posted along the top of the wall, barely seen because of its construction. In the distance Gabrielle saw a huge gate lower down to the ground and a large group of soldiers ride out. Their uniforms were different, more suited to a city guard than the warrior style that Bethany and her troop wore.
"That's our welcoming committee." Bethany smiled and climbed onto her horse, "Stay close to the wagons. I've got to ride ahead and meet them. I'll see you when we reach the square."
Gabrielle nodded and watched as she met with Leonis and the two of them galloped off to meet the guard. They stayed with them for a few minutes and then rode back to the caravan assuming the lead as they passed through the gate.
Gabrielle stared at the interior of the city as they rode through the streets. It was more like a royal kingdom than a simple city. The buildings were neat and clean as were the stores and houses she saw as they wove through the streets into the center of town. Because of their own history, the residents of Havenous knew how to welcome new arrivals. They lined the streets smiling and offering words of welcome, encouragement and fruits to the hungry.
The city and its people were a blend of cultures. None seemed more predominant than any other and all meshed together in peace. Even those who had been enemies outside the walls were cordial to their neighbors.
The caravan moved slowly Bethany and her troopers in the lead and the city guard along the sides as escorts. After what seemed like an eternity they reached the center of town, at which stood the tallest, largest building surrounded by a well-kept courtyard. On a riser next to the building stood several men and women dressed in more ceremonial clothes and were obviously a ruling body of some sort.
With a small amount of fuss, the group came to a stop and Bethany dismounted. She started toward the riser and was met halfway by an older white-haired man wearing an elegant robe of deep blue. They talked briefly and then the man went back to his place as Bethany stayed at the foot of the riser.
"My friends." His voice boomed, surprisingly strong for his age, "The gods have spared your lives and with the help of our captain of the guard and her troopers, have brought you to safely to Havenous. It has no doubt been a long, hard, painful journey and not all have returned to us. All of us are survivors of such raids and we welcome you. We would be honored if you would consider this your home and us as an extended family. I know you have a lot of questions and they will all be answered but for now let us attend to the injured and get everyone else settled."
The villagers of the caravan cheered as the old man finished and stepped down from the riser. Some of them shed tears of joy and relief others were anxious to get settled into their new home. The city guard began carrying the injured into a building off to the side of the courtyard. Various representatives began moving around the new arrivals to help them find temporary accommodations until their permanent new homes were ready.
The older man gave Bethany a fatherly hug and they spoke for several minutes. When she left him, she slowly made her way to Gabrielle, who stood by the wagons waiting patiently. She was
intercepted half way by Neysa calling her name and wriggling away from the guard who was trying to pick her up and carry her into the healers quarters.
When she approached the wagon the child practically leapt into Bethany's arms and firmly clasped her hands around the womans neck. "What's the matter little one?" She asked brushing a loose strand of blond hair from her face, "You're safe here. These men only want to help you."
"I want to come with you. I'm afraid." She begged almost in tears.
Bethany hugged her tightly, "Neysa, I'm just going to take a walk around town and your leg needs to be taken care of. I promise to come by and check on you when I get back."
"Please take me with you." The child continued refusing to release her grip on Bethany.
Bethany looked at the waiting guard and motioned him away with a nod. He quickly moved away to carry one of the other injured inside.
She cast a look at Gabrielle and shrugged with a smile. Leonis appeared at her side, "How about a piggy back ride around town. We don't expect trouble but Bethany needs to keep her hands free just in case."
Bethany smiled at him warmly and then looked at Neysa, "You know Leonis is a legend around here. He is the greatest piggy backer in the whole city."
Neysa looked at him unsurely and then relented. Bethany helped her climb onto his back and once settled, she motioned Gabrielle to them and the four of them began their tour of Havenous.
The streets were not terribly crowded. Most of the citizenry were trying to help with the newcomers or see if anyone they knew had come in. Walking down the streets Gabrielle looked at the surrounding walls and could tell that they had been designed by raid survivors. It had been built to keep intruders out, highlighted by the outward arcing of the top stones that would be impossible to scale without falling.
City guards were stationed at regular intervals around the city, their job to keep the peace and from what she saw it was a very boring job. The people were friendly and welcoming, possibly more so because of her escorts.
She marveled at Bethanys ability to remember all the names of the people that greeted them. She spent a few moments with each of them exchanging pleasantries and warm words. Bethany even made it a point to spend a little extra time at the market area and although she had planned to shop tomorrow she did pick up a few things. She had learned while traveling with Xena that things didn't always go as planned and to jump at opportunity when it came.
Neysas' spirits had lifted considerably. The child even managed a giggle as a merchant made a funny face and offered her a sweet bread sample. Leonis although tired, carried her as if she were a feather.
After an hour or so Neysa began to get droopy eyed. The excitement of the trip and seeing her new home had caught up with her and the exhaustion set in. As they headed back to the square she began drifting off to sleep and Leonis switched her from his back to his arms. Walking steadily his arm swung like a cradle, lulling her into a deep restful sleep.
When they reached the building where the wounded were treated Bethany took the sleeping child from his arms and carried her inside.
It was the first time that Gabrielle and Leonis had been given a chance to talk. "You were wonderful with her. Do you have any children?"
Leonis's smile was tinged with regret, "No. Many years ago I had a wife and son but they were killed in an attack on our home."
Gabrielle frowned, "I'm sorry. Xena says sometimes I talk to much."
His smile warmed, "It's all right, it was a long time ago."
Gabrielle quickly changed subjects, "Your city is beautiful. It's so friendly and peaceful here."
Leonis glanced around the courtyard, "It is an amazing place. Everyone here knows first hand how hatred and violence can destroy. They make extra efforts to work out any disputes or problems. It's not perfect and like any other city we do have problems but they are usually resolved peacefully. We always miss the excitement because we only stay in town for a day or so before we head out again."
"Why only a day or so?"
"Because," He replied as Bethany came out of the building walking toward them, "We can do more good out there."
"How's Neysa?" Gabrielle questioned when Bethany joined them.
"Sleeping. She asked me to come back tonight and bring the storyteller."
Gabrielle was flattered and agreed happily. Bethany took her arm and lead her out of the courtyard. "We need to get you settled. We use one of the merchants' buildings. If you don't mind being surrounded by a bunch of soldiers, you can bunk with us."
"That's fine. At least I know it's one of the safest places in town."
Before they could get completely out of the courtyard, a young man came running after them calling, "Captain? Captain?"
They stopped and turned, causing the boy to skid to a stop before he ran into them. "Apologies Captain but the Elder needs to see you." He informed out of breath.
Bethany sighed, "All right Arnon. Leonis, would you see that Gabrielle gets settled in. I'll meet you later and we'll get some dinner."
They said their goodbys and Bethany followed the boy back to the large building in the center of the courtyard.
This was the power building. The ruling body consisted of an Elder and six council members, each councilor responsible for a different aspect of the daily workings of the city. The Elder was an advisor and occasionally a crusader. Disputes were settled here within the strong stone walls. On occasion when there had been serious trouble, trials had taken place. In the basement there were jail cells that although strong were rarely used and the entire first floor was reserved for town meetings.
The Elders' offices were at the very top of the building. Arnon had left her in the outside hall of his chambers and quickly vanished down the steps. She knocked on the door and heard him call to her. She eased into the office, "You wanted to see me?"
He was standing by the door that led from his office to a balcony overlooking the courtyard. He turned and smiled at her but his body language seemed tense and stiff, "Come in Captain."
She closed the door behind her and took a few steps into the room. It was a large and airy room but was decorated simply yet dignified as was befitting the village Elder. Scrolls containing the laws and records of the city lined one wall. The histories of all the city residents from the very first lined the other. There was a round table in the far corner where council meetings took place and by the window was the Elders' desk, covered with paperwork as usual.
"I appreciate you coming, I know how tired you must be." He stated and gestured toward the balcony, "Let's talk outside."
Bethany followed him out and found that he had set up a small snack tray and cool drinks for their meeting. As she took a seat, the Elder poured each of them a cup of water, "I know we usually discuss the mission after you've rested. However this wasn't a typical mission, was it?"
She accepted the cup of water he offered and waited for him to take his seat. She had expected this to happen and was relieved to see that the entire council wasn't present, "I take it Benedictus has been to see you."
He sat back, his bones creaking as he settled in the chair. His body showed his older age but his mind was still sharp and clear. His hair and beard were snow white but his brown eyes twinkled like a young man. "Oh yes." He sighed, "He came riding in with Otes and immediately requested a meeting with the council. He's a little high-strung but he managed to get the councils attention."
Bethany took a quick sip of water before she set the cup on the table, "I figured that's were Otes disappeared to. Is there a problem?"
He reached across the table and clasped her hands in his own. His hands were warm and strong but had the beginning tremor that comes with age, "There could be. Bethany, I've known you for three years, you're responsible for saving countless lives and bringing them here to start a new life. You are well thought of and respected among our citizens and council and you know I hold you in the highest regard. Benedictus has made some damning claims and I wanted to speak with you. To get your side of the story before we met with the council."
Bethany leaned forward and began recounting the events that began at Emola. When she finished, she drained the cup of water and sat back in the chair. She had told him every detail except for mentioning Gabrielles name. Purposely leaving her out of the story as much as possible, describing her only as a young village woman when necessary. She had become concerned for her Amazon sisters' safety and was anxious to have Leonis get her out of the city.
The Elder had listened closely making notes and remaining silent. Now that she was finished, he sat back considering everything she had told him.
Bethany looked up at the sky and realized that it would be dark in a few hours. She had not been aware that the tale had taken so long.
He cleared his throat drawing her attention back to their conversation, "It sounds like this was a particularly eventful mission."
"Yes," She agreed, "These men were more than slavers. I've faced slavers before and they run at the first signs of a fight but these men just kept coming. I think they may be responsible for the raids in the area."
He nodded, "An interesting and disturbing idea. They must have been determined to take the lives of four of your troopers. They're the best we have."
"Even the best can be outnumbered. Had Xena not aided us it would have been disastrous for the villagers and us."
"Benedictus seems to think that they were part of Xena's army. When they faced defeat, she changed her plan and rode in to help."
Bethany took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair, "They didn't face defeat, we did. I know her reputation. I also know that we have heard stories of her turn to fight for good. Elder," She stopped and leaned closer to him, "Syrus, I talked with her, fought along side her. I looked into her eyes and I believe those stories now. I never thought I would defend Xena to anyone but I know that group of soldiers is no more an army under her command than you could be. If I thought for a moment she was a danger to those people I would have gladly sacrificed myself to stop her."
"Yes, I know that, " He smiled, gently patting her hand, "I also know of your past and that if you are willing to come to her defense then the stories of her change must be true." She felt vindicated until his smile faded, "But the reputation of the Warrior Princess being a force of good is little known in these parts and would probably not be believed. Her army was very active in these valleys and a lot of our citizens are survivors of her army. Those memories and fears will override any stories of good. Benedictus has already gotten some support among the council and towns people."
Realization dawned on her, "That's why there are more guards in the streets than usual. I thought there might have been trouble in the city. What did they think, that I would be riding in with an army?"
"Disguised as villagers." He supplied seriously.
Bethany stood up and paced, anger and hurt waging a war for her emotions. She stopped by the edge of the balcony and soaked in the sight of Havenous. "Why Syrus? What have I ever done to hurt or betray anyone in this city? Why are they so quick to believe Benedictus?"
Gripping the table for support, he rose out of his chair. He moved across the floor and joined her at the railing. "Peace is a funny thing." He said softly, "We spend our entire lives seeking it and when we finally find some, we see trouble in every shadow. Benedictus knows that. Combined with the tension of these raids and Xenas sudden reappearance, he's using it to his advantage."
She turned to face him as he continued, "You were sent to us by the Gods and I have no doubt that you are innocent of the charges. If you believe and trust Xena then that is all the testimony I need. I will stand by your side in front of the council and defend your course of action."
He held out his arms and although Bethany was not an overly emotional woman, she stepped into them and hugged him briefly. She quickly pulled away, uncomfortable at showing so much weakness. The Elder respected her strength and stepped back not wanting to crowd her. "You know this could all be over quickly. You simply tell the council that you were aware of her and her plans and only played along to have an advantage."
He knew her well enough to know that this was a useless suggestion and was not surprised by her answer, "There was no plan of attack on her part. She is my friend and I will not betray that friendship or turn my back on it."
"Exactly what I'd expect you to say." He nodded and leaned against the railing, "The council meets in three hours. You need to get some rest, have some dinner and maybe even a soak in the hot springs. I'll meet you down stairs in the council chambers."
"Thank you Elder." She bowed in respect and walked toward the office door. She had just cleared the balcony door when he called to her again, "Bethany?"
He had decided to go ahead and inform her of the newest developments. "About an hour after your caravan arrived in town, several patrols of unknown soldiers were seen skulking about in the forest on the east and west sides of town."
Stopping suddenly she turned back to him, her body tense and face grim, "Why didn't you tell before? I'll get a patrol together and we'll find out who's really behind these raids."
"Patrols have already been dispatched," He reassured and tried to sound calm, "and the reason I didn't tell you is because Benedictus doesn't need any more ammunition. If you and your patrol went out, I'm sure he'd find some way to use that as part of the master plot."
Bethany felt like she had already been tried and convicted. Her mission included protecting the city from outside forces and now she was being prevented from doing that. "Three hours." Was all she said as she again headed for the door of his office.
Walking out of the council building she wasn't surprised to find Leonis waiting. The meeting had taken place sooner and lasted longer than usual. He had immediately known that there might be a problem.
He was leaning against a garden fence but snapped up straight and strode to meet her halfway. The grimace on her face told him that he was correct in his assumption. When he met her, he turned on his heel and in a flash was walking beside her, never missing a step.
"At our quarters helping Katis fix dinner. What happened with the Elder?"
Her eyes darted back and fourth and then she led him into a less traveled alleyway. When she was certain they weren't being followed or watched she slowed her step and explained the details of the meeting. As she recounted the conversation, Leonis's posture became defensive. When he was angry he tended to chew the inside of his lip and after she finished she feared he would bite his lip off.
"I'm going to find that pile of Hydra droppings and cut him into little pieces." He growled. His voice held a tone of anger that she had never heard and it made her uncomfortable.
"No." She countered firmly, "As much as I would like to see that, I'm going to abide by the Elders wishes. I've done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear from the council. When this is over Benedictus will be dealt with."
"Bethany," He argued, "It should have never gone this far. I'm going to the meeting with you. I'll back your story and let them know what kind of soldier Benedictus really is."
He was startled when he saw a flash of pure fear cross her face, "Leonis, as much as I would like to have you there, you are not to step foot near those council chambers. None of you are. Is that understood?"
She grabbed his arm and pulled him closer, "Right now I am the main focus of Benedictus and his supporters. I'm not sure what's happening here but I do know that there may be a time when he comes after you and the others. I want you safe." She hesitated for a second, realizing she had just admitted more than she meant too about her feelings for him. "You and the others." She added quickly. "I need you to take care of a few things before he gets any farther."
"Get Gabrielle to safety." He agreed.
"Yes. Then find out who among out troops are still loyal, get geared up and make yourselves scarce until this is over. The Elder said that patrols are looking for these soldiers outside the city. I'd feel better if I knew that there was someone out there I could trust trying to help me."
"I won't leave you here alone." He replied flatly acknowledging now how seriously she was taking the situation.
"Nothing has been decided yet. After the council meeting I'm sure everything will be cleared up. I just want to take a few precautions before hand." She said tried to sound positive but her eyes showed differently.
They entered the main street through town and had to end the conversation as the streets became more heavily populated. Both returned the friendly greetings of the people they passed on the streets and both were more acutely aware of the stares and whispers of others.
The building where her troopers stayed was at the edge of town and more accommodating than would be expected of soldiers quarters. The sounds of talking and laughter were carried along the air as well as the smell of a good stew as they approached the building.
Leonis reached out and urged her to a stop before they entered the building. She was caught in the firelight from inside the building as it cascaded out of the door and windows. He was struck almost breathless at her youth and beauty. He wanted to pick her up and carry her away from these awful charges protecting her like she protected the children, but knowing that she was stronger than her looks relayed. Licking his lips, he swallowed all the words he ached to say instead saying, "If things do go badly with the council, there will be a plan in place."
She said nothing only squeezed his arm in thanks and continued to the front door.
Bethany, her soldiers and Gabrielle sat together at a large wooden table. Her excuse for the lengthy meeting was accepted and now in a more relaxed atmosphere they all talked, joked and laughed. Gabrielle easily fit in with the group and participated in the exchange of war stories.
As she watched the others eat and talk, Bethany managed to keep up her usual outgoing facade. Only Leonis sat quietly participating very little in the jovial meal. After picking at her meal for a while Bethany excused herself and disappeared into the building's basement to follow the Elders' advice.
The hot springs ran along the outside line of the city and those that had built in the area had taken advantage and built private spas in their homes. The enterprisers had built public tubs and for a small fee those not lucky enough to have a private spa could indulge.
She sat in the tub, the steam rising like a cloud and closed her eyes in deep thought and prayer. Often she or her soldiers had used the tub to loosen muscles or help them relax after a mission. She had always enjoyed the way the hot steamy water drew the tension out of her body. Tonight however she received no such relief and no answer to her prayers. She continually replayed the events of the last few days in her mind then let her thoughts go back to all the missions with Benedictus.
When she had formed the troop, she had chosen very carefully and set down specific guidelines for them to follow. Only Leonis, Xanthus and Hernam had been with her from the beginning. She had become acquainted with them in her raiding days when they all rode together under the flag of the Warlord Mabrut. When she had turned against her former army, they had joined her, fighting at her side. She learned later that they had felt the same way as she had but had been hesitant to fight. It had taken the bravery of a young girl standing up to all those large blood thirsty soldiers to force them to decide for themselves. It was this that had given them the courage to fight for what they knew was right.
They had been together ever since with her as the unofficial but mutually agreed upon leader. As time passed others who shared her feelings joined them. By the time she reached Havenous with the reputation of a protector of the innocent, the troop had numbered thirty. Over the next few years most of that number had died fighting to save villagers or had retired to a family or at least more settled life. Their replacements had come from the city guard pool most of the time but on occasion they were joined by surviving guards of villages or the villagers themselves.
Giles and Delia had been such survivors with some fighting skills. Bethany had been impressed with their reasons and passion for wanting to join her and had taken them in, trained them and never regretted it for an instant.
Benedictus had been the one time her judgement had been wrong. When two of her men had been killed on a mission, a council member had heartily suggested Benedictus as the replacement. He had an impressive record as a city guard and was vouched for by the Councilor. She had brought the proposal before her troop as was the custom and they had voted him in. Otes being the most vocal support.
She submerged herself in the water, staying under until her lungs ached for air. When she resurfaced, she gasped in the hot humid air around her. Water and sweat stung her eyes as she opened them and stared at the far wall, angry with herself for not seeing the danger Benedictus posed sooner.
For the first month or so he had been the model trooper. Then he had begun to question orders and plans, to be outspoken in his criticism. They had tired of it quickly, leaving him in the city on certain missions but pressure from his benefactor had gotten him active again. Leonis had tried talking to him and even ordering him when he wasn't cooperative. Being outnumbered, he had grudgingly complied but his little fits like the one Xena had witnessed had become increasingly frequent.
Had she paid more attention to politics and ambition she might have seen this coming. She, however tried to focus all her attention on the rescue missions and preventive measures. Dwelling in the past was useless now. Her top priority now was the council and the accusations leveled against her. She had her innocence and the Elder on her side and probably some of the council itself. She could only pray it was enough.
She rose from the tub and stepped out onto the hard stone floor. Her robe was on the nearby chair and as she was reaching for it with her back to the door, the door suddenly flew open.
"Bethany, what is . . . " Gabrielle stopped abruptly when she saw the scarred flesh that covered Bethany's entire back and arm. She had seen the puckered scars of burns before but never anything so severe and wide spread. Now she understood why sleeve and glove covered her left arm at all times. "I'm sorry." She mumbled and looked away, allowing Bethany to quickly pull on the robe, "I should have knocked first."
"I guess Leonis told you you'd be leaving tonight." Bethany turned and pulled on her glove.
Gabrielle was silent still reeling from the shock and embarrassment of the scars.
"Reminders of my childhood." Bethany explained calmly, "When my home was attacked my mother was trapped in our burning hut. I tried to help her . . . and that's the result. I'm sorry you had to see it."
That shook Gabrielle out of her daze, "You don't need to apologize. I do. I didn't mean to barge in and then to act like that. I was just . . . surprised."
"That's why I keep covered." She sensed Gabrielle's awkwardness and walked over to her, gently patting her arm, "I'm not offended and you didn't hurt my feelings. It can be a little unsettling to see, but it's over." She nudged Gabrielle toward the door, "Let's continue this upstairs in my room."
She led the way up two flights of stairs and to the very back of the building. Bethany's room was small and isolated from the others just the way she had wanted it. It was very convenient when she had tactical sessions or discussions with troopers and she valued her privacy.
Once inside Gabrielle sat on the cot while Bethany stepped behind a curtain and dressed. "Leonis told me to be ready to leave in a couple of hours. What's going on?"
"Unfortunately it's not safe for you here right now. Leonis will escort you out of the city and if all goes well I'll meet you by morning at the latest."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed, "What do you mean if all goes well? Why is it not safe here? Does this have anything to do with Xena?"
Bethany peered around from behind the dressing curtain, "Make sure to breathe among all those questions."
"Bethany." Gabrielle insisted.
"There are some internal problems in the city. I have to meet with our ruling council shortly so we can get everything settled. Xenas name has come up and for now I'd rather you not be pulled into it. I can take care of everything." She lied convincingly but Gabrielle was not convinced.
She stood up and walked to the nearby window. Thinking she had won, Bethany fell silent and continued dressing. After thinking for a moment, Gabrielle decided to try another tactic, "Amazons are a truly noble race. One of their most honorable traits is they don't lie. They value honesty so much that it's considered a crime to lie to another Amazon, especially the Queen."
Bethany froze, holding her breath. She eased back around the partition. Gabrielle had assumed her regal bearing and Bethany's eyes widened in surprise, "That's not fair Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned, her eyes lit with frustration, "Neither is trying to keep this from me. This council is giving you a hard time because of Xena and her old reputation aren't they? The guy Xena told me about, Benedictus has stirred up trouble hasn't he?"
Bethany toyed with her earring and sighed, "Okay. He made a claim of treason against me to the council. Right now Benedictus doesn't know you are in town. If he finds out, you could be brought up on charges as a spy for Xena. I gave her my word that you'd be safe and an Amazon does not break her word, does she?"
"But they're using Xena's reputation to charge you, maybe I can help." Gabrielle reasoned.
"Right now the only person who can help me is me. I appreciate your offer but I still have the resources to ensure your safety and I intend to do just that. Would you ask me to break my word, the word of an Amazon and a Guardian?"
She had used the same tactic as Gabrielle but was better skilled at it. Gabrielle lowered her head knowing she had lost the argument, "Bethany," She tried again, "I don't want you to break your word, but I don't want you to be punished just because you met us. You're my friend and I don't leave friends in trouble."
Bethany joined Gabrielle at the window, took her hand and looked into her eyes. Gabrielle fell into her eyes, the peace and calm wrapping around her like a warm blanket. "I'm expecting the worst but there is a good chance that all this will be over after the meeting and I can join you later tonight. Please, as my friend, go with Leonis out of the city tonight."
Gabrielle would have gladly fought a giant if Bethany asked her at this moment. The feeling of complete peace was intoxicating and hypnotic, "Okay." She replied, her speech a bit slurred.
"You're word as Amazon Queen?" Bethany prodded.
"My word." Gabrielle agreed.
Bethany broke the connection with a blink and stepped back. Gabrielle stood still, calm settling over her. She wasn't sure what Bethany had said to convince her that leaving was for the best but she had given her word and would stick to it.
"I've got to get going." Bethany stated, completing her official city guard uniform with her sword, "Leonis told you where to meet him?"
Gabrielle hugged her friend. Still worried about the council but trying to smile, "Yes he did and I'll see you later right?"
Bethany pulled away returning her smile, "Yes."
She was a sworn protector of the city and it's inhabitants and carried herself proudly, confidently and bravely as she entered the council hall. The council was in place at its half arc table, the Elder was to the left of the table, Benedictus and Otes to the right. The council and Elder looked grim, the other two smug. She took her seat before them and could tell by the look in their eyes the battle was already lost.
True to his word, Leonis had gotten Gabrielle and the other troopers out of the city shortly after Bethany had left for the council meeting. Only Delia had stayed behind as an observer and Fabius who was on duty. Camp had been set up a few miles from town in an old cave that they used occasionally as a resting place. It was secluded and well hidden, defendable and safe.
They had all gathered around the fire, Leonis leading the discussion on their plans when they heard sounds outside the cave. Everyone fell silent when they heard the distinct sound of hoof-beats stop at the entrance of the cave. There was a moment of silence and then a whistle pierced the air. Recognizing the signal Leonis whistled in return and relaxed a bit as Delia rushed in, out of breath.
Leonis was immediately on his feet, followed by Gabrielle and the others, "What happened? Where is Bethany?" He barked with worry.
"Some city guards caught a couple of the men skulking about outside the city." She answered slowing her breathing, "When they were questioned they admitted they were a scouting patrol for Xenas army and that they were waiting for a signal from the inside to let Xena know that everything was going as planned."
"That's not possible." Gabrielle defended firmly, "Xena has no army."
"We know." Hernam replied and Leonis motioned Delia to continue.
"Their confession along with Benedictus, Otes and Fabius collaborating has led the council to charge the Captain with treason."
"Fabius!?" Giles repeated in disbelief and dropped to a sitting position.
Leonis wasn't as surprised, "He was their mole, to let them know what went on after they left so they could construct more lies."
"What about Bethany? Is she all right?" Gabrielle interrupted.
"She's been placed under arrest and put in a cell." Delia answered, "Her trial is tomorrow morning and the council has declared it will be a public affair to take place in the courtyard."
Leonis gave them a moment to soak in the information and deal with their shock, then he began giving out orders, "Okay soldiers, we planned for the worse so let's get moving. Hernam, Xanthus ride to Bradus and let Xena know what has happened."
The two men nodded, grabbed their gear and headed out of the cave.
"Basty, Giles, Belden and Delia, you try to capture one of those soldiers outside the city and bring him here for questioning." They too grabbed their equipment and left the cave.
"I'm going with you." Gabrielle informed Leonis as the others departed.
He turned, prepared to give her an argument until he saw her. She stood there feet apart, hands on her hips and eyes flashing a warning. It was a stance he'd seen Bethany assume when it meant that she was going to do something no matter what the opposition, "I guess an argument would be useless."
Gabrielle said nothing, just reached out and retrieved her staff from the cave wall she had leaned it against.
He sighed slowly, "Thought so. At the very least I think we should disguise ourselves, we'll be of no use to her if we get caught."
"Agreed." She finally spoke.
"We leave in a few hours."
"Why wait?" She questioned with eagerness, anxious to get back to Havenous.
"First," He began, "We need to make a plan and choose a disguise. Second, I swore I'd have you out of the city tonight and in a few hours it'll be tomorrow and I won't have broken my word. I assume she asked you for your word as well?"
"Yes." She admitted, "I promised I'd leave town tonight but not that I wouldn't come back."
Leonis half smiled, "I like your way of thinking. Have any other ideas to get us into the city?"
Gabrielle smiled broadly.
Word of Bethany's arrest and trial spread like a wildfire through Havenous, quickly dividing the citizens. The trial was slated to start an hour after dawn and the people began filling the courtyard three hours before dawn. The Elder and council had decided to post a full complement of guards around the courtyard to keep the crowd in line.
Two of the council members had agreed with the Elder that the trial should be kept quiet, indoors and without an audience. They were outvoted by the other four who said that because of the seriousness of the charges and there affect on the population, the people had a right to hear all the evidence and reach their own verdict as well.
The risers in front of the council building had been replaced with a large platform lifting the trials' participants three feet off the ground. A make shift council table was at the center of the platform, with a small table and two stools to the right for Bethany and the Elder. A lone stool was to the left for witnesses. Four guards surrounded the stage, one on each side of the council table, one positioned by Bethany's table and the final soldier at the witness chair.
The gathering crowd was silent as the council and Elder took their places. An audible gasp arose when Bethany was brought out of the building, in chains and stripped of her uniform except the long sleeved toga that she wore under her armor. The Elder had made certain that she had the dignity of the long sleeves, her glove, and her earring but the headband had been confiscated. He had fought against the shackles but again he had been overruled.
Two city guards escorted her out of the building and up the stairs to her seat at the table. When she was seated and the shackles checked to ensure they were secure, the two guards left the platform and took position by the building.
The sky was covered with clouds as the day began and these clouds were much darker and more threatening than the previous days. The promise of storms and rain seemed to echo the mood of the city.
Trials began with the reading of the city laws and introduction of the council and the laws that governed them. Then the charge against Bethany and an explanation of the charge was announced, including its punishment, exile or death.
Gadus, the head of the council and responsible for the settlement of new citizens handed the floor over to the Elder to begin his defense.
He stood up from the table, dressed in a simple brown robe and began explaining the details of the mission, word for word as Bethany had recounted them for him. When he finished, he took a seat beside her and the council called Benedictus to the stand.
Both studied the council watching for any reactions as Benedictus took the stand. The Elder had told her that two of the council, Gadus and Zoe the keeper of the marketplace were on their side. Two were siding with Benedictus, Arcles the keeper of the city guard and Droden, keeper of the cities buildings and the final two Casious keeper of the healers and Hannah keeper of the laws were undecided.
After Benedictus sat, he began telling his recollection of events on the mission. For the most part, it was the same story until the battle at Emola. He explained that although they were greatly outnumbered they were managing against the attackers. Some were doing more than their share, insinuating that Bethany had been losing ground in her fights.
Many in the audience had been rescued by Bethany and her troopers and could only stare dumbfounded at his statement.
He portrayed Xenas entrance into the battle as a grand show that could have only been staged. As great a Warrior as the stories relayed about her no mortal woman could dispatch that many slavers, especially as fierce as some of these were.
He went on to tell that after the initial conversation between Bethany and Xena, Xena seemed to take control of the camp. Then he began telling the details of their confrontation. His take on it was that he had Bethany convinced of the danger Xena posed to them until the Warrior Princess appeared. Suddenly Bethany was like a dog with its master, trying to please.
Bethany listened to this version with a mixture of shock and amusement. She leaned over to the Elder and whispered into his ear. He nodded and made notes on the parchment before him.
Accordingly he told the council that although it was Bethany that told him to leave camp. However it had been Xena flashing her Chakram threateningly that had forced him to leave. He left camp then and met Otes, who also feared for his life with the Warrior Princess around. Together they had ridden to Havenous as fast as possible.
The Elder waited a few minutes after Benedictus had finished before he rose from his seat. He slowly walked around the table and came to a stop just behind his left shoulder. Benedictus shifted uncomfortably as the Elder remained silent for a few seconds longer.
"You said that when you were in Emola and fighting off the slavers, you were managing against them."
"Yes." He confirmed.
"That Xena saw her army being defeated and changed her plan of attack by riding in and joining you against them in battle. Assuming the role of savior to your troop."
Benedictus shifted again, "Yes."
"However, we have already heard from both you and Bethany that four of the troopers were already dead and two injured before Xena rode in."
The Elder glanced at the council and walked back to his table, turned and faced Benedictus, "That left eleven able bodies troopers to fend off, by your own estimates thirty enemy soldiers." He didn't wait for confirmation this time, "I know that Bethany insists on the best from her troopers, but even Hercules himself couldn't fight off those odds."
Benedictus remained silent trying to keep his feelings concealed but the twitching scar down his face wouldn't cooperate.
"Why would a warrior as fierce as Xena, who controls a strong army suddenly change attack plans when she is so obviously close to victory? Why would she show herself and kill her own men when with a little more effort they would have taken all of you shortly?"
Benedictus clenched his teeth and cast a quick glance at Councilor Arcles, the man that had pushed for his acceptance as a trooper. Arcles rubbed his chin and looked away toward the crowd.
"Maybe," He began, "because Xena knew who we were or recognized us and decided to move onto larger stakes." He looked out at the audience of townspeople, "Like conquering Havenous."
A couple of the watchers yelled, "Yes." Causing the guards to narrow their eyes and keep a closer look out for trouble.
The Elder didn't seem worried by this accusation, "Let's address that shall we? In the history of this city only twice has it been set upon by attackers. Both of those times they were defeated because not only are these walls strong but so are the people behind them. That is the reputation of Havenous. I'm proud of that. It shows others like our friends who came in yesterday that this is a safe place. That we will not be sieged or conquered so easily." He looked out over the crowd seeing nods of agreement. "Why then Benedictus, knowing that reputation, did Xena decide to come after Havenous?"
"Because," He answered smugly, "she had help from the inside."
Tension seemed to begin to surface and ripple through the crowd.
"Mm," The Elder replied, his face looking puzzled, "That's an interesting statement and the reason we're here today." He walked over to the council table and leaned down meeting each of their eyes, "We know Bethany. Some of you have accompanied her on patrols. You know that she has risked her life on countless occasions and been injured a few times for the people of this city. People who were strangers to her but because they needed help she was there."
He straightened up, turned and looked at Bethany, "How many times has she gone without sleep or food when she's returned from a mission because the children or injured have asked her to stay with them? She has always been there for the citizens and asked nothing in return."
He glared at Benedictus, "And you say that after a brief conversation with a woman she had never met before, she threw all that away. For what? Fame, glory, dinars? What could Xena have said in five minutes that would have made Bethany turn so completely against us?"
"I didn't hear the conversation," He barked back defensively, "I only know what I saw afterwards. Maybe she threatened the children or injured. She did take over treating them."
"All right." The elder conceded temporarily, "Let's say that she did threaten the children. Once she left the caravan outside the city, why would Bethany cooperate any further? She was safe once inside these walls. Did any of Xena's men pose as villagers and accompany the caravan in?"
"Not that I saw." He shot back, "Except the girl."
Puzzled the Elder asked, "What girl?"
"The blond that rode into Emola with Xena. She is the one that got hurt in the fight and the reason Bethany gave for asking Xena to come with us."
The Elder managed to conceal his surprise at this development and forged ahead with his questions, "A blond girl. Yes, I could see how one lone girl could keep a warrior like Bethany in line. Especially after they were inside the walls of the city surrounded by guards and people." He cast a final look of disgust at Benedictus and then sat beside Bethany. He waited until the council had posed a few more of their own questions and dismissed Benedictus before asking for a short recess.
The council granted his request and when everyone was out of earshot he pulled Bethany close, "It's going very well despite the fact you omitted telling me about the blond girl."
Bethany sighed, "I'm sorry, Elder. I was trying to protect her."
"Why? You should have told me everything, especially if she's Xena's traveling companion and came with you into our city. That's the spy in our midst that Arcles has been hinting about. Where is she now?"
"Safely outside the city. She left last night."
Understanding dawned on him, "That's why none of your troopers are here. I expected them to raid the council chambers last night. When I didn't see any of them today I wondered what you could have said to keep them away. Who is this girl that draws not only your loyalty but that of your soldiers?"
"The Amazon Queen and a friend."
"The Amazon Queen!" He repeated uncertain of his hearing, "The Amazon Queen travels with Xena. That is a frightening alliance. If the others found this out there would be no stopping the rumors of an attack."
"Why?" She asked loudly, then realized that others might be watching and took a deep breath. Her voice was softer as she continued, "The Amazons are a noble people. They would have no reason to attack Havenous."
"That's not what the stories I've heard about them say. They will attack without provocation if you have something they want, just as Xena would."
Bethany's clenched her teeth trying to bite back her anger, "I'm an Amazon and proud of my people. The stories about them are as much lies as what is happening here and what I'm being accused of."
"Your loyalty to them could well be your downfall."
"If you believe I'm guilty of treason because of my allegiance to my people then perhaps you shouldn't represent me any longer." She said flatly.
The Elder looked into her eyes and after a moment smiled, "I don't want to see that temper of yours at any point in this trial. Your loyalty is one of your most admirable qualities."
Bethany's face fell, "You were testing me?"
"I had to know how far you were willing to go to protect your friend. Unfortunately now I know."
"Why is it unfortunate?"
Both looked up as the council returned to their table and took their seats.
"Because, it may cost us this trial." The Elder finished and got ready to start his defense anew.
Otes was called up next. His questioning and interpretations of the events were almost word for word Benedictus. His questioning was over quickly with no new information save the fact that his weasley looks matched his personality.
To Bethany's surprise Fabius was called next. As he climbed the steps and took his seat he pointedly kept his view away from her.
This time the Elder remained seated as he began, "How long have you been a soldier under the Captains command?"
"Not quite a year."
"Then you've been on a lot of missions. Risked your life often for our people. I seem to remember you were injured a few months ago on a rescue." The Elder stated with concern.
"Yes sir." Fabius answered simply, his voice firm and steady.
"Any regrets? Any thoughts of quitting?"
Fabius wrinkled his eyebrows, confused, "No sir. I love this city and gladly offer my meager services to protect it and its people."
"That's good to hear." He commended, "And you've never had any problem with the Captain or any of the other troopers?"
"Yet now you've come forward supporting Benedictus's claims that Bethany is a traitor. If there was never any doubt before and you happily served under her, why do you think she so suddenly turned against all of us?"
"Partially because of Xena's appearance, but mainly because of the Amazon she rides with." He answered drawing startled gasps and flutters through the trial watchers.
The Elder was unable to hide his surprise, "Amazon?"
"Yes sir," he began, "The blond woman was an Amazon. I recognized her clothing and staff. The captain grew up as among the Amazons, they're her family. I believe that was Xena's hold on her."
The crowds grumbling grew louder and the guards reacted by moving forward to keep them from surging toward the platform.
The Elders fear had been realized. Now there was now a motive. The Amazons reputation was as fierce as Xenas and the crowd in general didn't know of Bethany's connection to them. In a few seconds the doubt had successfully been planted. Before he could try to play down the connection the council jumped in beginning with Hannah, "So the young woman injured was Xena's traveling companion and an Amazon?"
"Yes." He answered.
"So," Arcles surmised, "Her injury could have been a ploy to gain Bethany's trust. Bethany being an Amazon would have surely recognized one of her own."
Fabius nodded, "The instant the girl was hurt, Bethany ran to her aid and didn't leave her side until the slavers ran."
Arcles smiled and sat forward, "So she deserted her troops and charges to defend one lone young woman."
"No." Bethany yelled and rose to her feet. The guard beside her pushed her back down before she could say more and another ripple rang out.
"Explain, Captain." Gadus requested her to continue.
She cast a look at the guard and remained seated, "She was injured and couldn't defend herself. There were more slavers advancing and I couldn't leave her alone, unable to fight. I've done the same thing when one of my troopers has been injured." With the final statement her look was directed straight at Fabius.
The Elder seized the meaning of her look, "When you were hurt a few months ago, Fabius, did anyone come to your aid? Defend you while you were down?"
He hesitated for a moment and the lowly answered, "The Captain."
"Repeat that please." Zoe asked for the council and audience.
This time his answer was just as hesitant but louder and clearer, "The Captain."
"So, her action toward the girl would have been the same if it had been one of the troopers or villagers?" Casuis prodded.
Fabius shrugged, "I assume so, sir."
The Elder was pleased that some damage had been repaired but the doubt and the threat of Amazons lingered. Arcles however was not satisfied, "Alright, so she reacted no differently in that situation but what about afterwards? Did she spend more time with Xena and this girl? Were they allowed free roam of the camp?"
"The first night, no." Fabius began with renewed confidence, "The next morning after we got underway she spent awhile talking to the young woman. She rode back on duty when called but a few hours later she was back with Xena and the girl. Then she rode off to scout ahead and not two minutes later Xena rode off in the opposite direction."
Droden joined in the questioning, "Where did they go? What was the reason for leaving the caravan unprotected?"
Fabius tensed, slightly offended, "The caravan wasn't unprotected. We, the troopers were still there."
"Of course." Droden apologized and motioned for him to continue.
"I wasn't privy to their destinations. We didn't see them again until we were attacked at the grove."
"Ah yes." Droden interrupted, "We've heard the Captains account of that. Would you care to share your experience?"
"There was no warning before they hit us." Fabius recalled shifting on the stool, "We were expecting trouble because Leonis had told us to keep alert. While the villagers rested, we stood watch around the perimeter. The slavers just appeared and we began fighting. I heard the Warrior princess's war cry and kept fighting." He stopped to take a deep breath. The crowd was utterly silent. The only sounds now were the birds' songs and a brisk breeze whistling through the buildings.
Slowly the audience edged forward, straining to hear every word as he continued, "I don't know how long we were under siege. There weren't as many as before and we managed to chase them away. The one I was fighting turned tail and ran and that's when I heard yells near the lake. By the time I got to a clear vantage point I saw the Captain on her knees and a slaver charging her. Xena used her Chakram to cut his throat and stop him. Then she took the Captain to one of the wagons to recover."
"The Captain was wounded?" Hannah asked.
"I saw no wounds but she was clearly incapacitated."
Droden rubbed his beard in thought before speaking, "One of Xena's many fighting skills includes a nerve pinch that renders its victim unable to move. Could this have been the result of that tactic?"
Fabius considered the suggestion, "Yes. Yes it is possible."
The Elder knew that this new detail was another attempt at convicting Bethany of treason and was powerless to reveal the truth. The council knew that she had been chosen as a protector by the Gods but only he knew of the gifts bestowed on her. She had told him of the incident at the grove and the reasons behind it but had forbid him to reveal any of the details.
A few months after she had come to Havenous there had been an attempt on his life. Her gift had helped catch the guilty party, his own aide, and she had confided in him her secret. A secret he swore to keep to his grave and by the latest development, his keeping it could lead to her grave as well.
He decided to jump into the questioning and rose to his feet, causing the crowd to flutter quietly, "Fabius. You and the others had been going on very little sleep or rest for about three days. You had fought in Emola almost to the point of exhaustion and had been on the edge ever since. Is it not possible that after all that, the final fight in the grove had worn the Captain down to the point of unconsciousness?"
"It is true that we were tired," He agreed, "The Captain always pushes herself hard on a mission but I don't think that was the case here."
The Elder glanced at Bethany seeking a release from his oath but she slightly shook her head no. He decided to go on and hoped to get the minds of the council on other things, "What happened after that?"
"We got moving again. The Captain slept in the wagon for a while. When she woke up, she seemed alright but very quiet. We reached Dante's Point before sundown and set up camp."
Again the council jumped in with questions. "There was no more trouble up to this point, correct?" Gadus asked as he rested his chin on his hand and studied Fabius, who answered with a nod.
"What was the Captain doing all this time?" Arcles resumed control of the questioning.
"She helped set up camp. After everyone was settled, she went and met with Xena and the Amazon away from the camp. The three of them were secluded up by the creek until well after dark. The children in camp began asking for the Captain because she had promised to tell them a story so Leonis went to find her. The Amazon came back in her place and had the children enthralled with the history of Havenous. Bethany came back to camp a little later accompanied by Xena and after they had a few more words, she went on guard duty."
Arcles was on his feet, fear edged his voice as he spoke to the crowd, "This Amazon knew our history. How long have they been watching us?"
"Arcles." Gadus cut his eyes toward his fellow councilor, "You know as well as I that Havenous like any other city is the subject of myths and stories. Havenous more so than others because of our origins." He looked at the Elder, "I would like to speak with Leonis though. He is second in command and would be privy to the mind set of his Captain."
The Elder smiled weakly, "Unfortunately, he and the other troopers left last night on another mission."
"Without their Captain?" Hanna asked with surprise as Arcles sat back down.
Bethany's chains jangled as she leaned forward, "We were concerned with the persistence of the slavers and feared they might attack one of the outlying towns. So I asked them to begin patrolling. I told them when I was done with the council meeting I would meet them. Of course that was before this false charge was raised."
Arcles started to address that but Hannah cut him off, "What about the Amazon?"
"She left as well. She only wanted to see the wondrous city of Havenous and get some supplies. She didn't plan on staying in town for an extended period of time."
The crowd suddenly became more vocal. An older man raised his fist in the air, "You brought in a spy, let her see the city and leave?"
"She knows the layout of the city. We're no longer safe here." A young woman shouted.
Other such sentiments floated from the crowd as the Elder walked to the edge of the platform and raised his arms in the air. The people nudged their neighbors at his gesture and the shouters got quiet.
"Citizens." He called in a soothing voice, "There is no need for alarm. Many of you have survived attacks and now because one girl who has not been proven guilty of being an Amazon raider or any type of attacker has you ready to riot and tear up your home. We're better than this. Fear will not and cannot be our ruler."
A mumbled agreement arose from the crowd and a new confidence seemed to permeate the air. The ones who had jumped to conclusions before now hung their heads in shame.
Gadus returned the Elders nod as he sat beside Bethany and took control again, "I appreciate your concern regarding the slavers but I do wish that we had the opportunity to speak with your troopers."
Bethany bowed her head in apology as the Elder spoke again, "As she said she had no idea that any of this was going to happen and as usual she was looking out for the safety of this city. Although the troopers are not here, we do have people in the caravan who will be happy to speak on her behalf."
Gadus waved his hand in agreement and motioned for Fabius to continue.
"Xena took her turn at guard duty the last night, she even relieved the Captain. We got up the next morning, packed the camp and started moving again. The three of them brought up the rear of the caravan and stayed together until Xena left."
"No doubt receiving last minute instructions." Arcles replied under his breath.
"That proves nothing." The Elder argued and gave Arcles a warning glance, "If anything I see that Xena did exactly what Bethany said she did, helped them reach us safely. She is no threat to this city."
"I'm not convinced of that." Casius replied, "Xena had two clear opportunities to meet with her army. When she rode off before the grove attack and when she was on guard duty."
Zoe disagreed, "There is no proof to convince me that there was a Xenas army. I concur with the Elders statement, for now."
Neither council nor Elder had any more questions and Fabius was dismissed. The trial watchers stirred impatiently as the participants of the trial took time to confer with their respective parties.
This time when the parade of witnesses began, they were members of the caravan. Mara, Chloe and others took their turns raving about Bethany and her behavior toward them. The way she had saved the children at the grove and her skill with the wounded. The way that she had learned each of their names and treated them like people, not things to be taken away.
As the day progressed and the increasing clouds kept the heat at bay which in turn allowed the watchers to keep their places in the courtyard. Bethany's reputation had received a huge boost by the time all the villagers had testified and the mood seemed lighter and more hopeful. Bethany smiled at each of her character witnesses and thanked them as they left the witness chair. Now when she looked into the crowd she could spot a few friendly faces.
The mood changed when Arcles again stood up, "We've talked to everyone involved and although I think the question of guilt has been answered, the one person who can settle this has yet to take the witness stand." He motioned for the guards and they came out of the building escorting a tall, armor clad, war scarred man in chains.
As he was taken to the platform he began resisting, causing the guards to tighten their grip and forcibly dragged him up the steps. The crowd reaction to this was to back away from the struggle without the provocation of the guards.
After the guards had dragged him onto the platform, they pushed him down on the stool, causing his chains to rattle. He tried to rise to his feet but four strong arms help him in place. Finally he sat still allowing the guards to release their hold but kept their place on each side of him.
Bethany stared at him trying to recognize him. He was dressed like the slavers but carried himself like a warrior.
Droden took a deep breath and looked out into the crowd, "As some of you know, a patrol of unknowns were spotted outside our city walls shortly after the caravans' arrival. A complement of city guards went out to investigate and were attacked for their efforts. They managed to defeat the patrol and bring back two prisoners for questioning. This is one of those prisoners. He has already been questioned successfully before the council and now you will hear the same shocking information we did."
He nodded at Arcles, turning the proceedings over to him and leaned forward on the table.
Arcles stood up and moved around the table. He stopped in front of Bethany long enough to give her a glaring, hateful look and moved on until he stood in front of the chained man. "You were with a patrol outside the city. What was your mission?"
The man looked at him with contempt but Arcles never flinched as he motioned to the guards. The guard on his left placed a firm hand on the prisoner's shoulder, "Answer." He growled.
The prisoner licked his lips and reluctantly spoke, "Observe the comings and goings of the city. Detect any patterns that would be useful, armies' strengths, city defenses."
"How long were you to observe these things?"
"Until the layout of the city was brought out to us. Then we were to escort the messengers to our base camp."
"Who were the messengers?"
The prisoner looked directly at Bethany, "The blond Amazon, escorted by her."
A roar rose from the crowd and they again surged forward. More guards ran forward to help their comrades keep the people from storming the platform. Sensing the danger, the guards on each side of the prisoner moved closer to him in case he decided to make a run for it during the ruckus. The guard beside Bethany also moved closer to her, his face no longer unreadable. It now held a distinct look of mistrust.
Bethany dropped her head, finally realizing the lengths to which her downfall had been engineered. It wasn't just Benedictus behind this, it was too big and well executed. Members of the council had also had a hand in this as well as some of the city guards. The Elder was getting older and some weren't willing to wait for him to step down or name his successor. Gadus was the leading contender and she was certain that he was now in danger as well from Arcles and Droden.
The Elder and other council members were up on their feet. Gadus began banging
the gavel on the table. "We will have order or this courtyard will be cleared and the trial will be finished inside the council chambers."
A group of priests moved among the crowd trying to help maintain order, and were helped by a loud clap of thunder that shook the ground and drew a few startled gasps.
As the trial watchers calmed, all the participants returned to their seats and Arcles eagerly returned to his questioning, "The day grows late." He said as he paced in front of the council. "This has been a terrible, heart breaking day for all of us. I only have two more questions to ask." He stopped in front of the prisoner and leaned down making eye contact, "This city has a reputation as unconquerable yet you were willing to try. What was your attack plan and under whose command were those orders issued?"
He sneered at the council, his voice gravely as he spoke, "We would disguise ourselves as villagers. Come in with the caravans and in small groups until the city was completely infiltrated. Once inside, we would kill the city officials and as many city guards as possible then seize control of the city. All for the glory of Xena, Warrior Princess.
Because of Gadus previous warnings and the shock, the crowd remained quiet. So quiet that there was eerie, unnerving feeling in the air.
Arcles motioned for the guards to remove the prisoner which, they promptly did, leading him back inside the building to his cell.
"This does not prove Bethany's compliance," The Elder shouted and pounded his fist on the table, "If anything it proves she was fooled into believing that the enemy was a friend. We have all made errors in judgement." He directed the last statement to Arcles, "Bethany has proven herself time and time again to this city. She is however mortal and like all of us she makes mistakes. There is no proof of treason here because the only proof offered was the word of a known slaver and raider who's trying to save his own neck. The only thing proven here today is that someone was misled and thankfully it was realized before any damage was done."
"Beautifully argued." Arcles commended, "But all irrelevant. Treason has been proven, it was proven the minute the Amazon woman showed up at Emola. I will not dispute that in the past Bethany has indeed been a gift from the Gods to our people but as the Elder said she is mortal. Like all mortals we have ties to our families. Loyalties that take precedence above all else." He stopped and made a sweeping gesture toward Bethany, "She was raised by Amazons after the death of her blood family. By her own admittance she is an Amazon and we all know how deep those ties run. Xena used those ties and for whatever the reason turned Bethany, our Captain of the Guard against us."
He moved toward the end of the platform addressing the crowd, "You heard for yourself the words of one of Xenas own men. They were going to sneak into our city with the caravans. That could only happen if the Captain was in on the plan. She was to escort the blond out to meet these men with the layout of our city in her hands. When Bethany realized that we were onto her treachery she sent the woman out of our reach, escorted by our own troops. How much more evidence do you need, good people that we have a traitor in our midst?"
Someone in the crowd yelled, "Traitor." And a rock sailed through the air, striking Bethany's shoulder. She never flinched only stared straight ahead as the Elder draped his arm protectively around her.
Gadus pounded the gavel drawing Arcles back to his seat. "This council has much to consider." Gadus stated rising to his feet and addressing the crowd, "We will adjourn to the chambers for discussions. When we have reached a decision the courtyard bell will be rung and we will announce the verdict. In the mean time I suggest everyone clear the courtyard and refrain from any displays of violence or stern punishment will be dealt out." He turned and headed off the platform followed by the other council members. Bethany was pulled to her feet and led back to the awaiting cell in the council building, the Elder close behind her.
Very few people in the courtyard heeded the Councilors words and stayed in their spots not wanting to lose their place or views of the proceedings. There were a few arguments started as the pro and anti sides for Bethany clashed. Guards quickly broke them up and the robe clad priest moves amid the gathering trying to help maintain peace. Two of the priests broke away from the others and made their way to the council building.
The cells in the basement of the building were small, sparsely furnished and dark. The two captured soldiers were around the corner at the far end of the basement with posted guards.
Very rarely was there a need for the cells so Bethany had the front section to herself. She sat on the wooden bench that served as a bed and kicked at the straw that lay scatted on the stone floor.
"When you said I had to go through a trial I didn't think you meant literally." She laughed ironically, "It wasn't the meeting with Xena that you were preparing me. It was this, wasn't it Huntress. It appears that I've failed you. I did what was right and all I could do was sit there while they made false charges against me that will have me exiled. I'm sorry and I hope you can forgive me."
She fell silent when she heard soft footsteps coming down the hallway. The hallway and cell were lit by torches casting more shadows than light but she could still make out the hooded robes of the priests as they approached. Two priests stopped in front of the cell and a strong mans voice said, "There is nothing to forgive my child."
Bethany was on her feet, rushing to the bars of the cell at the familiar sound of his voice. Leonis eased the hood back revealing a friendly smile, joined by the other priest, Gabrielle.
She grasped the bars, scanning the hallway until she was satisfied they were alone, "What are you two doing here? You both gave me your word you'd leave town last night."
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, "And we did. But we didn't promise not to come back."
Bethany rolled her eyes, "You know what I meant. It's not safe for you here."
"Or for you, judging from the crowd outside." Leonis shot back softly, "We've heard all their lies Bethany and we're going to get you out of this."
Bethany was weary and didn't want to argue. In truth she was glad to see some friendly faces. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the bars.
Gabrielle clasped her hand over Bethany's on the bars, "You're in this mess because of Xena and me. I won't desert you and I'm not going to run from trouble." She started to reach into her robe to pull out the spare robe she had hidden but Bethany put her hand on top of Gabrielle's. "You don't understand." She whispered and looked into Gabrielle's eyes, "This has gone beyond all of that. They only used the two of you as a motive, a reason. I have been so blind not to see this coming and I'm not leaving until it's through."
Gabrielle released the hidden robe and exchanged confused looks with Leonis, "What?"
Bethany lowered her head, "Nothing." She lifted her head, meeting their stares with tired eyes, "Listen if the verdict is guilty the Elder has asked the council for exile as my punishment. Because of my past service, they have agreed. That means I'll be escorted out, blindfolded and left several days away out from the city. If there are any troopers interested in continuing our mission, have them follow us and we'll start over somewhere else."
"Bethany," Leonis sighed, "the mission is what caused this. It's just not that . . . "
"Don't say that." She interrupted him firmly, "Saving the lives of the innocent is paramount to all else. If something ever happened to me I'd like to think that you would continue the work."
"Of course I would." He replied, "It just seems to consume you sometimes."
Bethany reached through the bars and gently stroked his face, "It is me. Deep down you know that."
"How do we know you'll be okay?" Gabrielle questioned, "That there won't be some accident once you leave the city to ensure you don't come back."
"I'll have my friends keeping an eye out for me." She smiled, "However this comes out, guilty or innocent the time has come for me to move on. I've done all I can for Havenous."
Leonis strained his hearing and picked up the scratching signal of the guard. He nudged Gabrielle, "We have to go."
Bethany gave her a reassuring wink and Gabrielle pulled her hood down to conceal her face and walked up the hallway. She pulled Leonis close to the bars, "If she is found in the city they will execute her on sight. If the verdict is guilty there will be a lot of distractions. Promise me you'll get her out and keep her out."
"On my life." He swore.
She looked into his eyes and finally came to accept that she cared for him more than a friend. She had tried to harden herself, not allowing anyone to get too close and yet a select few always found a way in, Leonis more than any other. His eyes reflected the same feelings, something they would have to address when all this was settled, "See you in a few days." She smiled
He returned her smile, hesitant to leave her but slowly pulled his hood down. Stepping away from the bars, he snatched one last look and started up the hallway.
"Brother?" she called.
He stopped and turned slowly.
"From my heart, thank you."
He placed his hand over his heart and bowed.
She sighed as he vanished into the darkness and returned to her seat on the bench to await the verdict.
The court yard bell rang about two hours later. By the time she was brought out of the council building, the council and Elder had already been seated.
She stole a quick look up at the sky and saw the dark, threatening clouds becoming stationary. The wind was beginning to pick up and carried the distinct coppery smell of the approaching storm. The caress of the breeze on her skin eased her fear as she sat next to the Elder. "Syrus?"
He turned to face her, unable to hide his own fear and concern about the verdict.
"You've done all you could for me and I'll be eternally grateful. You and I both know there's more at work here than meets the eye. Promise me you'll be careful. The same ones who came after me may seek to do you harm."
His eyes widened as he heard her warning. He knew that on occasion she had the gift of prophecy but he himself had sensed a danger during the last few weeks, "I'll be careful." He assured her, "Right now I'm concerned about you."
"Don't be." She replied flatly.
Gadus banged the gavel drawing the Elders attention to the council.
"This council," He began, "was formed to help run the city and deal with any problems, especially when they involved the law and security of our people. We have listened and examined all that was said here today. The decision was not an easy one and was not unanimous but the majority ruled."
The Elder and Bethany stood up and faced the council. She could tell as she looked at each of them that Gadus and Zoe had believed her but it had not been enough for the others.
"Bethany's contributions to this city and our people are beyond question. It is with a heavy heart that now I, along with my fellow councilors, have deemed her guilty of Treason. As such, we have decided that the punishment is exile from the city and valley. Sentence to be carried out at first light tomorrow."
The crowd erupted, surging forward with such strength that the guards couldn't hold them back. A shower of rocks, fruit and other assorted items rained down on the platform, most aimed at Bethany. A huge bolt of lightening struck a nearby tree causing some of the crowd to scatter and allowing the second wave of soldiers to move the trial participants into the safety of the building.
Bethany was taken back to her cell with extra guards posted.
The council and Elder moved into the council chambers and stood behind barred windows watching as a riot consumed the courtyard.
"What have we done?" Hannah asked in shock at the suddenness and intensity of the eruption.
"Sentenced a traitor and enforced the safety of our city." Arcles gloated.
"Open you eyes!" She gasped, "We haven't enforced safety. We've torn this city apart."
"We've saved the city from an attack co-planned by a traitor." He argued.
Gadus could only stare at Arcles, seeing the glee on his face as he watched the commotion outside, "There was a traitor and it wasn't Bethany." He mumbled under his breath.
The Elder scolded Gadus with a glance knowing that the first step in Arcles plan had been completed and that Gadus was in as much danger as himself. "Something has been unleashed within these walls that has been growing and festering for some time. This city will never be the same again." The Elder concluded as he turned his back on the window and took a seat at the council table.
Leonis pulled Gabrielle out of the worst of the riot and into an empty alley where they could catch their breath. They moved back down the alley and into the shadows until they were certain that they were alone. Gabrielle leaned against the wall and pulled her hood back, "What is happening out there?"
Leonis kept his eye on the mouth of the alley, "Civil war. Some people in town still believe in Bethany and then there are others like Benedictus and Arcles. We've got to get out of town now." He reached for her arm.
Gabrielle pulled away from him, defiance ringing in her voice, "I'm not leaving her here, caged and chained like an animal! And in the middle of a civil war."
Leonis saw that arguing was useless and tried another tactic, "Come on. I know a back way to the cells."
"Good." She conceded and followed him back into the streets.
Between his constant turning down streets and the crowds rushing around in the streets, she quickly became disoriented and grabbed hold of his robe to keep up. When he finally stopped she almost ran into his broad back, and as she peered around him, saw the front gates. All she got out was "Hey..." before he knocked her unconscious. Carefully, he picked her up and checked her breathing, which was steady. "My apologies, but I have a promise to keep."
He mounted his waiting horse and rode out of the city, clutching Gabrielle protectively.
When he reached the cave Delia, Giles and Basty were already there. They had captured not one but two slavers, both tied up, blindfolded and tucked away in the back of the cave.
Basty helped Leonis carry Gabrielle in explaining that Belden had gone back to town to keep an eye on things and the Captain. Leonis sat by the fire and had just begun to give them the details of the trial when they heard horses outside.
Each grabbed their sword ready for any trouble that might visit the cave. The swords fell instantly when Xena strode in closely followed by a dusty and exhausted Xanthus and Hernam.
She immediately spotted her unconscious friend and rushed over, kneeling beside her, "What happened?" She growled.
"It was the only way to get her out of town. She wasn't very cooperative and her life was in danger." Leonis offered.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open when Xena gently brushed the loose blond hairs from her face. Once focused, the young woman smiled and sighed with relief, "Xena."
She helped her sit up and Gabrielle searched until she set eyes on Leonis, "Why do people keep knocking me out?" she asked rubbing her head.
"Sorry." He answered sheepishly, "But Bethany made me swear to get you out safely." He expected Xena to knock him out but the look on her face relayed understanding and forgiveness.
He called to all of them, "Come by the fire and we'll tell you what happened in Havenous." The other quickly encircled the fire and together he and Gabrielle recounted the details of the trial.
It was an hour before midnight when they finished the whole sordid story. Anger at the so-called trial and its verdict permeated the air of the cave and radiated from Xena like heat from a fire. She rose to her feet like a stalking giant, "I'm going to speak with, 'my soldiers'." She snarled.
Moving toward the back of the cave like a predator, the blindfolded men immediately knew that there was a dangerous change in the atmosphere. She stared at both of them for a moment and then yanked their blindfolds off. Stepping back, she allowed them to get a good full view of her. "Hello boys." The greeting was low and filled with menace, "In case you don't recognize me I'm Xena. You know, the leader of your army."
Gabrielle and the troopers watched from the shadows, awed by her power and amused at the way the once brave slavers did their best to squirm away from her.
Xena feigned hurt, "Aw, what's the matter soldiers? You have nothing to fear from little old me as long as you cooperate." She moved toward them and they hit the wall with nowhere else to go.
"All I want to know is who is the real leader of the raiders and their plans."
When neither of them answered, she immediately flashed her hands on the nearest mans neck, "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your tiny brain. You'll be dead in less than a minute unless I get some answers."
The sight of his comrade convulsing and unable to breathe was all the second man needed. He happily volunteered the information Xena asked for.
When she had gotten all the information she needed, she knocked both men unconscious and went back to the front of the cave taking a seat by the fire with the others.
"Benedictus, the leader of the raiders?" Xanthus repeated, unable to conceive such a thing.
"He had opportunity." Basty reasoned, "Of the last eight missions he's only been on three or four and how many times did Arcles or Droden send him out on council business, at least ten that I can think of. That would give him time to meet with the raiders and even ride with them if need be."
"I'd say the plan the slaver told the council about was fairly accurate." Gabrielle added, "And what's worse is that they can continue with it. The town thinks that it's over now that Bethany is in jail."
"The best plans are the simple ones," Xena supplied, "They announced their plans of conquest so nobody would ever believe that the plan is still in motion."
"Made easier with help from the council." Leonis spat out, unable to conceal his anger and frustration, "They've turned a once peaceful city into a war zone because of greed."
"We'll take care of that in the morning," Xena promised, "We'll head for Havenous and you can take those two dogs to the Elder and the head of the council. If they continue with Bethanys exile, we'll be close by to ensure her safety."
Leonis nodded knowing it was the only way to proceed but he couldn't seem to control the feeling of dread that was consuming him, "You're right. We're all exhausted and need to get some rest if we're going to be of any help to Bethany." He finished with a deep cleansing breath that allowed him to smell the coming storm on the breeze floating in from the mouth of the cave. "Okay troopers. We leave in four hours so get as much rest as you can."
He was about to ask for a volunteer for guard duty when Gabrielle stood up, staff in hand, "I've probably had more sleep than any of you in the last few days so I volunteer to take first watch."
Xena looked at her, pride in her eyes, the little farm girl she had met had grown into an admirable adult, "Don't let us over sleep." She cautioned.
"You won't." Gabrielle smiled and assumed her watch at the mouth of the cave.
A steady rain was falling as the Elder sat in his office watching the dust wash away across the balcony. It had been raining for the last hour and that had helped break up the riotous citizens, leading to quiet city streets.
He was exhausted, mentally as well as physically, but couldn't stop running the trial through his head, wondering what he could have done differently. Downstairs in a dark, damp cell an innocent woman, one of his closest friends, waited alone, to be led from the place she called home. Branding her a traitor, she could never return, the threat of death a constant companion.
He brought his fist down on his desk in frustration. Racking his brain, he tried to come up with another way to help her, to spare her the shame of public exile. A bright flash of lightening brought him an idea. There were still city guards loyal to him and Bethany. He would find them and go to the cells below. Then he would make sure that a horse and supplies were waiting and he would unlock her cell and let her disappear into the storm. He knew that she would refuse at first but he would convince her. If for no other reason that she should spare the children she cared for so much the terror of seeing her exiled like a common criminal.
Smiling to himself, he carefully planned her escape and the supplies she would need on her trip. He jumped when he heard a knock at his office door and Arnon came in carrying a goblet, "It's late sir. I've brought you something to help you sleep."
Not wanting to arouse the boys suspicions, he took the goblet and drank. He set the cup down on his desk and inhaled deeply, "Thank you Arnon. I'll be retiring shortly."
He felt a tickle in his throat and the room seemed to grow warmer as he picked up the cup and finished the wine.
"You'll retire sooner than you think, old man." A voice replied as his office door opened fully and Arcles accompanied by Benedictus strode in.
He started to rise but found himself light-headed and weak, with a strange pressure in his chest making it hard to breathe.
Arcles leaned against the Elders desk, watching with amusement, "It's a wonderful plan, Syrus. Infiltrate the town with our own people using the caravans and our open door policy to raid survivors. Of course being in control of the raiders made things even easier. Raid more villages, sell the populace and replace them with our soldiers. Within two months we will have control of Havenous. The only problem was Bethany, her troopers and a few select councilors."
Benedictus waved Arnon away and propped on the wall by the doorway, ensuring they weren't disturbed.
"We had other plans for the troopers," Arcles continued, "and our beloved Captain but when Xena and the girl showed up everything fell into place. Actually," Arcles laughed, "it was almost too easy. Especially when she sent her faithful soldiers out of town for their own protection. They will no doubt be waiting somewhere down the road for her exile."
Anger was replaced by fear as the Elder struggled to catch his breath. Again trying to stand, he instead collapsed on his desk and fell to the floor. He watched as Arcles walked behind his desk and sat in his empty chair. He winced in pain as Arcles boot connected with his hip and shoved him away.
Benedictus walked over and kneeled beside the Elder as he gasped his final breaths, "Of course the Amazon dog will never leave this city alive."
Syrus was helpless as he fought against the darkness consuming him. He struggled to speak or cry out for help but the constrictions of his throat prevented him from making any sound. As he floated into the fuzzy dimness, the last sound he heard was Arcles still gloating. "Don't worry old man, you won't be crossing Styx alone."
His final thought as he faded into darkness was of Bethany, praying that she could escape their plans for her.
The courtyard bell began ringing shortly after midnight and panicked voices filled the air. When the rain had started and cleared the streets of the rioters, all of the guards around Bethany's cell had gone off duty, leaving her to the peace and quiet of the rain storm. She watched the rain through the small window vent at the top of the cell wall. First, the patters of rain had caused puffs of dust to rise when they hit the dry ground. Then the rain came down harder and the dust had become mud and were now puddles.
She had been watching this transformation when the bells began and she immediately knew that the Elder was gone.
The guard on duty, Solas, had been next in line to join her troopers, and whenever she spoke with him she was always reminded of Leonis. His manner was calm and strong and she was glad to see that he had been on duty in the cells tonight. He had let her know when he came on duty that he didn't believe the charges against her and would ride at her side anytime. Because of his personality she was not surprised when he came to the cell to bring her news.
He spoke hesitantly, his voice tinged with sadness, "Captain. I thought you should know what all the commotion is about. The Elder and Gadus . . . " He paused searching for the easy words but not finding them, "They're dead. Victims of an assassin. I'm sorry to have to tell you this on top of everything, else but I though you should know."
She lowered her head, "Thank you, Solas. I appreciate your consideration."
Solas watched her for a moment, wanting to say something to comfort her but unsure of his words. He looked at the cell door and felt the weight of the key on his belt. He had gotten to know her and the others over the last few months and refused to believe the lies he had heard at the trial today. He started to reach for the key. It would only take a few minutes to get her out of the cell, into a cloak and out of the city. The cold metal of the key was grasped in his hand as he moved for the lock but he stopped when he saw her looking at him. Her eyes seemed to glow as she spoke softly, "That's not necessary, my friend. I appreciate your thoughts but you mustn't risk yourself."
When the connection was broken, he stared down at his feet for a second and then turned and walked back up the hall, leaving her alone to grieve.
She did grieve, silently and deeply. They were good men and she felt responsible for their deaths. She had tried to warn Syrus but it had not come soon enough. The old rage she felt stirring in her made her long to be free of the shackles and cell to avenge their deaths. To destroy Benedictus, Arcles, Otes, Droden and their allies the same way they were destroying Havenous. The anger rearing up in her brought an odd feeling of happiness and she immediately suppressed it.
The crowd gathering in the courtyard seemed to grow louder and when she heard the voice of Arcles leading them on, she wasn't surprised. She heard them storming the building, shouts of outrage and grief filling the air. The voices became louder and clearer as they neared the basement. They were the voices that cried out for retribution and punishment and would stop only when that hunger had been quenched. Solas valiantly tried to keep them out and fought them off but was outnumbered. After he had been beaten unconscious, they tossed him aside, anxious to capture their real quarry. The towns' people crowded into the hallway and stopped outside her cell. Anger and fear consumed them, made even worse when she showed no emotion. Their yells and curses brought no reaction from her and as they opened the cell door, stormed in and yanked her to her feet, she offered no resistance.
They left the cave before dawn, riding for Havenous. The rain had finally stopped but the clouds still kept the skies dark and threatening. Their prisoners were firmly tied and blindfolded, both on a single horse with Giles and Delia keeping them on a short leash.
Leonis gave the signal and they moved steadily, anxious to get back to the city and help their Captain. The plan was simple. Xena and Gabrielle would remain in the woods outside the city while the troopers took their prisoners to the council and demanded to be heard. With their confession Bethany would be cleared and free to leave, or so they hoped.
A few miles from the city Leonis held up his hand to slow them when he spotted someone staggering and stumbling up the road toward them. As the person got closer, it only took a moment before Leonis recognized him and urged his horse forward at full gallop. He reached the man in less than a minute, reined his horse to a stop and jumped from the saddle. Leaping forward, he caught the man in his arms as he fell and eased him to the ground.
Xena and the others came galloping up to the scene and were shocked to see the battered and bloody face of Beldon. His left eye was swollen shut, the right eye only open a slit. His nose was swollen and misshaped as was his mouth, which was minus a few teeth.
Xena dismounted Argo and went to offer her help. When she got a closer look at the blood oozing from his ears and mouth and the sound of his breathing, she knew that he was bleeding internally and not much longer for this life.
Leonis cradled him and looked at her with pleading eyes. She could only shake her head, helping him beyond even her skills.
He nodded acceptance and bit his lip so hard that a thin trickle of blood appeared, "It's alright my friend, you're safe now."
"Leonis?" Beldon wheezed weakly.
"Yes." He patted his arm reassuringly. They knew of the riots in town and assumed that he had been recognized or tried to defend someone and had been overpowered. They were not prepared for his next statement. "The Elder and Gadus . . . murdered."
Hernam, Xanthus and Gabrielle clustered around him as he struggled to continue, "Arcles, Benedictus said . . . Xena's assassins. The people . . . went crazy."
Dread crept over them while Leonis tried to comfort him, "Save your strength, Beldon. We'll get you help."
Beldon grasped Leonis shoulder, coughing splatters of blood in his face, "No time. They went after Bethany. Said she . . . would be an example to others. Tried to stop them . . . she didn't resist. I tried to stop . . . "
"I know." Leonis replied clenching his teeth, "I know you did your best my friend." He clutched the man closer as the breath hitched in his chest and his eyes rolled back revealing the whites, then he fell silent.
Xena stepped back, pulling a shaken Gabrielle back toward the horses.
Hernam and Xanthus also backed away fighting to hide their grief as Leonis picked up Beldons body and carried him off the road. He laid his comrade under a nearby tree and covered him with his cloak, standing over him a few seconds in quite tribute. When he walked back to the awaiting soldiers, they watched him intently, waiting for the word to be given.
His face was hard and his voice cold as he growled, "We ride to Havenous."
The thundering hoof beats could be heard long before the riders were seen. They crested the top of the hill at full battle gallop, Leonis leading the way. Xena was close on his right, Gabrielle hanging on tight behind her, while the others spread out in a defensive attack line, all swords at the ready.
A large gathering of people were outside the walls, standing or milling around the front gates. Two squadrons of city guards formed a barrier around three large cross beams planted into the muddy ground and rose twelve feet into the air. When the thundering hooves caught the villagers attention, they looked into the distance dumbfounded. It wasn't until someone yelled "Raid!" that they began screaming and running for safety behind the cities walls.
The city guards wavered, some actually running with the villagers and trampling over them to hide behind the walls. The others stayed their ground, drawing their swords and steadying their spears for the onslaught.
Leonis signaled for them to slow as he tried to place what the crossbeams were for. As they rode closer, he realized that there were people tied to the beams. A few yards closer and he was able to recognize Bethany on one of the beams, two slavers tied to the others.
Xena saw it as well, the sight causing her blood to run cold. Flashing images of a night many years ago when she had met a Roman named Caesar. His betrayal of her and the death sentence he gave her. Beaten within an inch of her life she had been tied to a beam and left to die on a deserted beach. She pushed the images away, concentrating on getting to Bethany and coming out of the fight in one piece. Gabrielle tightened her hold on her waist and she knew that she too had realized who was on the cross beam.
"Bethany." Leonis wailed, drawing his sword and urging the horse to pick up his speed. The other troopers joined his wail with a deep loud war roar and followed close behind him. Xena added her own war cry to theirs and felt the heat of battle warming her blood.
They charged into the city guards, kicking the slow ones out of the way and clashing swords with those that were ready to fight. When Xena stopped Argo, Gabrielle jumped off and began fighting the soldiers on foot where she was soon joined by Delia and Hernam. Xena swung her sword at an approaching guard and quickly dispatched him with a single blow, then she too was off the horse and fighting on foot.
Leonis rode through the guards and finally dismounted when he reached the beam where Bethany was tied. Three soldiers encircled him but his anger and grief were no-match for them. After only a few minutes they were on the ground and swept up in his anger, he yelled for more.
Xena took up position close by to help if he needed it and to keep an eye on Gabrielle. Four of the soldiers surrounded her and with a yell she unleashed her fury, spinning and fly kicking until all four were unconscious on the ground. The other troopers and Gabrielle were just as fierce and within moments the ground was littered with defeated city guards. The few that were still standing were running for the gates of Havenous.
Some of the towns people that had run earlier were now making their way back to the crossbeams, knowing that these were not raiders but Bethany's troopers.
Xena joined Leonis at the center crossbeam and both looked up at Bethany, tied arms wide to the top beam. Her face and body was bruised and swollen and her head dangled limply to the side. Her clothes were torn and covered with mud and dark patches of blood. The final degradation had been to expose her arm and hand making the burn scars clearly visible.
As if in a daze the other troopers joined them staring in shock at the small, battered form of their Captain. They were oblivious to the approaching towns' people until Leonis spoke. "No." He mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief, "No. Not like this. It can't end like this."
Gabrielle grasped Xena's arm, her voice quivering, "How could they do this?"
"Fear is a powerful force." She answered and stopped when she noticed movement. She narrowed her eyes and looked closer at Bethany's drooping head and caught the slight flare of her nostrils. Hope rushed through her as she moved next to Leonis, "She's still alive."
This time they all witnessed a twitch of her scarred hand. Leonis pulled out his dagger and moved to the pole, "I'll climb up and cut her down." The other troopers took a protective stance around them, their posture a warning to any that might try to stop them.
Xena reached out and restrained his arm as he started to climb, "This is faster." She replied holding her Chakram. A light flickered in his eyes and he nodded but held his place next to the pole, ready to catch her when she fell.
Gabrielle took a spot next to him and the others stepped back to give Xena plenty of room. She took a step back, readying the Chakram.
"Halt. Don't move another inch." A voice ordered from the distance.
The city gates drew open and two more squadrons of city guards emerged, armed and ready for battle. Behind them on horseback was Benedictus, dressed in full guards uniform topped off by a helmet adorned with a Captains plume of feathers.
Leonis and the troopers stood their ground in a defensive position when the villagers began forming a tight circle around them. Mara left her place in the circle and walked over to Leonis, her eyes red and swollen, "We couldn't stop them from doing this but we can prevent them from stopping you now."
He and Xena looked at the gathering. They were armed with pitchforks, boards, shovels and rocks against trained soldiers with swords and spears but the villagers never flinched as the soldiers approached.
Taking advantage of the situation Xena released the Chakram. It took flight bouncing off one of the slavers poles and neatly rebounding against Bethany's bonds. She dropped rapidly and weakly cried out in pain when she landed in Leonis and Gabrielle's waiting arms.
The Chakram ricocheted off the city wall and neatly sliced off the plum of Benedictus's helmet before returning to Xena's awaiting hand.
Delia rushed forward and wrapped the soaking wet figure of Bethany in her cloak. Then she helped Gabrielle gently carry their friend back to the horses where Xanthus was quickly making a litter for her to ride on.
Benedictus stopped his horse as the feathers from his plum drifted down into his face. He stayed still as the soldiers advanced on the troopers, his eyes full of fear and darting between Leonis and Xena. "You people." He yelled at the villagers, "Step aside. That woman is a convicted traitor and they are breaking the law by removing her as a warning to others."
The villagers didn't move but the guards hesitated slightly. Fighting raiders or law breakers was one thing but these were innocent people, their people.
"You're the only traitor here, Benedictus." Basty called out as he yanked the blindfolds off their prisoners.
The slavers blinked as light flooded their eyes but then saw two of their comrades hanging on the poles. The larger, burlier of the two scanned the people around him until he laid eyes on Benedictus. "You traitorous scum. They were supposed to escape last night, not die like dogs for you and your plan."
He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as not only villagers but many of the guards stopped, turned and stared at him.
Hernam pointed at Benedictus, "There's your traitor citizens. He betrayed all of us for the power behind that uniform."
More of the city guards were backing away from him and forming a second barrier around the villagers. About one third of the original squadrons remained loyal to Benedictus and they assumed a defensive posture around him, sensing the change in the crowd.
"Lies!" He yelled defensively, "They caught these men and used them to spread lies and try to save their captain. I was not the one tried and convicted of treason. It was that Amazon dog and she was punished appropriately."
Gabrielle left Bethany and moved beside Leonis, staff held ready to help him fight through to Benedictus and rip his lying throat open.
"Face me, you coward." Leonis challenged raising his sword into the air, "You're brave when you lead a mob against a lone woman. Get off that horse, just you and me! Now!"
Xena felt the tension building and as angry as she was she was still able to distance herself enough to look at the situation impartially. She looked over where the horses were and saw that Xanthus had finished the stretcher and was securely tying Bethany in place.
Moving up to Leonis, Xena leaned close, "Leonis, now is not the time for this. Bethany is badly hurt and we need to get her back to the caves."
He flinched, snapping out of his rage slightly. He cast a quick glance at Bethany's limp figure in the stretcher. Gabrielle had overheard and squelched her own need for revenge, "She's right Leonis. We have to help Bethany before it's too late."
Now he looked at Gabrielle. A young woman who had been a stranger only a few days before was ready to risk her own life for a fellow Amazon and friend. His face softened and his breathing slowed.
"There will be another time." Xena promised.
Picking up on the hesitation, Mara was joined by one of the guards and together they approached them, "Take her away from here. We'll make sure you're not stopped or followed." The guard assured Leonis.
Leonis patted Mara's hand, "Thank you, Mara. Thank all of them for us."
Mara nodded and smiled, then followed the guard back to lines.
Leonis watched them go, realizing that Bethany was more important than revenge right now. "Another time." He threatened before he turned and walked back to the horses.
Benedictus never acknowledged the challenge or threat. He watched Leonis, Xena and the others mount up and ride back down the road. Whether because he knew his men were outnumbered or because Leonis and the troopers would not stop until they had torn him to shreds, he never issued an order to stop or follow them. As they disappeared over the hill he ordered his men to return to the city. Seeing the opposition they faced, they quickly obeyed.
When they returned to the cave, Leonis and the others stayed out of the way as Xena and Gabrielle fought to save Bethany's life.
Xanthus and Leonis brought them water, blankets, fire wood and all the other things that Xena asked for. The others carried Bethany to the back of the cave and once they were settled in the troopers made themselves scarce. Out of sight, they stayed within ear shot in case Xena needed anything else. Only Delia stayed in with them helping any way she could.
One of the first things Xena had noticed on the way back to the cave was Bethany's ragged breathing, caused, she diagnosed by a punctured lung. Once settled in the cave, it was this that she began tending to first. While she took care of that Delia and Gabrielle tried to clean all the mud and blood away so they could get an accurate assessment of her injuries.
Gabrielle gasped when she saw Bethany's ragged ear. The earring she wore so proudly was gone now and apparently it had been ripped off tearing through her ear. With Xena's training she had become an expert at stitching wounds and she began with the ear.
As their treatment continued, they discovered various bruises, scratches, scrapes and a cracked rib and broken leg. None of the wounds were life threatening save for the cracked rib that had punctured her lung, which Xena had quickly taken care of with a knife and piece of dried reed. It was the amount of punishment the woman had taken was what worried her. That was undoubtedly the reason for the fever that was setting in. They stripped off the damp, tattered clothes she had on and wrapped her in layers of cloaks and blankets.
At the first opportunity Xena had given Leonis a list of plants and roots that she needed. He surprised her by how quickly he returned with everything she asked for. She stopped long enough to mix up everything he brought her with some water and now had it simmering over the nearby fire.
They finally finished after several hours, doing all that they could for Bethany and her injuries and sat back exhausted. The young woman was pale underneath all the bruises and swelling, but was breathing more steadily.
Xena checked the pot over the fire and satisfied that it was ready, dipped out some of the steaming brew into a cup, then handed it to Gabrielle. "Let this cool and then try to get some of it down her. It should break her fever and help with the swelling."
Gabrielle looked at her with tear swollen eyes, "Where are you going?"
"To tell Leonis and the others how she is."
"Xena, she is going to be okay, right?"
Gabrielle knew her to well to believe a lie, so she had learned long ago to be honest with her.
"I don't know. We've done all we can. It's up to her and the Gods now."
She walked up to the front of the cave and found the other troopers standing around in worried silence. Frustration at being unable to help their Captain etched on their faces. They snapped to attention as she came in, Leonis rushing toward her, "How is she?"
"Lucky to be alive. She has a broken leg, dislocated shoulder, punctured lung, black eye, busted mouth, all sorts of bruises and now she's developed a fever."
Each soldiers face fell and the color drained from Leonis face as they heard the list of injuries. Xena recognized the despair and tried to be more positive, "But it could have been a lot worse. The scars on her back, chest and arm saved her from serious injury."
Leonis looked at her puzzled, "How?"
"Scar tissue is tougher, it takes some force from the blows and keeps them from causing internal damage. It's probably the only reason she's still alive."
Xanthus brought her a cup of water, "Is she going to make it?"
Xena drank some of the cool water and reached to wipe her mouth when she realized her hands were stained with blood. Without a word being spoken Hernam appeared holding out a rag for her to use.
She took it, smiling her thanks and wiped her hands clean, "I don't know. We've done everything we can. None of her wounds are fatal but she sustained a lot of blows and she's weak. We'll have to keep a close watch on her and we can't move her for at least a week."
Leonis smiled at her, "Thank you Xena." His voice was friendly and appreciative, "If not for your medical skills, I doubt she would have made it this far. We are in your debt."
The other troopers came forward and offered their thanks as well. She tried to hide her conflicting feelings and offer them a slight smile, "I'm glad I was here to help." And quickly excused herself moving to the back of the cave to check on Bethany.
She passed Delia on her way back as the young woman was going to clean up before joining her comrades. Delia offered a weak smile and continued on.
The cave widened again and led into a good sized chamber before branching off into another passageway. Bethany was in the farthest corner and as Xena eased in she saw Gabrielle kneeling beside the injured warrior, gently wiping her face with a cool cloth and speaking softly. She approached quietly and got close enough to hear what Gabrielle was whispering, ". . . and Benedictus is nothing. I know you heard what he said and who knows what he said while they were doing this but you've got to ignore all that. You are an Amazon, a proud and honorable race, made more so by women like you. The only dog I saw there was that pompous . . . son of a Minotaur."
Xena shuffled her feet as she moved closer and Gabrielle stopped talking and leaned back.
"Did she drink any of the brew?" Xena asked as she sat next to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle seemed a bit embarrassed, wondering if Xena had overheard anything she said, "A little."
"Good. Keep trying, the more she drinks the better."
Gabrielle tenderly opened Bethany's swollen mouth and with the patience of a trained healer, poured more of the fluid, a few drops at time, down her throat. When the cup was almost empty, Gabrielle again wiped her face and then leaned back against the wall.
Xena watched her closely, always amazed and awed at the natural skill she had with the injured, "How are you holding up?"
She attempted to sound like her usual chipper self but her entire manner reflected weariness and worry, "I'm okay, just concerned."
Quietly they sat and watched the rise and fall of Bethany's chest as her breathing became stronger and more normal. An occasional piece of conversation from the outer cave drifted into to them and by the smell of the breeze wafting through the cave the rain had returned.
"I feel so helpless," Gabrielle blurted out, "like we should be doing something other than sitting here."
Xena turned to face her, understanding in her eyes, "I know, but other than resetting her leg, we've done all we can. This is the hardest part of dealing with the injured. The waiting, especially if it's someone close to you. The next few hours will be critical for her." She looked at Bethany and again memories from her own ordeal tried to surface.
"How are Leonis and the others? Are they going after Benedictus and Arcles?"
Xena sighed, happy for a change of subject, "Like you, they're worried. Right now their main concern is Bethany. Later I don't think Zeus himself could stop Leonis from seeking revenge."
"She's a guardian, Xena. Why didn't Diana do something to prevent or stop this?"
Xena shrugged her shoulders, "You know my feelings on that. The Gods only use us for amusement or a purpose and then they discard us. Maybe she had served her purpose. You can be sure of this, she's alive because of who she is. Her own strength and fire are what kept her breathing, not the Gods. The question now is does she have enough left to come through this."
As if on cue Bethany groaned softly. Both women were up and hovering over her as her eyes fluttered but didn't open. Xena laid a hand on her forehead, "The fevers starting to break. Try to get some more of those herbs down her."
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled confidently and she rushed to refill the cup and repeat her dosing method.
As she filled the cup from the simmering pot, Xena leaned over Bethany, whispering in her ear, "Fight. You're a warrior and warriors' never give up easily." She sat up when Gabrielle returned and this time helped her in the treatment.
Her fever broke just before nightfall, much to everyones relief. Later when she opened her eyes for only a second before falling into unconsciousness again, the mood became ecstatic.
Only Xena remained neutral as the others became more optimistic. She knew that this was a good sign but Bethany was still not out of danger yet.
Leonis insisted that he and the others be of more help so they assigned shifts to sit and keep tabs on Bethany's condition, and alert them to any changes.
Xena finished her shift, got a bite to eat and had gone outside the cave. She took a seat several yards from the cave entrance and watched at the clouds began to clear off from the darkening sky and the twinkling stars assume their place in the heavens. The rain had stopped a few hours earlier, cooling the air considerably and adding a clean, fresh smell to the breeze. It could have been considered an enjoyable night had it not been for the happenings in Havenous earlier and the woman fighting for life in the cave now.
She sat staring at the sky, unable to rid her mind of the image of Bethany tied to the beams like a trophy. The events that lead up to it were almost predictable. An angry mob pushed over the brink by the murder of not one but two of the most important people to the town. The people afraid and angry wanting someone to pay and Benedictus offering them the traitor, Bethany. The woman had allies that were angry that she was convicted of treason and that their plans to take over the town had been exposed. These allies had taken their revenge out on the Elder and Gadus. Had the towns people been thinking rationally they would have wondered why the two men who thought her innocent were the ones murdered.
Unfortunately logic held no power in the face of terror. Bethany had probably been pulled from her cell by the crowd and brought out into the streets. With Benedictus and his followers leading them on. Next she had probably been caught in a flurry of blows and punches, which had only let up when the other slavers had been sacrificed to the mob.
Councilor Arcles had stopped them before they killed the prisoners saying that they should not be just victims but a message to the soldiers outside the gates. She couldn't control the shiver that seized her in its grasp as her own memories of a beating and posting became intertwined with what she thought had happened to Bethany.
The pain and humiliation. The fear growing as the ropes were lashed around your wrist and pulled taut against the pole. A feeling of surreal terror as the pole was lifted into place and the consciousness and life fading slowly. Praying to any gods listening to end your life quickly. Then the realization that your prayers would not be heard.
"Xena?" A voice called from the growing darkness.
She was brought out of the waking nightmare by the familiar and welcome sight of Gabrielle, who sensed that something was bothering her friend and sat down beside her. "Is everything all right?"
Her usual cool demeanor slipped into place a little slower than usual and even then there was still a remnant of the memory lingering. "Fine. Is Bethany alright?"
"She's fine," Gabrielle disagreed, "And no, you're not alright. When I came up you were somewhere else and looked like you were seeing a ghost."
Xena looked at the ground, kicking rocks away, "Ghosts of the past."
A scream echoed off the walls and filled the cave. A moment later another followed. It was too much for Xanthus and Delia and they excused themselves, venturing outside for some air. Hernam held firm standing watch just outside the entrance of the cave, flinching at every sound his Captain uttered. Basty and Giles remained inside the main chamber, sharpening swords and keeping their ears open in case Leonis called them.
Further back in the cave, Xena firmly took hold of Bethany's broken leg and prepared for the last pull to line up the bones properly. Leonis was at Bethany's head, keeping her from moving as Xena set her leg. Gabrielle kneeled next to Xena holding the splints that they would use to keep the bones in place so they could mend.
Bethany was semi conscious, each adjustment of her leg bringing her further into consciousness. Her skin glistened with sweat and her breathing was rapid.
"Once more." Xena warned. With all her strength, she gave a final pull and twist, barely hearing the satisfying sound of the bone sliding into place over Bethany's scream.
"It's alright." Leonis reassured and wiped the sweat from her face, "It's all over now. Your leg is set and will be good as new."
Xena reached out and Gabrielle handed her the splints, when her hands were empty she quickly picked up the leather straps to hold the splints in place. Once Xena had positioned the splints, she and Gabrielle switched places, Gabrielle holding the splints as Xena tied them securely in place. Bethany groaned as each strap tied sent a fresh stab of pain through her. Xena finished and Leonis released his grip on their patient's shoulders.
He leaned over, smiling, "All over now."
Bethany slowly raised her eyes and looked directly into his brown eyes, "Just let me die."
He sat back, recoiling from her words. Shock covered his face and Gabrielle's. Xena remained calm, seeming to expect that kind of attitude. She moved next to Bethany's side and met her eyes, "It's not your time yet."
Bethany's only reaction was to blink her dead eyes and continue staring at the ceiling of the cave.
Gabrielle moved beside her, "You still have a lot to do. People to help."
Bethany sighed and turned her head toward the wall, dismissing them.
Leonis reached out to her but was intercepted by Xena's firm hand. She shook her head 'No', and motioned him to leave the cavern. Leaving Gabrielle to keep an eye on her, Leonis and Xena ventured back toward the main chamber. Leonis stopped in a passageway and leaned against the wall, "I've never seen her like this. Her eyes and voice are so flat, so unemotional."
"She's in pain. Physically and mentally." Xena offered as an explanation, "Physically she will recover."
Xena put her hand on his shoulder, "Put yourself in her place. How would you feel? "
Before he could give it much consideration, Xanthus came running down the passageway calling his name. He was obviously excited as he skidded to a stop before crashing into them. "Leonis, you have to come see this."
"What is it? Are we under attack?"
Xanthus smiled, "No. It's a caravan. A big one coming from the city. It looks like they're leaving Havenous."
Leonis stiffened, "Show me." And with a nod to Xena, he followed Xanthus down the passage way.
Xena watched them disappear, wondering about the new development when she became aware of a presence behind her. She whirled around, assuming a fighting stance and relaxed when she saw a short slender woman with a bow and quiver of arrows standing in the shadows.
Her eyebrows arched, "Artemis?"
"Warrior Princess." The Huntress acknowledged.
Xena stood up fully, her voice sarcastic, "Bethanys down the passageway in the next chamber, but you're a little late to be of any help."
Artemis took a few steps closer, "Your hostility toward me is unwarranted. The only person who can help her now is you and you know it."
Xena acted puzzled, but understood what the Huntress was hinting at, "Me? You're her mentor and teacher. The one who left her at the mercy of Benedictus and his hordes."
Artemis's brown eyes flashed with anger, "Even Gods have rules, Xena. She was required to pass her trial of fire without my assistance."
"Yea. So if she lives I guess she passed."
"There are other forces at work in this." The Goddess countered, "I do not control everything and when I saw that she was in trouble, I tried to help but she wouldn't allow it."
"Wouldn't allow it?"
Artemis leaned against the side of the passage frustrated, "I tried to help her. She had several opportunities to escape but she didn't. She turned her back on any help I sent."
Xena leaned against the opposite side of the cave, "That doesn't make any sense. She had to know how things were going." Then Xena remembered the conversation at Dante's Point. Bethany's words about the dead being the lucky ones and wanting to join them. That Darkness had a price and never let you forget your sins. "Bethany let them do this because she thought she deserved it."
The Huntress met her eyes, "You told Leonis to put himself in her place." She pointed at Xena, "You have been in her place. When she became my student, she was a very angry and frightened young woman. Her biggest fear was that the anger would resurface again. That is why you're the only one who can help her now. Help her find her way back, please."
Xena remained silent, deep in thought.
"She has to accept her past and move beyond it. Maybe by helping her, you can continue your own journey."
When she looked up, Artemis was gone and she was alone in the passageway, left to consider the Huntress's words.
Xena waited for Leonis and the others to return before making her decision. When they did, their mood was relieved and jovial. Leonis quickly called everyone for a meeting and they gathered in the main cavern, except Gabrielle who elected to stay with Bethany who was now sleeping, knowing that Xena would fill her in later.
Once everyone was settled Leonis began, "The caravan is an exodus from Havenous. Many the citizens where outraged by what happened to Bethany and the way things seemed to change overnight. Without a guardian they don't feel the town is safe any longer. They were hoping to meet with us and find out how the Captain is. If she is well, they want her to lead them to a new home."
"Are you sure they're not just trying to find us and finish the job for Benedictus and Arcles?" Hernam questioned, his trust running short as of late.
"No, my friend," He answered understanding their apprehension, "Every person in the caravan that we lead to Havenous is out there now. The others are people that were outside the city walls when we rescued Bethany. They are friends."
"Where are they now?" Xena asked.
"They made camp down the road." Delia supplied, "They're genuine in their quest Warrior Princess. I'm familiar with the look in their eyes, I had it when Bethany came to my village. They trust her and as far as they're concerned she is the only one who can lead them out of here."
Xena was satisfied and sat quietly as the discussion continued. When they finished, Leonis was pulled aside and Xena began outlining her plan to help bring Bethany back.
She went to relieve Gabrielle a short time later. Gabrielle met her at the entrance of the chamber visibly upset.
Gabrielle grasped her arm and pulled her back out of the cavern, "What's wrong?" Xena questioned as they came to a stop..
"She won't eat or drink. She slept for a little while and when she woke up she ignored me and just stares at the wall. I can't get her to talk. Me, the one with the gift of gab as you say. I even pulled Amazon rank and she just lies there. The anger is radiating off her but she acts like she just wants to stay there until she dies."
Xena draped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder, "Don't worry. I want you to go to the main chamber and get a bite to eat and some rest. I'm taking over for a while and I don't want to be disturbed until Leonis comes to you, okay?"
Gabrielle started to protest or ask her the plan but the look on Xena's face convinced her to do just as her friend had suggested. With a final glance at Bethany, Gabrielle moved down the passage away from them. Xena stayed put until she was sure that Gabrielle was gone, then strode back to the cavern and moved over to Bethany.
The woman lay still, never flinching. Her eyes stayed closed as Xena sat beside her. "I know you're awake."
"Ignoring me isn't going to work. I'm not going anywhere until you hear me out."
Still no reaction.
"I understand what's going on in your head right now. I survived a posting myself."
Bethany's eyes opened slightly.
Xena took her time, hesitant but knowing that Bethany needed to hear it, had to hear it. "It was several years ago." She started slowly, "When my first army was branching out into the neighboring villages for new conquests. I was a little younger than you and I was intent on subjecting all so that my village would be safe. Or that's what I told myself. One night my men caught a prisoner. Someone who brought a great ransom that could make my army even stronger. I was intrigued by him. His self assuredness, strength, single mindedness, everything I craved to be. He had power as well and knew how to use it and I was naive enough to believe that he would share it with me.'
'We received the ransom and I released him. Our agreement was that he would come for me when the time was right and we would rule the world together."
Bethany had turned her head toward Xena watching her but Xena didn't notice. She was caught up in the memories that until now had remained unspoken and only in her dreams.
"He came after me alright and fool that I was I trusted him to keep his word. He betrayed me completely. My entire army was captured and put in chains as was I. This man let me know that we wouldn't be sold as slaves. Oh no, we were going to be examples to all those who thought of interfering in his plans. We were taken to his home shores where his soldiers took great delight in beating us. Some of my men were beaten to death but as he watched them beat me he made certain that they didn't go too far. He had other plans for me."
Xena stopped and took a deep, shaky breath. In her mind she was no longer in the cave but on a dark beach in Roman territories. Her voice was lower as she continued, "We were all tied to crossbeams and hoisted into the air. The beams stretched as far as the eye could see and most of the men, the lucky ones, were already dead. Dead because of me. He stood at the foot of the beam I was tied to and gloated. He told me that he would rule the world alone. It was his destiny, just as it was mine to be remembered as one of his first conquests. Before he left, he ordered his men to break my legs as a last goodbye."
Bethany was captivated, her eyes showing signs of life and understanding.
"I don't know how long I was up there. I was in and out of consciousness but I can tell you that I prayed for death, would have welcomed it. I was ready to give into it when someone appeared on that beach."
"Who?" Bethany whispered.
Xena looked down into Bethany's face and saw that she could comprehend the feelings she had described without any further explanation. "A runaway slave who had stowed away on my ship> Over time she became my friend and teacher. On that night she was my savior. She fought through those guards he left behind and got me off the crossbeam, then took me to the Healer.'
'I thought I knew what pain was until he set my legs and just like you I asked him to let me die. M'lila, my friend, let me know that it wasn't my time, and after a day or so I began to believe that. Until the soldiers showed up."
Xena leaned closer, an edge of desperation in her voice, "I was rethinking my life, Bethany. I had started down a dark path and I was ready to turn back and change my life until the soldiers came. My betrayer wasn't going to let me escape, so he had sent troops after me. They broke in and knocked the healer unconscious and aimed a crossbow at my heart. I was still injured and in shock, I was defenseless. M'lila jumped in front of me and caught the arrow meant to kill me. She died in my arms. As her body fell to the floor, the rage that I had was reborn fiercer and so overwhelming that it consumed me. As badly as I was hurt I fought and killed those soldiers and then embraced the darkness. That night I became Xena, Warrior Princess. I chose my path, it was the wrong path but at that moment the only one I sought. It was the only one that offered any release of my rage." Xena finished and dropped her head, feeling drained.
Bethany hesitantly reached out and touched her hand, "I'm sorry."
Xena took a breath, resuming her tough exterior, "I've never told anyone that, not even Gabrielle. No one could understand unless they had been through it."
"I feel the rage stirring, like a long absent friend. I want to go after those that betrayed me and make them suffer like I did. I know I shouldn't feel that way but I can't help it. I don't want to become what I was. I'm afraid of that person."
Xena smiled and took Bethany's hand in her own, "It's normal to feel angry by what happened. We're all angry that it happened but there will be a time to repay what has been done. You're stronger than you think, you had to be to survive a posting. You won't become that person again, you have a direction, I didn't. Later with the help of a friend I found that direction and with that I found a way to control the rage. It rears up occasionally but with a purpose, it will never overtake you."
Bethany wanted to believe but was still unconvinced, "How can you be so sure?"
"I don't have to be." Xena smiled, "They are." She glanced over her shoulder and saw Gabrielle, Leonis and Neysa enter the cave.
The little girl squirmed to be free of Leonis and get to Bethany. "Bethany?" She cried upset by her injuries but glad to see her alive.
Leonis carried her over to Bethany and put the child down next to the bed. She quickly wrapped her arms over Bethany and snuggled close.
"Gently, little one. She's hurt." He cautioned.
Bethany's face was glowing as she pulled the child close with her good arm, "It's alright Leonis."
Xena stood up and moved to the back of the cave with Gabrielle, unable to suppress her own smile at the reunion.
Gabrielle looked at her surprised, "What did you say to her?"
Xena shrugged and continued smiling, "I just told her a story."
A WEEK LATER-
The sun had returned to the valley with all its glory except the overbearing heat. The caravan was almost done loading up, the people eager to leave Havenous behind and move on to better things.
Bethany was healing much quicker than even Xena had expected, no doubt because of her new mission and with the Huntress' help. Te young Amazon settled into the wagon and seemed more like her old self, Neysa perched beside her excited to be with her and moving again. The little girl had hardly left Bethany's side since their reunion and both seemed to flourish.
Xena and Gabrielle made one last check on the two's injuries before climbing out of the wagon, Leonis riding up just as they reached the ground. He and the other soldiers had attacked the mission with zeal once Bethany gave the word and each seemed to glow in the early morning sun as they got everyone organized.
"We'll be moving out in less than an hour. You sure you're up to this?" He asked with concern.
Bethany smiled and looked at Xena, "Healer, what say you?"
Xena cut her eyes at Leonis, face serious, "She's fine, but no sword fights or riding that horse for awhile."
Bethany rolled her eyes and Leonis laughed, "You have my word, even if I have to tie her down."
Someone called out his name and he turned to acknowledge, then back to Xena, "It has been an honor fighting and riding with you. Both of you."
Gabrielle grinned and Xena held out her hand to him, "Bethany and these people could have no one better watching out for them."
He grasped her hand firmly in a warriors' handshake. When they parted, he held out his hand to Gabrielle. She hesitated, then grasped his arm as Xena had.
"Safe journey." He nodded as Gabrielle stepped back. He pulled the reins to the left, turning the horse toward the front of the caravan and rode away to join the other soldiers.
After a moment of silence, Bethany sighed, "I hate goodbyes."
Gabrielle nodded and Xena asked, "Have you decided where your heading?"
Bethany looked into the distance, "East. I feel drawn there and when we find the right spot, I'll know it. After we get settled, Neysa and I are going to ride northeast."
Gabrielle's face lit up with excitement as Bethany continued, "I'm going home for a visit. Neysa has no family left and she needs a good loving home. I wish she could stay with me but I'm on the road too much to offer a stable home. I'd like her to have the same chance I did. Hopefully my sisters won't hold my faults against her."
The little girl giggled, drawing Bethany's attention and she gave the girl a quick hug.
"I have something for you." Gabrielle replied as she reached into her pouch and brought out her hand, clenching something in her palm. She moved to the side of the wagon, next to Bethany. "It's not like the one you had but it was given to me when I assumed the mask of Queen and I'd be honored if you wore it." She opened her hand revealing an Amazon earring of silver and feathers.
When Bethany glimpsed it, her breath caught in her throat and she unconsciously touched her stitched ear, "Oh Gabrielle, I can't. That is the earring of a Queen."
Gabrielle smiled and took her hand and gently placed it in her palm, "Then wear it as a blessing from the Queen and as a message to our sisters."
Bethany held it for a moment, unable to take her eyes away from it. Finally she closed her hand and brought it to her chest. Her voice cracked with emotion, "I will wear it with honor as a message but I will return it next time we meet."
"Deal." Gabrielle agreed as she stood on her tip toes and hugged Bethany. They held the hug for several seconds as sisters would. When they parted Gabrielle turned to Neysa, "Be Good." She winked and stepped back from the wagon.
Bethany motioned Xena forward and then leaned in close when she reached the wagon, "I suppose a hug is out of the question, we're warriors after all." She whispered.
Xena cracked a smile, unable to keep up the tough exterior, "Just this once, if you insist."
If was a brief hug, but full of sentiment that neither could voice and as they parted they locked eyes, "Keep to the path, Xena Warrior Princess." Bethany said firmly.
Xena climbed astride Argo and helped Gabrielle up behind her, "Keep to the path, Bethany, chosen of the Gods."
Gabrielle looked from one to the other, confused by their words, but she shrugged it off and settled into the saddle behind Xena.
"Safe journey, my friends. We'll meet again, and if you ever need help you know how to reach me." She waved and looked up at the sky, toward Mt. Olympus, home of Artemis.
Xena grasped Argos reins and nudged him forward, "Safe journey." She returned as they rode away, Gabrielle waved and then held on as Argo began galloping.
They rode for a long while in silence, each contemplating all that had happened the last few weeks.
Gabrielle was the first to speak, "Do you think we'll ever see them again, Xena?"
Xena mulled it over, "I hope so." She answered earnestly.
They continued riding the sun at their backs. Their thoughts drifting between the much needed vacation and their new friends.