DISCLAIMER: Ok, some rather dry stuff here, these characters, at least the ones you recognize, are property of MCA/Universal and the author intends no copyright infringement in the writing of this story.
The title of this story is "The Holy War" for a reason, and since wars don't tend to be very nice, there is quite a little bit of violence, blood, and death in this story. If that sort of thing offends you, please stop reading now.
As always feedback is most appreciated. You may email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading and enjoy.
Eponin had looked for Ephiny for several minutes and when her search had proved fruitless, had sought out the Metoan General who had greeted them when they had first arrived. The General was well known among the fighting men in the crowded city, and soon the Amazon found herself standing before a man who commanded with a presence she had only rarely seen in a leader.
"Yes, I understand you've been looking for me, what can I do for you, ah…"
"Eponin, sir. I'm looking for our leader, Ephiny. Have you seen her?"
"Intense woman, yes? Blonde hair?"
"Yes sir, that's her. Where did you see her last?"
"She left the city, not half a candle mark ago, with Xena." The General replied, sadness tingeing his voice.
"She left?" Eponin asked incredulously. "Did she say where they were going?"
"You don't know? You mean she didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what? I'm sorry, I'm a little confused, what's happened?"
"Your Queen, Gabrielle, she did not return to the city. Xena and Ephiny went to look for her."
"What do you mean she didn't return? Queen Gabrielle left our village three days ago, with an escort. None of them returned?"
"No, I'm afraid not. I'm sorry to be the one to have to tell you this news. Xena and Ephiny set out as soon as they discovered she had not returned. I had thought that your leader would have at least informed you of what had happened. Do you not have a chain of command to follow?"
Eponin replied indignantly, "Of course we do. It's just not like Ephiny to leave like that, without word. I thank you for the information, sir. I'm going out after them, Jana will lead our warriors in our absence."
"I understand, but know that outside the walls of this city, I can offer you no protection." Marmax replied.
"I understand. But my Queen is out there, and it is my duty as a member of the Royal Guard to bring her home."
Marmax nodded solemnly, understanding the Amazon's selection of words, the implication was there. Bring her home, dead or alive.
"I will inform my commanders to deal directly with Jana when the Amazons are involved in a decision."
"Thank you, sir."
"Yes sir?" The warrior responded quizzically.
"Bring them all home safely."
"I will sir. With my shield or on it, sir." Eponin replied confidently before turning and striding toward the stables and the Amazon warriors gathered there.
The two women had traveled in silence for nearly a candlemark when the telltale clatter of hooves behind them drove them off the path and into the cover of the underbrush. It was Ephiny who first recognized the horse and his rider.
"Eponin?" Ephiny called as she emerged from the brush, Xena closely behind her.
"Ephiny, thank the gods I've found you, I was afraid you would not travel the roads."
"Eponin, what are you doing out here? Why are you not in Corinth with our warriors?" Ephiny asked, her irritation growing.
"I could ask you the same question, Ephiny. You left without saying a word, what were we supposed to do? Just sit back in Corinth and hope that you or Gabrielle would return to lead us?"
Ephiny was visibly stung by the rebuke. Eponin was right, she should have left someone in charge, and should have left instructions as to her wishes concerning the rite of caste. The Amazon recovered quickly framing her thoughts before she spoke.
"You're right, I should have left word of what had happened, but time was of the essence."
"As it is now." Xena interjected curtly, the delay eating away at her, they needed to keep moving, time was of the essence. She knew that with stark clarity, had felt the dull feelings of fear grow over the last candlemark and had realized that she had been feeling it grow over the last day and a half. Ever since the dreams had begun, and that awful sense of loss had nearly overwhelmed her when she had come awake. She cursed herself now for not understanding what that feeling had meant, for not acting then. Now it could be too late.
"Yes, we must keep moving." Ephiny agreed. "But know this, Eponin, if something should happen to me and…" the Amazon hesitated, "if Gabrielle is unable to lead, you will carry my rite of caste as passed to me from Gabrielle. You shall wear the mask of the House of Gabrielle." Ephiny concluded, feeling Xena tense at her side.
Eponin nodded once in silent comprehension. "I accept the rite of caste."
It was done, no ceremony or emotion, just the simple words and the chain of leadership would remain unbroken. Xena was already astride Argo and had set off down the path, unwilling to allow the women with her to see the emotions she knew to be plainly visible on her face. She knew, deep down, that the chances of finding Gabrielle alive were diminishing rapidly with every moment that passed. The bard had been missing for nearly three days now. Three long days in which almost anything could have happened.
Xena mentally cursed herself for being so shortsighted. All she had seen was the immediate danger of allowing Gabrielle to remain in Corinth in the midst of a terrible battle. Now that lack of foresight would have terrible consequences and Gabrielle would be the one to pay the price. She urged Argo into a gallop, the overwhelming need to increase their pace overriding the need for caution and silence.
Ephiny and Eponin quickly mounted and followed the stoic warrioress, each wondering how she could show so little emotion, never imagining the chaos that ruled Xena's heart at that moment.
They continued their fruitless search for another three candlemarks, into the deepest part of the night, seeing not another living thing in their trek. It was Xena's keen hearing that had first detected movement on the path before them and called a sudden halt. Ephiny drew abreast of Xena, scanning the trees and the path, but seeing nothing.
"What is it, Xena?" Ephiny whispered.
"Something's in those trees just ahead, I heard it. Too much noise for an animal." Xena had replied in a harsh whisper. She waved to her right, gesturing for Ephiny and Eponin in that direction while she continued down the path. They would attempt to surround whoever it was and overwhelm them.
Xena moved with the stealth of the skilled huntress she was, making nary a sound as she approached her quarry. She was nearly upon the intruder when they burst from the underbrush, collapsing on the road in a heap, unmoving. Xena spared no caution, stopping where she was at the sudden burst of movement from her prey.
She glanced to Ephiny and Eponin before moving forward, assured that they were in a position to come to her aid, should she require it. Xena moved forward then and as the form in the road became clearer in the dim starlight, she immediately could see that it was a woman dressed in the traditional garb of an Amazon warrior. The warrior rushed forward then, motioning Ephiny and Eponin to join her as she reached the woman's side and gently turned her on her side.
"Selari…" Ephiny breathed as she reached the road and could now see the face of the woman unconscious in the road. "Xena…is she…"
Xena examined the warrior closely for a moment and then breathed a sigh of relief. "She's still alive, but we need to tend to these wounds. Give me a hand. Let's get off this road and out of sight."
They quickly concealed themselves and their mounts far enough from the roadway as to remain unseen. Xena quickly and efficiently assessed Selari's wounds and was amazed the Amazon was still alive. It was apparent that her injuries were at least two days old, maybe longer and that she had lost a good deal of blood. The warrioress was anxious for Selari to awaken so that she might discover what had become of Gabrielle and the rest of the group accompanying her, but knew that she needed to attend to her wounds first. If she died she would never be able to divulge any information about what had befallen them.
Xena had put Ephiny and Eponin to work, gently cleaning Selari's many cuts and abrasions, while Xena herself set about stitching a nasty cut to the warrior's head. As she put the last stitch into place and was covering the wound with a length of clean cloth retrieved from her saddlebags, Selari began to come groggily awake, fear showing plainly on her face.
"Easy, easy, it's me, Ephiny. You're safe now." The Amazon cooed, laying a calming hand on Selari's arm.
"Ephiny?" The warrior croaked, her throat dry from days without water. Xena reached for the waterskin and held it to her lips, encouraging her to sip some of the cooling liquid before continuing.
"Gabrielle… did she… did she escape?" Selari asked quietly, her voice weak.
"Selari, when was the last time you saw Gabrielle?" Xena asked urgently.
Selari struggled for memories for a moment before replying. "She… we were ambushed. Horde warriors, we never had a chance… The others slaughtered… Gabrielle, she wouldn't leave me… "
Xena's breath caught in her chest. Horde warriors. By the gods, there could be no hope now. But she had to know, had to hear it. Needed to hear the words the bard was dead.
"Selari, what happened to Gabrielle?" Xena asked insistently, her carefully controlled composure threatening to break.
"I told her to run." Selari said, her voice gaining strength. "The last time I saw her she was running away from me. I'm sorry, that's all I remember… I just… I can't… "
"Shh… it's ok." Ephiny said reassuringly.
"She wasn't there when I came to. I know that. The others all still there, but not her."
She didn't see a body, there is still a chance she escaped. She must have, because the alternative… Xena allowed the thought to trail off, unable to give her deepest fear form and substance. No, she's alive. She must be. But gods, this feeling. It's like a part of me has been torn away. No! Xena pushed herself roughly to her feet. She couldn't just sit here, she had to keep moving. Gabrielle was counting on her to come for her. She couldn't let her down.
"Selari, where were you ambushed? How far is it?" Xena asked.
The Amazon's brow furrowed for a moment before she responded. "About half a days ride from Corinth, I think. On the road."
"Which means it's only another three or four candlemarks from here at a normal pace." Which means if I ride Argo hard I can be there in a candlemark… maybe two… Xena could stand still no longer. She covered the distance to Argo in two long strides and was atop the warhorse a moment later.
"Xena, wait…" Ephiny called. "You can't go after her alone."
"Ephiny, I can't wait. I've waited too long already. By the gods, what if she's wounded?" Xena returned hotly.
"All right, all right, but I'm coming with you." Ephiny replied. "Eponin, take Selari back to the city. If we aren't back by this time tomorrow night, you have the rite of caste. Use it."
Eponin nodded, "I'll do as you ask. But please, be careful Ephiny. And bring her back." The Amazon lowered her voice, "One way or the other. Bring them both back." She said, her gaze travelling to Xena.
Ephiny clasped the warrior on the shoulder, "You know I'll try."
Eponin ducked her head in response.
Selari gathered her strength to speak, "Ephiny, I'm sorry… I should have protected her… I…"
"Selari, there is no shame. You did all that you could for her. I know that. So does she."
Selari allowed her eyes to slide closed, a lone tear tracking its way down her cheek.
"We'll see you tomorrow night." Eponin said confidently. "All three of you."
Ephiny rose and mounted her steed, urging her mount into a gallop to catch up with Xena who had already set off down the road.
It was barely more than a candlemark and a half later when Xena pulled Argo to a sudden stop. She was galled at the sight that greeted her eyes. The members of the escort sent with Gabrielle lay amidst the trampled undergrowth to either side of the road, their bodies savaged in the most brutal ways. Their deaths had been anything but swift and painless.
Xena felt her breath catch in her throat as she searched among the dead. Ephiny joined her, the sight of the dead Amazons chilling the warrior. This was an enemy that fought without remorse, without honor. How could they possibly defeat such a foe? The blonde Amazon thrust her nagging doubts aside, there would be time to ponder their fate later.
Ephiny completed a search of her side of the road and rose to lock eyes with Xena. A brief shake of her head was all the Amazon needed to see. The warrioress had not found Gabrielle's body either. There was still a slim measure of hope. The Amazon went to Xena's side, "What do we do now?"
Xena shook her head in silent frustration. She simply didn't know. Then she spotted a bit of white out of the corner of her eye. She charged toward the staff lying abandoned among the weeds. Xena reached out to grasp the staff in now trembling hands. Gabrielle would never have willingly discarded her weapon. If it was one thing that the warrioress had drilled into her young companion it was never, ever get caught without her weapon. Especially not in a dangerous situation.
Ephiny recognized the staff immediately. It had belonged to her mother and she had presented it as a gift to the new Amazon Princess when they had parted ways after that first adventure. Now her heart sank at the sight of the traditional Amazon weapon.
Xena simply stared at the staff, clutched in unfeeling hands. She felt her world growing dim, a pervading numbness overwhelming her, blocking out all emotion. It was a reflex, Xena knew, and one that served it's purpose well, one that kept her from feeling too much, becoming lost in that pain and fear and uncertainty.
The Amazon stood in silence for several moments before daring to speak.
"Xena, her body's not here. Would they have taken her?"
The sound of Ephiny's voice seemed to break the warrioress from her contemplation. "I… I don't know. I've never heard of the Horde taking prisoners before. But you're right, she's not here." Xena studied the ground around them for a moment. "There were at least three of them, maybe more. With the war less than a day from here, no one has traveled this road in days. And here, look…" Xena moved toward the telltale boot prints left behind by the Horde warriors who had killed the small company. "They moved off in this direction. Back toward Corinth. But they kept to the treeline to disguise their route."
"Do you think you can track them?"
Xena hesitated for a second before replying. "Yes. Yes I can. Come on, let's go." The warrioress stated with confidence before stowing Gabrielle's staff in Argo's saddlebags and leading the mare into the trees. The horses would only slow them down in the trees, but she could not very well leave the mare alone to find her way back to Corinth. And if, no when she ordered herself, they found Gabrielle, they may need the mounts to speed their flight back to the relative safety of the walled city.
The Horde warriors had not bothered to cover any traces of their trek through the forest toward their encampment, and Xena found that tracking them was easier than she had anticipated. But the trail they followed was long and indirect, and it was nearly nightfall when she and Ephiny stumbled upon the abandoned altar from the ritual the night before.
From the size of the clearing and the extent of the trampled underbrush, it appeared to the two women that a very large portion of the Horde army had been in that clearing, and recently. The entered the clearing cautiously, unsure of what they may find there. Gone were the tents that had been erected for the ceremony the night before. All that remained was the altar, the blood of the sacrificed victim still clinging to it. The blood that had been spilled during the ritual was plainly evident on the ground around the altar, enough blood to convince the two women that someone had been killed in that clearing. The smell of death hung in the air, the smoky remnants of the pyre still giving off a measure of heat.
Xena took it all in, the blood, the pyre, the altar, and knew with striking clarity what had happened here. A human sacrifice to the brutal Horde gods had been made upon that terrible altar. On weakened legs she made her way toward the altar, glimpsing the vestiges of the oh so familiar brown and green of Gabrielle's clothing.
Xena could barely force her mind to comprehend what had happened. The altar had been used to destroy the only pure thing in her life. Had been used to destroy that pure soul that would never again know the joys of life, to listen to the call of the seagull or hear the peaceful beating of the waves upon the shore. Her eyes fell to the pyre, that cruel home to the flames that had claimed Gabrielle's body, denying her even in death a homecoming that she had so earned. She could no longer deny it, deny what she knew had become of the bard, the evidence was all to plain.
No, no… gods no, you can't take her away from me. Xena's mind cried out in despair. Her world was shattering piece by piece, and she could see it fall broken at her feet. It was all for nothing now. Gabrielle was gone, ripped from her. Xena suddenly remembered that awful feeling of despair two nights ago, and knew with total clarity what had caused it.
And that realization took the warrioress to her knees in shock and grief. That had been the moment Gabrielle had died. There could be no other explanation.
Why did you take her from me? Now there is nothing, no reason… no purpose… nothing. She's gone, and I have nothing left.
Xena's heart shattered at the thought as the hopelessness washed through her. She knew that she still had a purpose, here and now. The Horde would pay for Gabrielle's death, of that she was certain. Her only hope now was that they would kill her in the process, because living was no longer an option. It had simply become too painful. She had lost so many in her life, Lyceus, Marcus, Borias. She had seen too much death, too much grief, this was more than her soul could bear, and she knew it.
Xena turned to look at Ephiny and saw the grief and sorrow reflected in those pale eyes, saw the guilt and regret as well. But she could not reassure the Amazon Queen, for that was what she now was. Now she was all the Amazons had, no pretenses of leading in Gabrielle's absence, Ephiny was the rightful Queen.
Xena attempted to stand and found she lacked the strength of will to move from this place. This now quiet grove was her last connection with Gabrielle. Here the bard had died, in gods only knew what horrible fashion. That thought turned Xena's stomach in a way that the death of no other had. But here she could still feel that gentle soul that had touched her life in so many inexplicable ways, and given this beaten up old warlord a reason to go on, to seek redemption when it would have been so much easier just to give up, to rest, to sleep.
Now her only reason for living was revenge. Once that was achieved, there would be no purpose. And the warrioress would allow the darkness to claim her then, sink gratefully into its comforting arms, no longer forced to feel this overwhelming anguish. She would just lay down and wait for Death to come for her. Carry her to Tartarus, for that was certainly where she belonged.
Gabrielle's face then appeared before her, in her mind's eye, and try as she might, she could not erase the visage. The smiling lips, the sea green eyes, the soft face framed with red-gold hair all shining with that inner light that was Gabrielle. Xena felt her throat close off, making it difficult to breathe, but forced a deep breath into her lungs and cried out her rage and agony, shattering the stillness with its power and depth. As her voiced slowly faded, Xena wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth slowly as her tears made silent tracks down her cheeks.
Ephiny could only stand and watch, knowing that she was responsible, feeling the guilt of that knowledge settle on her like a pall. She would live out the rest of her days attempting to make up for the death of her Queen, and knew that she could never hope to do so. She had once doubted Xena's love for Gabrielle, but not now. Now all she saw was the gutted shell of a woman before her, a woman who had lost the most precious thing in her life. A woman who had lost a part of her soul.
Xena allowed the tears to flow, no longer concerned with any stoic front. Not now, not ever again would that matter. All that existed was pain and guilt, old friends she had hoped gone from her life, now back with a vengeance, revisited with an intensity not felt before.
Finally Xena found the strength and slowly, almost painfully, climbed to her feet. The weight of Gabrielle's death lay heavily on the Warrior Princess. Soon, soon she would succumb to the dark, but now they needed to get back to Corinth. The Amazons had a right to know what had become of their Queen. There was no body, but the evidence was overwhelming, and there were ceremonies to be performed that were befitting the Queen.
Without a word, Xena walked to where Argo stood grazing quietly and mounted the mare, setting her back on the path toward the waiting city. Ephiny followed silently. There was nothing that could be said. In the coming days they would all have to find their own way to grieve for the fallen Queen, and it would be her duty to lead the Amazons through their sorrow and into the battle that lay ahead.
Weariness had descended over the warrioress, and soon she would surrender herself to it.