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.
It was a harrowing flight through the dense forests for Jana and Domacles. Their charge, however, barely seemed to notice. Gabrielle had yet to utter the barest sound since they made their escape from the Horde camp. Jana had been keeping a very close eye on her Queen since their flight began and became continually more unnerved by her silence. Gabrielle did not even appear to have the will to keep her feet moving, and, if not for Jana's gentle urging, she may have surrendered to their pursuit leagues ago. They were now maybe half a candlemark from the walls of Corinth and safety.
Jana remembered the first time she had seen her Queen and had been immediately enchanted by her, as had many of the young women in the village. The Queen's green eyes alight had been alight with the fire that comes from youthful exuberance and an innate love of life. But now those same eyes were hollow, a shadow of what Gabrielle had once been. Jana shuddered inwardly, the fear that her Queen may be doomed to this state for the rest of her life dominating her thoughts. She stumbled slightly over an exposed tree root and wrenched her thoughts back to the here and now. There would be time to ponder this later, once they were safe.
Jana slowed, Domacles coming along side her as she gestured him for silence. The young Amazon extended her hearing knowing that she had heard a rustling somewhere just ahead of them. Slowly and as quietly as possible, Jana drew her sword readying herself for what lie ahead. Domacles lay a hand on her shoulder, gesturing that he would move to their left and take up position there.
Jana nodded and watched him move silently off, then crouched down in the dense underbrush pulling her young Queen down with her. She reached up a hand to cup the back of Gabrielle's head, forcing her to lay flat on the ground, hoping that would give her enough cover. The Amazon kept one hand on the Queen's back keeping her down as she scanned the trees intently, seeking the source of the sounds she had heard.
Then to their right, it came again, a rustling of underbrush as though someone were moving through it, but attempting to keep the noise down to a minimum. Not as good as an Amazon would be, but not bad, Jana thought to herself as the rustling grew closer. She tightened the grip on her sword and tried to control her breathing, not wanting to give their position away.
Jana chanced a glance at Domacles and nodded slightly. He returned her gaze, nodding back. He was ready for whatever may be headed their way. Just as the Amazon warrior turned her attention back to the brush to the right, it parted to reveal a weary and blood covered Xena, her sword and chakram drawn and held at the ready.
Jana quickly lowered her weapon, not wanting to test the reflexes of the famed Warrior Princess.
"Whoa, Xena, it's me...Jana."
Xena's eyes fixed on the Amazon, recognition slowly registering as Eponin stepped from among the trees to stand at her back, the Weapons Master's voice cut through the tension pervading the night air.
"Jana? Thank the gods. We didn't think we were going to catch up to you before you made it back to the city. Did...all of you make it?"
The question hung like a specter in the cool, calm evening stillness. Not a leaf moved nor a bird called, and the warriors all held their collective breaths.
A sad smile creased the young Amazon's face as she glanced over her shoulder to the still form lying behind her. "Yes," she answered simply. "We all made it out. But she's not herself. I don't know what they've done to her."
Xena's eyes had been slowly roaming the area, intently searching just in case they had been tracked this far, but now her steely blue gaze fixed completely on Jana's face. Disbelief and then shock flickered across her features momentarily as she was now able to see the figure behind the Amazon. Just as quickly as the emotions made their way across her heart, the warrioress tamped them down, shutting herself off from the pain she knew to be not far behind when the identity of the young woman was revealed.
It can't be Gabrielle. They must be wrong. I saw that clearing and what they had done to her. It's not possible. She can't be alive...can she? Against her will that brief spark of hope flared to life to become a roaring inferno that could not be denied. The Warrior Princess took a hesitant step forward, straining for a better look at the cloaked figure. Jana stood slowly and made her way to stand with Eponin, sparing the weapon's master a sad smile before returning her attention to the scene being played out before them.
It was as though all of nature was aware of the profundity of this moment when two halves of a soul were reunited, for not a sound could be heard from the forest surrounding them. Xena watched Jana back away from her before taking that last shaking step toward the prone figure and lowering herself to one knee. Reaching out, a trembling hand slowly pulled back the cowl that now covered that fair head. The warrioress nearly gasped at the sight of those strawberry blond locks that she had come to know nearly as well as her own.
Her sword, which had been fiercely grasped in her hand, now fell from nerveless fingers as Xena reached out with still trembling hands to grasp Gabrielle's shoulders and raise her up from her prone position. She needed to gaze into those sea green eyes she thought to never see in this life again. Her eyes widened as relief flooded through her. There could be no doubts now. She had seen with her own eyes. Gabrielle was very much alive.
"Gab...Gabrielle?" Xena whispered, barely trusting her voice. Silent tears made their way down the warrioress' cheeks unheeded. Xena barely noticed their presence as she reached out to cup the bard's cheek, needing this physical contact to make it real, to prove once and for all that this was her bard come back from certain death.
But, as with the hours since she had been liberated from the Horde camp, Gabrielle didn't seem to notice the contact or Xena's presence. It was as though nothing of her mind remained, leaving the young Amazon Queen a shell, devoid of any feeling or thought. Her eyes remained cloudy and unfocused, staring off into the darkness of the forest without the barest hint of recognition reflected in them.
"Gabrielle, look at me," Xena said, her voice stronger now, more urgent as she reached up to grasp the bard's face between her hands, forcing eye contact. The warrioress was shocked at what she saw in those eyes that had been so expressive, so full of life. Now there was nothing but emptiness reflected back at her, and that frightened her more than any tangible enemy could.
The warrioress wrenched her attention away from Gabrielle to focus on Jana. "What have they done to her?" She demanded, shock and relief rapidly becoming replaced by anger at what had been done to her companion.
"I...I don't know. This is how we found her. It didn't look like they had mistreated her at all, but she has yet to say a word since we left the compound," Jana trailed off, lowering her eyes, unable to meet the cold gaze of the warrioress.
Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle, quickly running her eyes over the bard's body searching for any signs of injury.
Eponin hesitated before speaking, but knew that to delay much longer could be fatal for them all. They needed to return to the safety of the city walls and soon, before daylight found them still outside it's realm of protection.
"Xena...ah..." She began, but her resolved failed her.
The warrioress barely heard the Amazon speak, so intent was her attention focused on Gabrielle. It wasn't until Eponin laid a gentle hand on her shoulder that she finally tore her attention away from the bard.
"What?!" She hissed angrily over her shoulder.
"Xena, please. We need to get Gabrielle back into the city. It's going to be dawn soon. We'll have a hard enough time avoiding any Horde patrols as it is."
Xena lowered her head slightly and nodded once. She gritted her teeth, knowing that the Amazon was right; they needed to get Gabrielle back inside the city. Only there could she begin to unravel whatever it was that the Horde had done to her. Xena stood slowly, drawing the bard up with her, gratified that at least she seemed strong enough to stand on her own. The warrioress wrapped one arm around Gabrielle's waist, guiding her out from her cover of brush and trees.
"All right, let's go," Xena said simply, allowing Eponin to take the lead as they began the last league of their journey back to Corinth. Little did the Warrior Princess know, the journey had only just begun.
The final leg of their trek back to Corinth had taken considerably longer than any of them had anticipated. Twice they had been forced to seek cover from Horde patrols, the second much closer to the walls of the city than any of them had suspected to find enemy soldiers. The realization that the Horde was able to approach the city nearly at will unnerved the members of the small party.
Xena had not allowed Gabrielle out of her sight during the remainder of the journey back to the city. The warrioress had kept a firm hand on the bard, half leading half carrying the smaller woman through the dense forests. The Warrior Princess could barely believe what had happened over the last several candlemarks, but she had learned to trust what her senses told her, and right now they were screaming that Gabrielle was here, returned from the dead.
Xena's mind was whirling with questions and conflicting emotions. How could Gabrielle be alive after all she had seen in that clearing? What had happened to the bard? Exactly what had the Horde done to her that had seemingly stolen the young woman's mind and soul? All this and more warred for Xena's attention, and there were no easy answers to be found. All the warrioress knew for certain was that she needed desperately to get Gabrielle back to Corinth, back to relative safety before she could do anything else. After that, she'd figure out how to help the young Amazon Queen.
Xena stole silent glances at Gabrielle during their flight back to the walled city, extremely concerned by the dullness that seemed to dominate those usually expression-filled sea green eyes and warm face. She fought with a nearly overwhelming sense of joy at Gabrielle's return, tempered with the knowledge that unless she could discover just what had been done to her, there may be little or nothing she could do to restore the Gabrielle she knew.
Eponin threw up a fist, calling for a sharp halt as the small troupe approached the edge of the covering trees. The Amazon quickly surveyed ahead, then threw a questioning glance back over her shoulder at Xena. The Warrior Princess extended her senses, seeking out any signs of danger in the immediate area. Finding none, she nodded curtly to the Weapon's Master who turned back toward the great walls of Corinth and called out the hawk's cry, the signature hail for the Royal Guard.
Instantly, several Amazon warriors appeared atop the city wall peering into the gloom of the surrounding trees. One of the warriors raised a cupped hand to her mouth and repeated the hawk's cry in response. Eponin nodded slightly to herself; they had been heard and understood. All they could do now was wait for the rear gate to be opened and allow them inside.
The delay was brief, and the members of the party could hear the clanking of the gate as two Amazon warriors cautiously opened it. Eponin signaled silently to Xena then moved forward into the open where her Amazon sisters would recognize the Weapon's Master. The recognition registered in the eyes of the warriors, and Eponin was waved across the open area and in through the opening.
The Weapon's Master turned and motioned to the others to proceed out from the cover of the trees and into the safety of the city. Jana led the way followed closely by Domacles and then Xena who was still supporting Gabrielle as Eponin brought up the rear. They all skirted through the open doorway, then heard a resounding boom as the door was closed and secured behind them. In the dim hallway, it was difficult for anyone to see clearly, but the Amazon warriors led them unerringly down the long and twisted passageway and into the bright courtyard beyond.
Ephiny paced to and fro in front of the entrance to the passage, eager to greet the returning warriors and learn of their fate. Word had been passed that they all seemed to have returned safely, and with a prisoner escorted by Xena herself. The Amazon Regent's mind had worked over that bit of news. A prisoner? Why had they taken the time to capture one of them? They have to know that no useful intelligence has ever been gotten from one of those savages!
At that moment the first of the Amazon sentries emerged from the passage followed closely by the rest of the scouting party. A smile crossed the Regent's face on seeing them all seemingly safe and unharmed.
It was the prisoner that confounded her. Xena seemed not to be leading him but supporting him, her arm wrapped firmly around the hooded prisoner's waist. In fact, it seemed to Ephiny that the prisoner was unable to stand on his own two feet and relied heavily on Xena's strength to walk even the smallest distance. Once Xena and her charge had moved completely into the light of day, those assembled could see that she led him without the benefit of any restraint, his arms and legs utterly free.
"Eponin, Jana, Xena...it's good to see you all safe," Ephiny began, "But we didn't expect you to bring a prisoner back with you. And why is he not bound?" the Regent asked of the Weapon's Master, her eyebrows raised in question.
Eponin studied her boots for a moment, before drawing a breath to reply. "Ephiny, it's not how it looks...," she began before breaking off hesitantly.
Xena turned her attention from her charge for the first time since entering the city of Corinth. "This is no prisoner, Ephiny," she said simply before reaching up to draw back the hood that covered her "prisoner's" head.
Gasps were heard all across the courtyard, as the Amazon warriors recognized whom it was that had been delivered back to them-- back, seemingly, from the jaws of death.
Ephiny was visibly shaken as she allowed herself to accept what she was seeing. "Gabrielle...by the gods..."
Xena returned her gaze to the small woman beside her. The trip back from the Horde encampment had been difficult for Gabrielle, and the exhaustion seemed to mark the young woman. Just as Xena began to move her forward once again, Gabrielle's legs buckled from beneath her, and she collapsed completely into Xena's arms. The warrioress reacted quickly, sinking to her knees, carrying the limp form in her arms down with her as gently as possible.
Xena raised her eyes to find Ephiny's, "We need to get her to shelter."
The Regent could only nod. "This way. We'll put her in my quarters."
Xena carefully slid an arm under Gabrielle's knees and lifted her effortlessly, cradling her as gingerly as possible, and followed Ephiny across the courtyard and into the rooms beyond.