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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Fourteen

"What did you want to talk about?" asked Kaelin absently, still gazing at the door after the Amazons had left.

"You."

"What do you mean?" Kaelin turned her head to look at her friend, crossing her arms again.

Xena studied the floor for a second, wondering how to voice her questions. "I know, I never pressed you when we were kids, about your past but I can't help being curious now. When I... when you were unconscious, you seemed like you were having a nightmare. You were talking for a bit as you lay on the ground." Xena paused, looking back up at Kaelin, a fire beginning to spark in her blue eyes. "You... spoke Cortese' name, asking him not to hurt you. Then you called out for your father." Xena caught the brief look of pain in smoke grey orbs, as Kaelin turned her face to look at the sunset. "You knew Cortese before he... came to Amphipolis?" Kaelin closed her eyes and nodded silently, still facing the window. "Did he... hurt you and your family?"

"In a way," replied Kaelin, her voice sounded thick with emotion.

"How? Were you a slave?"

"No," Kaelin barely whispered.

"A servant?" 

"No."

"Were you captured by his army?" Kaelin swallowed, but didn't reply. "Kae, you have to help me out here. I wanna help you get through this, but I can't if I don't know what's wrong."

Kaelin turned her head slowly to look at Xena. The fading sunlight shone through her eyes, giving the effect of them being totally transparent as she looked into Xena's. "You want to help me?" mumbled Kaelin. You'll want to kill me if I tell you the truth, she thought.

"Yes. Of course I do," replied Xena, getting more and more worried. "Why would I not? You're one of only a handful of people that I could ever count as my friend."

Kaelin's head dropped into her hands at Xena's words. She doesn't have to know! screamed her mind. Tell her, she has the right to know, her heart whispered to her. The pain of her knowledge tore at her soul, escaping as a low moan. Immediately, Xena was sitting on the bed, her hands holding the sides of Kaelin's face, forcing her to look at her. "Tell me, Kae."

Tears were threatening to spill down her face as her whole body shook with silent sobs, as memories that she had pushed to the dark recesses of her mind came flooding back. "It... it... was my fault... that Lyceus... died." The last word was spoken so softly that Xena almost didn't hear it. Her grip on Kaelin's face loosened in her shock.

"Wha.. what?" she stammered, not believing or understanding what she had just heard.

"The... attack. It was.. because of me. He wanted to find me." Xena's hands dropped to her sides, as more information was revealed.

Her brow creased suddenly as flashes of the battle came back to her. Swords clashed, blood gushed. And amid the chaos, a figure of a madman on horseback, galloping towards her. Onwards he came, brandishing a sword of iron, high in the the air, spilling blood wherever he went. Still the young girl never moved, rooted to the spot as he rode ever closer. He was almost upon her, and she stood transfixed. As she looked into the eyes of death she saw and remembered the smokiness and the blazing fury. Grey... No! she thought.

"Cortese... is my father, Xena." Kaelin's voice cut through her like a knife, declaring the unforgivable. A strange calmness had settled over the jet-black headed warrior, as if she had accepted her fate. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

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"So... you think it was important that I showed you this now?" asked Eponin lightly, although her face showed no humour.

"Queen Gabrielle! Regent Ephiny! Captain Solari! Captain Eponin!" frantic shouts from a young Amazon came floating through the hut window. 

Eponin looked once at the still shocked Regent, then quickly poked her head out of the opening. "Tamzin! In here. What's wrong, kid?"

Tamzin, who had been running past, backtracked swiftly and came to stand by the window. "It's... Xena... threw Kaelin out the hut window...not good," she said, breathlessly. 

Eponin's face paled slightly. "Eph, we got prob..." She didn't finish as she turned around to see Ephiny quickly shoot out of the hut, dashing towards Kaelin's quarters. "By the Gods, what's up with this week?" she sighed, exasperated as she hurriedly ran after her friend. Too much excitement for one week, she thought.

She quickly ate up the distance between the huts, and reached the scene in time to see Ephiny screaming at Xena not to hurt the Northern Amazon Queen. She was being held back by Solari, who had the sense to know that Xena might just kill Ephiny if she took a step towards her. She came to help her friend, placing a steadying hand on the Regent's shoulder. Kaelin looked very weary. She was on her hands and knees, attempting to stand from the ground. Her shirt collar was creased, and half torn like she had been grabbed by the material and hauled off her feet. She was covered in a thin layer of dirt from the floor, and blood was seeping from a split lip. Eponin flinched as she saw Xena raised her leg and kick Kaelin savagely in the stomach, wondering if a rib had been broken. Kaelin rolled over, holding her torso but not retaliating. Suddenly, five Amazons from the gathering crowd of onlookers broke free and rushed at Xena. It didn't take a genius to work out that they were going to their Queen's rescue. 

"Don't!" barked Kaelin from her prone position on the ground, the Amazons halting immediately. "No one interferes, is that clear?" she managed, gritting her teeth in pain. The Amazons looked to each other in confusion at the order. Xena, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world, picked up Kaelin by the feet, spun her around and threw her against the already shaky hut wall.

Eponin pulled the arm of Tamzin standing next to her. "What in Hades is going on?"

"I have no idea," replied Tamzin. "The only thing I know is, one minute I was strolling past the hut, the next, Queen Kaelin came flying out of the window there, taking part of the wall with her." The girl pointed at the ruined building. "Then Xena jumped through and pummeled the Queen in the face. I knew something was wrong so I ran to find you."  

"Okay, I need you to get Queen Gabrielle here, as quickly as possible." Tamzin turned and ran towards the Royal Hut, while Eponin looked on at the scene that was rapidly getting out of hand.

She looked intently at Xena, seeing the crazy expression swirling in her eyes. She's lost it, thought Eponin alarmed, as she gripped the Regent harder to prevent her from running to Kaelin. 

"Stop it, Xena! You're killing her!" cried Ephiny, a note of desperation in her voice.

Xena didn't seem to hear, as she stepped through the hole in the wall. Seconds later, she re-emerged, carrying one of Kaelin's swords in her right hand as she advanced toward the half conscious woman, menacingly. The fire that had been sparked in Xena's eyes had now grown to a full inferno, burning all rational thought from her mind and replacing it with a fog of fury. She stood over Kaelin, grasping the sword hilt tightly in both her hands, until her knuckles were white with the strength of the grip. 

"You will die for your crimes against my village, Cortese! For the innocent lives you took! For the hatred you left in your wake! And most of all, for Lyceus!" Xena roared in her frenzy. 

Eponin was confused. Cortese? By the bow of Artemis, she thinks Kaelin is Cortese! she realised.

"You killed me!" The sword swept up for the final blow.

Eponin and Solari, both watched the blade rise in horror and unconsciously loosened their hold on the Regent. Ephiny immediately twisted away from them, crashing into Xena's waist with all her might. Her sudden onslaught took the crazed warrior off guard, and they both went spiraling to the ground. Xena recovered first, shoving the Regent off her violently. She gripped her hair savagely with one hand and the back of Ephiny's top with the other and propelled her along the ground. Ephiny couldn't stop herself from sliding into the legs of Solari and Eponin, both of whom were bowled over, and they came crashing down on top of one another in a heap.

Xena had quickly swept the sword off the floor, and resuming her position to kill the woman. Kaelin had shaken off part of her daze, and was now half sitting up, on her forearms. Xena brought the point of the blade up swiftly, aiming it at Kaelin's neck to prevent her from rising. Kaelin stared for a moment at her own sword, seeing the faint patterns that were etched into the fine blade. Her gaze travelled up the length of the weapon, eventually coming to rest on Xena. She looked into her ice blue gaze and saw no recognition there.

"You killed my family, you miserable bastard," Xena spat.

"I know," whispered Kaelin, even though she knew Xena wasn't talking to her, but a ghost of her past. 

"You took away everything I loved!"

Kaelin blinked slowly, a single tear sliding down her bruised cheek. "Do it, Xena, I deserve it," she spoke, quietly, her guilt weighing heavily on her. "Kill me."

Hundreds of thoughts were spinning through Xena's mind. Cortese deserves to die! Lyceus died because of him! Toris deserted us because of him! Kaelin... Xena blinked rapidly, as she tried to regain control of her limbs. She stared into the grey depths of the person lying before her, not knowing who it was. Kaelin? Cortese? She raised her sword to end her torment. Kill me, she heard a voice say.

"XENA!" A clear voice broke through the warrior's clouded mind. Her head twitched as she recognised the familiar sound. "Xena! Put the sword down!" Suddenly, she felt a warm hand enclose her bicep, and another arm encircle her waist from behind. "Xena, love, give me the sword," someone said softly in her ear. Somehow, she felt herself compelled to obey this lovely voice. She felt a hand running down the length of her arm, to cover her own hands that held the deadly weapon tightly. "It's okay, baby," she heard the soothing voice say. "I'm here for you." Xena felt her grip loosening, as the blade was taken from her and she heard the dull thump as it was tossed away from the scene. She stood transfixed, still not breaking her gaze with the grey orbs. She had to kill him! her mind fought. Her body began to shiver, and she felt small hands rubbing her arms and then guiding her into another hut. 

As soon as Gabrielle had removed the sword from Xena's hands, Ephiny had rushed to Kaelin's side, checking for other injuries. Eponin and Solari glanced at each other as they watched their Queen and their Regent tending to Xena and Kaelin. Everyone looked on, confused at what they had just witnessed in the space of a few minutes, as Gabrielle steered a shaky Xena into their hut, and Ephiny helped Kaelin up from the floor. 

Immediately, at an unspoken word, Eponin and Solari dispersed the crowd, telling them that it was all right and explanations would be given soon. For now, they were to go back to what they were doing. The Weapons master saw Ephiny and Kaelin making their way slowly to Jian's hut and sighed. She looked to her feet, and bent to retrieve the unusual blade of Kaelin's that had fell close to her. She tested it for weight and balance, amazed to find that it felt perfect in her hands. It seemed to mold itself to her palm, literally becoming an extension of her hand. She inspected the blade, seeing the curious blue tinge that seemed to emanate from the faint etchings in the metal. It was beautifully crafted, in every way, and Eponin, who was considered to be a master of weapons, could find not fault in the object. She was startled out of her musings as Solari coughed next to her. 

"Hm? What?" she said, absently, still gazing at the blade.

"What are we going to do about that?" asked Solari, pointing at the gaping hole in the wall of Kaelin's hut.

Eponin looked up at the problem and sighed, turning her gaze to the darkening sky. Those mud walls should have been rock hard, she thought. "Get some of the Amazons to look at it tomorrow morning and see if the hut is repairable. But from what I can see, I don't think they could do much about it. If they can't, they'll have to rebuild the whole thing."

"That'll take at least a week! We need as many huts as possible right now. The overcrowded situation is ridiculous. I've got five Amazons in each hut, and in some others, there's six! I might have to resort to asking Gabrielle for the use of the Royal Hut!"

"I know, I know. There's some of those storage huts free now. I had a couple of young ones clear them out, so you can move some into those." Eponin paused, thinking. "It may work out to our advantage. Forcing them to live in such close conditions will let them bond a little, you know."

"Hm, maybe. If they don't squash each other to death," Solari commented. "Besides, you know I hate sharing," she added, before walking off to arrange the accommodation.

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"Xena?" called Gabrielle softly, as she ran her fingers through her love's silky dark mane. Xena's head rested on her chest, as she wrapped her arms around the warrior, holding her close with comfort.

After Gabrielle had got Xena into the hut, they had lain down and the Amazon Queen had held the warrior as the gates to her internal pain had flooded open. Gabrielle had cried as well, not quite knowing why but she felt her love's pain was connected to her and that she could help ease the hurt. Eventually, Xena had quietened and they lay in one another's arms, content to just feel each other's presence and love for the other. But Gabrielle knew that she had to get Xena to talk about it, otherwise, she would probably never know what happened and it would just get  bottled up, to erupt at another time. Whatever it was, Xena had to deal with it now, or she would be haunted by it forever.

"Xena?" Gabrielle said again. She knew Xena was awake from the still irregular breathing, and the occasional sniff. Her only reply was to look up at the intense green gaze. "Baby, I know that you're hurting a lot right now. But I love you and I want to help you get through this. But I need you to tell me what happened."

Xena felt the meaning of the words come back to remind her of what she had said to Kaelin just half a candlemark earlier. She realised just how close she came to murdering her friend in her madness. She closed her eyes and rested her head on Gabrielle again, as she fought the emotion. "I love you," she said, her words muffled into Gabrielle's top. The bard waited patiently for Xena to carry on, as she stroked her back gently. She felt Xena take a deep breath and then shift so she was lying face to face with her. "Kaelin... told me.. something. Something, about her life before she came to Amphipolis. It... I... can't believe it, even now." Gabrielle pushed a stray lock of hair behind Xena's ear as a sign of encouragement as she saw Xena's gaze drop. "I know, I kinda forced the issue and pressed her into telling me what she was hiding, but I never expected...." Xena stopped, knowing she was rambling to keep off the main issue. She looked into Gabrielle's loving eyes, finding strength to keep going. "I found out tonight, the reason why that bastard raided my village, and took away my life. He was looking for Kaelin." Gabrielle's eyes widened then confusion clouded them. "She told me that he was her father," explained Xena. "I don't know what happened to me. I just... snapped, I think. I looked into her eyes and all I saw was the face of that sneering warlord. I didn't even let her explain. I couldn't stop myself... I don't think I wanted to," admitted Xena, her eyes taking on an panicked look. "I suppose she represented the revenge I never took and I just wanted it all to end there."

"What did you want to end?" asked Gabrielle quietly. Xena looked away, and Gabrielle knew she had to get this out of her. She cupped Xena's face gently with one hand, turning her towards her again. She leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips. "Tell me, baby."

Xena gazed at her, feeling the love that the Amazon Queen was showing her. "I wanted the pain to end. The hurt inside of me, and the guilt. A voice in my head tells me that I should have been there for Lyceus, that I would have been able to save him. Everything would have been okay and none of my dark days would ever have happened." Xena paused, then continued in an even quieter voice. "But then, I would never have met you." Gabrielle could feel the guilt emanating from the dark warrior beside her.

"Xena, you told me what happened to your brother. You know there was no way you could have done anything, because Lyceus gave his own life for another. You cannot blame yourself for that. Lyceus wouldn't want you to. If you had been there, it might have been you lying on that battle field and not only your brother." She saw the despair that entered Xena's eyes. "No, Xena, don't you ever think that it should be you in Lyceus' place. He did what he wanted to do, what he felt was right in his heart. I know it, he knows it, the child he saved knows it, and you should too, my love. Remember his death with love and pride, not with hate and torment. Celebrate his life, and don't grieve over his death. If you free yourself from your own chains of guilt, you can overcome anything, my love."

They looked into one another's eyes for a length of time, as the world around them grew darker. Then Gabrielle gathered Xena into her arms, as the warrior released the pent up emotion she had kept inside for ten years. The guilt, pain and suffering flowed out to be replaced with the love that Gabrielle had for her. For the second night since declaring their love for each other, they lay entwined, one holding the other in a loving embrace.

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Continued... Chapter Fifteen

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