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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Five

"So what was all that about anyway?" Xena called as they galloped along the road.

"Ah, nothing important. He and I were just discussing a slight misunderstanding about his girlfriend," Kaelin called back.

After two candlemarks of hard riding, they made camp on the edge of a wood. They were three-quarters of the way to the Amazon village already, and the sun was beginning to set. They worked in silence to build the campsite, Xena leaving to hunt for their food, while Gabrielle started the fire and set up the bedrolls. Kaelin fetched the water from a nearby stream, thinking about the stupidity of her situation. Two grown women, who obviously love each other, too scared to take the plunge and taking it out on each other! She wished she could knock some sense into them, but that wouldn’t have been wise. I can’t just stand by and watch them kill each other she thought. So what do I do?

Kaelin returned from the stream, still pondering her problem, to find two dead, skinned hares about to be roasted near the fire already.

“That was quick,” she commented, raising an eyebrow at the speed with which Xena had caught their dinner.

Silence greeted her. Kaelin was rapidly realising how stubborn the Amazon Queen could be, and remembering how determined Xena could be when she wanted to. She unhooked her swords and placed them on the ground next to her before sitting down in front of the fire, leaning back against a large log. Xena was sitting opposite, resting against the large stone that they had built the fire in front of to reflect the heat. She was cleaning her dagger that she had skinned her hares with. After Gabrielle had tended to the hares, and they were roasting nicely, she sat down as well. For a few minutes all that could be heard was the crackle and pop of the fire and the scrape of Xena sharpening her dagger. 

Then Kaelin spoke. “I don’t know about you guys, but there’s a lot of questions that I need answering. Now seems as good a time as any to sort out what’s happened in the last couple of days.” Kaelin’s voice seemed flow with the sound of the forest itself, not affecting the balance. Taking the silent response as approval, she carried on. “Lets start from the beginning then. I wanna know how come you were in that remote forest. It's not often that people go there. Where had you come from?” No one answered her for a second. “Am I gonna get a response, or not?”

Xena eventually looked up at Kaelin then turned her gaze to Gabrielle. Feeling Xena’s eyes on her caused Gabrielle to look up from where she was staring at the fire.

“What?” she asked, impatiently at Xena’s meaningful stare.

Xena’s jaw muscle tensed. “You’re the bard here. You can play storyteller, I’m not in the mood.”

“Oh, that makes a difference,” she replied sarcastically.

Gabrielle turned her attention to an uneasy Kaelin, ignoring the glowering warrior. “There’s not much to tell really. The reason we were in Cularis in the first place was because Argo was sick. We were heading towards the Amazons but there was a problem with her forefeet.“

“She had laminitis,” interrupted Xena.

“I thought I was telling the story here?”

“Well, I just thought she should know the details,” she replied, nonchalantly returning her attention to her weapon.

“Anyway, we left her with the Farrier for a few days to take care of her. Meanwhile, we heard about a village that was having a few problems with a warlord.”

“Torikus.”

“Yes, Torikus,” Gabrielle allowed, glaring at Xena. “So naturally, we planned to go there to see if we could help. We set off the next morning, Xena deciding to take the long route around the forest and mountain range.”

“That was because the innkeeper told me it would only be a few candlemarks. And it was safer.”

“Well, whatever. We ended up reaching Pothanc at sunset, having walked the whole day. All I wanted was a nice, hot bath. But it wasn’t to be. No sooner had we got there, Torikus decided to attack the town, since they had refused to pay his tribute earlier in the day.”

“Never was a patient guy that Torikus,” commented Xena, absently.

Gabrielle ignored her. “He had waited for nightfall to ransack the town for loot. Well, as it happened, we had just got to the gates as they came charging down to enter the city. They obviously did not see us, but we could see them very clearly.”

“Yeah and a right ugly bunch they were,” sniffed Xena.

Gabrielle ignored her again. “As they stampeded towards us, we waited for them. Some of them ran straight past us, but then we tore into them, knocking, slashing, striking and stabbing them. It was over in a few seconds. In the darkness, they believed that it was an entire army upon them, and they turned tail and retreated, screaming “Ambush!”

“You have a stupid leader, you get stupid soldiers,” remarked Xena.

Kaelin could see that Gabrielle was becoming irritated with the constant interrupting, but she knew that Xena was doing it just because she knew it would have that effect on the bard.

“So I guess the villagers let you in and gave you a feast of thanks, huh?” smiled Kaelin.

“Nope. No one would come to the gates to open them for us. They all thought that we were the enemy trying to trick them into letting us in. We slept outside the city walls that night, with only a few strips of beef jerky to eat.”

“Damn idiots. Who would stand outside for a full candlemark asking to be let in? No warlord would wait that long, or even be that polite. I should have just rammed the gates down,” cut in Xena, exchanging her dagger for her sword to sharpen.

Kaelin heard the sharp intake of breath that signalled that Gabrielle was coming to the end of her tether with Xena. The Amazon warrior couldn’t help thinking that she was dealing with a couple of teenagers.

“So… what happened the next day?” Kaelin tried to steer the bard back to the story, before another argument erupted.

“Hm, I dunno. Maybe Miss Warrior ‘I like to butt in’ Princess over there would like to tell you.”

Xena stared moodily at her sword as she honed it, but stayed silent. Gabrielle turned to look at Kaelin. “The next day the villagers finally let us in, at around midday and we brought in the fifteen or so thugs that we had felled the night before. They were all thrown into the town jail and it turned out that one of them was Torikus. He wasn’t too pleased that his entire bunch of brutes had retreated from an army that numbered two, nor the fact that they were women. Naturally, the villagers thanked us and apologised for the night before. They offered to let us stay for the night, but we told them that we only really expected for the journey to take a few candlemarks and that we needed to return to Cularis as soon as possible. It was strange, because as the villagers were dispersing, an old woman appeared beside me. She advised us to take another route back and told us of the path over the mountains and through the forest. She said that it would be faster and if we wanted to reach Cularis before dark it was not wise to travel on the road we came on. Xena said to her that she had heard nasty things about that particular woodland."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena, but she seemed to be staring off into the distance, not paying attention to what was being said.

“The old woman answered with “Pah.” But then she looked her in the eyes and said, “What are you afraid of?” like she was challenging her.” Gabrielle’s voice had dropped to a whisper and her face was thoughtful as she looked at Kaelin, who was listening intently. Kaelin flicked her eyes away briefly, almost guiltily, before Gabrielle carried on.

“It was strange. Anyway, our little shortcut, turned out to be a nightmare. We got caught near the top of the mountain as we were descending, with no shelter, by a torrential downpour. We wandered for a long time and I don’t remember much, but Xena managed to find us a cave before I collapsed.”

Gabrielle paused and glanced at Xena, who had stopped sharpening her sword and appeared now to be lost in her thoughts as she stared at the ground in front of the fire. Kaelin’s keen eyes had been watching Xena as Gabrielle recounted what happened, and now she could have sworn that she saw Xena flinch. Kaelin’s brow furrowed and she made a mental note to ask her about it later. Gabrielle resumed her tale again, and this time, Kaelin thought she heard a subtle change in the bard’s voice, like it had lost an edge to it.

“We slept in the cave until almost midday the next day. I guess the previous days had exhausted us. We started the journey down the mountain and we reached the bottom without any further problems. In fact, it was wonderful. The view from that height was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The land stretched for miles in front of us and I just felt like the land was reaching out to touch me in some way.”

Kaelin saw the faraway look in Gabrielle’s eyes and wondered at the girl who sat before her. So innocent she thought. It made Kaelin realised that in a world full of violence and hatred, you had to hold on to something, or you would get lost in the madness. Words from her past, came unexpectedly into her mind.

“Life goes on, as it never ends

Eyes of stone observe the trends

They never say, forever gaze, “If only…”

Guilty roads through an endless love

There’s no control, are you with me now?

Your every wish will be done.”

“That’s beautiful. What is it? Where did you learn it?” Gabrielle asked Kaelin.

“I don’t know. I think I heard it somewhere, when I was young, but I can’t it remember now,” replied Kaelin.

“Wait, let me get some parchment. I need to write that down. Maybe I can use it in one of my poems.” Gabrielle got up and walked over to their satchels, rummaging around for her writing set.

Kaelin looked over at the silent warrior, wishing that they would at least talk to each other. What good will it do if they don’t speak! she wondered, anxiously. Then she heard Gabrielle’s voice again. “Could you repeat it again for me, please?” Gabrielle asked as she sat down again.

“Sure, but I can’t really sing it that well and its meant to be sung. That’s Xena’s department,” Kaelin said, grinning as Xena shot her a mock scowl. “Maybe we can get Xena to sing it later.”

“Yeah, that would be nice,” Gabrielle said, quietly.

Kaelin repeated the words to Gabrielle to write down

“The words are really nice and they have a lot of meaning behind them,” Gabrielle said.

“Yeah, it's sort of like saying that the same things happen in everyone’s lives and they wish they could go back in time and change things because they regret what they did or didn’t do,” Kaelin responded. Both Gabrielle, and Xena, who had been listening to their conversation, wondered if the Amazon was hinting something to them. “Anyway, you didn’t finish your story,” Kaelin carried on, before they had a chance to say anything.

“Oh yeah, erm, where was I?”

“You were just describing the view when you were coming down the mountain.”

“Oh yes. It was a shame that we had to come down from there. At the bottom of the mountain, we found ourselves in the forest that had most of the people in Cularis scared. I even think it was actually forbidden for the children to enter it, which is obviously a bit ridiculous, because everyone knows that children always do the exact opposite to what they are told. Anyway, we found that it was not as bad as they made it out to be. It reminded me of Amazonia actually and I honestly thought that at any moment I would hear the call of an Amazon.”

Gabrielle laughed, causing Kaelin to grin and Xena to look up. Kaelin thought she saw a faint crinkle around Xena’s eyes as she watched Gabrielle’s face, before she looked away.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. It felt as if the forest was alive somehow,” said Kaelin.

“Well, that’s basically what happened before we ran into you,” finished Gabrielle, “Now what I would like to know is what those things were that we killed. It’s been nagging me for ages. I mean at first I just assumed they were animals, but they seemed to have intelligence and they looked almost human. Do you know what they were?”

“No. I was warned about creatures of the forest being unnatural, though. I heard some villagers saying something about man-beasts, which they called Tulans. But I never believed their stories,” Kaelin said, regretfully.

Xena had the distinct feeling that Kaelin wasn’t telling them everything. It puzzled her, but she pushed it to the back of her mind. “Tulans? I’ve never heard of them before,” Xena spoke up, “Have there only recently been reports of them?”

“It would seem like it. I came to Cularis a few years ago, and I heard nothing about them then. But even so, no one went into the woods. I know there were still tales about the creatures from Tartarus, who dwelt there. But I had used the route through there and over Mount Akkas as a quicker way to the other towns before, and I had never seen anything,” replied Kaelin, “I put it down to the people being afraid of the unknown and making up accounts of frightening occurrences.”

“I wonder where they came from. It could be that they were there before and just never revealed themselves to anyone. Or it could be that someone created them and put them there for a purpose,” Xena thought aloud.

“There’s no obvious purpose, though. Also, someone should have seen something. They couldn’t have been that clever, to hide all their tracks,” said Gabrielle.

“Well, they certainly weren’t dumb creatures,” replied Xena. “They had a ranking order, that silverback was evidently their leader and they could communicate their thoughts very well. I’m guessing telepathic or something like that. That in itself indicates that they are very intelligent. Maybe their minds are even more developed than ours.”

“Creatures, smarter, stronger, faster and bigger than humans. Not a very nice picture if you think about what would happen if there were more than a few,” said Gabrielle, voicing a particularly unpleasant thought. “They didn’t seem particularly interested in talking, only killing.”

Xena was quiet, Gabrielle’s vision sinking in. “And your sword didn’t even harm it. Now, I don’t understand that,” Gabrielle carried on, her face expression, thoughtful. “Come to think of it, only your chakram and your swords could hurt them. My staff broke a few ribs as well though.”

Gabrielle looked at Kaelin, indicating her blades next to her. Kaelin just shrugged.

“My chakram was given to me by Ares. He had Hephaestus forge it,” Xena said, explaining her weapon. "And I would guess Gabrielle's staff had been blessed by Artemis, since she is her chosen so that explains her staff being able to break a few ribs." She fell silent staring at Kaelin expectantly, waiting for her reason.

“Artemis gave them to me,” Kaelin replied, curtly.

“That’s it?” Xena asked, obviously expecting Kaelin to elaborate.

“That’s it,” Kaelin replied, looking at Xena.

There was a short pause as Xena and Kaelin’s gazes clashed. “Okay, so we can probably say for sure that weapons of the Gods can do them harm,” Xena said, accepting Kaelin’s answer, reluctantly, recognising something familiar in her friend’s eyes.

There was definitely something that Kaelin was holding back, and Xena intended to find out what that was. But she would have to wait until her friend was ready, before she could push the subject. Otherwise, she knew from past experience that Kaelin could react very badly, even violently, to people probing for information. Xena didn’t know what had made her like that, but she guessed it had something to do with her childhood, which she had never spoken about to Xena. It suddenly struck her that she knew nothing about Kaelin’s past before she came to Amphipolis or what had happened to her after the battle with Cortese. Xena recalled a scene from younger days, when she and Kaelin had been sitting in the upper boughs of the white tree, talking.

“I’m really glad you appeared when you did. It was becoming a bit irritating to be the only girl in the family,” said a young Xena.

“I’m happy to be in Amphipolis,” said a young girl, her gray eyes shining in the bright sunlight. “It feels so safe.” Xena looked at her friend, slightly puzzled. “You’re one of the few people who I’ve ever trusted in my life, you know,” said Kaelin, fiddling with some loose fibres on her tunic.

Xena smiled. “I’d trust you with my life,” Xena replied. “You’ll always be a sister to me, no matter what happens, Kaelin.”

Kaelin looked up at her, and the 15 year old Xena was shocked to see tears in her friend’s eyes. “Really?” Xena barely heard the whisper. Kaelin quickly looked away and scrubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her tunic, and Xena didn’t comment.

After a while, Kaelin spoke again. “You, Lyceus, your mother, even Toris. You're the only people in this world that I could class as my family,” Kaelin said, quietly. “I guess I just never thought I would find anyone like that after…”

Kaelin faltered, unwilling to carry on. Xena watched as she took a deep breath. “I just want you to know how much it means to me, to have someone accept me for who I am,” Kaelin said, hoping Xena wouldn’t ask any questions.

Xena saw the pain in her eyes, and realised that Kaelin was waiting to see what her reaction was.  

“I understand.”

Xena knew that she had seen the same look in Kaelin’s eyes that she had seen all those years ago, when they were younger.

“Xena? Did you say something?”

The warrior focused on Gabrielle, and realised she must have spoken her last thoughts aloud. “No, just thinking,” Xena replied, seeing a thoughtful expression on Kaelin’s face.

Their eyes met and Xena had the strangest feeling that Kaelin was reading her thoughts, because she saw a slight hint of realisation enter Kaelin’s eyes.

“Dinner is served,” came Gabrielle’s voice, jerking Xena out of her thoughts again.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the dead of the night nothing stirred in the forest. Thin beams of moonlight were spearing through the leaf canopy, casting spotlights on the ground below. A shadowy figure rose from beside the glowing embers of a campfire, making its way further into the trees, leaving a small, blonde woman fast asleep behind her.

Dressed only in her leathers with her sword slung over her back, Xena made her way stealthily through the underbrush of the forest. Soon, her keen hearing picked up signs of heavy breathing and she headed towards the noise. She crouched down at the edge of a clearing, watching curiously as another tall figure practiced smooth movements with twin swords. The moonlight glinted slightly off the blades as they swirled in a rhythmic pattern around the woman, with deft skill.

She’s good, Xena thought, impressed.

Suddenly, Xena heard a change in the sword pattern, from the slice of the air to a whistling sound, and immediately she threw herself to the side as a flash of a sword blade barely skimmed past her ear. She heard the point of the blade thud into the tree trunk behind her and she glanced at it, watching it quiver from side to side from the force of the impact, realising that she had come very close to being killed.

She stood up quickly, before Kaelin could release the other deadly sword, which Xena was sure would not miss its mark the next time.

“It’s me,” Xena whispered, loudly.

“Shit Xena, don’t do that,” Kaelin replied, whispering as well. “I could have killed you!”

“Sorry, I didn’t think you heard me.”

“Yeah, I didn’t. Not until I heard someone take in a breath just on the edge of the clearing. For all I knew, it was someone who had followed us and was trying to murder us.” Xena looked at her sheepishly, as she retrieved her sword from the tree and Kaelin took a deep breath. “No, look, it’s me who should be sorry. I shouldn’t have reacted like that, but I was focused and well, you kinda scared me,” Kaelin admitted, as Xena tossed her weapon back to her. Kaelin caught it in her left hand, scanning it for notches, before quickly sheathing it.

"So, what happened on Mount Akkas?" Kaelin asked, pointedly.

Xena sighed. "Gabrielle nearly died. I don't think she knows just how close she came to entering the Elysian fields."

Kaelin studied the dark warrior as she warmed up her muscles. "What else happened?" pressed Kaelin, knowing there was something else.

She was still for a moment before she answered. "I realised I wouldn't be able to go on without her," she said finally. Kaelin nodded. "So, you gonna tell me why and where you ran off to after the battle?"

It was Kaelin's turn to sigh, sadness gracing her features. "I was messed up. I... didn't know what else to do, so I took off. I saw Ly go down, and I.. just couldn't go back," she said quietly, remembering Xena's brother. "I travelled, saw the world. Learned how to fight, how to kill. I came back, worked as an assassin for a while, joined a few armies, experienced war first hand. I've done pretty much everything possible."

"What about this Amazon business?"

Kaelin avoided Xena's gaze, unwilling to answer the whole truth. "Yeah, I stayed there for a bit too. What are you doing out here anyway?” asked Kaelin changed the subject.

“Me? I was looking for you. I woke to see an empty bedroll on the other side of the fire and I thought something had happened. I got up and then I saw that your swords had also gone, and I figured since I was up anyway, a real person to spar against would be better than drills.”

Kaelin cocked her head to one-side, grinning mischievously. “Checking out the competition, eh? You think you can take me?”

“I can kick your butt from here to Tartarus,” Xena shot back, raising an eyebrow 

“Really? Well, I thought it was me doing the butt-kicking back in Amphipolis.”

“That was then. This is now, my friend. Or haven’t you heard of the Warrior Princess on your travels?”

“Yeah, but all I heard was that she was some stuck up teenager, who couldn’t even hold a sword,” Kaelin joked.

“Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we,” Xena retorted, drawing her sword and advancing, an evil smirk on her face.

“Come and get me, Warrior Princess,” Kaelin taunted, sarcastically.

With that, Xena attacked, her first strike being parried by a sword that she didn’t even see being drawn. They started off slowly, trading blows, each one easily deflected, Kaelin allowing for Xena to warm up. Gradually, they began to speed up, their attacks becoming swifter, their swords clashing with more power. As each fighter became aware of the other’s ability, they realised that they were very evenly matched and were able to go full out without the danger of harming one another. The warriors jumped, punched, blocked, thrust and parried, but neither one able to gain an advantage.

By this time, they had both lost track of time, and didn’t see the dawn breaking over them. Kaelin blocked a thrust from Xena, spinning her sword in an arc and forcing Xena’s sword away to expose her midriff. Quickly, Kaelin swung a punch but Xena grabbed her arm as it headed towards its target and twisted it behind the woman’s back. Before Xena could get an advantage though, Kaelin had rotated her body and flipped Xena over her back. The leather-clad warrior landed smoothly, turning just in time to avoid the edge of Kaelin’s sword coming down on her. Xena feinted to the right, snaking her sword out to Kaelin’s exposed right, but found herself connecting with thin air as Kaelin dropped to the ground, rolling backwards and coming to a standing position a few paces away from Xena. Both of them were breathing very heavily as they regarded each other with a mixture of awe and new-found respect.

“Ready to yield to the better warrior, Princess?” Kaelin teased.

“Over my dead body!” laughed Xena.

“That can be arranged.” Kaelin grinned at Xena, as she launched herself into the air. A split second later Xena was in the air as well, meeting Kaelin’s blade and blocking a few strikes, before they landed again.

They were about to tackle each other again, when suddenly, they both faltered and looked at each other in confusion.

“Did you hear that?” Xena asked.

Kaelin nodded, and flicked her eyes up to the tree canopy. There was silence for a few minutes as the two warriors stood as still as statues, listening intently.

“Must have been an animal, I guess,” said Kaelin, unconcerned. 

“Hm, maybe,” Xena said, thoughtfully.

“Gods, wasn’t it night when we started?” Kaelin exclaimed, looking at the rising sun.

“Yeah. It was a good workout, though. I’ve never let myself go like that for a long time. Feels good to be able to do that now,” replied Xena, warming her muscles down. Kaelin spun her swords around absently, feeling refreshed from the sparring. “We should be heading back in case Gabrielle wakes and finds us both missing,” said Xena.

“Good point,” replied Kaelin, nodding and moving towards the campsite.

“You know, you’re pretty good with those blades of yours,” commented Xena.

“Ah, you’re not so bad. I guess some of the stories that I did hear about you were true,” Kaelin laughed.

“You know Kae, you've given me a brief summary of what happened to you after... the battle, but you can tell me if there's something on your mind.” Xena remarked.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Look, I know I was angry at you for leaving so suddenly, without any warning. But I’m not anymore. I realise people do things that I won’t like sometimes and that there's probably a good reason behind it.”

“I…” Kaelin faltered, looking at Xena intently, as if searching for something.

“What is it, Kaelin? You can tell me,” Xena asked, gently.

“No, no I can't,” she replied, quietly, shaking her head helplessly.

Xena watched as her friend quickened her pace to reach the campsite. She sighed at her friend’s evasive ways. As if you’re not like that, she thought to herself. She wondered how many times she had done the very same thing to Gabrielle, realising how it would have made the bard feel and cursing herself. She really did have to have a talk with that bard and sort things out once and for all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Continued... Chapter Six

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