For disclaimers see Part 1 . Feedback is totally cool and very welcome Yes, feel free to set me straight if I goofed something up. And don't forget to check out my blog for occasional updates and other musings:http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com/
Clouds blocked the sun and dampened the enthusiasm of those in the final stages of preparations for the departure from the Thracian Amazon village. The elders from the tribes had already left sometime after dawn and were headed back to their respective villages to await the final outcome. Some were reticent and departed in complete silence, while others were quite outspoken about what lay ahead for the Amazon Nation as a whole.
Velasca's funeral the night before had been a subdued affair. There were only a handful of Amazons present, including Queens Grenella and Marena. Marena sobbed throughout the entire ceremony and was consoled by her supporters. When Xena's clear voice rose in song at the end and carried over the small group, Marena turned a hateful glare on both Xena and Gabrielle. Even before the song ended, the group dispersed, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone to watch the fire flicker up into the starlit sky.
Velasca's death only seemed to quiet the mutterings, not stop them. Of course, the conversations had mostly turned to the impending war and the probable outcome. Having the Conqueror actually in their midst had created a schism between those who were firmly against Xena and those who'd either been teetering on the fence or were firmly allied with her. Queen Grenella was still in the latter camp and was one of the Conqueror's staunchest supporters, aside from Gabrielle and her tribe.
Gabrielle spent the better part of the entire previous day in council sessions with the queens and elders. As soon as they gathered in the hut, she'd stood up and delivered a speech that lasted the better part of a candlemark, arguing for and pleading Xena's case before them. Grenella had also added her insights and observations to Gabrielle's arguments. A few elders tried to interrupt or insinuate that Gabrielle and Grenella were biased and too close to the situation to have an objective opinion. And one elder actually had the nerve to point out, with a malicious sneer, that it was common knowledge that Gabrielle and Xena were lovers.
Gabrielle countered the woman's accusation with the argument that she knew Xena better than any of them. She could see the truth behind the Conqueror's façade and she also knew what was in Xena's heart. But those who were opposed Xena's return to power and who were adamantly against the treaty Melosa had signed were not convinced. They wanted nothing to do with the Conqueror or her treaties.
“A third of the warriors and queens returned to their respective villages with their elders this morning,” Ephiny commented to Gabrielle, who stood on a raised platform in the village center and absently watched the activity around her. “They won't fight alongside the Conqueror, even if they have to deal with Draco later.”
“I know,” Gabrielle nodded absently, a frown furrowing her brow as she spoke in a voice slightly hoarse from her speeches the day before. “I tried reasoning with them before they left this morning. Nothing I said would convince them to stay. They were bound and determined to return home and bury their heads in the damned sand. Bunch of griping, no-good dissidents, not worth the breath I expended on them yesterday. Can't believe we sat there for more most of the day, arguing with them and listening to them go on and on about how Xena was going to take over the world. No amount of arguing on my part managed to crack that stubborn shell they're all hiding behind, either.”
Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and cast a sidelong glance at her queen. “You think this will affect the overall outcome? We're down about three hundred warriors.”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Xena doesn't think so. She said she'd rather they weren't there at all. She doesn't really buy into that whole ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer' philosophy. Said she didn't want to keep looking over her shoulder all the time to see which one of them might be standing behind her with a dagger or a crossbow aimed at her back.”
“I don't blame her.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle ran a hand through her short hair. “Still wish I could be there to watch her back, though. I'm not convinced there aren't a few stragglers left who won't try to take her out if the opportunity arises. I just can't put my full trust in these women anymore. I know they're supposed to be our sisters, but…”
Ephiny patted Gabrielle's shoulder. “I'll be there and so will Eponin. I've also clued a few other trusted warriors into the situation and let them know to keep an eye on her for you.” She cast her companion a knowing grin. “I promise to get her back to you in one piece.”
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes. “Please don't make promises you can't keep, Eph. And no heroics from you guys, either. If there's one thing I've learned about Xena during the time we've been together, it's that she can take care of herself, even when the odds are stacked against her. I just want you guys to keep yourselves whole. Please don't die out there. I really couldn't live with myself if that happened.”
A mischievous grin lit the hazel eyes. “Oh, you do care.”
“You're my friend, Eph,” Gabrielle scowled. “Of course I care. You're the closest thing to a real sister that I've had since…Well, since Lila.” She finished the last with a sad shrug.
Tears sprang to Ephiny's eyes and she quickly blinked them away. “I'm…uh…that's a really nice thing to say, Gabrielle. One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me, especially after the way I treated you when we first met.”
“You were just jealous of what Terreis and I had back then,” Gabrielle shot back with a playful grin. “I know you had a thing for her and were just upset that I came in and weaseled my way into her good graces.”
“Actually, I wasn't really jealous of you and Terreis,” Ephiny confided.
“No,” Ephiny shook her head. “I was a little…um…” She shrugged and a deep blush colored her features. “I…um…”
Gabrielle turned to fully face the regent and pointed a finger at her own chest. “You liked…me?”
A smile played at the corners of Ephiny's lips, as she looked everywhere but at the woman standing expectantly in front of her. “Yeah.”
“Oh, Eph,” Gabrielle chuckled. “Why in the world didn't you just come out and tell me how you felt?”
Ephiny ducked her chin and met Gabrielle's gaze through hooded lashes. “I was a jerk. I just couldn't seem to help myself. Every time I was around you I kept getting this…” She shook her head. “My palms would start sweating and butterflies the size of bats kept fluttering around in my guts. There, I said it,” she blew out an exasperated breath. “I'm a damned seasoned warrior and was on the queen's guard, for crying out loud. And it's not like I've never had feelings for other…um…people before. But—” She blew out another breath and ran a hand through her hair. “Then we all went on that stupid rescue mission and—” She shook her head again. “Terreis confided in me she was going to ask you to be her consort when we returned to the village.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the unexpected revelation. “What?!?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny let a half-grin touch her features. “She told me she was in love with you and wanted to make it official. But she wanted to wait until after the mission was over and she had a chance to discuss it with Melosa—and you, of course.”
Gabrielle felt her knees go weak. She sat down on the edge of the platform and just stared off at nothing. “I had no idea.”
Ephiny sat down next to her. “Yeah, it was a real kick in my teeth, I tell ya. It was all I could do not to run to you and tell you how much I was in love with you.”
Gabrielle's gaze snapped to Ephiny's. “Bwa—”
“Don't worry,” Ephiny patted her stunned companion's shoulder and smiled. “I got over it. Seeing you with Xena kinda put the last nail in that coffin for me. And Terreis' death really hit me hard. She was my best friend, ya know?”
Gabrielle nodded. “She cared about you, Eph. I know she did.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny glanced away to hide the tears that sprang to her eyes again. “I really miss her.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle leaned her head against Ephiny's shoulder. “But I'm glad you're still here.”
“Me, too,” Ephiny replied.
They sat there in companionable silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts as they pondered the changes the last few moons had brought to both of them.
A sliver of sunlight shined down on them briefly and then disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. And then they realized they were no longer alone.
“Hey, you two,” Eponin sat down next to Ephiny. “What's up?”
Gabrielle lifted her head from Ephiny's shoulder and greeted the newcomer with a friendly smile. “Hey, Pon.”
“Hello, Eponin,” Ephiny wrapped an arm around the weapons master's shoulders. “Nothing's up. We were just having a moment, before I send the queen, here, off on her merry way.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle jumped to her feet and brushed her leather skirt off. “Speaking of which, I need to find Xena and tell her goodbye. Solari is due back any minute with the horses and all our gear.”
“Xena's giving the remaining queens some last-minute instructions on the practice field, yer maj,” Eponin called to Gabrielle's retreating figure and watched as the woman veered in that direction.
“Thanks, Pony!” Gabrielle called over a shoulder, as she trotted off.
“So,” Eponin turned her attention to the woman seated next to her. “You finally have that heart-to-heart with her maj that you said you were going to have with her?”
“Yeah,” Ephiny wiped an errant tear from the corner of her eye. “I told her I was in love with her.”
Eponin nodded curtly. “Cleared the air, then.”
“Yep,” Ephiny replied and then took Eponin's hand in hers and caressed the calloused palm with her thumb. “I'm definitely ready to move on, now.”
Eponin smiled. “You and me?”
Eponin lifted their joined hands and kissed the back of the regent's. “It's been a while since—” She wiggled her dark brows. “I really got me an itch that's in need of scratchin'.”
Ephiny's brow quirked and she smiled wryly. “We have a candlemark or two before we head out, if you want to…um…go to my hut?”
“Let's go,” Eponin jumped down from the platform and practically dragged the regent behind her as she darted across the gathering area.
Ephiny just chuckled as she followed the excited woman toward her hut. They disappeared inside without a backward glance.
Gabrielle stood at the edge of the practice field and watched her lover address the crowd gathered there. There were not quite a thousand seasoned warriors and their queens standing before her and listening with rapt attention. Gabrielle marveled at how articulate Xena was as she addressed the women and how gorgeous she was standing there in her black leather and golden armor.
As the speech ended and the crowd dispersed, several of them walked past Gabrielle with nods or brief words. Gabrielle, however, only had eyes for the tall, dark woman still speaking to a small group of women. Rather than continue standing there at the edge of the field, Gabrielle made her way towards Xena and the group.
“Hey, there, Queen Gabrielle!” Grenella greeted her with a warm smile.
“Queen Grenella,” Gabrielle nodded to the woman, as she stepped up next to Xena and wrapped an arm around her waist.
“We'll leave you two alone then,” Grenella said and herded the others away from the field. “Come, sisters. Let's leave these two to their goodbyes.”
Gabrielle waited for Grenella and her posse to shuffle away, before she turned in Xena's arms and greeted the tall woman with a kiss that left them both wanting more.
“Mm,” Xena smiled when she finally pulled away enough to look into her lover's green eyes. “Hello to you, too.”
“Sol is bringing the horses and our gear to the gathering area,” Gabrielle placed her cheek against Xena's chest and listened to the steady heartbeat beneath her ear. “I don't want to go.”
“Me, either,” Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle's hair. “I'd rather stay like this, instead.”
“We could run away,” Gabrielle suggested half-heartedly.
“Yeah, like that'll solve anything,” Xena scoffed. “We'd just have Draco and your Amazons on our tail for the rest of our lives.”
Gabrielle considered that for a moment. “You're probably right,” she conceded with a heavy sigh. “It's not like we could actually hide for all that long, either. After all,” she patted Xena's side, “you would certainly stand out in a crowd, there, tiger.”
“Oh, so you did talk to my mother,” Xena teased.
“She told me about the nickname, if that's what you mean,” Gabrielle nodded. “She said she gave it to you shortly after you got in a fight with several of the boys from your village.”
“There were six of them and they jumped me behind the inn one day,” Xena said. “I was just minding my own business at the time and didn't really see them until it was too late. They said they wanted to teach me a lesson.”
“And you beat the crap out of all six of them,” Gabrielle grinned. “Not a one of them was left standing when you were finished.”
“Well,” Xena shrugged. “They deserved it. Besides, they all respected me and left me alone after that.”
“Your mom said you fought them like an angry tiger. That's why she gave you the nickname,” Gabrielle added.
“I didn't exactly come out of it in one piece, though,” Xena added with a wry smirk. “I had bruises and scrapes all over the place. It took Mom a full candlemark to clean and patch me up. And she had to send my clothes to the local seamstress, they were so torn up.” She frowned. “Had to wear a dress for two days after that.”
Gabrielle snickered. “I'll bet you were still beautiful, bruises, dress and all.
Xena's eyebrow quirked. “If you'd been there, I'll bet you wouldn't be saying that. I was a mess with a big purple shiner around one eye and a big scrape along my jaw. I looked like one of those Roman gladiators, except for the dress.”
“It wouldn't have mattered,” Gabrielle leaned in close. “I would've fallen for you no matter what you looked like. It was inevitable.”
“Oh, please, you two,” Solari's voice intruded on the moment, as the woman approached, leading two horses on either side of her. “Your mount, My Queen.” She handed Ebony's reins to Gabrielle. “He's fed and watered and is ready for our journey.” She then rubbed the nose of her roan. “And this one is getting frisky. I think he wants to get out there and stretch his legs.”
Gabrielle kissed Xena one last time and waited for a leg up onto Ebony's back. The dark-haired woman obliged by clasping her hands together, waiting for the shorter woman to put her foot in, and lifting Gabrielle easily into the saddle. When Gabrielle was situated, she lifted a leg across the saddle horn and waited for Xena to adjust the saddle to her satisfaction.
Reaching out to the dark hair, Gabrielle brushed the bangs off Xena's forehead. “I am so going to miss you.”
“Me, too,” Xena said as she kept a hand on Gabrielle's bare thigh. “Be safe.”
“You, too,” Gabrielle ducked over for one last, very passionate kiss.
“Uh, yer maj,” Solari cleared her throat when the two didn't appear to be parting anytime soon.
Gabrielle reluctantly pulled away. “I'll see you at Surra.”
“Wouldn't miss it for the world,” Xena grinned.
Gabrielle turned her mount and glanced back one last time, then nudged Ebony with her legs and sent him into a trot then a canter.
Xena stood there and watched them go. Then she sensed a presence moving up next to her.
“Why do I get the feeling you're going to tell me I should have gone with her?” Xena asked, as she continued to stare off in the direction Gabrielle just went. “And why does my heart feel like it's going to shrivel up and die in my chest.”
“I was going to say no such thing,” Grenella said. “And that's love you're feeling, my child. It hurts a great deal when you're not with the other half of your soul. Believe me. I know.”
Xena glanced at the old woman and noticed the sadness in her eyes. “Are you ever going to tell me why Agatha didn't come with you on this trip?”
“She had a trip of her own to make,” Grenella said.
“You gonna tell me where she went?” Xena prodded.
“She thought it best that you not know.”
“She went to Surra, didn't she?”
“All will become clear when the time is right, Xena.”
Xena simply nodded and returned her attention to the distant horizon. Agatha had always been one to do things for her own reasons and in her own time. She'd spent years at Surra and had never once expressed a wish to return to her Amazon sisters and the woman she had left behind there. But Xena had also seen the same sadness that she now saw in Grenella's eyes in Agatha's. Her aunt had done what she thought was right for the child of her sister. And she was doing it again.
“Will you see her again?” Xena asked.
“I will,” Grenella nodded firmly and shuffled on her way.
Xena merely watched her go.
“Rain,” Gabrielle groused. “I can't believe it waited until we were on the road to start pouring buckets.”
“Yeah,” Solari sat atop her quiet roan and tried to see through the water that poured from her hood. “Kinda makes one want to turn around and ride right on back to the village. Doesn't it?”
“You mean the completely empty village?” a young warrior –Petrice—added from atop her sorrel mare. “Who ordered this stuff, anyway?”
“Not me,” Gabrielle added with a wry smirk. “I was hoping the clouds would clear and we'd be in for a nice sunset.”
“Can't even see the damned sun,” an aggravated Solari adjusted her seat and cringed when water seeped under her leathers. “Ugh! I hate this! It's bad enough you decided to head to Surra in this crap, but did we have to make the trip on horseback, too, My Queen?”
Gabrielle chuckled and pulled the oiled hood of her cape lower over her face. “Don't wiggle around in your saddle so much, Sol. Your butt's gonna get wet and then you'll really be in for an uncomfortable ride. Water and leather just don't mix.”
“Too late,” the woman groused. “Whoa!” Solari pulled back on the reins and halted her mount. She then dismounted and moved to the horse's head. “That's it! I'm walking from here on out until the damned rain stops. I really don't want to go the rest of the way with a bunch of sores on my butt.”
Several of the others in their escort did the same thing, until Gabrielle merely sighed and joined them.
“Do we have any idea where we should camp for the night?” Solari inquired, as she caught the irritation in the queen's expression. “We'll eventually need to stop, eat and rest.”
Sehran stepped up next to the two women. “There's some caves just on the other side of a ridge a few leagues south. We should be able to hole up in one of ‘em for the night and get a decent fire going. It would sure be nice to get some rest, change clothes and eat something.”
“I second that suggestion,” another warrior—Chandrea—stepped up next to them. “It won't do for the queen to wear herself out with all this plodding through the muck.”
“The queen has a name, Chandrea,” Gabrielle shot the brown-haired royal guardswoman an irritated glare. She then stopped right there in the muddy road. “Okay, Amazons, here's the deal,” she waited for the rest of them to stop and listen. “On this mission, I am not the queen. I am just Gabrielle. There will be no standing on ceremony and I'm not going to answer to ‘My Queen', ‘Your Majesty' or any of the other titles that go along with my position in the tribe. Out here, we're all equals. No one is more important than anyone else. Ephiny has my right of caste, in case something should happen, so there's no need to put my life or health above anyone else's. Is that understood?”
The leather-clad women looked at each other and then just stared at Gabrielle like a bunch of lost sheep without a clue.
“My…um…Gabrielle,” Solari stumbled over her words. “We…um…you…uh…it's not like…um…”
“Oh, never mind,” Gabrielle growled as she walked past them and continued on without another word.
“What'd I say?” Solari glanced around at the expectant faces staring back at her.
“Anyone coming to Surra with me?” Gabrielle didn't bother to stop or look back at the stunned women, as she continued on. “Come on, people! Time's a wasting!” And then in a lower voice. “And my damned patience is running thin. Urgh! Amazons!”
Xena was having Amazon issues of yet a different kind, as the contingent of nearly a thousand women made camp for the night. The queens were insisting on deferring to Ephiny on everything. They went to the regent for everything from where they were to set up camp to which of them was in charge of procuring meat for the evening meal. The regent was also the one they approached when there were questions about every little nitpicky thing that came up. No one asked Xena. No one spoke to her, except Ephiny and Eponin.
“All right, that's it!” Ephiny walked right up to tall-dark-and-deadly with her hands on her hips and anger flaring in her hazel eyes. “I know I'm a damned Amazon and I get that Gabrielle left me in charge of the tribe in her absence, but what in Artemis' name is up with all these women coming to me, instead of you???”
Xena tried to keep the knowing smirk off her face and merely gave the woman a bored look. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You don't…” Ephiny blew out an exasperated breath. “For Artemis' sake, Xena, this is your damned army! I don't give a damn if they're all Amazons! I'm not the one in charge here! You need to step up and tell these women what's what! Issue orders, for Artemis' sake!”
A dark brow quirked, as Xena ran her tongue over her front teeth and eyed the woman. “I don't need to do a damned thing,” she crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “Matter of fact, they can all go to Tartarus for all I care. And I may just send a bunch of ‘em there myself, if they don't stop griping and bitching about every little thing that doesn't go their way! I'm sick of it! And I'm damned sick of the lot of you!”
Ephiny backed up a step and lost some of the wind in her sails, as Xena cast her a deadly ice-chip glare. “I…I'm sorry, Xena. I didn't mean to yell. I'm just—” She ran an impatient hand through her curly locks. “I've never been in charge like this before.”
“Not fun, is it?” Xena's temper cooled instantly, as a wry grin graced her lips. “Welcome to it, Regent. Just wait ‘til we get to the rendezvous point and meet up with the rest of the army. You think this is aggravating? You ain't seen nothin' yet.”
Ephiny sat down on a log in front of the small campfire one of her sisters had started. Her bedroll was spread out nearby and Eponin's was right next to it. She had yet to tell Xena about the sleeping arrangements and decided now was as good a time as any.
“At least you've been left alone, for the most part,” Ephiny let a small half-grin show. “I wonder how Gabrielle is faring with that bunch she took with her.”
“She'll be fine,” Xena sat down across the fire from her and absently poked the flames with a stick. “She's a lot more level-headed than either of us, apparently.”
Ephiny snickered. “She doesn't have a dozen queens sniping at her all the time. Matter of fact, I think she got the better end of this deal.”
Xena glanced up at the gray sky overhead. “Well, at least the rain finally stopped.”
“Yeah, thank the gods for small blessings,” Ephiny chuckled. “Maybe it'll stop long enough for my leathers to dry out.”
Xena's brow quirked. “Didn't think you and Eponin would be wearing them to sleep in.”
Ephiny's eyes shot up to meet Xena's gaze and she saw the amusement there. “You know about—”
“It doesn't take an oracle to see how she's been hanging all over you,” Xena smirked. “And I'm not blind. Besides, I saw the two of you leave your hut earlier. Eponin had a look on her face that pretty much said it all.”
Ephiny blushed to her roots. “Oh.”
Xena chuckled. “At least someone's getting something around here. Your Amazons are too uptight to do anything more than gripe. And Gabrielle's not here, so…” She shrugged and looked away.
“You miss her already,” Ephiny stated.
“I do,” Xena nodded.
Ephiny shook her head as she looked into Xena's eyes. “I have a confession to make.”
A dark brow rose. “Oh?”
“I told her how I felt about her,” Ephiny confided. “You know, back when she first came to us and Terreis was still alive.” She glanced at the fire. “Gabrielle really doesn't realize what effect she has on people, does she?”
Xena swallowed down the lump Ephiny's words had created. “No, she doesn't.”
“I just wanted to clear the air with her,” Ephiny continued. “I'm with Eponin now and we're really happy together. Probably have a joining ceremony when all this is over. When you get past all the bravado of her being weapons master, there's really a kind and caring person underneath.”
Xena nodded. “Never judge a scroll by its case.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny smiled. “I guess we can all say the same about you, Xena. Those stories the bards tell don't hold a candle to the person you actually are. I never would have guessed that you had such a big heart.”
“And right now it's longing to be with the woman I love,” Xena admitted with a shy blush. “I really miss her.”
“Miss who?” Eponin gracelessly sat down next to Ephiny.
“Who do you think?” Ephiny slapped the weapons master's shoulder. “Gabrielle, of course.”
“Ouch!” Eponin rubbed her shoulder. “Whydja hafta hit me, Eph?”
Ephiny rolled her eyes and Xena chuckled at their antics.
“You two are priceless,” Xena commented.
“Yeah, well, at least the entire village ain't listening to us when we're…um…well, you know,” Eponin shrugged and then received another hard slap from her companion. “Ow! Damn, Eph, you're gonna have me all bruised before we even meet up with Draco and his army.”
Ephiny shot her a wry smirk. “Riiiiiiight.”
Xena decided to go for a walk. “I'll leave you two alone for a while. Let you sort through,” she stood up and waved a hand, “this.”
The tall woman in dark leather walked away into the woods without a backward glance, leaving the two Amazons alone in front of the campfire.
“What'd I say?” Eponin cast a confused glance at Ephiny.
Ephiny just shook her head. “You really need to work on your social skills, Pon.” And she walked away.
Eponin sat there in bewildered silence and tried to figure out what she'd said to drive both women away. Her mind pondered the conversation for a few heartbeats, sluggishly trying to put the pieces together. She was a warrior. Her instincts and reflexes were honed for battle, not verbal sparring. Far be it from her to question the inner workings of the minds of the woman she loved and the damned Conqueror of the Known World.
Gabrielle stood at the entrance to the cave they'd stayed in the previous night. The last remnants of rain dripped off leaves and bushes near the cave mouth. But the sun was shining brightly between breaks in the puffy white clouds that danced overhead. She put a hand on the stone next to her and took a measure of comfort from the solid feel of the rock beneath her fingers—at least the four that weren't bound in a splint.
She smiled, as she thought about the reason her middle finger was in a splint. Then her thoughts turned to a certain tall, dark woman with amazing blue eyes dancing with mischief. Xena. The ache in her heart returned ten-fold and she tried desperately to push her errant thoughts back down. She had a job to do.
“Hey, Gabrielle,” Solari stepped up beside her and gazed out at the early-morning foggy haze that swirled around the valley below. “How'd you sleep last night?”
“Fine,” Gabrielle lied. “Can't really complain.”
“Me, too,” Solari stretched her arms over her head and danced on her toes. “Walking helped, some.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded absently. “Looks like we'll be able to use the horses to our advantage today, though.” She tried not to smirk at the groan from her companion. “We'll make better time on horseback, Sol. Please don't complain. I'm not really in the mood today.”
Solari cast the shorter woman a curious look. “You sure you're doing okay? You seem a little,” she shrugged, “um, off today.”
“Just missing Xena,” Gabrielle turned and leaned back against the cave opening.
“Pining, more like it,” Solari crossed her arms over her chest and looked out over the landscape. “I know how that goes when you first realize you're in love.”
Gabrielle's shot up. “Oh?”
Solari nodded as a half-grin graced her features. “His name was Methias. We grew up together.”
“Really?” Gabrielle's brow rose higher. “You were in love with a…um…”
“Yes, a young man,” Solari finished for her. “He was really quite handsome. Had dark hair and eyes and a little dimple in his chin that made me melt whenever he turned to look at me. His boyish features and impish grin were also to die for. It wasn't until I got my monthly flow that I really started to see him as more than just one of the boys in the village, though.” Solari smiled wistfully. “I wasn't born to the Amazons, either, by the way. Came to them after our village was destroyed by a warlord, before the Conqueror swept through and wiped ‘em out.”
“Ah,” Gabrielle nodded. “Did he share your feelings?”
“I think so,” Solari said. “We managed to have a few intimate moments together in his father's hay barn. He was a really good kisser and could turn me to jelly with that smile of his. We finally made love the last time we were together. I'll never forget how magical it was, with the smell of hay all around us and the crickets chirping outside the barn.” Her expression darkened. “But then he was killed in the initial attack on the village.”
“One of the warlord's soldiers tossed a noose around his neck and dragged him behind his horse through the village and beyond.” Solari swallowed hard. “I couldn't move, couldn't run. I was so scared. I just stood there and watched in horror as the soldier returned with the empty noose dragging behind his horse. There was blood all over it. The soldier on horseback was laughing with his buddies about how his victim's body got caught between a couple of logs and the head was torn from the body.” She shook off the memories, as her eyes filled with tears. “Methias was a good person and would have made a great father. I wish I'd had the courage to stand up to those bastards and teach them a lesson they would never forget. As it was, they caught me watching them and decided to have their own fun. They dragged me into the same barn and raped me repeatedly. I haven't been able to look at a man the same way since.”
Gabrielle placed a comforting hand on Solari's arm. “I'm sorry, Solari. I had no idea.”
Solari turned a watery smile on Gabrielle. “I try not to talk about it all that much. It's not like the others can really understand what it's like to love a man the way I loved Methias. It's also not easy living amongst a bunch of women who don't really go in for that kind of thing. I've never been attracted to women and can't imagine sleeping with one. Methias was the one, you know?”
“Believe it or not, I understand,” Gabrielle said. “So, if you don't mind my asking, why did you become an Amazon?”
“Stubborn pride, I guess,” Solari shrugged. “I was ashamed that I didn't do anything to help save my village. I never raised a hand to help anyone. Then again, I wasn't exactly a warrior back then. I was a scrawny twelve-year-old who didn't know the first thing about weapons or fighting. An Amazon hunting party showed up after the soldiers left and they took me and a couple others in. Those women seemed so confident and self-assured in their leathers and all those feathers in their hair that I wanted to be just like them. I decided, then and there, to put everything I had into learning the ways of a warrior and I never once looked back.”
“Do you regret not trying to at least find another man to love?” Gabrielle asked. “I mean, I'm not sure I could ever love anyone as much as I love Xena, but—” she shrugged. “I've never really loved anyone else, either. Xena is an amazing woman. There isn't another person like her.”
“She is pretty amazing,” Solari agreed. “And the answer is no. I'm an Amazon now. I can't really go back to living in an integrated village. And I don't want to be someone's submissive little wife, either. I like being a warrior. I like the person I've become.”
Gabrielle nodded her understanding. “Other women don't really understand what it feels like to be independent and not have to rely on someone else for protection. My father was always the protector of the family. When I was old enough to wed, he started combing the surrounding villages for a suitable husband for me. I never understood why he was so adamant about marrying me off to some man, when all I wanted to do was travel the world and see what I was missing.”
“And now that you've travelled and seen some of the world?”
“All I want is to be with Xena,” Gabrielle confided with a wry grin. “I don't even care about seeing the rest of the world, unless I'm doing it with her. She's become my world.” She lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “I actually ache physically for her when we're not together.” She pressed a fist to her chest. “My heart aches for her right now. Is that crazy?”
Solari smiled. “No, Gabrielle. That's not crazy. That's real love.”
Gabrielle ducked her chin and wrapped her arms around herself. “Feels really crazy, to me. I can't think sometimes when we're together. I don't want to do anything but be close to her. And those kisses…”
“Whoa!” Solari held up a staying hand and slapped the other over her eyes. “Stop, right there, your majesty. Not another word, I beg of you.”
Gabrielle snickered. “Oh, please, Sol. Don't tell me you've never imagined yourself kissing another woman.”
“Not even your tall, dark and deadly warrior, your majesty,” Solari shot Gabrielle a playful wink. “Xena may be one of the most gorgeous women in all of Greece—and I'm happy that she's all yours, by the way—but I really don't go in for kissing women. I like a nice, scruffy beard, truth be told. Men just,” she looked up, as if conjuring her long-lost lover, “I can't really explain it. They're strong and handsome and those muscles, well…”
“Oh, Xena has some really nice muscles,” Gabrielle grinned.
“Yeah, too much information again, there, your maj,” Sol shook her head.
“Each to her own, eh, Sol?” Gabrielle teased.
“Definitely, your majesty,” Solari hadn't even noticed that she was no longer using the woman's given name.
“It's just Gabrielle, Sol,” Gabrielle chided with a wry grin. “Your majesty was left in the village when we headed out yesterday.”
“Oops,” Solari blushed. “Sorry.”
“No problem,” Gabrielle shifted away from the opening and stepped out into the warm sunshine. “I won't hold it against you, as long as you don't let it slip again.”
“Right,” Solari glanced around at the morning activity around her, as several of their group emerged from the cave to take care of things. She moved over to where Gabrielle was now standing next to her horse and rubbing his nose, then she eyed her own mount with trepidation. “You sure you want to ride today, Gabrielle? We could just send the horses back to the village and go it on foot.”
Gabrielle shot her a resigned glare. “We're going it on horseback, Sol. I want to get to Surra before the war is actually over.”
“Oh, fine,” the woman groused. “Let's eat some of those yummy trail rations Cheremiah packed for us and then get going. Might as well move out as soon as possible and let the torture begin.”
Gabrielle just shook her head, as she watched the woman stalk back toward the cave without a backward glance. She rubbed Ebony's nose and leaned into him.
“It's okay, boy,” Gabrielle said. “Don't take it personally. I don't think there's an Amazon in this bunch who likes you as much as I do.” She then turned to Solari's roan and patted his neck. “You, either, boy. And try to go easy on her, will ya? We have a long way to go and you guys are our best bet for a quick and painless trip.”
The two horses seemed to agree with her when they both bobbed their heads and blew out twin snorts of approval.
“Exactly,” she finished by scratching them both behind the ears.
Two days, and more griping than anyone could tolerate, later, Xena and the Amazons arrived at what she had dubbed “Point Alpha.” The trip had taken far longer than Xena had anticipated. She chalked that up to having to move slower than damned molasses in January, in deference to the tribal queens. Her jaw muscles ached from clamping her mouth tightly shut in an effort to keep from verbally taking someone's head off—which was exactly what she physically wanted to do at that moment.
“Braes!!!” She shouted from her tent opening. “Where the Hades are you?!?”
The gruff general hurried over to the Conqueror's command tent as fast as his stocky legs could carry him. He bowed his head in front of her.
“Oh, just come in here!” She turned on her heel and stalked over to a table without a backward glance. “Report!”
“Things are going as planned, Lord Conqueror,” he snapped, as she poured them both some ale and handed him a frothy mug. “The men are working together fairly well. As well as can be expected, at least, under the circumstances. The Athenians tried to take over right after you left, but—” He shrugged. “Those Amazons you left in charge quickly put them ta rights.” He chuckled. “Clobbered several of ‘em and told ‘em in no uncertain terms to back off. Sent a couple of the louder idiots to the healer's tent with some broken bones, too.”
“Oh?” A dark brow quirked at the news, as Xena downed her ale and crossed her arms over her chest. “Go on.”
“Well,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “Word from our spies is Draco's on his way here. He's conscripting along the way and the villages are none too happy about it. Word's spread that you're back and ready to wipe him from the land.” He chuckled again. “Draco was pissin' mad when he found out about that. He mustered his army the very next day. Word has it he left Surra in a real hurry and has been pushin' his men to their limits ever since.”
Xena paced, as she took in the news. “Exactly what I thought he would do. How many days ‘til he gets here?”
“Hard tellin',” Braes shrugged. “He's been making fairly good time, but an army's an army. Probably won't see the whites of their eyes until day after tomorrow, at the earliest.”
“That's fine,” Xena stopped and poured herself more ale. “I want your men to build some catapults. On my way back I discovered a little surprise we can use against him that he won't be expecting.”
“Greek fire?” Braes shot her a raised-brow look.
“No, the next best thing, though,” she replied with a wry smirk. “We found a resin deposit in a clearing no more than a league from here that has enough ignitable liquid pitch in it to keep Draco guessing while we throw everything else we have at him. I also want the blacksmith to get to work on making as many metal buckets as he can in the next two days. And send a detachment with a wagon and a dozen barrels to collect the pitch. I'll send an Amazon escort along to help collect the stuff. They know exactly where the pitch is located.”
“Aye, Lord Conqueror,” Braes snapped to attention and set his ale mug down on a small table. “Anything else you'll be wantin', then?”
“Just tell the men to stay away from the Amazons,” Xena added. “I don't want any unnecessary fights breaking out before we do this. Is that understood?”
Braes rubbed his neck again. “You're askin' a lot, Lord Conqueror. These men have spent weeks without seein' a single woman.”
“Then make a trip to the surrounding villages and find some willing whores to satisfy their needs, Braes,” Xena growled. “I don't want those men anywhere near the Amazons or we'll have more than Draco to worry about. You got that?”
Braes nodded. “Yes, Lord Conqueror.”
“I catch any of the men as much as sniffing around the Amazon encampment, Braes, and it'll be your damned head on a pike. You got me?”
“Y-yes, m'lord,” Braes slammed a fist against his armored chest. “Will that be all, Lord Conqueror?”
“Leave me,” Xena waved a dismissive hand in his direction without bothering to look at the man. She waited until he was gone, before shoving a hand through her hair and slumping into a chair. “To Tartarus with Draco and this damned war,” she growled, as she downed her second mug of ale and decided something stronger was in order.
Xena was just tapping a bottle of port and had poured herself a generous mug full, when someone cleared their throat at her tent opening. She recognized the voice and sighed.
“Come in, Ephiny,” she said in a tired voice.
The curly-haired blond regent pushed aside the tent flap and entered. “Not too bad,” she eyed the spacious interior.
“It beats sleeping on the cold, hard ground,” Xena said, as she offered a mug of port to the woman. “What's up?”
Ephiny sat down in one of the chairs and leaned forward over her knees as she sipped her port. “Not bad,” she eyed the mug. “I guess nothing is too good for the Conqueror, though.”
“Is there a reason you're here, Eph?” Xena shot the woman a dark glare. “I'm not really in the mood for idle chitchat. It's been a long day and I'm beat.”
“I just wanted to let you know we're settled on the other side of the practice field,” Ephiny sat back in the chair and eyed the woman standing across from her. “We've also set up guards around the perimeter, in case your boys get it into their heads to try something stupid. There was some bitching and moaning, but not as much as there would've been if you hadn't put your foot down this morning.” She smirked. “Or should I say, your fist?”
“Gwyn-Taleen deserved more than to be decked for what she said to me,” Xena groused. “I don't give a damn if she's queen of one of your tribes…”
Ephiny chuckled and held up a staying hand, as she took another sip of her drink. “I'm not arguing or chastising, Xena. I thought it was about time you stepped up and did something. I watched your temper become shorter and shorter during the course of the journey. I actually told Eponin it was only a matter of time before someone got in your crosshairs.” She winced. “I just wish it hadn't been one of our queens, though. Nothing like taking one of them down a peg to put everyone on eggshells. Not to mention what it did for your reputation with those who aren't all that thrilled with your leadership.”
“It's my damned army,” Xena finished off her port and set her empty mug aside. “They'll either follow my orders or get their feathered butts out of my way.”
“So,” Ephiny decided a change of subject was in order. “Do you have plans to keep us away from the rest of the army?”
“I told General Braes to warn the men away from your Amazons,” Xena rested her head in a hand. “Let me know how that goes. He's supposed to be rounding up some local trollops to keep the men busy for the next two days.”
“You're inviting whores into the camp?” Ephiny couldn't believe her ears and nearly spewed her port. “That doesn't really sound like you, Xena.”
“Unusual circumstances demand a simple solution,” Xena shrugged. “It's not something I'm proud of, but it should keep your Amazons out of their crosshairs. At least, that's the goal.”
Ephiny nodded. “Good plan. I'd sure hate for your boys to breach our perimeter and die on the spot. We may just need them all in one piece before this is over.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Xena smiled tiredly. “So, you and Eponin want one of the tents to shack up in? I can have my men set one of the extras up in your encampment or anywhere you wish.”
“Nah,” Ephiny shook her head. “I really don't want to rock the boat. But thanks for the offer. Don't want the other queens to get the idea that I'm getting special treatment.”
“You really care what they think?” Xena smirked.
“Not really, no,” Ephiny shook her head. “But I'd feel guilty if I made Queen Grenella sleep out in the open while Pon and me are all snug in a tent. We'll get by. Besides, it's been kinda fun being all snuggled together in those sleeping furs of ours. Makes things interesting when we get a little too…um…exuberant.”
“Yeah, I saw that at dawn yesterday,” Xena rolled her eyes. “A full moon first thing in the morning was not on my agenda, let me tell ya.”
“I don't know and I don't want to know,” Xena shifted uncomfortably. “I turned away the instant I got that eyeful.”
Ephiny blushed to her roots. “I'll have a talk with Eponin about that tent. Maybe we can get one for Grenella, too?”
“She already has one,” Xena grinned. “The men are setting it up, as we speak.”
“Nice,” Ephiny finished her drink and set the empty cup on the table next to her. “You could have told me that, you know.”
“And miss seeing that blush on your cheeks, Eph? Not a chance,” Xena finished with a teasing grin. “I think I owe you at least that much for all the teasing you've given Gabrielle.”
“I…” Ephiny clamped her lips shut and stood up. “I'm just going to…um…go now. You'll need to use the Amazon signal if you decide to enter our encampment. Not all of the guards know who you are. See you later, Xena.” She then backed toward the entrance and ducked out without another word.
“Oh, Gabrielle,” Xena muttered under her breath. “I sure wish you were here, if for no other reason than to deal with these aggravating Amazons.”
It was completely dark by the time they reached the valley where the keep at Surra lay. After making camp for the night, Gabrielle decided to scout the area around the keep in the dark. So, while the rest of the group finished preparations for the evening meal, Gabrielle put her plan into action.
Solari, Sehran, and Gabrielle crouched in some bushes near the keep and kept a vigilant eye on the dark stone building looming in front of them.
“Why is it so dark?” Sehran asked in a quiet whisper. “Shouldn't there be at least one light on somewhere? I mean, it's a huge place. And why aren't there any people moving around?”
Gabrielle continued to watch the dark keep. A frown marred her brow as she silently asked herself the same questions. Why? Where was everyone?
“We need to get closer and have a better look,” she quietly suggested. “Let's go.”
Rather than wait for a reply, Gabrielle simply moved off and crossed the clearing in front of the wall. She stayed low, just in case. But she had the ominous feeling there was no reason to hide from eyes that weren't there. The place appeared completely deserted.
The three women made it to the wall in no time. They silently walked along it until they came to a small door mostly hidden behind some tall bushes. Gabrielle tried the latch and was mildly surprised when the door swung open on well-oiled hinges.
“That's not weird,” Sehran commented.
“Let me go first, Gabrielle,” Solari pushed past the queen and slipped through the door.
Gabrielle slipped through behind Solari with Sehran following close behind. They stood in a silent courtyard just across from the stables. Not a sound reached their ears and not a single taper burned anywhere within sight.
“Look familiar?” Solari asked Gabrielle quietly.
“Over there,” Gabrielle pointed to a small door. “That door leads to a hallway off the main kitchen.”
They silently made their way to the door and again slipped inside. As Sehran closed the door behind them, they were plunged into inky blackness.
“This is not good,” Gabrielle commented, as she felt her way along the stone wall. “And what's that smell?”
“Smoke,” Solari answered. “And not from cooking fires, either.”
“We need light,” Gabrielle added. “I can't see a thing in here and one of us is going to trip over something.” Just then her foot nudged something and she looked down at a shadow at her feet. “What the…”
Solari was already crouched down next to the still figure. “It's a body.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. “A b-body?”
Sehran disappeared down the hallway and returned moments later with something in her hand. “I found a torch.”
Solari reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a flint and striker. She struck the two together and the resulting spark ignited the charred torch. The illumination in the hallway revealed far more than any of them were prepared for.
“Oh, my gods,” Gabrielle gasped.
“Dear Artemis,” Sehran glanced around.
Several charred bodies lay in the stone hallway. They were unrecognizable and barely had any flesh remaining on their blackened bones.
Gabrielle gagged on bile that rose in her throat and turned away in time to empty her stomach onto the charred stone floor behind her. When she could breathe again, she pinched her nose to keep from inhaling the foul odor that infused the hallway. The walls, floor and ceiling were completely charred, as if a raging fire had burned through the place.
“Let's keep moving,” Solari suggested. “Maybe the rest of the keep escaped the blaze.”
They moved farther into the kitchen and found almost the same scene spread out before them. More charred bones lay on the blackened stone. Whoever the people were—and Gabrielle had a pretty good idea who some of them were—their lives had ended in tragedy. There were even a few smaller skeletons near the hearths and Gabrielle felt another wave of nausea roll over her when she realized the servant children hadn't escaped the blaze.
“They were just kids,” Solari knelt next to one of the smaller skeletons.
Gabrielle passed through the doorway that led to the Conqueror's suit of rooms. She wasn't holding out any hope that those rooms had escaped the blaze, either. She had no idea what she would find. Draco had obviously wanted to leave a lasting impression, in case he wasn't able to return.
She stepped up to a closed door and pushed on the latch. The door opened to a room burned beyond recognition. As she passed over the threshold, she noticed tattered curtains blowing in the night breeze. The floor-to-ceiling windows were broken or missing altogether. The furniture was burned to small piles of ash and a thin sliver of moonlight showed that the walls were no longer white.
“Gabrielle,” Solari entered and illuminated the room with the torch.
“It's all…gone,” Gabrielle couldn't keep the catch from her voice. “Everything.”
“Gabrielle, we found something you might want to see,” Solari gently took the smaller woman's upper arm in her hand and guided her out of the suite. “Come with me.”
Gabrielle followed the other two Amazons down a very familiar hallway. Dark memories of a long-ago time suddenly washed over her and she had to stop. Leaning against the charred stone wall, Gabrielle tried to slow her breathing and still the panic that threatened to send her fleeing into the darkness. She gulped in several deep breaths and closed her eyes.
“Gabrielle?” Solari's soft voice brought her back to the matter at hand. “Are you all right? You're really pale.”
Taking one last deep breath and letting it out slowly, Gabrielle opened her eyes and stared at the two women staring back at her with concern.
“I'm okay,” she nodded, even though she felt far from okay. “What did you want to show me?”
Solari turned to an open doorway and stepped inside the room beyond. Gabrielle gingerly followed, knowing exactly whose room the Amazon had stepped into. When Gabrielle stepped into the room, however, she didn't recognize it at all.
“Whoa,” Sehran moved in behind Gabrielle and looked around. “This place is freaky.”
The bed was torn apart and feathers littered the floor. The windows were broken and so were the pieces of furniture. Somehow, the room had escaped the blaze. But that wasn't what had Gabrielle's attention.
On the back wall of the room were words painted in blood that dripped down the wall and pooled on the stone floor. The words said: Death to the Conqueror and her Amazon whore!
Gabrielle swallowed again, but couldn't get rid of the lump there. She had no idea whose blood graced the wall, but the sentiment behind it was clear.
“Do you think Draco did this to make a point?” Solari asked.
“Killed everyone and set the keep on fire?” Gabrielle couldn't believe her voice sounded so calm. “I wouldn't put it past him. He probably wanted to be sure Xena wouldn't stay, if she did manage to defeat him and return to claim what was hers.”
“He knows about you,” Solari added, as she turned away from the bloody mess. “Or at least someone told him about you and Xena.”
Gabrielle left the room without a backward glance and made her way to the nearest outside door. She walked out into the still night and breathed in the cool air. It took her several additional breaths to clear the stench of death from her nostrils, however.
“You okay, Gabrielle?” Solari was suddenly there with a comforting hand on Gabrielle's back.
Gabrielle put a hand to her forehead and tried to will away the memories that flooded through her mind again. She remembered the feeling of abject horror and terror that overcame her when she was raped. Every detail replayed itself until she felt the weight of it pulling her down into the darkness.
Solari cast a concerned glance at Sehran. The two knew very little about Gabrielle's experiences in the keep at Surra. But they did know something terrible had happened to the woman who eventually became their queen.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Solari put an arm around the young queen's shoulders and steered her toward an open gate.
Passing through the gate, they continued on across the clearing until they were once again within the safety of the trees on the far side. But, even then, Solari didn't slow their pace. She just guided them toward the campsite where their sisters were camped.
When they finally broke through the trees into the small encampment, they were greeted by the relieved faces of the others. But Solari didn't stop until she had Gabrielle seated on a log in front of the roaring fire.
“My Queen,” Solari purposely used the moniker to snap the shocked woman out of the stupor Gabrielle had fallen into. “Come on, Gabrielle. You need to come back to us. Please.” She knelt in front of Gabrielle and pushed the hair away from her face. “Come on, My Queen. Don't do this. You need to snap out of this.”
“What happened?” A dark-haired woman in doe-skin leathers knelt in front of Gabrielle and next to Solari. “Why does she look like she saw a ghost?”
“I don't know, Melva,” Solari put her hands on Gabrielle's knees and stared into eyes gone vacant from shock.
“Where did you go?” Melva asked.
“To the keep,” Solari answered. “Gabrielle wanted to check things out before we all went there in the morning.”
“And?” Melva prodded, as she put a hand on the unresponsive woman's pale cheek.
“There must have been a fire,” Solari shook her head. “All we found were a bunch of charred bodies and skeletons.”
“And that awful room,” Sehran added.
“It was my room,” Gabrielle added in a low voice.
“Gabrielle?” Solari watched as the woman slowly emerged from the hazy stupor and came back to them. “Oh, thank the gods.”
“That's where it happened,” Gabrielle continued, as tears sprang to her eyes and she let them fall. “I thought I could go back there and it wouldn't affect me, but…” A choked sob escaped her, as she leaned forward.
“Hey,” Solari took the queen in her arms and pulled her close. “It's okay, Gabrielle. You're safe.”
Gabrielle couldn't stop the wave of emotions that washed over her, nor did she want to. The images were all so clear and real. That room—that fateful room. It brought everything back with such vivid clarity that she was overwhelmed. All she wanted was to have Xena there. But Xena wasn't there. And she hadn't been there when it had all started, either.
“We have to go,” Gabrielle suddenly sat up and swiped impatiently at her cheeks. “We can't stay here. There's nothing here for us. We need to get to them.”
Solari pulled back enough to cast Gabrielle a bewildered look. “You're not making sense, Gabrielle. We can't just go traipsing off into the dark. We need to get some rest and start out at first light, if that's still what you want to do.”
Gabrielle shook her head and stood up. “We have to go now. They need us. This is all wrong. We need to go.” She walked over to Ebony and glanced around for his saddle. “What are you all waiting for?” She called to them when she noticed they were all just standing near the campfire gawking at her. “Douse the fire and let's go. If we take the main roads we'll make good time. We should be at the rendezvous point in a few days, if we push the horses and only stop when they need a rest.”
Solari walked over to Gabrielle and clasped her upper arms. “What is going on, Gabrielle? You're not making sense. We can't go riding off in the dark. We don't know who or what might be out there waiting for us.”
Gabrielle shrugged off Solari's grip on her arms. “Draco left that message for me, Solari, not for Xena,” she ground out between clenched teeth. “He knew I was coming to Surra to liberate the keep. He has a spy in one of the tribes. He knew I was coming here, so he burned the keep and left that message for me to find. He's going to kill her.”
“How do you know that?” Solari shook her head at the implication. “How can you be sure that Draco knows anything? He could have burned the keep just so Xena wouldn't be able to return to it, like you said.”
“Nora,” Gabrielle ground out between clenched teeth.
“Nora must have told him about Xena and me,” Gabrielle walked a few paces and turned back around. “That's why he used that room to send his message. Nora told him how to get to her. He's going to use that—me—to get to Xena. I don't know what he's planning, but he'll somehow use me to get to Xena.”
“But how?” Solari was still confused. “Gabrielle, you are still making absolutely no sense whatsoever. How could Draco possibly use you to get to her? You're here with us and Xena knows that.”
“I don't know,” Gabrielle shook her head. “All I know is that I have to get to her before he does. She has to know I'm okay or she'll do something to jeopardize everything…or worse.”
The preparations were set. Everything was going as planned. The Amazons were hidden in the trees surrounding the field Xena had chosen as the battle sight for her clash with Draco's army. Her spies had informed her that the army was only a few leagues away. It was all coming together. She was ready.
“This is too easy,” Xena commented to Braes, who stood next to her as her army formed ranks for the march to the battle field. “Something is wrong.”
Braes cast her a curious glance. “My Lord?”
“My nape hairs are tingling,” Xena hissed. “Something isn't right.”
“I don't understand, Lord Conqueror,” Braes unfolded his arms and glanced at the soldiers around them. “The men are forming up and the Amazons are in place. We have three catapults standing by and enough pitch to set the entire forest on fire. And our spies tell us that Draco and his army are coming this way. What isn't right?”
Xena whistled loudly and waited. A man in leather pants hurried forward with a tall black war horse. The horse pranced and snorted, as Xena climbed easily into the saddle and took up the reins. She calmed the giant beast with her knees and patted his sleek neck with a hand.
“Easy boy,” she said. “You'll have your chance in just a moment.” She then looked down at her confused general. “Move the men out just as soon as they're ready. And send a contingent of cavalry on ahead to scout out the terrain. I have a really bad feeling about this, General. I can't put a finger on what's wrong, but something isn't right. Also remind those manning the catapults that they're not to aim for the trees where the Amazons are hiding. Understood?”
“Yes, Lord Conqueror, but where…” He didn't get the chance to finish, as she kicked the warhorse into motion and took off down the road.
Xena kept a firm grip on the reins, as she gave her latest mount his head and let him gallop across the landscape at breakneck speed. He'd been more than restless for the past two days and she knew he needed to work off some of his pent-up energy, just as she did. But she also knew she had a purpose for racing across the countryside.
That niggling feeling that had plagued her all morning was growing stronger. It was warning her that something was terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn't something that could pinpoint exactly what the problem was. She closed her eyes and breathed in the wind that blew past her. There. On the breeze. Smoke.
Her mount's long strides ate up the leagues, as she came to a tall hill that loomed ahead. She pushed her heaving warhorse to lengthen his strides and was pleased that he climbed the hill with ease. As they crested the top, however, her blood ran cold with dread.
She reined in and hopped easily from the saddle, as she gazed down at the scene spread out before her. The entire southwest end of the forest was on fire. Smoke billowed up into the clear blue sky, as the fire spread along a defined line. And then she spotted several torches moving along that line. Draco's men were stealing her advantage.
“Son of a bacchae!” She hissed, as she watched the line move closer to where the Amazons were hiding.
Climbing back into the saddle, Xena took up the reins and kicked her mount into another swift gallop. She steered him into the valley and then turned him toward a cluster of trees. As soon as they breached the tree line and entered the cool shade, Xena reined in her mount and clapped her hands over her head. She only had to wait a few heartbeats for a masked figure to drop from the trees and several others to surround her.
“Conqueror!” A mask was pushed up to reveal a familiar curly-haired blond.
“Ephiny,” Xena dismounted and approached the regent. “Pull your Amazons back, immediately.”
“Why?” Ephiny glanced around and then met the hard gaze of the woman towering over her. “What's going on?”
“Fire,” Xena said. “Draco is burning the forest.”
“What?!?” Ephiny gave several silent signals and those surrounding them scattered like leaves in the wind. “Spread the word, sisters!” She then watched a stocky figure approach and push her mask back on her head. “Eponin, Draco is burning the forest.”
“Oh, Ares' left nut!” Eponin exclaimed. “Why would he…”
“He knows the plan,” Xena interrupted. “We need to put the other plan into action and circumvent an all-out catastrophe.” She looked pointedly at the regent. “It's one of yours, Amazon.”
Ephiny nodded in resignation. “Understood.”
“What?” Eponin glanced from one woman to the other. “What'd I miss?”
“Come on, Pon, I'll explain on the way,” Ephiny said, as she put an arm around Eponin's shoulders and steered her back into the trees.
Xena stood there for a moment and watched the women disappear back into the canopy above. She blew out an exasperated breath, as she returned to her horse's side.
“I still have a bad feeling about this, boy,” she confided, as she rubbed his nose. “You up for another run? Hm?”
She leaned against his sleek black neck, closed her eyes and reached out with her senses. As she filtered out the sounds and smells around her, she caught the faint hint of smoke on the breeze and heard the distant crackle of the approaching fire. She sank deeper into the stillness and felt a faint rumble beneath her booted feet. The army was coming—or were they?
Xena mentally pushed away the last vestiges of everything within a league of her position and listened to the sounds behind the sounds. Blades of grass crunched under several thousand booted feet. The clank of armor. Swords being drawn from leather scabbards. Wagons. Heavy wagons pulling—
Xena sprang into the saddle and kicked her mount into a fast gallop. She expertly steered him through the trees with little effort and emerged from the forest on the other side. Without slowing, she leaned low over the saddle and let the wind whip her hair, as she gave the big black his head. He raced like the wind, as his long strides ate up even more ground and carried his mistress to the edge of another clearing.
Reining him in, Xena cautiously approached the open field and the smoking remnants of the forest beyond. She was on the south edge of the forest and knew that Draco's forces were close. Closing her eyes again, she sat there and listened to the distant sounds on the breeze. There.
She pinpointed the army's exact position and called up the map in her head. Draco was attempting to outflank her and was marching his army east of her army's position. She kicked her mount into motion again and turned him farther south. She wanted to see with her own eyes exactly what he was doing. She no longer trusted her spies or the Amazons who had been assigned to scouting duty. Xena was sure there was a traitor among them who was feeding information to the enemy.
When she was sure she was far enough south to avoid detection, Xena turned her weary mount east and then north again. She knew the perfect vantage point from which to do her own reconnaissance and slowed her heaving warhorse as they approached the rocky terrain. When she was close enough to go the rest of the way on foot, Xena dismounted and climbed the boulder field with sure steps. Her leg muscles burned with the effort to hop from one boulder to the next, as she climbed higher until she was perched atop a flat boulder that overlooked the valley below.
There. She could see Draco's army spread out far below her. She counted the detachments that marched in neat rows together and mentally calculated the numbers. Only two thousand troops marched in the main force. There were a thousand or more missing.
She glanced farther north and shaded her eyes against the sun beating down overhead. She could see a faint hint of dust in the far distance, but couldn't make out what it was. As she returned her attention to the main force, however, something caught her eye and gave her pause.
“What the…” She muttered, as she squinted against the glare. “Crosses?”
She couldn't quite see exactly what was on the crosses that were being hauled in the dozen or so wagons that were plodding along behind the main force. But what she could see made her blood run cold. One of the crosses had a shock of short-cropped blond hair just above the cross pieces.
Every instinct inside of Xena screamed for her to charge right down there and free the person who was nailed to that cross. She didn't know if it was actually Gabrielle lying there or if the individual was even alive, but she didn't care. Her heart was pounding wildly in her chest and her breathing was ragged, as she recklessly picked her way back down the boulder field towards her warhorse.
When she reached the warhorse, she paused to catch her breath and leaned tiredly against him. His steady heartbeat offered some comfort and a relative anchor for her, as she gathered her errant thoughts and slowed her breathing.
“You don't know that it's Gabrielle down there,” she muttered to herself. “It could be anyone. Gabrielle is at the keep. She's at Surra. That's not her down there.”
But no matter how many times she tried to reassure herself that it wasn't her lover on that cross, she just couldn't shake the sense of impending doom that had been building all morning long. It was there and she knew there was a reason behind it. Gabrielle was in trouble. Xena could feel it deep down in her gut and knew there was some measure of truth to the connection she'd developed for the woman who held her heart.
“I'm sorry to do this to you, boy,” Xena grabbed his reins and mounted. “But we need to get back to the army. Hiyaaaaah!”
Gabrielle was bone-tired and her leg ached by the time they stopped for what she hoped was only a brief rest. They'd been riding hard for the better part of the entire night and had kept going far into the morning. Their mounts were heaving and had started to stumble when Solari finally called a halt. The weary Amazons dismounted with tired grumbles and sat down on the ground at their horses' feet. No one moved. No one wanted to move.
Gabrielle knew she was pushing them all beyond their endurance. They needed fresh horses and soon. She glanced down at Ebony and saw that his head was drooping, as his sides heaved beneath her. Although she knew very little about horses, she did know they couldn't continue at their present pace without dropping dead. The beasts just couldn't do it.
“We need fresh mounts,” Gabrielle crossed one leg over the saddle and slid to the ground. “Whoa!” She collapsed in a heap in the grass.
“Don't think any of us can continue on at this back-breaking pace, Gabrielle,” Solari just lay where she'd fallen. “I know I can't. I'm exhausted.”
“I have to get to her, Sol,” Gabrielle gingerly sat up and stretched her aching muscles. “There's no other way.”
Solari propped her head on a hand, as she lay on her side in the cool grass. “This is suicide, Gabrielle. You won't make it in time, no matter how fast we move. We're still a day out from the village and another full day's ride from there to the rendezvous point. There's just no way. We have to rest. We have to eat and drink. And the horses…”
“They won't make it, yer maj,” Sehran added. “We've pushed them to their limits. I'm surprised any of them are still on their feet”
“That's why we need fresh mounts,” Gabrielle heaved herself to her feet and leaned heavily against Ebony's side for support. “Is there a village close by?”
Solari and Sehran considered that for a moment.
“There's one a league to the east, My Queen,” Melva piped in. “If I remember right, they have a horse trader there who might be able to help us.”
“Good, let's go,” Gabrielle took the reins of her mount and walked him in a generally easterly direction.
The group of prostrate women glanced at each other and then at their queen's retreating back. Several groans followed, as they stood up and proceeded to follow the determined woman.
“She's lost it,” Sehran groused in a low tone. “We're following a crazy woman.”
“Shh,” Solari moved in next to the guardswoman. “You know better than to question the queen, Sehr. Just do as she says.” She quickened her pace until she was walking next to Gabrielle. “A word, your majesty?”
“They think I'm nuts,” Gabrielle stated flatly.
“In a word, yes,” Solari snickered. “You're not exactly acting rationally, Gabrielle.”
“I know,” the blond agreed. “So?”
“So,” Solari continued more soberly. “Queens don't go off half cocked.”
“I'm not the queen right now,” Gabrielle shot back with a scowl. “Right now, I'm Gabrielle. I'm just another Amazon.”
“You're not just another Amazon,” Solari countered. “And we can't just forget that you are the queen, your majesty. No matter how much you keep insisting that we call you by your given name, it doesn't change the fact that you're a monarch. And the queen doesn't charge off into the unknown like a crazed harpy, begging your pardon, your majesty.”
Gabrielle stopped and turned to face the other woman. “Is that really what you think, Solari?”
“I don't think you've been acting like yourself ever since we returned from the keep, your majesty,” Solari countered. “I think you're letting your emotions cloud your judgment and it's going to get us all in trouble.”
Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath and ran a hand through her hair. “You're right,” she conceded with another heavy sigh. “I'm not acting rationally, am I?”
“No,” Solari shook her head.
“I'm acting like a lovesick kid involved in her first crush,” Gabrielle shot the woman a wry grin.
“Yes,” Solari nodded. “Not a bad thing under normal circumstances. But we're at war. And that alone changes everything.”
Gabrielle's shoulders slumped, as Solari placed a comforting hand on one. “It's okay, Gabrielle. We all understand how urgent the situation is. We just need to use our heads about this. By the time we reach them, everything will have already played out. The war might just be over with, too. We won't know until we get there. And we won't get there at all if you drive us all into the ground.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Understood,” she said, as she placed a hand over Solari's and smiled. “Thank you, Sol.”
“You're welcome, Gabrielle,” Solari removed her hand and started off again. “Let's go find that village and get some fresh mounts. These tired beasts must still be worth a good trade.”
Gabrielle patted Ebony's sweat-stained neck. “I'm going to miss you, boy. I really am.” He snorted and pressed his cheek against hers. “Don't worry. When this is all over, I promise to come back for you.”
It was late-afternoon by the time Xena finally pulled her exhausted mount up at the head of her army. She quickly dismounted and pulled Braes aside.
“Draco knows the plan,” she said when they were far enough away from the main force. “It's been compromised. Time for the alternate plan. I've already alerted the Amazons and cleared them from the forest at the edge of the battle ground. Draco set the trees ablaze and was trying to smoke them out. They're regrouping and will go ahead with the alternate plan I laid out last night.”
“We split the main force, then?” He eyed her skeptically. “No offense, Lord Conqueror, but these men haven't been together long enough for that to be a good idea.”
“Can't be helped, Braes,” Xena shot him a tolerant glare. “I'm not asking, I'm ordering. Split them and send a contingent south and the other east. I'm also taking an attack group on a special mission tomorrow night. Don't be too surprised when your men engage their main force. Oh, and be prepared for a flanking maneuver from a third of Draco's army. I only counted two thousand during my reconnaissance mission.”
“Right,” he nodded, as he turned on his heel and took off toward the marching men.
Xena blew out a tired sigh and then stiffened, as a familiar tingle raced down her spine.
“You really think you can outsmart them?” A familiar, deep-timbered voice from her past said next to her.
“Ares,” Xena ground out between clenched teeth, as she turned to face the booding God of War. “I knew this had your stink all over it.”
He chuckled. “Nice to see you, too, Xena,” he said and ran a finger along her jaw line. “It's been a long time. I've missed you.”
Xena growled. “I told you I never wanted to see you again.”
“Oh, come on, Xena,” he moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her. A warm glow infused them both. “You mean to tell me you didn't miss…this?”
Xena felt his seduction surround and penetrate her. Her body came alive with an explosion of hot sensations, as his godly powers awoke the bloodlust deep within.
“No!” She pulled away and almost dropped to the ground when she broke contact with him. The bloodlust still simmered, but the sensations vanished, leaving her feeling empty and bereft.
“I'm not yours anymore, Ares,” she hissed. “And you can't tempt me with your powers of seduction anymore. My heart belongs to someone else.”
“Oh, please,” he chuckled and lowered his gaze until he was watching her through hooded lids. “You know you can't escape me, Xena. That little Amazon wannabe you've been chasing has nothing compared to what I can give you. Besides, once you accept my mark, you are mine, forever. There is no escape from this—from us.”
“No, there is no longer an us,” she shook her head and felt the mark burn her skin. “I'm no longer yours, God of War. I served you once. I won't do it again. And I don't intend to go back to being the Conqueror once I take care of Draco. I'm done.”
He crossed his muscular arms over his chest and glared at her. “You would allow Greece to once again fall under the rule of a bunch of power-hungry warlords? Oh, somehow I don't think so.”
“I don't care anymore,” she retorted. “There will always be someone out there who is more than willing to be manipulated by your seductions, Ares. I'm sure Draco has enjoyed the promises you made to him.”
“He's a tool,” Ares waved a negligent hand. “Although, he has been a rather fun play toy up to now.”
“He's not me,” Xena shot back with a knowing glare.
“No, he isn't,” Ares moved closer and was a bit surprised when Xena pulled the sword from her back and held it to his chest. He stuck a finger out and tried to move the blade aside, but found it firmly set. “You don't want to do this, Xena.”
“Why ever not?” Xena ground out between clenched teeth.
“Because she'll die,” he chuckled at the surprise in her eyes. “It's all part of the plan.”
“You're lying, you scum!” She hissed.
He turned away and took a couple steps, then turned back with a knowing smirk. “Am I, Xena? She will die. The Fates have decreed it,” he chuckled. “But you don't believe they have any control over your destiny, now, do you?”
“I make my own destiny, Ares. You should know that by now,” Xena growled.
“Yes, you were always a loose cannon, Xena,” he chuckled. “We'll see how this all plays out. I'm sure you have something up those invisible sleeves of yours. Just remember, there are no victims of war, only casualties.”
He lifted his fingers and snapped them, disappearing in a flash of blinding light. Xena stood there for a moment, collecting her thoughts and mulling over the conversation. She knew the God of War was telling her something in his cryptic, evasive way. She just had to figure out what it was. And then she figured there was time enough later to delve into the layers of crap and sort through Ares' cryptic message.
Gabrielle dismounted the tall bay gelding and led him over to the stream for a drink. After negotiating with the stubborn horse trader for far longer than intended, they had finally managed to acquire replacements for their exhausted mounts. Sending the other Amazons into the village for supplies, Solari, Sehran and Gabrielle managed the impossible.
“You're quite the negotiator, Gabrielle,” Solari dismounted, as well. “I guess I never realized you had such a gift with words. I thought you were going to have him paying us for taking these beasts off his hands.”
Gabrielle noticed the Amazon was getting more used to horseback riding and was no longer dismounting the same way she mounted—one leg at a time. It was quite an accomplishment and one that she was secretly proud of. Of course, those moments were few and far between, as thoughts of Xena and the others intruded on her reverie.
“Thanks, Sol,” Gabrielle absently adjusted the gelding's saddle. “It's really not that hard to do. You just have to know which words to use in order to get what you want. It's kinda like storytelling. You read the audience and play to their tastes. Same with negotiating. Read the audience and you know what makes them tick.”
“I was never one for words,” Sehran put in. “They just don't come to me like fighting does.”
“We all have our strengths and weaknesses,” Gabrielle said. “Some things just come easier to some than they do for others.”
“Like horseback riding?” Solari shot a wry grin at Gabrielle. “You seem to have caught on really well with that, while the rest of us are struggling like fish outta water.”
“Honestly?” Gabrielle leaned in conspiratorially. “I'm terrified of horses.”
Both Amazons shot each other a ‘yeah-right' glare.
“Tell us another tall tale, your majesty,” Sehran shot back sarcastically. “That one was just too unbelievable.”
Gabrielle's brow shot up. “I'm serious.”
Solari chuckled. “Good one, Gabrielle. You almost had us going with that one. Almost. But we've both seen you ride and you're really good at it. We know better.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, as she caught sight of the returning Amazons. “Here they come. I hope they remembered trail rations. We're not gonna get far if we all pass out from hunger.”
“We scored, big time,” Melva held up a large leather sack.
“What did you score?” Solari shot the woman an expectant look. “Did you remember the trail rations?”
“Better,” Melva smiled, as she handed the sack over to Gabrielle. “Dried fruit, shelled nuts, fresh turkey and venison jerky, and fresh meat pies for tonight's meal. We can eat them while we ride.”
“And three skins of apple cider, two skins of wine and a bottle of port,” a round-faced Amazon held up another satchel. “The tavern keeper was clearing out his stores and gave ‘em to us at half-price.”
“And we also have six pouches full of grain for the horses,” Petrice added with a shy smile.
“Dressine, Mara, Petrice, good job,” Gabrielle praised the two.
“Hey, I got the food,” Melva whined.
“Nicely done,” Gabrielle added quickly. “You all did great and now we need to go.”
There were several groans from her companions. Gabrielle just ignored them and climbed up into the saddle. The bay gelding was a full head taller than Ebony and was not as docile as the black horse. But the bay was faster, at least according to their new friend Jamil, the horse trader. And the man promised to hold their mounts until they could return to claim them. Then again, Solari had also threatened him to within an inch of his sorry life if he as much as looked at Ebony wrong.
Gabrielle turned her new mount toward the road and kicked him into a fast trot.
“Are you coming? Or do I have to go this leg of the journey alone?” She called over her shoulder.
“Oh, for Artemis' sake,” Solari quickly mounted her saucy chestnut mare and took off at a canter.
“Last one there's a stinkin' centaur,” Melva jumped into the saddle and kicked her chestnut gelding into a fast trot that had her bouncing in the saddle like a marionette on steroids (yeah, I know, not very ancient Greek of me).
“And I'm on the queen's guard detail, why?” Sehran glanced at the others, then mounted her own horse. “Oh, never mind, sisters. Let's go before she gets into even more trouble or something else happens.”
As soon as the others were mounted, they all took off in hot pursuit of the Thracian Amazon queen and resumed their journey to save the Conqueror of the Known World.
“Anyone think it's a little weird that Queen Gabrielle is racing cross-country to save the Conqueror?” Mara commented absently. “No? Okay!”
Xena knew they were in deep trouble the instant her own catapults started raining burning pitch down on the army's encampment. She hadn't given the signal, nor had she told General Braes to arm the catapults. Glancing at the rising sun in the east from atop her black warhorse, she tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for what was going on.
“Braes!!!” She shouted to be heard above the chaos. “General Braes, where in Tartarus are you?!?”
The man emerged from his command tent still buckling the belt at his waist and adjusting his overshirt. He wasn't wearing his armor, as he made his way through the chaos.
“My Lord Conqueror!” He saluted and suddenly realized his attire was lacking. “Oh, for the love…”
“Never mind, General!” Xena ground out between clench teeth, as another fiery ball of pitch landed in the midst of a group of men. “Why are our catapults firing on us?”
“I d-don't know, My Lord,” he stuttered, as another pitch ball landed not far from where they were. “Sh-shouldn't we move, Lord Conqueror?”
Xena glanced at the burning fireball amidst several screaming men. “And go where?”
“Somewhere else?” He shot back, as he looked around for a safe place to hide. “It's not safe here, My Lord.”
“It's not safe anywhere, you moron!” Xena shouted at the top of her lungs in frustration. “Those catapults were supposed to be secure. You said you had your best men manning and guarding them. What the Hades happened? Why are they firing on us?”
“I-I'm not sure, My Lord,” he grabbed the nearest loose horse and mounted it bareback. “Shall I go find out?”
“Let's both go, shall we?” Xena turned her mount and kneed the big brute into a hard gallop.
She didn't wait to see if Braes was following nor did she really care. She was pissed that things were getting out of hand and only wanted to unleash her rage on whoever was responsible. If it was Braes, then he was in for one Hades of an eye-opening. If it wasn't him, then woe to whomever it was.
Despite the fact he was on an unfamiliar horse, Braes managed to keep pace with the woman in front of him. Her warhorse tore up the landscape, as she pushed the beast for more speed. But his smaller mount was nearly as swift and surefooted as the larger brute in front of him.
They reached the edge of the clearing where the catapults were and reined in their heaving mounts. Xena dismounted and walked over to stand beneath a small tree. Her eyes were on the sight laid out before her and her blood ran cold with the implications.
With her signature battle cry, Xena raced across the clearing to where the catapults were. A dozen Amazon warriors suddenly turned to confront the lethal threat that was heading in their direction. Xena felt the bloodlust roil up inside her, as she pulled her sword free of the scabbard at her back and continued on.
The first woman to meet her charge was no match for the rage that was unleashed in that very instant. Xena swung her sword in an arc from ground to sky that cut the woman nearly in half from the waist up. Blood splattered everywhere, including on Xena herself, as she barely missed a step and continued on with deadly intent.
She met the next two Amazons on the run, as well. Her battle cry rang across the open space, as the Amazons charged toward her with their own swords held in front of them. Xena didn't even pause and merely swung her blade across in front of her in a wide arc that took both women out in twin sprays of blood.
As she reached the first catapult, Xena twirled her blade in a menacing show of skill that had a few of the remaining Amazons thinking twice about what they were doing. The Amazon closest to her barely knew what hit her, as a Xena's blade flashed in the early-morning sunlight and took her down in yet another spray of blood.
And then Xena heard the twang of a bowstring and turned in time to catch an arrow in mid-flight aimed at her head. She spun the shaft around and threw the arrow with all her might. The shaft embedded up to its feathered fletching in another Amazon's chest and that woman fell against one of the barrels of pitch. The barrel toppled over and spilled on the ground at the feet of several more Amazons, who glanced up at the one wielding a torch and standing in their midst.
Xena grabbed the closest woman's sword, ripped it from her hand and threw the blade at the women holding the torch. The torch-wielding Amazon looked down at the blade embedded up to its hilt and dropped the torch in her hand. The ground around the women suddenly ignited and they were engulfed in a fiery death. Their agonizing screams pierced the silent morning air and filled the clearing, as Xena moved on with purposeful strides toward the next group.
“Get her!” A tall Amazon in colorful beads in her hair and fear in her pale brown eyes shouted. “Now is our chance to kill the bitch and rid our nation of her stench, once and for all.”
Xena knew who the woman was, but there were half a dozen determined warriors between her and Gwyn-Taleen. Breath heaving in her chest, she planted her feet and let the women charge toward her. As they came within striking distance, Xena used every move in her vast repertoire to fight them off. She fought like a crazed panther and her strikes were sure. Two women went down in the initial assault, while the remaining four regrouped and spread out to surround her.
But Xena's senses were heightened by Ares' visit the day before. She could feel their every movement and taste the fear in the air. A feral grin split her features as she caught a blade on hers from behind, spun around and slit the throat of her attacker in one easy motion.
“And you call yourselves Amazons?” She sneered. “You'll have to do far better than that.”
Two of the three remaining women charged her from opposite sides, but Xena merely back-flipped away from them at the very last second and let them run each other through. Shocked expressions registered on both their painted faces, before they collapsed against each other and breathed their last.
“Still not good enough,” Xena twirled her sword and stalked toward the only remaining barrier in the way of taking down the traitorous queen. She lowered her chin and glared at the woman standing hesitantly before her. “You swore to protect your queen with your life, Amazon. Are you ready to lay down your miserable life for hers?”
“I—” The Amazon glanced back at Gwyn-Taleen.
“Kill her, Amarinis!” Gwyn-Taleen ordered. “She is the enemy and must be stopped!”
“What in the name of Artemis is going on here?” Ephiny suddenly appeared at the edge of the clearing. “Queen Gwyn-Taleen? Xena?”
The Amazon queen turned toward Ephiny and pointed a finger at Xena. “She killed our sisters in an uncontrollable rage! And now she intends to kill me, too!”
Ephiny turned her hazel gaze on the tall warrior with blood covering her from head to toe. “Is that true, Xena?”
“No,” Xena shook her head, as she kept her eyes on Gwyn-Taleen and the Amazon in front of the queen. “They attacked our encampment with our own catapults—“
“LIES!!!” Gwyn-Taleen shouted. “Amarinis, I order you to stop her! Kill the Conqueror!”
The redheaded Amazon raised her sword in front of her and stood her ground, if a bit shakily. There was a shell-shocked look in her eyes as she faced off against the woman who had killed a number of her sisters in no time at all.
“Amarinis?” Ephiny moved toward the three women and glanced around at the bloody scene behind Xena. “Is Gwyn-Taleen telling the truth?”
“You have no authority here, Regent!” Gwyn-Taleen snapped. “Leave this to us!”
“She has a great deal of authority, Gwyn-Taleen,” Grenella stepped into the clearing behind Ephiny and noticed which way the catapults were aimed. “I believe Xena is telling the truth.”
Gwyn-Taleen spat on the ground. “You know nothing, old fool! Go back to where you came from. We don't need you here!”
“Oh, but I think you do,” Grenella challenged. “You have insulted the Thracian regent and accused their queen's champion of murder. I hope you have proof to back up your claim.”
“There is all the proof you need!” Gwyn-Taleen pointed at the bodies littering the ground. “My sisters died protecting me from this animal! She is no better than all the other warlords who once plagued Greece! She must die for her crimes against humanity!”
“The only proof I see here is those catapults, Gwyn-Taleen,” Grenella said in a calm voice devoid of emotion. “You and your tribeswomen attacked our allies.”
Gwyn-Taleen suddenly pulled her sword from its scabbard and charged the elder queen with a high-pitched scream. Xena had only a heartbeat to react, as she launched herself into the air, did a quick somersault and took Gwyn-Taleen to the ground. The queen's sword flew in one direction while Xena's went the other way. They struggled on the ground for several heartbeats, until Xena came out on top. She thrust the fingers of both hands into the woman's neck, effectively immobilizing the Amazon queen.
“I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, Gwyn-Taleen,” Xena climbed off the woman and watched the surprise register in Gwyn-Taleen's eyes. “You have very little time before you're dead. So talk.”
“It was Marena's idea,” Gwyn-Taleen gasped, as a trickle of blood escaped one nostril. “She's the one who came up with it.”
“What idea?” Grenella walked over and leaned forward. “Why would you betray the Amazon Nation, Gwyn-Taleen?”
“You betray us, old woman!” Gwyn-Taleen spat. “You blindly follow this…this pretender and her little whore! The Amazon Nation would be strong if not for them!”
“So, you decided to plant spies in the army and leak information to Draco?” Xena added. “Then you used our own catapults against us?”
“Draco knows nothing!” Gwyn-Taleen gasped, as her eyes widened with fear.
Xena reached out and released the pinch. She watched Gwyn-Taleen gasp for breath again and turn hateful eyes on her.
“We've heard enough,” Grenella glanced at Ephiny. “Gwyn-Taleen, you will be tried by an Amazon tribunal for this traitorous act against our allies.”
“You have no right, old woman!” Gwyn-Taleen shot back with an angry hiss. “She,” an accusing finger pointed at Xena, “is the one who should face your tribunal! She is the one who will be our ultimate demise!”
“Guards!” Ephiny called to the trees behind them and waited for several armed Amazons to join them. “Bind her and take her back to camp. Make sure she is secured and keep everyone away from her.”
The guards all nodded then stepped forward to take Gwyn-Taleen into custody. Two grabbed her arms and used a rope to bind her hands behind her back.
“And what about her?” Ephiny nodded toward Amarinis.
Grenella nodded to one of the guards. “Take her, too. They will both be tried as traitors to the Nation.”
“You won't get away with this!” Gwyn-Taleen shouted, as the guards hauled her and Amarinis away. “There are others who feel as I do! We shall prevail! Down with the pretender and her whore!!!”
“And put a gag in Queen Gwyn-Taleen's mouth to shut her up! We don't need her filth spreading to others!” Grenella called after the retreating group. She then turned and saw the carnage around them, as well as on Xena herself. “Oh, Xena, what in the name of Artemis did you do?”
Xena was still trying to pull herself together, as she turned to face her aunt's consort. The bloodlust was still raging through her and she knew she needed to escape for a while and let it dissipate. But she also knew she had to face what she'd done.
“I think I can shed some light on all this,” General Braes stepped forward at that point. He saluted Xena with a fist to his heart and bowed his head before them all. “Our Lord Conqueror rushed in to stop those women from firing more pitch into the army's encampment. They killed a number of good men and injured many who will not be able to fight in the coming battle. She did nothing wrong and acted the hero for us all.”
Grenella glanced around at the bodies littering the field and the still-burning mess near one of the catapults. “Gwyn-Taleen and her bunch were not acting on behalf of the Amazon Nation as a whole, Xena. I can assure you of that.”
Xena blew out a heavy sigh. “I know, Grenella. But there's still someone among your Amazons who is leaking information to Draco. And we have yet another problem on our hands.”
“Oh?” Ephiny's gaze shot up to meet Xena's. “We managed to round up all our sisters and reposition them in the trees that weren't affected by the fire Draco's men set earlier. What else is going on that we don't know about?”
“I went out to take a look at Draco's army,” Xena began. “There were half a dozen or so wagons with them with crosses in the back. There were people on those crosses—” She shook her head and swallowed hard. “There is a short-haired blond on one, but I couldn't get close enough to confirm that it's Gabrielle.”
Twin gasps met her words.
“You don't really think—” Ephiny started.
“I don't know,” Xena interrupted. “For all we know, Draco could have just picked up someone along the way who vaguely resembles Gabrielle and is using that person as bait. It just doesn't make sense that he was able to get to her.”
“Unless he had an ambush waiting for her somewhere along her path to Surra,” Grenella added somberly. “He could have sent men to capture her and bring her to him.”
“Xena, you said there were others?” Ephiny added.
“Yes,” Xena nodded. “At least six wagons.”
“Could you tell what any of the victims were wearing?” The regent continued.
“No, I was too far away,” Xena replied. “I couldn't even tell if they were women or men.”
“We need to find out who they are,” Ephiny said.
“There's no time.” Xena wiped her blade on the grass at her feet and returned it to the scabbard at her back. “Draco's troops are marching this way. They'll be camped on our border by nightfall.”
“I'll take care of that,” Ephiny glanced from Xena to Grenella. “I think it's also important to know what Draco plans to do with those people, even if they're not our sisters.”
“I agree,” Grenella nodded. “In the meantime, I'll meet with the other queens to decide what to do with Gwyn-Taleen until all this is finished.”
“If you need to keep her separated from the others, you're more than welcome to use one of the tents,” Xena volunteered. “I'll have some men set it up away from the other women, if you'd like.”
“Thank you, Xena,” Grenella nodded. “I think that would be best.”
“I agree,” Ephiny just shook her head. “I just can't believe another queen turned traitor on us like that.”
“It seems to be going around,” Xena groused.
“I wish Gabrielle was here to deal with all this, instead of me,” Ephiny added sadly. “I really hate this.”
“You and me, both,” Xena blew out a breath. “You and me, both.”
Gabrielle was having her own fun. After two nights without sleep, she was beyond exhausted and could barely keep her eyes open. They had slowed their mounts to a walk and the rest of her group was enjoying trail rations in the saddle. Unfortunately, Gabrielle's stomach wasn't cooperating. So, she just didn't eat.
“You're gonna make yourself sick, Gabrielle,” Solari pulled her horse up beside her. “You need to eat something.”
“Not really hungry,” Gabrielle replied, as she sipped apple cider from the skin she had draped over her saddle horn. “How far from the rendezvous point do you think we are now?”
“Not too far,” Solari answered. “We should make it there by nightfall. Give the horses another half-candlemark of rest and they should be good to go for another run.”
Gabrielle nodded. “How are the rest of you holding up?” She glanced around at the other women. “Everyone seems in good spirits.”
“I think they're excited that we'll soon be joining our sisters and maybe get in on the action,” Solari grinned.
“I'm a little worried that our queen isn't taking care of herself quite like she should,” Solari shot back. “You're looking pale, Gabrielle.”
“I'm just tired,” Gabrielle sighed. “I don't do very well without a good night's sleep.”
“Then maybe we should take a break and let you get some sleep,” Solari suggested. “We don't know what we'll face once we get closer to the action. And you don't need to go riding in there so exhausted that you drop from the saddle at the first sign of trouble.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed, as she tried to get her bleary thoughts in order. “Maybe you're right, Sol. I think we all need a short break, so we're fresh when we get there.”
They rode for a little while longer, until Solari spotted a clearing just off the road. They pulled their horses up and dismounted. Then Melva, Mara and a couple others took the horses to drink in a nearby stream, while Solari and Sehran built a small fire and cooked some gruel.
With all the chores taken care of by the others, Gabrielle had nothing to do. So, she unrolled her sleeping fur and lay down on it. She was so exhausted that she drifted off in seconds and was soon snoring soundly.
“Should we wake her and give her something to eat?” Sehran looked to Solari, who was dishing up a generous bowl full of hot gruel. “She hasn't eaten anything since that meat pie she finished yesterday afternoon. I'm really worried about her. It's not like Gabrielle to skip meals.”
Solari glanced down at the soundly-sleeping queen and shook her head. “Don't wake her. She's not used to going for nights-on-end without sleep. Just let her rest for a little while longer. It'll do her good.”
Solari sat down on a fallen log and ate the tasteless goopy gray stuff in her bowl. She wasn't sure if the gruel would agree with Gabrielle's sensitive stomach, but she hoped the woman would eventually eat some of it. Gruel was a good source of energy and would keep them going, even without a lot of sleep.
She glanced down at the woman sprawled out next to her. Gabrielle was lying on her stomach and snoring softly. Her blond hair had grown past her ears and was tangled every which way at that moment. Her face was relaxed in deep slumber and she looked like a young girl, not the grown woman everyone was looking for her to be. Solari smiled, as she watched over Gabrielle and continued to eat her gruel in silence.
The rest of the group built another fire a bit farther away, in deference to their sleeping queen. They chatted amongst themselves and ate the trail rations Melva had scrounged up for them the day before. Some of them even decided to follow their queen's example and take a quick nap.
It wasn't long before the sun had peaked in the cloudless sky and was making its slow and easy way toward the western horizon. Solari glanced up at the sky and realized they really needed to get going. Then she glanced down again at the still figure lying prostrate on her sleeping furs. She decided it couldn't hurt to let Gabrielle sleep for another quarter candlemark.
“She seems so young when she's sleeping,” Sehran commented quietly. “Doesn't she?”
“Yeah,” Solari brushed the bangs from Gabrielle's closed eyes. “She's so out of it. I hope we can get her to wake up enough to get going soon.”
Sehran rubbed her sore backside. “As long as we've been in those damned uncomfortable saddles, I'm not really looking forward to resuming this breakneck pace she's set for us. I mean, I know how important this is to her, but, still—” She finished with a shrug.
Solari glanced up at her companion with a slight scowl. “You having second thoughts about serving as queen's guard, Sehr?”
“No,” Sehran answered quickly. “No, but I have wondered, a time or two, if Queen Melosa and Princess Terreis were really looking out for our best interests when they did what they did.” She ran a hand through her brown hair and sighed. “She wasn't even an Amazon when Princess Terreis gave her the right of caste. And she knows so little about our ways. She isn't even a full warrior, yet.”
“Not all of us were born into the tribe, Sehr,” Solari pointed out. “I was twelve summers when I was accepted and began my training as a warrior. And look how far I've come.”
“Yeah, but you're one of us now, Sol,” Sehran continued. “You've more than earned your place among our sisters. You've proven yourself a true warrior more times than many of the elders have over a lifetime.”
Solari heard warning bells go off in her head at the woman's words. Those warning bells were giving her an ominous feeling that begged for her to dig a little deeper into Sehran's thoughts on the subject.
“And just because she's not what you call a ‘true' warrior, you think that makes her less qualified to be queen?” Solari cautiously prodded. “Where is this coming from Sehran? Are you telling me you agree with Velasca and Queen Marena?”
Sehran shook her head. “No. But I'm not so sure Gabrielle is the right woman to lead us, either. Things are not always black and white, Sol. There are many shades of gray between those two colors. Maybe we really need to consider the alternatives and find someone more capable of doing the job. I really think you would make a great queen. Of course, Ephiny would also have something to say about it.”
Both women were so engrossed in the conversation that neither noticed that Gabrielle was no longer snoring. As a matter of fact, she was wide awake and had been through most of the conversation. She listened intently to everything that was said and tried to reason through the arguments that were presented. And she remained perfectly still and quiet throughout, hoping to glean some useful information.
“I really can't believe I'm hearing this from you, Sehr,” Solari just shook her head in disgust. “I thought you were above the petty arguments that have been going around.”
“What does that mean?” The guardswoman's hackles rose. “Are you questioning my loyalty?”
“I mostly certainly am. You're as much a traitor to Gabrielle as Velasca and Marena,” Solari continued. “You have the same outmoded ideas as they do, although you try to candy-coat them behind vague platitudes and innuendo. But you're a traitor, plain and simple. Was that why you slipped the poison to Queen Melosa? Is they why you killed her?”
Sehran jumped to her feet, drew her sword and aimed the tip of the blade at the woman's throat. “You have no proof of that, Solari. Your accusation is unfounded and I resent the implication.”
“I have all the proof I need, Sehran,” Solari slowly stood up and faced the woman. “You slipped poison into Melosa's wine when she wasn't looking. You were the only one close enough to do it. And you've been doing the same to Gabrielle, here. I know. I saw you do it.”
Gabrielle took that moment to stand up and glare at the woman standing defiantly in front of her. “Did you really intend to kill her, Sehran?”
Sehran turned her sword on Gabrielle, who remained perfectly still and merely eyed the blade. “You've no idea what you're talking about,” she hissed. “Neither of you knows what this is really about.”
“Oh, but she does,” Solari said and was relieved when Sehran turned the blade back on her.
Gabrielle bristled as she moved next to Solari. She also sent a silent staying signal to the others, who were watching the scene curiously from their own campfire.
“I do, Sehran,” Gabrielle added. “But I still want to know if you truly intended to kill Melosa or if it was an accident.”
Tears sprang to the guardswoman's eyes. “It…it wasn't supposed…Belise said it wouldn't kill her, just make her sick.”
“Who is Belise?” Gabrielle kept her tone calm and even.
“She's one of Marena's tribeswomen,” Sehran answered through trembling lips, as tears trailed down her cheeks. “It wasn't supposed to happen like that. Melosa wasn't supposed to die. She was just supposed to get sick, really sick. I don't know what happened.”
“Why?” Sehran repeated. “Because Melosa was calling the queens together for that stupid alliance with the Conqueror and she'd already signed that useless treaty and…and…” The sword trembled in her hands. “You!” The blade tip moved to Gabrielle's throat again. “Your very presence made them both weak! And then Terreis died and gave you her right of cast. It wasn't supposed to happen like that! She wasn't supposed to die!”
Gabrielle felt the sharp tip prick the skin at her throat. She heard a small gasp next to her and used her eyes to silence Solari.
“What really happened, Sehran?” Gabrielle's voice was calm, despite the turmoil and fear roiling in her guts. Her stomach was churning, but she didn't know if it was nerves or the small amounts of poison she'd ingested, before she'd realized what was happening. When they stopped near a stream a few leagues back, Gabrielle had covertly switched her skin for one she knew wasn't tainted. “Why did Melosa die, Sehran?”
“It was Velasca,” Sehran replied through her tears. “She told me the amount I was giving Melosa wasn't enough. She said I had to add more or the plan wouldn't work.”
“Velasca was going to challenge Melosa for the queen's mask,” Sehran swiped at her tears with one hand and kept the blade at Gabrielle's throat with the other. “She said she wanted Melosa sick and weak enough during the challenge to put her off her stride. She knew Melosa was deadly with her weapon of choice, the chobos. There was no way Velasca would win the challenge if Melosa was healthy.”
“So she gave you the poison and had you put it in Melosa's wine,” Gabrielle finished for her.
“She wasn't supposed to die from it!” Sehran spat. “Not with you next in line to accept the mask!”
“But Melosa did die,” Gabrielle continued, as she felt a trickle of blood trail down into her cleavage. “She died and I became queen. So Velasca had to step things up, because she knew Xena and I were close.”
“She knew you were no match for her,” Sehran continued. “And then she found out that you don't climb trees. That was the perfect place for her to take the challenge. She didn't need to get you sick. She just had to get you into the trees and target your fear of heights.”
“I'm not actually afraid of heights, Sehran,” Gabrielle said. “I fell out of a tree once. That's all. Velasca's plan probably wouldn't have worked out as well as she thought it would.”
“She didn't count on Xena showing up during the challenge,” Sehran continued. “She also didn't count on—”
“She didn't count on Grenella stepping in and informing me of my right to name a champion to fight in my stead,” Gabrielle cut in. “So, why have you been poisoning me lately, then? Why not just kill me outright, Sehran?”
Solari gasped again and eyed the blonde's pale complexion with new understanding.
Sehran let the hint of a wry smirk touch her lips. “You're smarter than I thought.”
“I realized earlier that the cider didn't taste right,” Gabrielle replied. “Then I figured out why I was feeling so poorly, while the rest of you seemed completely unaffected by what we ate and drank. Your poison has a very distinct metallic taste to it. Melosa probably didn't realize it, because the stronger taste of the wine would have masked the taste. Then Solari told me about the white powder you poured into my skin.”
“I can't believe you've been poisoning the queen!” Solari took a step toward Sehran and stopped when the woman pressed her blade tip farther into Gabrielle's throat.
“Ah-ah-ah, Sol,” Sehran warned, as she watched the sharp tip pierce Gabrielle's skin enough to open a larger cut.
“Kill me now and Ephiny becomes queen in my place,” Gabrielle said, as the cut stung. “She already holds my right of caste, Sehran. Your only option is to challenge me and take the mask.”
Sehran considered that, as her brow furrowed in thought. Yes, that was the best option. She would become queen and would know exactly what to do to strengthen the tribe. After all, she'd been there when Melosa had reigned as queen. It couldn't be all that hard.
“If you're going to do it, do it now, Sehran,” Gabrielle hissed. “Time is running out and I'm not wasting any more of it standing here talking to you.”
Gabrielle took a step away from the blade tip at her throat and waited. Solari glanced from one woman to the other, unsure how to proceed. She trusted Gabrielle's judgment, but wasn't sure the woman was up for a challenge against the seasoned guardswoman.
“I issue the challenge,” Sehran said in a resigned voice. “You are not worthy to be queen, Gabrielle.”
“So be it,” Gabrielle nodded curtly. “Then I choose the weapon and my weapon of choice is the staff.”
“A child's toy?” Sehran shot back.
“Not in the right hands,” Gabrielle countered.
The other women gathered around them, as Solari removed Gabrielle's staff from where it had been tied to her saddle.
“We didn't bring another, Gabrielle,” Solari said. “Yours is the only staff we have with us.”
“I'll cut my own,” Sehran walked over to a group of saplings and hacked at the base of one. She then stripped the branches and tested it for balance. “This will do nicely.”
Gabrielle moved away from the campfire and into the clearing. She twirled her staff several times and stretched muscles she hadn't had to use in a while. Once she was done with her warm-up, she set her stance.
“You know this is a fight to the death, My Queen,” Sehran gave her a menacing half-smile.
“Let's just get on with it. I have much better things to do than this,” Gabrielle lifted her staff into a defensive position in front of her.
Their staffs clashed with several resounding thwacks , as the two women went for it. Gabrielle felt her muscles bunch and pull in time with her swings, blocks and parries. She let her mind clear and her senses take over, as she set a rhythm and used moves Eponin had taught her during their sparring sessions. She was also testing her opponent's metal and figuring out Sehran's moves. Like most of the warriors who had long-ago graduated to the sword, Sehran's moves were fairly straightforward and rudimentary.
As the moments ticked by, the fight became more heated. Gabrielle found her rhythm and got some good hits in against her opponent. She also took a few painful hits to her arms, hands and a knee. She merely deflected the blows and shook them off.
“Come on, Gabrielle!” Solari cheered her on from the edge of the clearing. “Show her what you can do with that little stick of yours!”
Encouraged by the woman's words, Gabrielle mounted an offensive against her opponent. She used everything in her repertoire, as well as a few moves she'd used against Ephiny. Blow after blow hit their mark and turned the tide of the fight in Gabrielle's favor. Each strike that made it past Sehran's defenses eventually left a red welt or a painful bruise.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on her opponent and only broke eye contact when she spun around or ducked a swing at her head. She felt her muscles burn with the exertion it took to land the blows. One particular swing actually caught Sehran completely off guard and slammed against her jaw. Blood spewed from the woman's mouth and she actually lost a tooth from the blow.
“You'll pay for that,” Sehran growled through bloody lips, as she launched her own offensive strikes against Gabrielle.
Taller and slightly stronger than the queen, Sehran's blows had a bit more power behind them. But Gabrielle met each strike with an effective block. As Sehran lifted her staff for a downward strike, however, Gabrielle lifted her own to counter the strike and left her entire midsection exposed.
“Gabrielle!” Solari's shout rang across the clearing, but too late.
Sehran pulled her downward swing at the last moment and spun around to deliver a hard blow to Gabrielle's midsection. The resultant crack echoed across the field and filled the ears of the observers.
Gabrielle knew she was in dire trouble the instant Sehran changed her trajectory in mid-swing. She tried desperately to bend with the blow, but to no avail. She felt the breath rush from her lungs and a blinding pain radiate along her entire side. She knew the blow had broken at least one rib, but she couldn't think of anything through the searing pain that threatened to drop her to her knees.
And then Sehran followed up that blow with another that caught Gabrielle just below the chin and knocked her head back. The salty tang of blood filled her mouth and threatened to choke her, as the blow sent her flying backward to land on her back in the grass.
Solari slapped a hand over her mouth and stared in shock. The others around her also braced themselves for the worst. They could see that their queen was in real trouble and wanted nothing more than to rush to her aid. But they all knew better. This fight was between Gabrielle and Sehran. And one of them would not walk away alive.
Gabrielle felt the world spin out of control around her as she tried to get her bearings. Her jaw was on fire, her ears were ringing and everything around her was suddenly out of focus. But she still had a firm grip on her staff. The feel of the familiar worn wood in her hands was enough to give her the fortitude she needed to climb back to her feet. She shook her head to clear her vision, but all it did was make her ears ring louder.
“What's the matter, My Queen? Not up to the challenge?” Sehran's confidence returned ten-fold, as she watched blood and saliva dribble down Gabrielle's chin. She could also see that the woman was favoring her injured side. “Aww, did I hurt your wittle ribs?”
Gabrielle sucked in a painful breath and let it out slowly. The adrenaline was pumping through her and all she wanted to do was pound the woman into the ground at her feet. She shook her head again and squinted until she saw only one Sehran standing in front of her.
“You gonna keep jawing, Sehran? Or are you gonna fight?” Gabrielle spat a glob of blood and saliva into the grass at her feet.
“Brave words from a woman with broken ribs,” Sehran twirled her staff in front of her. “Painful, aren't they?”
Gabrielle put everything into her next offensive, as she charged Sehran and rained as many blows down on the woman as she could. She ignored the pain, ignored the blood still dripping from her chin, and even ignored the pounding in her jaw and the ringing in her ears. Everything just drifted away as she let her instincts take over and slammed her staff into Sehran's staff and body time and time again.
But Sehran could taste victory and wanted nothing more than to finish what she'd started. She put her all into her counterattack and drove the tip of her staff past Gabrielle's defenses and into her side several times. She also managed to sweep her staff behind Gabrielle's legs and drop the woman to the ground. When she raised the tip of the staff to drive it into Gabrielle's face, the blond rolled away at the last second and rammed her own staff into the front of Sehran's knee with a resounding crack.
Sehran dropped to the ground in agony and wrapped both hands around her quickly-swelling knee, as Gabrielle slowly climbed to her feet. Using her own staff for support and breathing shallowly, Gabrielle kicked Sehran's staff out of reach and held the tip of her own against the woman's throat.
“Yield, Sehran! Yield to me!” Gabrielle growled in a low voice. “Or I will kill you here and now.”
“Kill me,” Sehran hissed. “I don't deserve to live. I have disgraced my fellow Amazons.”
“You don't deserve to die quickly, either,” Gabrielle pushed the tip of the staff down hard on Sehran's windpipe. “Living with your shame will be far more painful than anything I could ever do to you.” Gabrielle didn't bother to look up, as the others gathered around them. “Do you yield, Sehran?”
“She must die, My Queen,” Solari's quiet voice pierced the stillness, “if for no other reason than she betrayed her sisters and killed our queen. She cannot be allowed to live.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly against the truth of the words. But she knew in her heart that she could not execute the woman without a trial, even if she was the queen. Her conscience wouldn't allow her to play judge, jury and executioner.
“Bind her belly-down on her horse,” Gabrielle ordered. “We'll take her to face a tribunal for her crimes against the Nation.”
“You are a coward,” Sehran hissed. “For that, you shall die.”
Gabrielle pressed the staff down harder into the woman's windpipe, until Sehran's eyes bulged and she gasped for air. The angry queen held the staff there for several heartbeats and then released it.
“Gag her, doo,” Gabrielle got out through her swollen jaw, as she limped back to the campfire, leaning heavily on her staff for support.
When she reached her furs, she collapsed onto them and groaned loudly when her ribs protested. She felt them grind together and knew she'd broken more than one. Laying there in agony, she tried not to cry out as the pain washed over her in waves. Her ribs and jaw throbbed in time with her heartbeat and her head hurt so badly that she felt like she would throw up at any moment. The salty tang of blood still lingered on her tongue, but that was the least of her concerns.
“Gabrielle?” A hand gently touched her back, eliciting another groan. “Where does it hurt most?”
“Everywhere,” Gabrielle mumbled into the furs. “Head pounding. Ribs…Ugh! Hur's do breade.”
Solari glanced at the twin expressions of concern on the faces of Melva and Dressine, who hovered near her shoulders.
“One of you, grab the bandages out of the satchel over there, will you?” Solari said. “We need to bind her ribs so she can breathe more easily.” She watched Melva race over and pick up the satchel. “Oh, and bring…Just bring the whole thing over here. I think there's some dried willow bark in there that we can infuse in hot water for tea.” Melva returned with the satchel and dumped the contents onto the sleeping fur next to Gabrielle. “Here,” Solari grabbed a small pouch and handed it to Dressine. “A generous pinch or two in a cup and then add hot water.” She glanced at the fire. “You'll need to heat some water, though. We didn't quite get that far when we were setting up camp.”
“I'll get right on it, Sol,” Dressine hurried away with a water skin.
“Her jaw is already swollen,” Melva pointed out. “Is there something we can do for that?”
“I'm not a healer,” Sol said with a shake of her head. “She really needs one and I don't know that we're all that close to any villages that might have one.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle muttered quietly.
“Gabrielle? Did you just say something?” Solari leaned in close and brushed the hair away from Gabrielle's face.
“Xena…knows,” Gabrielle said a little louder. “Need her.”
Solari watched as Gabrielle put her arms underneath her and tried to push herself up off the furs, but failed miserably. She collapsed back onto her stomach with a low groan.
“Gabrielle, just stay still,” Solari advised. “We really need to get your ribs bound before you try to move around. Okay?”
“'Kay,” Gabrielle kept her eyes shut tight and tried not to breathe too deeply.
It didn't matter how shallowly she breathed, however. Her ribs still protested each and every breath. And her head felt as if it were about to explode. For a brief moment, she actually wished it would. At least then she wouldn't feel so utterly miserable.
“I hate to do this to you,” Solari said, as she realized there was no other way to do what needed to be done. “But we're going to need to sit you up in order to bind your ribs.”
“Urgh!” Gabrielle groaned into the sleeping fur.
“I know. We'll do our best not to put you through too much,” Solari glanced up at Melva. “Maybe together we can sit her up without causing her too much pain?”
“Let's give it a shot,” Melva nodded and got behind the prostrate woman. “On three?”
“On three,” Solari confirmed. “One, two, three…”
The two women lifted Gabrielle to a seated position and steadied her, as she teetered and a cry of pain tore from her throat. Melva held Gabrielle upright while Solari tightly wrapped a long length of cloth around her middle, just below her bra-like leather top.
Gabrielle just ground her teeth together as the two women worked. The pain was excruciating and all she wanted to do was pass out, but it seemed that was not going to happen. She remained conscious throughout the entire ordeal, as her head pounded, her vision swam and her jaw ached unmercifully.
“There! That should do it,” Solari sat back and looked at the tear-streaked face of the queen. “How does it feel, Gabrielle?”
“Be'er,” Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief and swiped the tears from her cheeks.
“Here, My Queen,” Dressine handed over a cup of steaming tea. “This should help ease the pain a bit.”
Gabrielle took the cup and got a whiff of the bitter contents. “Ew! Wha's i'?”
“Willow bark tea,” Solari grabbed the cup out of Gabrielle's hand and sniffed. “Ugh! Didn't you add anything to mask the smell, Dressine?”
“We don't really have anything handy, Sol,” Dressine shot back with a frown. “It's not like we carry around a jar of honey or anything.”
“No, but we do have some dried mint we can use,” Solari reached into the satchel and pulled out a small wrapped package. She took a pinch of something and sprinkled it into the cup. “There, that should help, if only a little.”
Gabrielle gingerly took the cup and decided not to sniff its contents this time around. She merely put it to her lips and downed the tea in a few gulps. Thankfully it wasn't very hot and slid easily down her parched throat. Gabrielle just sat there and waited for the tea to take effect.
“Where's Sehran?” Gabrielle glanced from one expectant face to another.
“The others are taking care of securing and guarding her, your majesty,” Solari answered. “Oh, and we gagged her, too. Apparently, she was still mouthing off the whole time she was being tied to her horse.”
“Goo',” Gabrielle nodded and regretted it instantly. “Eyeow!”
“How's the head feeling? Any improvement, yet?” Solari watched Gabrielle expectantly, as the woman leaned back into Melva. “The tea should start working pretty soon.”
“I's okay,” Gabrielle felt the effects of the tea finally kick in. The willow bark didn't take the pain completely away, but made it at least semi-tolerable. “Head no' so bad now.”
“That's good,” Solari breathed a sigh of relief. “'Cause you really had us scared there, My Queen.” She reached out and brushed blond bangs from Gabrielle's forehead. “Your color is returning. That's a good sign.”
“Mm,” Gabrielle uttered, as her eyes drifted shut. “We needa ge' da Seena.”
“I don't think that's such a good idea, your majesty,” Solari answered. “You're really in no condition to get on a horse and ride. Why don't we just wait until morning and see how you're feeling by then?”
Gabrielle forced her eyes open and locked gazes with Solari. “I can do dis, Sol. We haffta ge' da her.”
Solari sighed again. “You're going to be of no use to her if you die along the way, Gabrielle. Those ribs of yours are broken and I don't know how many or how bad they are. You could really hurt yourself or cause even more damage with all that bouncing around.”
Gabrielle sat up on her own and then slowly got to her feet. Melva was right there to steady her when she almost fell over. But, other than that, Gabrielle was able to remain standing, as long as she leaned on her staff for support.
“I can do dis, Sol,” Gabrielle straightened as much as possible and stubbornly faced the Amazon. “I hafta do dis.” She reached out and put a hand on Solari's shoulder. “Since Sehran is no longer wordy of being in charge of my personal guard, I'm promoding you in her place, Sol. Yer now head of my person'l guard.”
Solari placed a hand on top of Gabrielle's. “I'm honored, your majesty. I won't let you down.”
Gabrielle let a small, painful half-smile grace her features. “Jus' remember, being head guard doesn' mean you gedda argue wif me.”
Melva chuckled. “She got ya there, Sol.”
Solari shot the curly-haired brunette a glare and then looked at Gabrielle. “If you're determined to do this, then we'd better get moving.” She glanced at the setting sun. “There's not much light left and we have several leagues to go.”
“Doughd you said we were close,” Gabrielle shot back.
“That was when you were whole and relatively hearty, yer maj,” Solari eyed the battered woman. “I figure it'll take us the better part of the entire night and most of the morning to get there at the rate we'll be traveling.” Her voice rose as she addressed the others. “Let's go, Amazons! Pack up and gather the horses! We have some leagues to cover tonight!”
Gabrielle knew she was in for a very long and painful night. Although her head was no longer throbbing painfully, her jaw still hurt. And even the slightest movement of her body sent pain stabbing through her side. She was not looking forward to sitting atop a horse for candlemarks on end. But she also knew it couldn't be helped. They had to reach Xena. There was no other choice.
Continued in Part 7
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